Thursday, February 11, 2010


Religious zealots will argue that if one fails to embrace a transcendental moral doctrine, usually their own, a person will be left with nothing to suppress their basest desires and lead them towards a morally bankrupt, nihilistic state of relativism. On the other end of the spectrum, the neo-atheists argue that religion is inherently toxic and destructive. Between these two extremes is the argument I endorse: affirmation of religion’s potential to soothe our pains and deepen commitments to causes shared with humanists, coupled with recognition of religion’s toxic potential and the possibility for non-supernatural sources of morality. Philosophical materialism does not necessarily bring about nihilism, and religion does not necessarily bring about destructive fanaticism.

The violence and intolerance done in the name of God does not overshadow the good deeds, just as the anguish and guilt caused by belief does not overpower the comfort and serenity. Belief in God is not a monolithic institution, but an internally diverse phenomenon. At first glance, we might put Buddhism and Islam in the same category the same way we might mistakenly place a shark and a dolphin in the same category. Just because some religious memes prey on their hosts does not mean that all of them do. In times of incredible temptation, loneliness and despair, belief in a stern but loving God can not only comfort people, but enable them to be good when “being good for goodness’ sake” is an insufficient incentive. The toxic religious memes use the larger benevolent ones as “protective coloration,” but with careful analysis we can see past the deception and untangle the destructive strands of religion from the beneficial ones.

Religion has great potential to complement secular humanist projects. To evidence this claims I point to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu who took a defiant stand against the South African apartheid state. Even though the white supremacy of apartheid was a very toxic sort of religiously based meme, Tutu showed that Christianity could be used to spread just the opposite of racist evil. To the inhumanity of racism, Tutu used the gospel to spread a Christian meme that all humans are "God's children. There are no outsiders." "My humanity is bound up in yours," Tutu preached, "for we can only be human together." Religions that were once composed of toxic memes can come to mirror and complement the same values and projects supported by secular humanists.

For both those who claim religion as universal truth and noble lie, philosophical materialism is seen as a course which inevitably leads to moral relativism and nihilism. They claim that with only a materialist worldview, humans can only be “grotesque… “puppet[s] suspended on… chromosomes,” living accidental, insignificant lives. However, morality is not mere artifice that lifts us above primal, bestial amorality. Evolution gave humans an innate, hidden moral grammar, an unconscious process, activated by society that mediates our moral judgments. Humans are moral by nature, and will navigate the world in a morally informed manner whether or not a religious morality is there to guide them.


Secularization theory predicted that religion would slowly lose its significance and place in social life, eclipsed by rational, scientific explanations to the questions that face humanity. This premise has not born out, as religious life not only continues but thrives in the 21st century. Secularization theory is flawed because science cannot always do what religion does. Belief can enrich our lives in ways rational knowledge cannot. Despite the utopian dream of establishing one comprehensive account of everything, there is an epistemological pluralism, a number of incommensurable ways of understanding the universe.

Religion can do things that science cannot. Belief in a loving being which organizes the cosmos can give people the resilience to overcome the worst kinds of adversity. Religion can steel our will against temptation and deliver us from loneliness and apathy. While some people might be able to manage life’s trials without faith, for others it is unsubstitutable. Religious beliefs, even if erroneous, can have a placebo effect on the human mind, curing our aches and anxieties in a way that there is no reason to trade in for universal acceptance of Western medicine. Science itself has shown some false beliefs to improve human capacity, and studies show positive illusions can improve mental health. The choice between science and religion is a false one, as the two spheres are capable of complementary coexistence.

Those who advocate secularization theory as an empirical fact or a normative goal are guilty of the same fundamentalism as the religious fanatics they criticize. Secularization theory mirrors the utopian, universalistic assumptions of Christianity and Islam. Religious and scientific fundamentalists offer a “refuge from uncertainty, promising freedom from thought." In eclipsing religion as the main source of authority, science has mirrored its monopolistic ambitions, “preserv[ing] the comforting illusion of a single established world view. The false dawn of the secular age shows that while it might be a comforting illusion to anticipate an emerging account of the meaning of everything, there will always be multiple ways of knowing that are incommensurable. Epistemological pluralism tells us that science, art, religion and love can all offer insight into our human condition. No one approach to knowing can answer all our questions.

Religions are not so inflexible that we are forced to choose between holy war and total secularization. Despite their claims to “eternal and immutable principles,” religion has changed to meet the demands of modernity. Religious beliefs are adept at ensuring their own replication by adapting to the demands of the day. Modern religions are organized around increasingly abstract conceptions of the divine. Modern believers increasingly use second order beliefs to create religious institutions capable of coexistence. “Systematically masked creeds,” like belief in belief, allow adherents to avoid conflicts with “contradictory creeds that would otherwise oblige the devout to behave far more intolerantly than most people today want to behave. Despite the assertions of the neo-atheists, the existence of religion does not necessitate holy war or sectarian violence. In modern human life, religious institutions needs reform, not total removal.


  1. "Modern religions are organized around increasingly abstract conceptions of the divine. Modern believers increasingly use second order beliefs to create religious institutions capable of coexistence.."

    Do you think this is indicative of a trend toward increased secularization?

    By the way BR, I think your moral compass is a bit too light on the JC.. REPENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Perhaps, or it could be the opposite of an inevitable trend towards secularization.

    If religions weren't capable of ingenious adaptations to fit the demands of the day, then they would be so brittle they would break, and secularization would be steady and inevitable. But their ability to adapt and transform could, and in this piece I suggest does, suggest that they are not going anywhere.

    Concepts of the secular aren't set in stone but are always constructed in relation to contemporary religious institutions. Therefore, the secular will change just as the religious does. So while someone born 1000 years ago might say America is totally secular by their standard, religion, as we know it today, is alive and thriving.

  3. philosophical materialism can be coupled with theism, and is by nearly all theists.