Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Why Atheism Can't Replace Religion

Atheism may become more prominent, but it can't replace religion.
Nigel Barber
This post is a response to Why Atheism Will Replace Religion by Nigel Barber, Ph.D.

In a widely read and commented upon post, Nigel Barber examines some of the evidence and trends related to atheism and the decline of religion.  Barber closes his thought-provoking post with the following:

"The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs."

It is true that much of the developed world lives in not only a post-Christian, but a post-religious society in many ways. And it is true that many people have turned to religion because of economic uncertainty or emotional challenges. They still do, in fact.

However, for many people, religion is not merely a way to deal with fear, uncertainty, and emotional difficulties. In my experience, many people follow a particular religious way of life because they believe that it is true. The problem with a market-based analysis of the future of religion, as well as the market-based practices present in many contemporary religious communities, is that religion at its best is not a consumer product. Rather, at its best religious faith calls for sacrifice, unselfishness, love, and a willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe, so to speak. In order to be willling to live in such a way, a self-centered market-based approach to religion will not do. Rather, one must believe that she is living in a way that is consistent with reality in order to motivate an unselfish approach to life.

It is also unclear how atheism is positioned to replace religion, in the following way. Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. But this, in and of itself, cannot form the foundation for a way of life. Only by forming and practicing positive beliefs and values can one build a coherent and meaningful life. So if something is to replace religion, it will not be atheism. Perhaps some form of secular humanism will accomplish this task. But here we run into another problem, namely, that human beings long for transcendence of some sort, as shown by the presence and prevalence of religious belief throughout cultures across time.

On this topic, Barber claims that sports can replace religion. In one sense, I think he is right. The loyalty, community-identification, and limited transcendence of the experiences related to sports do fuflill many of the functions of religion for many people. However--and I am a passionate sports fan and participant--at the end of the day sports are incapable of doing the work needed to provide sufficient meaning, transcendence, and fulfillment in life. But even if sport can do this to some degree, the view that sport is replacing religion fails to notice that religion should not be approached as a consumer good.

Lastly, we should be very grateful for the powerful psychopharmacological substances which can make life better for many of us.  However, we must remember that religion is not merely about making my life better. Religion at its best is about making me better, and a better contributor to the common good. In closing, I think the reports of the impending death and replacement of religion with atheism are greatly exaggerated.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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