The Special Comment: What We Lose, and Gain, From Leaving Religion

This originally appeared in Reason Revolution, episode 6. 

What do we lose when we leave religion? I have been asked to respond to this question by a friend and, to be honest, it’s not easily answered. For us atheists, it’s obvious to mention all the terrible things we abandoned when leaving religion. The dedication to barbaric texts and practices; the racism, homophobia, and misogyny of its most fundamentalist believers; the superstitions that hinder scientific and moral progress. All of these are good reasons to leave religion on the “ash heap of history.” Nevertheless, many still yearn for something bigger than us, something to confide in when times are tough. There is still a longing for the “transcendent,” alongside the need for community, that keeps droves within the fold.

Atheists are often criticized for our lack of a totalizing vision for humanity. “It’s just a negative position; you don’t believe in anything,” we’re often told. In this essay, I hope to dispel this notion and to offer a countervailing, yet meaningful way of life to the broadly-termed “religious.” Atheists often fixate on what we don’t believe; I’m here to tell you what I and many others do believe. I also hope to show how a secular life plainly replaces much of what people miss when they lose their religion.

For starters, atheism is merely a position to the question, “do you have a belief in God?” For us that say “no” or any other answer but “yes,” that makes us atheists. As David Silverman has pointed out, even if you hate the term atheist but don’t believe in a god, that still makes you an atheist. However, for many who came out of religion or experienced a modicum of religious life, that’s not enough to fulfill something inside them that is experiential and not merely rational.

One of the biggest insights I’ve accrued over the last few months, especially after reading the work of Jonathan Haidt and others, is that religion is more than the sum of its beliefs. Sure, abandoning the supernatural and all its problematic baggage is a great first step in creating a more humane world, but it is not the only thing we must reconsider when we lose religion. As mentioned earlier, countless  people stay within religion for its community, the songs, or the emotional connection they have with their church. Religion is a system of life, not a mere reflection of it. In the case of Christianity, it is a religious practice with over 2,000 years of traditions, beliefs, and cultural contextualization. When someone spends their entire life committed to a system that totalizing, it is often jarring when they leave. I have spoken to and read of former believers that felt an intense sadness when they lost their faith. It was as if a part of them died when they left it behind.

I don’t know what that feels like. I grew up a in nonreligious home with largely nonreligious parents — not necessarily because they were atheists — but because religion didn’t matter to them all that much. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been to a church for a religious service. I studied the major religions and tried to adopt one I found intellectually satisfying, and when none of them were, I became an atheist. Atheism was exactly the kind of position that suited my life; I was a rationally minded, critical thinker who neither missed nor yearned for religious experiences. My position was always an intellectual one, not an emotional or experiential one. Because of that, I always discounted these aspects of religion. Now having read about group psychology and the importance of religion in non-rational terms, I’m starting to understand what we really leave behind when we lose religion.

I have never felt “God,” but I have felt the power of music. I have loved music my whole life. There’s something beautifully tribal about the way that music makes us move, cry, and ultimately feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. I especially love film music; I love music that is designed to make you feel something. It has always moved me how specific chords or motifs play off of one another to elicit a response from the viewer. I’ve endlessly believed that a movie is only as good as its soundtrack. I think religion works the same way. The way a church invites you, the hymns move you, and the sermons encourage you. It’s just like music.

This is some of what we lose when we lose religion. The numinous and transcending experiences aren’t easily replaced by a commitment to reason and critical thinking. While those attributes are essential for living a successful and fulfilling life, there’s so much more we have to account for. As such, I think that Secular Humanism fills this void.

Secular Humanism is a philosophical tradition as old as religion, with elements tracing back to antiquity. In essence, it comes down to three component parts: reason as the means of knowledge, ethics as the way to live among others, and experience as the goal of life.

In secular humanism, one leaves behind the superstitious and mystical and embraces the reasonable and evidential. When this component of religion is lost, the possibilities of human achievement and flourishing are boundless; they are no longer shackled by the dogmas of the past.

As for humanity’s relationship to each other, morality is firmly rooted in philosophical investigations (ethics) and a growing understanding of our nature (biology, psychology). The interplay of nature and nurture provides us with the framework by which we advance our individual and societal interests. It will not be easy, but it has not been made easier by religion’s near stranglehold on this conversation. For many, the only way to be moral is through religion. Secular Humanism, by contrast, provides a reasonable and palatable alternative to religion as the sole arbiter of ethics.

Finally, the experience of life, from the numinous to the communal, thrives in a Secular Humanist framework. A sense of achievement, fellowship, and transcendence exists within the real world; there’s no need to rely on religion. The arts, nature, and social interaction become more fulfilling when left to open exploration. Yes, humanists generally reject the afterlife and accept the finitude of their lives, but that encourages them to live well and to treat others equally well. As the humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont once wrote, “Humanism encourages men to face life buoyantly and bravely, relying upon their own freedom and reason to fashion a noble destiny in a future that is open.”

In short, atheism is only the beginning of a person’s journey when they lose their religion. There’s countless philosophies and viewpoints to consider when one leaves their faith. However, this shouldn’t be a lament but a celebration of one’s capacity for achievement and fulfillment in this life, the only one we are guaranteed to have. There is so much to gain when one places religion to the wayside. We can build better families, better communities, and better societies. We can dedicate ourselves to improving the lives of others, through scientific discovery, intellectual achievements, and interpersonal connections. We can develop an ethics that views individual rights, not collective, irrational whims, as the pinnacle of political organization. And this can all be done while we enjoy great art and contemplate the meaning of our lives and our place within the cosmos.

While we lose a great deal when losing religion, we gain so much more in freedom, truth, beauty, and wisdom. As Penn Jillette said, “For someone who loves freedom and loves people, I don’t think we should hope for God at all.”

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