Replacing Religion: How Secularism Has Failed and How It Can Succeed

Imagine a world in which individuals based their opinions on reason. Now, it is all but a certainty that human beings will at times fail to use logic in their thinking and arrive at conclusions that don’t make any sense. However, reason is a tool that, when applied correctly to a problem, forces individuals to accept its outcome. This is best explained by a simple example: it is impossible to believe that 2+2 is anything but 4. In writing this, I could attempt to persuade you that the correct solution is actually 5, but reason and logic force both of us to acknowledge the factual accuracy of four as the sum.

Unfortunately, human beings have created institutions and social networks that will ignore facts for us. These anti-factual and anti-reason organizations can broadly be called religion. Faith, the basic tenet of religion, is the exact opposite of reason. They stand on two poles as separate and opposing ways of approaching the world around us. I once saw a friend in high school wearing a T-shirt that read Not Seeing Is Believing. I was, at the same time, horrified and awed by the statement. It is a near-perfect encapsulation of the inherent problems with faith.

And yet, despite the many obvious problems with religion, particularly institutionalized religion, most of the world continues to believe in some sort of supernatural being. Since the Enlightenment, secularism and science have spread around the world. Today, even in the most theocratic of nations, there are burgeoning secular movements. There is no doubt that promoting secularism and enlightenment ideals is good for the world, but these movements are lacking something important.

Most atheists believe religion contains nothing of value. Indeed, one of the most popular atheist pioneers of our time, Richard Dawkins, has dismissed religion as nothing more than a “mind virus.” While I am in awe of many of Dawkins’ achievements, he and most other prominent atheists and secularists miss what actually is of value in religion. Though I would agree with the assertion that religion is the greatest evil to ever befall humanity, there are also kernels of value in religious thinking and practice. And these kernels are what keep people in the thralls of faith. Whether it is the positive community that many religions provide or whether individuals value the religious experience, feeling like there is more to the world than just reality, most humans are loathe to abandon their beliefs.

For a secular movement to truly succeed worldwide, atheists and those opposed to religion must acknowledge the real value inherent in some religious traditions. The transcendental experience of religion has profound effects on human beings. I too was doubtful of that fact, until I discovered meditation and psychedelics. Indeed the first time I took magic mushrooms, had I been religious I would have been entirely convinced that I had interacted with God himself. Secularism must embrace these experiences and work to provide a framework for people to find meaning outside of ancient holy books. If not, religion will never be defeated.

Why Religion Must Die

One doesn’t need to look too hard for atrocities committed in the name of religion. Just recently, a grand jury released a report documenting the systematic sexual abuse of more than 1000 children by more than 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. The cover up allegedly involved top-level Vatican officials. By this point, we pretty much expect child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Is there any other institution in our society that we could say that about? No.

If the ills of religion came in any other guise, our entire society would be up in arms. If it came to light that a Fortune 500 company was systematically raping children and covering it up, that company would be the target of deserved and immediate outrage. But when it’s the Catholic Church, many religious people are eager to point out that these atrocities are not representative of the religion as a whole. Instead of condemning the entire enterprise and belief systems that lay the groundwork for horrible acts, we seem to simply accept the consequences.

Religious individuals who defend the Catholic Church are not inherently bad people, but they are misguided by faith. The most obvious and visible crimes of religion are only symptoms of a greater problem. Faith allows—and indeed encourages—people to accept a variety of bad ideas, ranging from the ludicrous to the downright barbaric. On the ludicrous side of things, you have stories like Jonah and the whale, in which a man is apparently swallowed by a large sea creature, only to survive and emerge three days later: happy, healthy and seriously indebted to God. Similarly, the literal resurrection of Christ, as described in the New Testament, is, as of 2013, believed by a whopping 64 percent of Americans.

Though many religious stories and beliefs might elicit laughter from anyone in the secular community, faith encourages believers to practice barbarity on a scale that is no laughing matter. For instance, in many Islamic nations and communities, thousands of women and girls are murdered for besmirching the honor of their families. Encouraged by the idea that women must remain pure, fathers and brothers kill their daughters and sisters because of some imagined shame. This is not a small problem: in the majority Muslim country of Pakistan, 83 percent of individuals support stoning as a punishment for adultery. In many instances, adultery is not even defined as cheating on a spouse, but simply extramarital sex of any kind.

Faith allows individuals who are otherwise good people to ignore human rights abuses like honor killings or child sexual abuse because they occur in the name of godly impunity. If religious individuals instead used reason to think about the issues at hand, it would be obvious that murdering your daughter for having sex with her boyfriend is immoral.

And perhaps we have now arrived at the greatest crime of religion overall: indoctrination. Faith not only encourages belief in the ludicrous and barbaric, it also dampens curiosity and hampers progress at every turn. If one is to truly believe in Christianity or Islam, then no questions about the nature of the universe remain. Ex-Muslim Yasmine Mohammed told me on my podcast that her mother used to make fun of her because she wanted to read more books than just the Quran. “Why would you need anything else when this book has all the answers?” When someone thinks they have all the answers, how are they to move forward? There is nowhere to go.

The process of indoctrination is most cruel and visible in our children. Many religions include as baggage a culture of shame, especially when it comes to sexuality. Teaching children that they should be ashamed of their bodies and what they want to do with them is harmful beyond comprehension. For example, most faiths teach that masturbation is a sin. In Mormonism, young boys and girls are encouraged to admit such sins in mandatory interviews with church officials. Keep in mind, these officials are often middle aged or older and are talking one-on-one with young children about their personal sexual habits. I can hardly think of anything creepier.

There is no defense for many religious practices other than God says it should be so. And that is no defense at all. To base one’s morality on a holy scripture is to sign up for condoned genocide, murder, rape, torture and all sorts of horrifying outcomes. Though religion may provide comfort to individuals and community to groups, it must die in order for human beings to make progress toward Enlightenment ideals.

How Secularism Has Failed

Many atheists believe religion holds nothing of value. They correctly note that religion has been a chain on humanity’s ankle, hampering progress in philosophy and science. At every turn, religion has attempted to halt and assail the mission of understanding reality. The Inquisition, for instance, fought the tide of the Enlightenment before the latter grew too strong, until finally the Catholic Church simply admitted new ideas into its doctrine and feigned originality when presenting them. Presently, Islam actively suppresses reasoned thought: in thirteen countries (all Islamic), atheism is legally punishable by death.

While the arguments of atheists often ring true, there is still some depth missing from the movement as a whole. There is more to life than reason and logic. The fundamental meaning of one’s life cannot always be determined purely by thinking straight. Though some humans may be able to find much of worth and value in reasoned thought, it will not be quite so simple for everybody.

The primary flaw of the secular movement is illustrated by the popularity of Jordan Peterson. Peterson, a wily thinker whose ideas are often difficult to pin down, spreads a belief in quasi-Christian culture with what can only be described as a quasi-definition of God. When asked during a debate with atheist philosopher Sam Harris what God is to him, Peterson replied, “God is how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time. As the most real aspects of existence manifest themselves across the longest of time frames, but are not necessarily apprehensible as objects in the here and now.”

Though this flimsy definition of God is certainly not what most religious people around the world think of their deity, Peterson has tapped into exactly what is missing from atheism. He focuses on stories and archetypes and on how these human constructs provide meaning and purpose to life. In addition to allowing cultural and moderate Christians to hold onto their cherished beliefs without too much added baggage of dogmatic ideology, Peterson also connects with those who feel left behind by an increasingly shallow and materialistic world.

Secular life in the West is good, no doubt, but our capitalist societies have many downsides. In places like the United States, citizens are bombarded by constant advertisements, telling us how we could be happier if we simply bought some new product. One can’t even drive through the rolling prairies of Kansas without seeing garish billboards for sex shops, Jesus hotlines and the next McDonalds 50 miles down the road.

Coinciding with, and perhaps a product of, the millions of advertisements we are exposed to, life in capitalist society often feel rushed. People feel like they don’t have enough time in the day. As a result, modern secular culture has all but cut out introspection from its list of valuable activities. There is much value to be had in the contemplative experience, and though it does not deliver it sans negative consequences, religion has a rich tradition of contemplation. Whether coming from Buddhists or Christian contemplatives, religious literature about introspection and the accompanying experiences is far more common than anything on the subject from a secular background.

The consequence of the secular movement having left contemplation in the ditch with the rest of religious ideology is a loss of felt meaning. One aspect of contemplative tradition is communing with the world around you in a variety of ways. Whether spending time in nature or with friends and loved ones, contemplative practices emphasize the value of human and natural connection. As we are further siphoned into individuals and groups by screens, teams and dreams, modern society is ripping apart the social fabric that has held humanity together for centuries. This effect was noted most famously in the seminal book, Bowling Alone. Published in 2000, author Robert Putnam argues that decreasing engagement in American civil culture undermines the strength of democratic society.

Historically, humans lived in religiously homogeneous groups in which ideology was able to provide communal ties. As religion thankfully falls by the wayside, these ties are becoming severed and the secular movement at large is failing to provide replacements. Though there are certain groups and organizations that attempt to provide cultural community, such as Ex-Muslims of North America, who are dedicated to supporting Muslims who leave the faith, there simply aren’t enough of them. Especially in the United States, secularism for the most part is lacking a healthy support structure for community.

Unfortunately, in addition to failing to provide an adequate replacement for religious communal bonds, the modern secular movement has embraced another dogmatic ideology: social justice. Social justice is one of those terms that seems indefinable, but this is my personal definition (with which, clearly, many would disagree). Social justice is the broad, encompassing term for the movement on the far left that is in support of organizations like ANTIFA, violently and angrily shuts down speakers and thinks that criticism of Islam is racist. Most social justice warriors, the ideology’s fundamentalists, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with are atheists. They don’t believe in a god and are happy, in some cases, to criticize religion. However, they preach an ideology that is just as dogmatic and also just as false.

In the past, humanity had the horrific experience of witnessing and suffering under communist regimes. Religious individuals will often point to the crimes of communism as done in the name of atheism or secularism. However, communism simply replaced religious ideology as an inflexible, rigid and cruel doctrine. Social justice is acting in the same way on the left of Western politics. Where communism emphasized the state, social justice emphasizes oppression. Oppression is social justice’s single answer to nearly every question and when an ideology preaches that it has all the answers, and that said answers cannot be questioned, that is almost always when you know it’s rubbish. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

How Secularism Can Provide What’s Missing

The Bible and Quran contain some of the worst and most barbaric elements of humanity in any literature. However, the communal aspects of organized religion and some of the spiritual practices within them hold value for human beings. One of the facts many atheists and skeptics are loathe to confront is that many studies have found that religious people live longer. Though the research is focused on the United States and not the world as a whole, it still contains interesting insights.

Many will argue that the results are muddled. However, it seems likely that being involved in a community and engaging in some sort of spiritual practice that may put one into a sort of meditative state could have immensely positive life effects. The science on meditation is in its early stages, but the signs are that in many cases it has the same positive effects as medication, without many of the negative side effects. If one has ever had an intense meditative experience, it’s easy to understand how someone could come out of it feeling that it was religious in nature. The feeling of connectivity with one’s surroundings, a sense that, in the same moment, one has a body and one does not, are powerful experiences. Similar feelings are described by those who attend church on Sunday and leave with a feeling of elation. Indeed, if you bear witness to a Southern Baptist Church in full song, you’ll find it difficult not to feel some strong emotion.

To combat the ill effects of religion while maintaining the positive ones, secularism must embrace and emphasize our own human stories. One of the reasons institutionalized religion is so powerful is that the organizations and the individuals devoted to them act as if they have a monopoly on art and beauty. To visit the Vatican or Jerusalem is to expose oneself to some of the most incredible, religiously inspired beauty available to us. But this imagined monopoly is a facade. The secular movement must wrest control over these meaningful aspects of humanity from the dogmatists and fanatics. The Catholic Church does not own the work of Raphael or Michelangelo, though their most famous pieces are contained within religious buildings. They were human beings, like the rest of us, and secularism should assert its place as a rightful communicator of what is beautiful and meaningful. We must underscore our dedication to reason, but acknowledge that there is more to life than logic.

Furthermore, secularism must accept and value the contemplative or religious experience. Instead of encouraging these valuable experiences through the auspices of organized religion, secularism should open itself to a spirituality unshackled by anything supernatural. Capitalist societies in the West often leave little time for contemplation, introspection, and gratitude. We are sold a materialist story, even though societies long ago discovered that material means are not the secret to happiness.

The change I speak of is already taking place on some level.  The mindfulness movement is taking hold in the United States and already there are schools encouraging their students to take up the practice. Secular spirituality is possible and valuable. Though it will take some convincing for many atheists to believe in their value, meditation and contemplation can replace prayer and religious services. Reason cannot fall by the wayside, as it has with phony religious replacements like social justice or communism, but the secular movement must step into an uncomfortable place and own what is of value in religious tradition: establishing a connection to the universe and the natural world around us. There’s just no need to make the illogical jump that the connection is facilitated by a fairy in the sky.

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12 comments

  1. Religious is dramatically unique in the degree and quality with which it not only does not hold itself or it’s followers fully accountable to reason, it’s spits in it face. It is no less primitive than it seems. But religion is not the root problem, it is just uniquely far beyond peer in how it reflects failure to think, act, and structure institutions in a civilized way. THAT is why anti-theism is so important. It’s not always explained or recognized in such an article or discussion, I am explaining it now. Reason is the ONLY source of civilization, however overtly or not-directly-intentional acts in agreement with reason may occur. Would Kilian Korth please try to contact me regarding this mission. Thanks.

  2. Interesting article. However, I disagree with the author’s assertion that religion is the cause of morally unacceptable behavior (for example, the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church). A review of several literature streams (psychology, sociology, biology) suggests humans have the capacity and tendency to act immorally regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof. This article confounds correlation with causation in several instances and presents a poorly-reasoned and unpersuasive argument of secularism.

    1. Judith, there is a difference between saying “religion enables morally repugnant behavior” and “all morally repugnant behavior comes from religion”. I think the author meant the former. Of course there is plenty of non-religiously motivated immoral behavior. However, many of the worst examples of humans mistreating other humans can be traced to some religious belief–manifest destiny rolled right over the previously thriving Native America cultures in the US, the brutal Crusades created the centuries-long hatred between Christianity and Islam, etc. Slavery has roots in a mistaken conviction about the superiority of one’s own race, beloved of some god, and another race handily despised by that same god. If “they” don’t believe, “we” will make them, by god, or we will eliminate them. The point is that without religion, we would have far fewer ready-built reasons to hurt other people. If there are no automatically “other” people, we have a better chance of building cooperative communities in all conditions and situations, rather than clinging to our “tribe”. This is one reason that social justice writings often promote “intersectionality”–the idea that it’s not JUST religion that separates us, but also race, gender, age, class, and several other categories used to divide rather than unite. Ultimately, in my view, it’s “othering” that threatens our existence. I’ve encountered almost no religious practices that don’t depend on “othering” as a central tenet. Moving the world beyond religion won’t immediately make us all “good” and solve all our problems, but it would move us a long way along the moral evolutionary scale, and give us tools to help resolve the remaining sources of immoral behavior by helping us to see immoral behavior as primarily anti-social, not anti-“god”, which should make it easier to address in a positive way. In my opinion.

  3. It’s bizarre that someone has studied political science and appears to have no idea what secularism is, and it makes for a desperately poor essay. What they describe as securalism is what should either be called rationalism or anti theism. Securalist no more have to replace what’s attractive in religions than they have to be non religious.
    Securalism is simply the idea that either no one version of religious truth is privileged over any other, or that religion should remain absent from public affairs and simply be a matter of private conscience.
    It’s entirely possible for the religiously devout to be securalists as there’s no particular reason true believers have a desire to live in a theocracy.
    Given we live in societies with a plurality of religious views, before you even consider the non religious, securalism is I would argue essential for us to live together. I imagine many if not most believers get that (at least in the west). To hold that view regarding the running of society makes one a securalist. It says nothing either way about your views on the merits or otherwise of religious belief.

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  4. “If one is to truly believe in Christianity or Islam, then no questions about the nature of the universe remain.”

    Straaaaaaw-maaaaan

    Biblical and Koranic literalists are being lumped together with those of faith who seek scientific answers in science, and comfort, guidance and counsel in their religious traditions. People in the latter group tend to consider those in the former to be bigots who use religion to buttress their worst instincts and impulses.

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  5. Kilian’s heart is in the right place. But I did not learn anything from her thoughts.
    “Reason and logic” are not much more definitive answer-providers than religion. Look at how many answers philosophy has given us. None. Empiricism is the modern alternative to divine revelation. What works?!
    The real alternative to religion and its meaningfulness-provision is secularism and science, not capitalism, materialism, and emptiness. And capitalism and materialism are not cured by encouraging “introspection and contemplation”. “The secular movement…[has not] left contemplation in the ditch”. This is an entirely unsupported claim.
    The decline of “community” is worst in the US, which is still a much more religious country than any other advanced democracy.
    The degree to which “the modern secular movement has embraced another dogmatic ideology: social justice”, as exemplified by ANTIFA, is minuscule, fringe, and irrelevant at a societal level.
    Kilian’s early points are covered better in Dawkin’s ‘God Delusion’, and her later ones by Alain de Bouton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’. For example, the desire to assemble on Sundays for support, community, and singing has led to secular Sunday Assemblies meeting regularly in 7 countries.
    Kilian tries to tie in together two unrelated concepts: community and meditation: “Being involved in a community and engaging in some sort of spiritual practice may put one into a sort of meditative state.” Firstly, this unjustifiedly ties “contemplation, introspection, and gratitude” in with “religious experience” and “spirituality”. We leap from the psychological to the metaphysical! And it reveals Kilian’s true motivation. She is apparently one of the millions who have been swept up in the latest pop psychology fad — mindfulness meditation. She goes on to advocate a “secular spirituality” (yes, this is oxymoronic) through mindfulness to get “a connection to the universe”. Such a “connection” may have been religion’s attraction for a few, but provision of community and a sop to the fear of death are more likely to have been widespread motivations.

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  6. I stopped after the first paragraph because—for all his invocations of logic and reason—the author doesn’t understand the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, truth and justification, or propositions and our belief in them. Our opinions are inductive not deductive: 2 + 2 = 4 is axiomatically true, not a matter of opinion, and it is not “factually true.” Nor can we deduce the solutions to real-world problems. The best way to deliver health care, for example, cannot be determined by syllogistic reasoning: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates has a right to a single-payer health care system. Finally, reason and logic don’t “force” us to do anything; our values compel us to act. And where do values come from? We make them up, just like religions do.

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  7. You write: “If it came to light that a Fortune 500 company was systematically raping children and covering it up, that company would be the target of deserved and immediate outrage” True, but when a jurisdiction in the UK enabled grooming gangs that kept girls in sexual slavery, it was covered up by broader government. Religious institutions are not unique. Any institution reflecting the “right” values will be protected, religious or otherwise. This unravels your argument that religions are unique.

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