Why New Atheism is supposedly worse than the Old

October 24, 2012 • 4:47 am

UPDATE: Over at No Cross No Crescent (a website on the new Skeptic Ink network), the author further takes apart the claim that atheists must offer a substitute for religion. One of the interesting statistics on offer is that 88% of those who identify with no religion in particular are NOT looking for a religion that would be right for them.  In other words, they’re satisfied with being a “none.” Only 10% are looking for a “right” religion.


The other evening I was having dinner with a friend, who is an atheist but bears some sympathy for religion. (He admitted, though, that thanks in part to this website, his sympathy was waning, especially with respect to religion’s compatibility with science.)

But he had one complaint about New Atheism, a complaint that we hear often. It goes something like this:

“Yes, yes, New Atheists attack the evidence supporting religious belief, but of course atheists have been doing that for centuries. The real problem with New Atheism is that while it attacks religion, it fails to provide a substitute. Religion fulfills fundamental needs in people, and unless New Atheists can suggest other, non-theistic ways to meet those needs, it will not be successful.”

I’m putting this up to gather reader response to this common criticism, but I have four responses of my own.

1. Who says New Atheism isn’t successful? The category of “nones” (people who profess no religious belief) is increasing faster, proportionately, than any established religion, and it is indisputable that people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, through their speeches and writings, have diverted many people from their paths of faith.  The claim that “Old Atheism” was successful but “New Atheism” is not is simply unsubstantiated.

2.  Dispelling false beliefs is in itself a good regardless of whether one suggests other ways to meet the needs buttressed by those beliefs. I recall that Steve Gould once said—perhaps with about what he saw as pervasive gradualism in the paleontology community—that getting rid of false but widely-accepted views represents progress in itself, for such views impede progress toward truth.

3.  Some atheists do indeed concern themselves with the problem of replacing the needs of faith with secular alternatives. Alain de Botton has famously done this, though his solutions (secular cathedrals and the like) seem fatuous.  A more successful approach has been suggested by philosopher Philip Kitcher, who sees the sense of community engendered by faith as something essential. He argues that secular “alternative” communities are more common in Europe than in America, and suggests that this is why America remains far more religious than Europe.

4.  While Kitcher is on the right path, I think that there’s a more important reason why religion remains strong in many places, and this involves more than the need for a sense of community. It involves personal insecurity fostered by the nature of one’s society. As I’ve written in many places, including a paper published in Evolution (free online here), sociological studies increasingly show that religion is stronger in societies that are more dysfunctional—that is, societies in which people are subject to poor medical care, high crime rates, high drug use, high infant morality, corruption in the government, and substantial income inequality.

And the evidence is that this correlation is causal: social dysfunction makes people more religious simply because they turn to sky fathers when they can’t get security in their lives from their governments or societies.

For a reference to the newest studies supporting this thesis, see Nigel Barber’s essay in PuffHo: “Why atheism will replace religion.” In it he refers to two recent papers (references below, one study unpublished) supporting the “social insecurity” hypothesis for religion. I’ll be writing about the first in the near future.

So the substitute for religion may not be “atheist cathedrals” or places where we can meet and discuss Hume every Sunday, but simply societies that make people more secure. Granted, that solution is much harder to implement.

At any rate, how many of you have heard this criticism of New Atheism? And, if so, how do you meet the complaint that “we’re ineffective because we don’t provide substitutes for religion.”

Apropos, my attention was just called to a new BBC program by Richard Dawkins that addresses this very complaint. I’ll post about it in a few hours.


Barber, N. (2011). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research, 45, 318-333.

Barber, N. (under review). Country religiosity declines as material security increases. International Perspectives in Psychology.

190 thoughts on “Why New Atheism is supposedly worse than the Old

  1. The flip answer is that no one has provided substitutes for slavery, and a host of other social ills other than empowering all individuals to be curious, engaged people.

    I stopped going to church over thirty years ago and haven’t missed it. There are plenty of social centres to replace not only the sense of community, but also to channel efforts to help others. Frankly I didn’t see my local churches as much more than gossip centres or a venue to piously cast aspersions on the morality of other people. The real community work was done by secular organisations.

    1. Some people in my country have been trying for decades to get people to stop smoking tobacco. Nobody criticizes them for not offering a substitute to fill the fundamental need that nicotine does.

    2. Yes, referring to religion as a “need” isn’t accurate. Judging by the sparse attendance compared to the total of those professing christianity it is likely that christians don’t even “need” christian community. Christianity is more comparable to a hobby than a need.

      Christian churches even acknowledged that they have a gossip center problem. I just don’t see much good use for the damned god christian communities.

      1. Nice. I scroll down and the very first comment expresses my immediate thought: why do we need to offer an alternative? Methadone may well be a better alternative to heroin. But non-addiction is much better all the same. Atheists don’t need to offer an alternative to religion. We just need to offer facts, evidence, and reason. How people chose to use that information is their choice.

  2. Millions of people in the UK get on fine with no religion and no substitute for it either. People just need to realise that they are better off without it.

    1. Yep. I think JAC’s point #3 may be leaning a bit far forward. Before we assume the arguer is right that there are human needs that should be met, I would ask that person to specify what needs he or she is talking about. I bet when they are written down, half (or even all!) of them won’t even be things that “need” a formal social structure at all.

  3. The claim that “New Atheism” is working but the “Old” did not is unsubstantiated.

    Did you say that the wrong way round Jerry?

      1. While you’re here, Jerry, can I be a pedant and point out “high infant morality” in item 4?

        Agree with your conclusion, btw – I’ll perhaps respond/contribute later when I’m not working.

        1. You underestimate our host’s ability for penetrating sociological insight: a society whose public norms of behavior are those of an infant has a serious need for religion.

  4. One thing that seems to help theist move towards secular thinking, I find, is leaving meditation in there, and even actively promoting it, but as reflection of community and calming of the self, rather than contemplation of a “higher” being. Many of my atheist friends deride me for this approach, but, as methods of meditation calm the body and mind, I don’t lose any sleep over the derision. 😉 It works, because it is that centering that people seek who feel something is missing without their imaginary friend. They feel that, because something IS missing. Security within the self.

    1. That’s a mental health issue. In a sane non-religious society health measures of all kinds are important.

      As with all health measures, the medicine should fit the recipient’s needs. What works for some does not work for others. Some people have needs that others do not. Some phenotypes are tactile; others are visual. Guided imagery works for some but is harmful for others. The reverse is true for tactile methods of stress relief, such as progressive muscle relaxation.

  5. Why should we provide an alternative? Don’t they know how to buy their own doughnuts and tell boring stories every week?

  6. I agree with you on all points. And I reject the argument that we need something to replace religion. I’m tired of the argument that humans have spiritual [sic] needs that must somehow be met. I haven’t believed in spirits of any sort for a long time, and think people have got spirituality mixed up with emotion. Most of us do have emotional needs and it’s about time we found more grown-up ways to meet them.

    1. Most people who refer to “spiritual” needs are really referring to emotional needs.
      These can be met with ecstatic experiences of music, art, nature, some forms of physical activity (dance, risk taking sports) and pride-enhancing achievements at work or play. They are most often met with the expression and reception of love (romantic, parental and companionable) for and from one’s fellow humans and social animal species.
      Societies that recognize and fulfil these things will produce citizens that have less need for mythological,imaginary and delusional substitutes.

  7. I have made this criticism myself from time to time, and I think there may be some substance to it. Atheism is all very well for the literate and the articulate, but religion has always provided the possibility of belonging to a community, and this should not simply be sniffed at as though it were unimportant, for such community can accommodate practically anyone. A sign of this is the fact that religious communities are often stymied by disruptive types of personality, and it takes a great deal of effort to help those people adjust to living peacefully with others, thus giving them the opportunity to overcome social deficits which often have seriously distorting effects on their lives.

    Another aspect of religion, which is often spoken of as the “sanctification of time,” is that it provides a way for people to structure time, and help them to get 60 seconds worth of distance run (to quote Kipling) out of every minute. That structuring of time — see Baggini’s latest in the Guardian on fasting — is not something that nonbelievers should be dismissive of. It is a valuable contribution to people’s attempts to structure a worthwhile life.

    To a large extent atheism appeals mostly to those who have striven in their lives for independence, and may for that reason be able to self-structure their lives. This, I think, is not always possible. I met a man the other day who began going to a fundamentalist church, and he was “cured” of his gambling habit, that had been very destructive. I pointed out to him that the church he was attending also had values, such as its homophobia, which are very destructive, and he acknowledged that this gave him pause, but the transformation of his life, by no longer feeling the intense desire to gamble away his earnings was no small matter for him. This ability to structure the individual life within a community devoted to the task (however misled we may think them in their beliefs) of trying to live an examined life is probably important. As religion atrophies, and these opportunities are lost, atheists should consider the importance of community, not only for meeting to talk about Hume, but for exploring what it means to live an examined life. Socrates thought it worthwhile. Indeed, community seemed to be quite important in ancient philosophical “schools”, like the Platonists, Epicureans, Stoics and the like, and while they may not have been atheists, for the most part, the importance of community in living a thoughtful life is worth giving some consideration to.

    As I say this, I haven’t the foggiest how this is to be done. Scptics in pubs gatherings seem to be fairly successful, but someting more structured might, in fact, attract larger numbers of people. It would also allow humanism to be a viable political force — not an unimportant consideration in a political world so dominated by religious voices.

    1. this should not simply be sniffed at as though it were unimportant, for such community can accommodate practically anyone.

      I haven’t seen that. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite.

      A lot of US religions are segregated by race, class, education, geography, ethnicity, and above all these days, politics.

      If you are a Southern Baptist, you most likely live in fundie-land, are a right wing extremist, not well educated, a racist, and a misogynist. And old. Anyone who doesn’t fit that profile isn’t going to be welcome.

      In my old rich, WASP-y Protestant sect, a Southern Baptist would stick out like a two headed green Martian. And be less welcome.

      The JW’s actively discourage college because educated people don’t last. They tend to be blue color or poor.

      The Mormons have a long history of racism. To this day, they have very few nonwhite members.

    2. “Atheism is all very well for the literate and the articulate…”

      That seems rather elitist, Eric!

      Even restricting that to “thoughtful” atheists, isn’t quite right; there are those who are atheists for whom atheism is a rational or emotional “conclusion” who may not read as widely nor write or talk so well who are nonetheless just as much an atheist as you or I.

      And then there are the apathetic atheists for whom atheism is the “default” position about which they haven’t given a moment’s thought, and they may be as literate and articulate as you or I or as thick as a brick.

      I suspect, although I have seen no survey that supports or refutes this, that the bulk of atheists in the UK are apathetic atheists. This might not be the case in the US, where atheism is not a socially acceptable default position.


      1. I agree. I know the “community”/”comfort” hypothesis is a popular one, but I generally find it fairly patronizing of the religious.

        I think the truth is much more insidious. Socially dysfunctional societies are (or tend to be) dysfunctional because they are controlled by a powerful elite who have every incentive to ensure that they maintain and pass power down to their children, regardless of how much they cause others to suffer. Religion is just one of the tools they use to control people and keep them supporting the elite, even when it runs against their interests. (Tell me that doesn’t sound like what the modern GOP is doing.) They have many other tools as well (financial, judicial, etc), plenty of which can be used to control the non-religious as well.

        A while back Jerry linked to a study showing that the wealthy generally became religious before the poor, saying that he found it surprising. He hasn’t mentioned it since, but to me it supports my hypothesis and goes against the “community”/”comfort” hypothesis. The wealthy adopt religion so that they can use it to control others. They use their power, backed up by violence, to convince everyone else that it’s in their best interest to adopt the same religion.

    3. There already are secular alternatives for everything you described. Not believing in god does not require or lead to denying people’s social needs. Having to except all the negative baggage, like homophobia, in order gain the structure in your life you need to counter a behavioral problem is not necessary.

      The problem of providing alternatives for the positive social aspects of religious practice is a non problem. Secular alternatives already exist. The problem is getting people to drop their religious beliefs and utilize the secular alternatives.

      Another problem is keeping religions from poisoning secular alternatives. Like programs to help people deal with addictions. Religions / religious believers commonly use money, lies and propaganda to drowned out secular programs that use evidence based methods in favor of their own demeaning, subjugation based methods that demand belief in god and belief in yourself being a hopelessly weak dirtbag who’s only hope is to suck up to god so he can take care of it for you.

    4. It sounds like the ex-gambler was looking for structure. Just because religion provides structure, I don’t see why atheism should attempt to provide that also. There are a lot of secular places to get this – volunteer groups, running, yoga, book clubs, ballroom dance.

      The insistence upon conformity, preserving ossified traditions and requiring a regimented life are the things that I especially dislike about churches. I would hate to see atheists groups try to ape these oppressive features out of a misguided belief that we need to provide everything that churches do.

    5. Eric:
      I may be wrong, but I’m sensing the full weight of your life’s experience sustaining your criticism.
      Beyond that, I’m sensing a heartfelt measure of empathy for the plight of others.
      Therefore I’d hate to sound flippant (not normally one of my chief concerns when posting).
      But the plight you are describing can be condensed in one blunt sentence:

      “Get a life!”

      This may sound like an unsympathetic response to “people’s attempts to structure a worthwhile life” (I’m quoting your quite sympathetic words).

      It isn’t. It is a succinct description of the human condition.
      It is the main problem we all face, beyond mere survival.

      There are no easy fixes. Maybe there are no fixes at all.
      But surrogates aren’t going to help, not in the long run.
      The call to compensate an absence of belief by some “ersatz” seems to me as dangerous, and as wrong, as a generalised distribution of methadone to kids in order to prevent them from taking drugs.

    6. – “but religion has always provided the possibility of belonging to a community,” –
      Yes, but in the same time it functions mostly as a means to EXCLUDE people from belonging to a community.

    7. Psychologists have long recognized this. The demise of the church as the center of the community, the dependence on public and, even more, on private transport, the break up of the extended family and the progressive itinerant behavior of people and families, the increasing absorption of screen-orientated life (computers, television, video, film) has led to a breakdown of supportive community life and thrive-dependent physical contact.

      Some architects and community planners have tried to build housing complexes that assist people meet these needs. Largely atheist communities have developed methods of community connection that are have yet to be annexed by communities that are still strongly theist in nature. We should start to take notice of how the Chinese, the Japanese, the Danish, the Swedish and the French do to help human meet these health-essential needs.

    1. Is there evidence for self-conscious costly exertion by h. sapiens, across generations for millennia, to maintain smallpox?

    1. atheism does not provide the kind of positive worldview

      Xianity doesn’t either. It is highly negative.

      You are born evil because some woman ate an apple 6,000 years ago. You all deserve to go to hell and be tortured forever.

      There is an escape clause. If you pick the right sect out of 42,000 you might go to heaven. Most won’t make it anyway.

      And oh yeah, sex is dirty and evil and you should save it for the one you love.

      The fundies best idea is to sit around in a catatonic daze, waiting and hoping for a Sky Monster to show up any day now, 2,000 years late, and kill 7 billion people and destroy the earth.

      A religion that makes people look forward to mass murder in general and theirs in particular isn’t the least bit positive.

      1. You agree with me, then. At the end of my very short comment I say about atheism: “It is actually just the removal of a false-positive worldview.”

        And I don’t mean positive as in ‘good’, I mean it as ‘substantively constructive’.

    2. Well, atheism qua atheism isn’t a worldview; it’s just lack of belief, whether by default or as a philosophical (logical), scientific (empirical) or emotional judgment.

      Atheists need to look beyond atheism – but past religion! – for a positive worldview: Thus humanism, atheism+, &c., &c.


  8. in order to provide a substitute, i think, requires two things:

    First. To live in a free, rich, educated, and democratic society requires an enlightenment.

    Second. An education with a hard dose of reality will better prepare you for the problems that arise in it. For me, understanding the truth is far more comforting in a time of loss than the cognitive dissonance engendered in a religious mindset.

    1. I fail to understand the need for (spiritual) succour, but then I am atypical. I like to see the world stripped bare in all its harsh indifference. That does not make me a miserable git though (I hope!). What does make me a miserable git (and it is not for me to judge this) is the superior way in which I regard those who do need such refreshment for the (fictious) ‘soul’, as weak. I admit to being arrogant about this, and it is really beyond my comprehension. Perhaps I am a deficient human being!

      1. “I like to see the world stripped bare in all its harsh indifference.”


        Let us reflect on the human situation: all of our plans will fail in the long run, if not in the short. The homes we have built and lovingly furnished, the loves we have enjoyed, the careers we have dedicated ourselves to will all disappear in time. The monuments we have erected to memorialize our aspirations and achievements, if we are fortunate, may last a few hundred years, perhaps a millennium or two or three—like the stark and splendid ruins of Rome and Greece, Egypt and Judea, which have been recovered and treasured by later civilizations. But all the works of human beings disappear and are forgotten in short order. In the immediate future the beautiful clothing that we adorn ourselves with, eventually even our cherished children and grandchildren, and all of our possessions will be dissipated. Many of our poems and books, our paintings and statues will be forgotten, buried on some library shelf or in a museum, read or seen by some future scholars curious about the past, and eventually eaten by worms and molds, or perhaps consumed by fire. Even the things that we prize the most, human intelligence and love, democratic values, the quest for truth, will in time be replaced by unknown values and institutions—if the human species survives, and even that is uncertain.

        — Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation

        … the human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles.

        — H. P. Lovecraft


        1. In reading your comment I couldn’t help but being reminded of the following quote from Shakeseare’s “The Tempest”:-

          Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
          As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
          Are melted into air, into thin air:
          And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
          The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
          The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
          Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
          And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
          Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
          As dreams are made on; and our little life
          Is rounded with a sleep.

          1. Yes – a play I have not seen or read. Rather I would be thinking Old English poem, the Wanderer (Michael Alexander’s translation, committed to memory);
            “Storms break on the stone hillside,
            The ground bound by driving sleet,
            Winter’s wrath. Then wanness cometh,
            Night’s shade spreadeth, sendeth from north
            The rough hail to harry mankind.
            In the earth-realm all is crossed;
            Weird’s will changeth the world.
            Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us,
            Man is lent, kin is lent;
            All this earth’s frame shall stand empty.”

  9. The category of “nones” (people who profess no religious belief)

    They’re people with no religious affiliation, which isn’t the same as no religious belief.

  10. 1. Who says New Atheism isn’t successful?

    US xianity is dying, killed by the fundies.

    Around 2-3 million people leave the churches every year. Often with nothing good to say and glad to get out. I’m an ex-xian myself like most atheists.

    US xianity is on trend to fall below 50% of the population by around 2030.

    So who isn’t the successful one here?

    FWIW, the malevolent perversion of xianity, the fundies created the New Atheists. What is destroying US xianity is…US XIANITY.


  11. Isn’t that kind of like criticizing bacteriologists because they haven’t come up with a “substitute” for measles?

      1. I say something similar when this question is raised. “So, if I am cured of cancer, what exactly should I replace it with?”

  12. I’m putting this up to gather reader response to this common criticism,

    Why do we have to counter this accusation? Can we not accept valid criticism? Religion is a powerful community organizing force and people look forward to seeing their friends at church services on Sunday and on Wednesday for pot luck. A secular replacement for these activities would certainly make giving up religious beliefs less catastrophic for one’s social life.

    While it might not be any sort of obligation for atheism to come up with a replacement, it would surely be useful to have one.

    1. “Can we not accept valid criticism?”

      The problem word here is “valid”. It isn’t, IMO. There is neither a duty nor a need, IMO, for worrying about providing secular replacements. They already exist in forms that range from baseball games at local parks to bridge clubs. There are countless opportunities for people to participate with others in group activities that have nothing to do with fictional deities.

      I grow tired of the bogus argument that only religious people have rich social lives.

      1. It’s only bogus if you straw man the claim to be “only the religious have rich social lives”.

        The fact that it’s possible to find replacement activities doesn’t mean that it’s easy or likely for most people.

        1. Honestly I don’t think that is true. Giving up one’s religious affiliation can be exceedingly difficult. But it is not because alternate social activities are not available. It is because the grip of religion is so tight. Depending on where one lives it can mean the loss of job and family. These are real costs that will be borne no matter what because religion acts to protect itself. Adding yet more opportunities for social activity will not make any difference here.

          And, fwiw, I do not think I “straw-manned” anything. The heart of the “atheists need to mimic some religious thing” argument is that social needs are not met outside of religion. And I grow tired of that particular meme.

          1. This is a good point, but I see this extreme insularity and shunning as very negative and not something that should be emulated.

            I don’t think this sort of exclusive club mentality is restricted to religion. I thought there were times & places where advancement or social standing depended on membership into the Masons (say). They were secular and provided these so-called benefits but do we really want to swap religion for another elite old boy’s club?

    2. I find the claim that giving up religion is somehow “catastrophic” to be hyperbole and meant only to scare people into thinking that there “needs” to be a replacement for religion.

      1. “I find the claim that giving up religion is somehow “catastrophic” to be hyperbole ”

        You must not be aware of how often new atheists lose their friends and family over the issue.

        1. This appears to be a red herring. A religion substitute wouldn’t prevent loss of friends and family upon deconversion, except possibly in the case where the friends/family conflate deconversion with conversion to another faith (some people simply want their loved ones to be nomially religious and don’t care what kind). This is either a misunderstanding on behalf of the loved ones or a lie by the deconverted.

          And as others have already mentioned, socially supportive substitutes already exist. So, let’s say we magically gained some arbitrarily parallel institution that you agree substitutes for religion and doesn’t already exist. How is this going to prevent friend/family fallout from deconversion (short of loved ones being misled about the deconversion)? How will it salve the wounds of being ostracized any more than hobbies or therapy or other methods of coping?

  13. I believe (& concede that it’s a belief) that the pursuit of truth is inherently worthwhile, it’s up to people to replace a god-oriented world with something else if they want to, not those pointing out the flaws.

    1. So true. Just as it’s up to each of us to find or make meaning for ourselves, in our own lives. I can’t find it for you or give it to you.

  14. It seems to me that those criticizing new atheism for its lack of community as a secular replacement for church are the ones that need it the most. That is to say that it is a request from special compensation.

    Atheism, like not collecting stamps does not require a club. What you need to do is go join a club for something that you do believe in: hunting club, book club, poker club, golfing buddies etc. This is life, you’ll have to do some things on your lonesome.

    Meetup.com does half the work for you. There are clubs for just about anything you can think of though I’ve not seen one for ‘people who don’t wear purple and pink striped shirts’ … you may have to start that one on your own. Why do you need someone to do this stuff for you … that’s my question.

  15. I would add that this is one of those very patronising arguments which belittles religious people’s psychological needs. It might seem obvious to say that religion serves an important social function, but hang on a second, thousands of atheists manage without it, so why are we imagining that religious people are so mentally fragile that they couldn’t too?

  16. Back when I moved to the US from Europe to attend college, I remember being struck by one major difference, that is the sheer number of clubs, societies, and sporting groups that existed on campus. I was particularly baffled by the idea of fraternities and sororities. Nothing like that remotely existed in any high school or university in the parts of Europe I was familiar with. Why anybody needed to almost compulsively, in the case of some of my new American friends, attempt to join multiple clubs and groups was beyond me.

    My point being, and I know this is not an original observation (de Tocqueville remarked something along these lines, if I remember correctly), that there seems to be a stronger inclination or need among Americans to join groups or associations to provide a sense of community or identity. This is not restricted to churches, but somehow religion is perfectly placed to fill such a need in many parts of the US. I am not sure that the rapid decline of religion in most parts of Europe can even in part be explained by the existence of “secular alternatives”, indeed I am not sure I necessarily know of any. Rather there might be less of a need to search for a sense of community and an identity to begin with, perhaps because of a different historical and cultural background.

    1. It seems to be one of those things which took off in North America after being invented in Europe. Others can say more, but I’m pretty sure German universities (for example) have or used to have fraternities. (Likely nothing like the American ones, of course.)

  17. Religion tends to get held up as the “only way” for a lot of things, but I have never found this to be the case. Morality, community, fellowship, or any other “fundamental need” religion can be considered to be filling for people has no essential need of supernatural beliefs. Religion may offer a convenient shortcut to these things, but does not provide an essential component.

    I have no desire to break up the communities formed around churches. If people want to gather up and listen to lectures every Sunday and organize community events, great. I just do not want them to use blind faith in revelation as a way of deciding things and pushing those beliefs on others. I am all for the community and everything else. The idea that these things are impossible without a belief in the supernatural is just wrong.

    The only exception I can think of is the peace that can come from artificial answers to difficult questions, which I never consider valid. It strikes me like someone complaining they cannot avoid using drugs or alcohol because they cannot deal with the stress of reality. Such fulfillment is damaging enough that it should have no replacement.

    1. “If people want to gather up and listen to lectures every Sunday and organize community events, great.”

      Well, if that’s actually what they want, they could seek invitations to the Lions or the Rotary Club.


  18. I agree that as people’s lives improves, their need for religion decreases. I wonder about a couple of further things.

    1. Will there be “benefits” of religion that prove particularly hard to replace? For example, people’s fear of death seems to me pretty powerful. Do we need a secular way around that? (Perhaps a widely-accepted scientific argument that immortality is possible, or a philosophical argument that death is not bad.)

    2. As raven pointed out above, is it possible that much of the decline in religion is due to opposition to the very visible fundamentalist strains? Will we see fundamentalist religion simply get replaced by liberal religion? If so, I would expect the decline in religiosity to stabilize at some point, and maybe even reverse to some degree. As philosophers and psychologists know all too well, people don’t always change their beliefs because of persuasive arguments. They’re more likely to change because their friends or family change, or they feel some kind of social kinship with people who hold the other belief, or something like those.

    So I would worry that there will be a large group of religious people who stay religious, and it still won’t be clear how to persuade them away. Then again, it won’t be as urgent, since liberal religion isn’t nearly as socially damaging.

    1. Epicurus’ Counsels:

      1) Don’t fear God.
      2) Don’t worry about death.
      3) Don’t fear pain.
      4) Live simply.
      5) Pursue pleasure wisely.
      6) Make friends and be a good friend.
      7) Be honest in your business and private life.
      8) Avoid fame and political ambition.

      A popular philosophy for 500 years, then suppressed by early Christianity for believing that the soul and body died a final death.

    2. “Perhaps … a philosophical argument that death is not bad.”

      We have one, Epicurus’s: “there [is] nothing but oblivion after death, and … ‘what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation.’” (The Consolations of Philosophy</i),Alain de Botton [sorry!])


      1. Ant and DiscoveredJoys,

        Yes, Epicurus would be the obvious choice. Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of debate about whether he successfully showed that we ought not fear death.

        Epicurus’ basic idea (for those who aren’t familiar) is that since death is not something that happens to you, and not something that causes you to suffer, there’s no reason to fear it.

        But Epicurus was a stoic hedonist, and so he thought that the only thing really important was a kind of enjoyment or happiness. He didn’t think, for example, that you could be harmed by death, despite the fact that you would no longer be able to pursue and complete your projects. We might disagree with that, especially if we’re not hedonists.

        We might also think that while there is no suffering in death, there is also no happiness, and so we would be harmed by the deprivation of future opportunities to be happy.

        1. We might also think that the only life worth living is one with lots of pink bunnies kept in the attic. Or perhaps we might think that being deprived of burial with chariots and sacrificial horses is a harm we shouldn’t need to suffer. There are lots of things we might think that aren’t worth thinking.

        2. Epicurus on death:

          Why should I fear death?

          If I am, death is not.

          If death is, I am not.

          Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?

          Works for me.

        3. There is a subtle twist in the ‘fear of death’.

          You could split the fear into three sub-fears:
          1) The fear of dying – everyone hopes to die with the minimum of pain and fuss, although Epicurus reckoned this would be comparatively brief (in ancient Greece it would have been). You could of course plan ahead with a ‘living will’.
          2) The fear of being dead – Epicurus reckoned that you shouldn’t fear something you can’t experience, as other have already said.
          3) The fear, or concern, for leaving loved ones behind. Well you should have done your best for them while you were alive – you knew that someday you would die! Make a will, plan your funeral, tell them your account numbers and passwords.

          When you break down the ‘fear of death’ this way, each part seems more manageable.

  19. Strictly speaking the nones is usually those with no religious affiliation but not necessarily no religious beliefs (and we know from various surveys that many are theists, etc). A large reason for their increase besides the rise in atheism could be dissatisfaction with organized religion (anti-clericalism not atheism). Note the exposure of the coverups of the Catholic Church and the heavy partisan politics of many Evangelical, Catholic, and other religious groups.

  20. A lot of good comments above, and probably below too. And then there is mine:


    But we are living in a social construct even now that is already substituting for the older traditional “church-on-Sunday-get-your-social-instruction-and-interaction” Complete with respected elders (sorry) and group participation.

    It’s called a blogggnnnn… website of which in what I would tentatively call the “Virtualised Society of Gnu Scientism:WEIT Crèche” there are 13,822 followers, as of the typing this sentence.

    This can be seen in some respects as a prototype of the virtual age that is still growing. In the pages of WEIT I have gained much knowledge, a bit of wisdom, the ability to laugh at oneself and to engage in some introspection. All with a huge bunch of somewhat like minded persons (or Turing-test passers) with whom we interact, agree or argue with on a regular basis. All of whom I am happy to call “friends”, or at the least “interesting.” WEIT holds one of the greatest bunch of friends that I have never met. All without physically moving.

    Virtual social networks like WEIT with regular attendees is like the regular church-social get together, but spread with a global reach. Attendees are not limited by physical presence or time either.

    We New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists or even Gnu Scientismists) don’t need to reproduce the physical social construct of a church or cathedral when the means to have a wider, deeper and richer social experience exists even now. Jerry has thousands of followers. Heck, I hear that there is even a cephalopod-obsessed type who has followers in the hundreds of thousands.

    In the immortal words of Dr Bunsen Honeydew: “The future is being made today.”

    1. +a elebenty gazillon

      And there is G+ also which hosts an interactive medium for many science-loving geeks, not to mention introverts. The critics of GNU atheism are doubly clueless: atheists are NOT to be characterised by the famous ones, and that communality is virtual now, existing at an international level.

      As for a religious community providing an indispensable structure to help people give up addictions like gambling, who knows if the intervention works over a long time. From my personal experience, it doesn’t. Religious intervention has no special power over lapsing and going back into addiction. The psychology involving addiction intervention is continuously being buttressed by science, and that is the best intervention.

  21. Mr. Coyne is defining ‘The category of “nones” (people who profess no religious belief)’, but all of the polls which show that the nones category ‘is increasing faster, proportionately, than any established religion’ define no nones as people who don’t label themselves with a particular religious affiliation. Nones=no religious affiliation. Nonesno religious belief. Some nones say they are religious, some say they are secular, and some say they are atheist/agnostic. It may be true that those with no religious belief are increasing faster than any established religion, but I am not aware that this is a result confirmed by any poll, in part because the polls don’t define these categories ‘no religious belief’ and ‘established religion’.

  22. I’ve recently quit smoking. I’ve always used cigarettes as a crutch in my life. Since I’ve quit this time I’m seeing them for the first time for what they really were. They’re not a crutch, but a heavy stone I’ve been dragging all this time. Religion was the same. Once I purged myself of it, I’ve been able to to see my life for what it really is. There is no value in religion, it’s just another manifestation of the heavy stone.

  23. I think the burden is on your friend to provide evidence for this claim:

    “Religion fulfills fundamental needs in people”

  24. “Religion fulfills fundamental needs in people”

    What are these supposed “fundamental” needs? And how does religion “fulfill” them?

    Do people need to feel like special snowflakes? I’d say no, but they sure like to. Same with most other of these supposed “needs” that theists and accomodationists claim. They are not needs, they are wants.

    1. And some of those wants are not healthy to indulge. The human desire for easy answers is probably the least healthy.

      1. Just a reminder of Richard Feynman’s famous injuncture: First, do not fool yourself, and know that the easiest person to fool -is- yourself.

  25. New Atheism is supposed to offer a replacement for god? Doesn’t make any sense, does it? First, it isn’t NA’s job.
    Second, nobody’s asking anybody to embrace atheism; it isn’t exactly a mandate the breach of which will be enforced by … what? Torture? Rejection from heaven? Voter suppression? (Oh, wait…)
    Third, I’d presume that anybody deeply intelligent enough to re-evaluate the whole religion thing and decide (as my grandfather did in Paris a long, long time ago) it isn’t for him would not be requiring his new lack of faith to replace his old one.
    And fourth: have you ever been around a little child who has grabbed a breakable and maybe valuable personal object, like a watch, is clinging to it ferociously, and all the adults in the room run around trying to locate the child’s favorite soft toy, and when they do someone grabs the watch with one hand and thrusts the OK toy at the kid with the other? And the kid screams for a couple of seconds but eventually embraces the safe toy?

    That’s what this whole Replacement God-Toy thing reminds me of.

  26. Late to the party again….

    But I must admit to a bit of confusion.

    The real problem with New Atheism is that while it attacks religion, it fails to provide a substitute.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but how is this here Web site, WEIT, not itself a very important secular substitute to the types of community and intellectual aspects of a religion?

    I’m not suggesting, of course — not in the slightest — that we’re being religious.

    But the complaint is that religions offer communities to their members and function to provide a moral framework and that atheists are somehow lacking on both counts. Well, we’ve got a pretty good community going here, and we spend a good amount of time discussing morality — and we do so in a much more meaningful and effective way than any religious organization ever possibly could.

    So, what’s left? Do we need to start having play-pretend tea parties with imaginary friends? Do we need to stop being so damned sane and start spewing crazy bullshit? Do we need to rape some children before rationalism can be taken seriously as an alternative to faith? Are we in need of funny costumes and mindless chanting? Stained glass?



    1. The Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group now has over 700 members (eat that Pat Robertson). This is in KY! And, there are tons of smaller meetups going on of all sorts in the freethinking category, including a group for pastors who have realized that they don’t believe any of it anymore. These groups party, picnic, debate and discuss and generally are incredibly socially active. They focus on making this world better for the next to come along. They celebrate the seasons of the earth and wonder at the awesomeness of the universe. They counsel each other through hard times and celebrate the good. They enjoy the richness and depth of life without fear of or the need for some sort of afterlife fairy tale.

      So what the hell is the basis for the idea that when you take away religion, you don’t have any good substitute for what it gives to humans?

      To me it comes down to this story…. A local teenager just died of some horrible disease that messed up most of his short 14 years. The paper was full of the stories of those around him praying for his recovery, but also soothing themselves with the idea that if he died, it was because God would fix him in heaven. The biggest comfort both he and his family had to hang on to was the idea that he would go to a better place and they would all be together again. THAT is an incredibly powerful comfort to people.

      So where do we go with situations like that?

      Do we ever think that telling someone that they will live on in people’s loving hearts and that they made a difference in the world will be substitute for these old tall tales of comfort?

      I hope so, but I don’t envision it in my lifetime.

      1. “So where do we go with situations like that?”

        We don’t go anywhere with it. I personally doubt that this myth actually makes anyone greave less at a loss like this. Maybe it does but nice drug-induced hallucinations are still just hallucinations. And at best life-after-death is such a drug.

        1. I don’t know what it does to ones level of grieving. I do know that it is harder to say goodbye to my children when we don’t have a next get together on the calendar than when we do. Maybe that’s not a good analogy, but it’s the best I can think of.

          What I noticed in the article about this young boy is that the religious fantasy made HIM more peaceful and accepting of his coming death. I’m not agreeing with this, I’m just noting it.

          My point is that I don’t see people letting go of this fantasy very easily. One can fairly easily let go of a particular sect of religion and one can even let go of the idea of a god, but letting go of the seemingly engrained idea of life after death is a really hard nut to crack.

          1. “…the religious fantasy made HIM more peaceful and accepting of his coming death.”

            Well, I wasn’t there and I don’t know the particulars. But I’ll wager he grew up in a community of believers who told each other how comforting their life-after-death story was. Had he lived in a community that acknowledged that death happens to us all and that being dead is no more dreadful than what it was like before you were born, I rather doubt he would have needed the fantasy.

            1. I agree. So what this tells us is that we need more atheist families raising kids without the afterlife fairy tales.

      2. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with unpleasant and painful truths. Just because a fantasy is more pleasant doesn’t make it true.

        I’m sorry, but there really is no Santa Clause, no matter how much anybody might wish there were.


      3. I don’t know how people brought up to believe in heaven would cope without it, but I can tell you that as an atheist since my teens married to a lifelong atheist, I, and my wife, are coping quite well with her terminal cancer. We have no fear of death and have spent the last few years enjoying what is left of our time together.

        At least we don’t have to worry that she may suffer eternal torture because she didn’t genuflect enough or tell her confessor all the evil things she has done and beg for forgiveness.

        I think Mrs Brains worries more for me than I for her. She knows that I will miss her more than my right arm, and we both know that I will grieve mightily, but she also knows that there will be no further suffering for her, so she has nothing to fear for herself.

        I don’t know how to convey this form of acceptance, indeed peace, to someone who needs their “old tall tales of comfort”. I just know that it works for us.

          1. If more people like you and your wife had their stories put in the newspaper, maybe others would feel empowered to drop their needs for fairy tale explanations of the world. I admire you both.

  27. >At any rate, how many of you have
    >heard this criticism of New Atheism?

    New Atheism attacks religion but fails to provide a substitute? I wasn’t aware that “old” atheism provided a substitute either.
    In any case I have heard that criticism, but feel that it isn’t really in the realm of unbelief to provide a ritual framework that all unbelievers can subscribe to. Think of the analogy of not collecting stamps, and the challenge of establishing a club for non stamp collectors. Are you really going to satisfy the needs of all non stamp people who none the less need to collect?

    I recall hearing Dawkins describe his involvement in atheist funerals where those who prefer a secular ceremony were well catered for. The sense of establishment that a ceremony provides, brings legitimacy when it is recognised by the community. But regular ritual, maybe weekly association to achieve something or other – I honestly can’t see what form that would take. Except maybe a sports event. But then those who attend Saturday games are fans of that team and that sport. They aren’t defined as being non-anything.

    1. My first thought as well: How is this something about “New” atheism in particular? I don’t recall Bertrand Russell organizing any kind of religion-substitute.

      1. Let me go on to add that I think that the real difference between “New” and “Old” atheists is simply that New Atheists are sometimes heard. In Russell’s day he wrote fine essays criticizing religion. Scarcely anyone read them and few people outside academic circles have ever even heard of him (sigh). Now, however, atheist books are best sellers. This visibility, more than anything else, is what I think bothers people. Atheists are no different now, we’re just not invisible like we once were. So long as we are off in some obscure ivory tower thinking heretical thoughts by ourselves and scribbling these down for the handfull of other like-minded academics we were tame and comparatively unthreatening and, most of all, out of mind. Being unable to avoid seeing or hearing our arguments is what really bugs people. That’s what they mean by “shrill”, essentially, “I have been unable to ignore that you and your views exist.” So, obviously, buying billboards is going to really annoy people. The temerity!

        1. Yes, even when the billboards are saying nothing but, “there’s a community of people who don’t believe in any gods,” some believers will find them objectionable and “offensive”!


        2. Exactly.
          Since many of those “old” atheists were at least as forceful in their criticism of religion as the “new” atheists (I think Jerry even posted a few quotes not that long ago) it can’t be this aspect that bugs theists and faitheists.

          As you said, what really bothers them is more likely the heightened visibility of the current atheists, especially to the common people, who in former times wouldn’t have noticed an Ingersoll, Russel or Mencken.
          Nowadays, in the age of the internet, such critics of their most cherished beliefs are much harder to ignore.

          And this is probably also a reason why the “old” atheists appear mellower and more sympathetic to religion in retrospect.

          1. “…in former times wouldn’t have noticed an Ingersoll, Russel or Mencken.”

            Actually, in their day these guys had tremendous popular reach. Robert Ingersoll would speak to thousands of paying customers at a time. Rather like a crowd will gather to hear Dawkins these days.

            Times move on and people forget that there was once a Golden Age of Freethought. (See Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” (2004)

            1. I’m kinda surprised nobody’s yet considered the possibility that this is a Goebbels-style etch-a-sketch shakeup.

              By any objective measure, there just isn’t any difference between today’s atheists and those of history. And it’s certainly not us atheists who came up with the term — though, of course, we’ve wisely embraced and extended it.

              What’s new about New Atheism? Whoever invented the term thought it sounded suitably dismissive — that’s what’s new.



  28. Alain de Botton does not seem a particularly clear example of a New Atheist. As such, it seems doubtful his efforts can be considered an example of New Atheists addressing the problem.

    That said, I think there’s a slight point to the friend’s thesis. In so far as “New Atheism” is worse than a possible alternative, there is some sense of a problem. Whether or not the “New Atheism” is better or worse than the “Old Atheism” or than Old Religion, it seems that the “New Atheism” would be inferior to a atheism variant with the added mutation that effectively provided substitute means for more people having more fundamental needs met, which religion currently is more effective at addressing. This in turn would potentially accelerate the trend to irreligion further; the lack, potentially limit the potential degree of success.

    Point 4 appears to implicitly accept that, though considering the need for “sense of personal security” to have bigger payoffs than the need for “sense of community”.

  29. I’ve just joined this group. So haven’t seen a lot yet, but I just want to say that this is the first I’ve heard of Atheism being something more than disbelief in God.

    I’m referring to all this talk about converting the masses and the like.

    Could this mean I’m not really an Atheist? Or does being an Atheist not necessarily mean than one believes in Atheism?

    1. See my response to #10.

      Part of the “problem” is that “movement atheism” is the very visible aspect of atheism, and everyone brings to the table their often humanistic ideas and ideals around science, social justice, &c., which tend to glom onto “atheism”, even though atheism qua atheism is too slender an idea to sustain them.

      “Converting the masses” isn’t a primary goal of atheists, although deconverting the masses might be. Paul Kurtz* again: “The skeptic is not passionately intent on converting mankind to his or her point of view and surely is not interested in imposing it on others, though he may be deeply concerned with raising the level of education and critical inquiry in society. Still, if there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith.”


      * I don’t really know Kurtz’s work well, but his death has meant that quotations from his works (this from The Transcendental Temptation again) are suddenly cropping up online. 😉

      1. Thanks for your response, Ant. You referred to #10 and I read your response. I think you’re agreeing with me, but I need to be careful about my conclusions here.

        I’m looking forward to discussing several topics with others who are interested. My immediate challenge is figuring out how to use this web site/forum in a way that words for me. So far, it seems that getting email notification is asking to be inundated with emails. Will try to find another way.
        Thanks again,

        1. If you’ve the time and inclination, you can search older posts for discussions about, and with, people who reject the label “atheist”, even thought they freely admit that they believe in no gods, because of the “baggage” that they associate with the term. Neil de Grasse Tyson is a very well-known example.


        2. Depending, possibly, on your browser there should be a WordPress “toolbar” at the top of the page. On the righthand side of that toolbar is a small icon shaped sort of like a text bubble. If someone responds to a comment of yours that icon turns red. If you then click on the icon a window displaying the identity of the responder and what comment they responded to opens. You can either read the response right there, or click on your original comment to navigate to your original comment in the actual WEIT post. After you have checked for responses by clicking on this icon it changes back to a neutral color.

          So, as soon as you open the WEIT website, you can immediately see if anyone has responded to you and very quickly view the response or navigate to your initial comment in the OP.

  30. Regarding the dysfunctional society data point, “Of course Chuck Colson found Jesus in prison: no one finds Jesus on prom night.” – Dennis Miller, years before he lost his mind on 9/11/2001

  31. My thinking on this is all over the map, but hopefully without the self-contradictions of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy.

    Dan Dennett has said the atheist movement ought to provide secular alternatives to church (and has noted TED talks as one such) but he’s never ever said that new atheists absolutely must do this or they will predictably fail.

    For me, a hike in the mountain wilderness is far more rewarding that High Mass. Other times, I like a formal meditation practice.

    This issue has been addressed in a few books such as “Secular Wholeness” by David Cortesi, but I certainly don’t think the freethought movement “en masse” is required to do anything about this. Those who clear out the weeds aren’t necessarily responsible for planting new things in the garden.

  32. I have indeed heard of this sort of criticism of Dawkins and others. I have a friend who, although a lifelong atheist, nonetheless deplores the advocacy represented by this site or similar ones. And I agree there is some merit to the idea that social dysfunction is correlated with the religious refusal to accept naturalism. I am interested to see the evidence that this is a causal relationship.

    1. Causal relationships may be over-rated:

      Pearson’s work suggested that causation might be irrelevant to science and that it could in certain ways be indistinguishable from perfect correlation. “The higher the correlation, the more certainly we can predict from one member what the value of the associated member will be,” he wrote in one of his major works, The Grammar of Science. “This is the transition of correlation into causation.”



      1. On the other hand, since Pearson, there has been a profusion of techniques developed over the past 20 years or so where causation is key. The corrolation ≠ causation thing is true, but you can add, if justified, assumptions and get causation out. The Bayes networks literature is one example of this specifically.

  33. I think that it would be a mistake to couple atheism (new or otherwise) with a substitute for religion. That is because different people seek religion for different reasons. Sure, for some it is about community. But for others it is a fear of death, or a search for meaning in their lives, or a need for authority, or an escape from a depressing reality, or whatever. Readers of this website should have no trouble filling in lots more reasons.

    The problem with coupling atheism with its replacement is that it will be different for different people. The coupling just presents a target. Look at all the different directions that Gnus get hit from already. They don’t address sophisticated theology. They don’t address fundamentalism. They are too depressing. They are too optimisitic.

    One of the toughest problems that atheism has is that believers are all over the map. Getting into arguments about replacements would be a distraction. The core idea is that religion just isn’t true.

    1. Exactly. We should only believe what we all have proper justification to believe (based on the overall, commonly available evidences). We all lack proper justification for the beliefs that are the basis for religions. The odd notion that replacements for lifestyle questions must be provided first, before we discuss why religious beliefs are mistaken, places the cart before the horse. Replacements can be discussed also, but in the context of replacements of things already lost tailored for each indivdual, which is necessarily a matter of personal preferences, not in the context of general replacements as a prerequisite to abandoning unjustified beliefs. In the reversed order, that becomes more an obfuscation and an obstacle than a help. Evidence is universal, lifestyles are personal.

  34. I like the fourth reason, “personal insecurity fostered by the nature of one’s society” — it is almost axiomatic that desperation drives many people to religion. Thus the claim “there are no atheists in foxholes.” I disagree with the claim, but it’s aligned with reason #4. You say, “that solution is much harder to implement,” but I think contrariwise, that solution is approaching inevitably. Any careful analysis of history to this point shows that violence, poverty, disease and other problems are on the decline globally, while education, information, stability and prosperity are all up over time, especially in the last century. See “Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence” on TED for a very good discussion of this.

  35. I don’t think we can get away without determining what it is that people ARE getting from religion.

    My first thoughts, like many here, are around substitutes for many of the social aspects of religion, including community and ceremonial. Like music and a nice sing-song? Get a group together. Like meditation or incense? Go ahead.

    This aligns with the argument that religion is about practices. I think that is the candy-coating. That is only part of religion, but certainly the easiest to find substitutes for in a secular setting.

    Leaving that, then, brings us to the function of religion as moral compass. There are many philosophers who have tried to construct moral systems. I am not sure that it is for Atheism in general to promote any particular moral system. In some ways it would be counter-productive, because then the argument would be about Ayn Rand, or John Mill or whomever. The problem I see with Atheism Plus is that it takes a single idea (there are no gods), and tries to wrap it in a set of other values that may or may not be consequent on that.

    Finally, there are the pure negatives of religion (leaving aside that we might not agree with the values of a particular sect). I think most of us look on religion as a net negative. That stems from a general view that religion puts authority in the place of thought. We certainly don’t want to impose a different authority; we want people to abandon superstition, and approach life informed by the best knowledge we have available.

    I think we also view religion as a negative not only because it imposes a set of values which we consider to be inimical to modernity and unsupportable except by authority. We view it as a negative because it allows people to turn their prejudices into religious dictates. We see this everyday. Today there is a story on CNN about a politician who says that pregnancy from rape is god’s will. How vile! As someone once observed, even the devil can quote scripture to his purpose, and any yokel can claim bibilical support for his particular prejudices. I think the way Leviticus is cherry-picked shows this.

    So maybe people leaving religion need self-help groups. Stories I’ve read suggest that that is very useful. The idea that we need to provide an alternative morally sounds a bit like the theist who thinks that because we don’t believe in god we don’t have any morals or values. And in reply I’d say as most do that I don’t see people leaving god and becoming psychopaths. In general, though, I agree with what others have said in this thread: Religion is a negative. Removing it is all we really need for the good to emerge. Pull the weeds out, and let the flowers grow.

    1. “So maybe people leaving religion need self-help groups.” Believers Anonymous?!

      I generally agree with your comments. But…

      “The problem I see with Atheism Plus is that it takes a single idea (there are no gods), and tries to wrap it in a set of other values that may or may not be consequent on that.”

      Then I think you’ve misunderstood the rationale. It’s “atheism+” not “atheism⇒”! 😉 As others have noted, elsewhere, it’s largely congruent with humanism.


  36. I believe that an enlargement of what constitutes, defines “prayer” might be a move in the right direction. We hear the common mainstream public response to a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, shooting, plane crash, etc. victims: “Our prayers go out to the families and the people who lost their lives.”

    Of course, those of us not issuing a ‘prayer’ still feel sympathy, still reflect, and yet do not issue “a request for the impossible by the undeserving”. Yet the word ‘prayer’ has a background of more than pausing for mere seconds while washing the dishes. It’s more of a physical/mental gesture combination. If a notion of prayer that meant something other than a message out to the Supernatural were to gain traction, then people would feel much more comfortable not believing in the Supernatural, yet feel the special avenue of messaging and saluting reserved for the most inevitable, unavoidable, yet usually most untimely event: death to fellow humans (and cats).

    1. Yep, there’s nothing wrong with, “Our thoughts are with the families…” And a minute’s silence for reflection instead of the conspicuous invocation of a deity seems far more sincere.


      1. Better yet, in event of a tornado, hurricane, etc., a contribution to Red Cross, or equivalent, might actually result in some good happening.

      2. Yes, but I’m thinking of somehow transmuting the popular definition of “prayer”. Somehow, to make it human-to-human, rather than human-to-deity. I think a lot of “none” religion-people are not atheists, or do not define themselves as such, because those “none”s -do- offer prayers to a deity, even though they do not agree with church dogma and specific rituals.

        “e-mail” is an evolved form of “mail”, but does not involve the physical posting of paper, carried by a postal entity, and delivered to a physical address. The effect of “e-mail” is much the same of “mail”: communication. Yet the old name was incorporated for descriptive purposes.

        Some slight modification of “prayer” (e.g. “pprayer”, “perayer” (person-of-person thoughts) or “prayh” (human-directed thoughts to other humans)) would be a step (those are non-starters, yet.. examples).

  37. Sure there are “secular alternatives” to religion, but…


    Me: Hi! So how long have you been interested in river-rafting?

    Random club member: A friend from my church took me out the first time, and we both literally had a religious experience!

    Me: Oh. How… nice.

    Random club member: Yes it was great! I think white-water rafting is God’s little test for our personal courage, don’t you?

    Me: *Groan*


    These “secular activities” are infested with religious people of all stripes. The conversation, therefore, mostly SUCKS. Sure, I know… just shut up and enjoy the white water, right? *Spit*

    Religion poisons everything, even these ostensibly “secular” activities.

    I’m an extremist. I think we need not only atheist social groups and activities, but also atheist corporations and living-wage job opportunities where religion is actively discouraged.

  38. In response to your remarks by your friend, I would have asked him “What fundamental needs does he think religion fulfills?” Note that I know this target is tiresome and some examples of fundamental needs — morality, community, etc — are widely known. But if this was a debate or casual discussion, I would want to push the burden back on to him and get a bit more specific charge before responding. More importantly, I think there are lots of people who just assume that religion is good because it fulfills fundamental needs, the necessity of religion to living a good life is widely promoted throughout the culture, and we should challenge people to question and think about how they know this assumption is true.

    I think the next most important thing is to distinguish between religion and theism. Much of the criticisms of religion by atheists is a criticism of theism and the beliefs that accompany theism. Your friend is basically defending theism based on religion is important, that requires at least some careful thought and justification. Also there are plenty of people who are theist but not religious. My parents are both theist and my family never went to church while growing up beyond weddings, baptisms, and funerals. My family has no religious community. Many of my friends rarely if ever go to church and some have become agnostic at points in their life. Finally, there are non-theistic religions (at least religions outside of monotheism, which gets most of the criticism).

    I think this suggests an obvious question for your friend: I’ve been an atheist and nonreligious all my life. My parents are nonreligious theists, many of my friends are nonreligious including theists, agnostics, and atheists. If religion (and only religion) satisfies such fundamental needs, then how do you explain the lives of myself and those I know? Are there fundamental needs of ours that aren’t getting met?

    I think the mere existence of nonreligious people like so many I know at least establishes that this “religion fulfills fundamental needs” argument requires some elaboration if not is completely wrong. We could discuss “religion provides this” or “religion provides that”, but… you have clear counterexamples, people whose needs mostly get met without any religion. Being wrong does not get more clear cut than that.

  39. Re: “we’re ineffective because we don’t provide substitutes for religion.” This statement needs to be defined a bit better. Religion can provide for a wide number of ‘needs’. For example:
    Infrastructure: Hospitals, Schools, Recreation centres, Meeting halls

    Socializing: Singing, Dances, Conversation, Sports, Games

    Life stage Rituals: Birth/Baptism, Coming of age/Confirmation, Wedding, Funeral

    Social Services: Counselling Services, Support groups, Food and shelter, Child care

    Religion: Moral guidance, Life meaning, Metaphysical outlook

    One advantage religious institutions have is that they can provide a wide variety of valuable services and present them with a low barrier to entry. But most of the items on this list are provided by secular organizations where I live (Vancouver, BC).

    I think an interesting case study in religion being substituted is the province of Quebec, where the Catholic Church went from a powerful social and political force in the 1950s, to comparatively irrelevant by the end of the 1960s. One of the factors in that change was a program to build up secular and state institutions and services to replace what the church had been doing.

    1. Churches provide those functions, and jealously guard them, in order to maintain their dominant position in society and facilitate their access to wealth and power. They are aware that if secular institutions out compete them in providing those functions that they will lose much of their authority and access to power and wealth. And adherents.

  40. I seem to have missed what the difference is between new and old atheism. I have heard of old and new atheists but is this not simply referring to the next generation of people who hold the same views?

    1. According to accommodationists:

      Old Atheism := atheists.
      New Atheism := damn atheists.

      In other words, in this out-group cliché outspoken atheists should be marginalized. (“STFU!”)

      Other than that, there were no real difference. Outspoken atheists seems to have been present in nearly each generation for centuries.

      The next attempt of accommodationists is Post-Atheism == “Atheism+”, where atheism is relative to your humanism of choice.

      In other words, in this in-group movement hard atheists should be marginalized.

      We’ll see what becomes of that. Hard atheists seems to have been present in nearly each generation for centuries.

    2. I think Ben nailed it above when he said:

      “What’s new about New Atheism? Whoever invented the term thought it sounded suitably dismissive — that’s what’s new.”

      I posited that it’s that atheism can be seen now (I don’t recall any best sellers with an overtly atheist theme when I was young), and that the inability to pretend it doesn’t exist makes it more onerous to believers. But I think Ben is closer to the truth.

  41. social dysfunction makes people more religious simply because they turn to sky fathers when they can’t get security in their lives from their governments

    Another way of analysing this is to say that anti-theists took over Christian hospitals and schools in order to make people feel more positive about anti-theism.

    1. Could you further explain what you are trying to say here? I don’t see what your comment has in common with what you quoted.

  42. I think the plaint reverses the causality. There have been claims of two pathways to atheism:

    1. Education & science, which makes agnostics of religious and atheists of agnostics.
    2. Social security, which makes non-believers.

    Of the two, #1 provides a hard core in more societies. But #2 is what makes religion go down in large numbers.

    A model of competition predicts that religions should disappear, and seems tested by eye-balling data up to 2011ish (figs. 1 & 2):

    “We found that a particular case of the solution fits census data on competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies in 85 regions around the world. The model indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.”

    Religion, who needs it?

    No one, according to the populations of 85 modern secular societies. Whatever utility secular nations provide for non-religious, probably better functionality in a socially secure environment, it is already existing.

    You shouldn’t argue against established* fact.

    * (But see the eye-balling, i.e. data fitting instead of a rigorous test. It is not a _well_ established case as of yet.

    But it likely could be, if someone put in the extra effort. Say, as opposed to repeat problematic plaints ad nauseum.)

    1. I see I equivocate between perceived utility and utility, but I think it is a likely part of what happens. I don’t see how perceived utility can be consistent over 85 societies. IMHO some real utility would be a better bet.

  43. Who needs a replacement?

    Hey Doc, you know what the trouble with you is? When you removed that fibrous cyst, you didn’t offer any sort of replacement. Now my old doctor – when he’d do something like that he’d offer me some warts or maybe a bit of appendicitis or a tad of liver cirrhosis.

  44. When I hear someone saying that people need X or Y, what I hear is contempt. They are saying “other weak people need it (religion for example) but I don’t. I’m strong and clever.”

      1. How do you know who needs what? Do you enjoy it when someone tells you “I know what you think”? It reminds me of the wealthy that came home when I was young (and our family the poorest of the town) to give us what they thought we needed. Contempt is worse than poverty.

        1. If you need religion but I don’t, that means, as you said, that you’re weak and I’m strong. If I’ve got money and you don’t, that just means I’m rich and you’re poor. If you’re weak and poor, then you may deserve the pity of someone strong and rich, but only if you’re miserable about it.

          BUT … if you’re *proud* of being weak and poor, and think that *because* you’re weak and poor that makes you *better* than me, then yes, you deserve nothing more than my unbridled contempt. ESPECIALLY when you refuse my offer of helping you become less poor and less weak by my honest attempt to balance out the world.

          In the case of riches there’s already a horrendous gap between rich and poor, and if everyone had that attitude it’s only going to get worse. Poverty and weakness are pointless and nasty.

  45. So it sounds like most people have already offered up the explanation that we don’t need to give a substitute. What an absurd criticism.

    I think Dawkins offered it a long time ago: SLEEP IN ON SUNDAYS.

    I also feel like this criticism makes it sound like the religious community is the ultimate type of community, and totally discredits every other community. The somewhat-ambiguous gay community offered more support, friendship, and events than any religion could. Furthermore, most religious communities were not that great at supporting: they avoided questions, explicitly defined an out-group and in-group, and offer a “solution” to people’s search for spirituality. There is literally nothing appealing about the religious community.

    God forbid (literally) we find communities to join that already do better humanity?

  46. Re: New Atheists.

    Here’s the problem. The “New Atheists” are Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the “Old Atheists” Andy Williams and Pat Boone and Bing Crosby.

    The boring, established order is alarmed by the new and more “out there.” So they clutch some pearls and break some LPs in disgust. It’s a cycle as old as Thog complaining that the two-sided hand axe used by Gog was upsetting the flint knapping orthodoxy.

    1. Well… if the old “established” order includes Mark Twain, the one word I would never use for it is “boring.” 🙂

  47. Perhaps the substitute would be something that causes dopamine to be released the way it must be when they bask in the love of their god.

          1. Yeah, but who would be silly enough to actually worship a jackal when you’ve got cats?

            Besides — Anubis was the protector of the underworld, not unlike Charon. Maybe you would be wise to stay in his good graces, but only because you had to.


        1. The religious tend to see them as witches’ familiars, so I’m really trying to ensure the survival of kittens.

  48. I find it preposterous that atheists/atheism and or scientists/science are somehow supposed to provide an alternative to religious belief, something to fill the emptiness. Why? Who said it is our responsibility to spoon feed the masses feel-good Pablum? And, I find it even more preposterous that we would fall for such a gimmicky demand and even think of attempting to provide such a delusion. What atheism and or science demand (in my opinion), as opposed to religious faith, is breaking away from the Pablum bowl and developing a much, much larger, quantitatively and qualitatively, view of reality, to let go of superstition, to learn difficult concepts, to give up wanting and demanding that other people provide our reality to us, to be able to sit in the question, the unknowing, without fidgeting and wringing our hands in whiny angst, craving the easy answer, to get out of that old, soft, comfortable chair that also imprisons us.

    I used to be a religious nut, not evangelical, just a nut, and I know what these people crave. Only superstition can ease that craving for answers that one is too lazy to search for rationally. So, what they need from us, if we feel that we simply must provide something for the pitiful Eloi, is not some prepackaged Soma variant, but the mental skills and education to explore a new path fearlessly.

  49. ” . . . unless New Atheists can suggest other, non-theistic ways to meet those needs, it will not be successful.”

    Suppose “New” Atheists cannot so meet those needs. Before the altar of what religious tradition would one recommend I genuflect?

  50. So, just what is the difference between the old and new atheism? One of my long time friends (32 years) has been an atheist all that time and I wouldn’t know if he is old or new, or even if he’d know.

    I get the impression that the old atheists were thought to be civil and the new ones really in-your-face, bordering on rude. I know my friend would be “old” by that standard, for while he gives religion and missionaries short shrift he’s always very civil about it.

    1. “I know my friend would be “old” by that standard, for while he gives religion and missionaries short shrift he’s always very civil about it.”

      That would seem to describe Paul Kurtz.

  51. This also gets back to the assumption that religion is the default setting for everything, for all of reality. And, believe me, I was raised in this garbage and it is taught as the ONLY thing, you know, the Alpha and Omega thing, whatever. “If you can’t provide a substitute for me, then I’ll have to stick with religion because there is nothing else” Who says? Well, tens of thousands of preachers screech it every Sunday morning. And, after a while, one believes it. Getting away from it is all a matter of growing up emotionally and intellectually and realizing that there is a universe out there that’s not accounted for in the restricted, tiny church box. However, it’s very difficult initially to overcome that huge emotional block of fear and uncertainty that religion “provides” in bulk packages. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’ll burn in Hell for posting this. Just kidding.

  52. The analogy of religion to a disease has been offered by numerous commenters here in response to the serious substitute question.

    The plausibility of the analogy rests on both religion and disease being undesirable properties of the species.

    More than 99% self-conscious individuals do not want a disabling disease for self or close kin. There is close to zero cost to individuals or the hive to want to cure or prevent the disease.

    Much more than 50% of self-conscious individuals want some variant of religion for self and close kin, and demonstrate this by paying a cost to maintain it.

    So the analogy is weak. It’s tossed out glibly to trivialize the substitute problem.

    Moreover, trivializing the substitute problem allows many, and perhaps most, New Atheists (imprecise though that term may be) to remain in denial about an even larger problem.

    1. The fact that half (or more) of the population doesn’t realize that they are infected by a parasite does not mean that they are parasite-free.

      The substitute “problem” is not a one to be taken seriously, as far as I can see. If you think there is some big problem out there, then it is up to you to articulate what it is because so far letting people get together for social interaction is the best I’ve heard. And that’s a pretty pathetic example of a “larger problem”.

  53. It’s important to establish context when posting a view on an issue like this. I am a 47 year old man with a wife, raising 2 kids. Atheism is rare in my community and level of belief amonung our friends and acquaintances runs the gamut.

    When I speak to other parents it is clear that although many don’t have deep faith and possess great skepticism, they remain in their churches and pass their religion onto their kids because it serves as a “one stop shop” so to speak for ethics education for their kids, a place to contemplate the bigger picture, do charitable works and develop friendships with people outside their circle of kids friends (which is a common trap for parents).

    So yes I think there is a wonderful opportunity for the secular movement, if you can call it that, to provide a replacement. Atheism is having some success but without being able to compete against a churches offering in the areas I mention, parents will simply default to churches and generations of young minds will continue to be indoctrinated into religious belief, mainly out of habit and family tradition.

  54. Religion is kind of like nicotine…a solution looking for a problem. Religion conditions people to ask certain kinds of questions then provides answers for them. In the same way people feel relaxed after having a cigarette because the nicotine dependency itself creates the need for a smoke (fortunately I’m not a smoker.)

    But if you’re conditioned to ask ‘why am I here’ or ‘why did I get cancer’ or ‘why am I poor’, then when the answer is it’s your fault because of God, you have an answer!

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