Merry Secular Christmas

23 12 2009

I don’t believe in Santa Claus.

But I do believe in the ‘Christmas spirit’: the spirit of peace and goodwill to family, friends and all humankind. I share in seasonal rituals such as the giving of gifts; the breaking of Christmas crackers; the wearing of silly paper hats; the sharing of inane jokes; and the ingestion of turkey, ham and pudding.

I can do all these things without believing in Santa Claus. Or the divinity of Jesus Christ.

So why is it so difficult for us to imagine a secular religion?

This would be a ‘religion’ – a cultural and philosophical institution – the role of which is to give meaning to our lives, to explain the workings of the world and our place in it, that provides a set of values to live by, that guides us towards living a happy and fulfilling life, that supports and comforts us in times of hardship, and that encourages community and social cohesion.

All without resorting to the supernatural or divine.

Is that so hard to imagine?

I don’t think it is. It’s just that we haven’t been prompted to imagine it yet.

Yet.

Now is the time for us to begin a serious discussion of what a secular religion might look like. To imagine a substitute for conventional supernatural religion that is entirely compatible with our best rational and scientific understanding of the world – yet not limited by reason or science. An institution for those of us who have acknowledged the non-existence of God or gods, yet are reluctant to abandon all of the benefits that religion has to offer.

An institution designed from the ground up to be flexible, revisable, pluralist, inclusive, non-dogmatic, rational and scientific, but also wondrous, supportive and able to satisfy our deep seated need for meaning and morality.

It’s nearly 2010, and it’s time for secular religion to emerge. For thousands of years religion reigned. For the last few hundred years reason and science have grown to replace religion as our descriptive tool for understanding the world. Over the last decade or so atheism has eroded belief in the divine and the supernatural. Now it’s time to build something new – something prescriptive beyond just the negative thesis of atheism.

It’s time to build a positive philosophy that is capable of handling the tremendous challenges we are sure to face in the future, challenges that any belief system based on myth and fantasy won’t be suited to face.

It’s time for secular religion.

Merry Christmas, and have a peaceful, wonderful and contemplative new year.

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13 responses

24 12 2009
CogitoErgoCogitoSum

Atheism is a religion.

Its a belief system with implications on morality, spirituality, divinity, theism, after-life, etc.

Its an unproven belief system. As no science has proven atheism, it is nothing more than faith.

So, atheism is a faith-based belief system regarding supernatural phenomenon.

Irregardless of the tenets of the belief, atheism is thus a religion

24 12 2009
CogitoErgoCogitoSum

Any rhetoric otherwise is a self-righteous glorification intended to do nothing more than set atheism apart… with the arrogance of being “supreme” and more “rationality”.

My point being, theism necessitates the belief in god. Religion does not. Atheism is distinct from theism, yes, but not distinct from religion.

24 12 2009
Tim Dean

Thanks for the comment. However, you’re mistaken that atheism is a religion. Atheism simply describes the thesis that no god or gods exist. It doesn’t posit any positive theses.

Certainly, many atheists do hold moral and spiritual beliefs, but these are in addition to their atheism.

A secular religion would seek to posit positive moral and spiritual beliefs without recourse to the supernatural. Thus, a secular religion would be compatible with atheism, but it would go well beyond the claims of atheism alone.

24 12 2009
CogitoErgoCogitoSum

@ Tim Dean.

You obviously either didnt read what I wrong, or you fail to posses the cognitive power to understand it.

24 12 2009
CogitoErgoCogitoSum

Sorry, that was:

@ Tim Dean.

“You obviously either didnt read what I wrote, or you fail to posses the cognitive power to understand it.”

Type O. My computer has word completion software stuff. And Im going on 30 hours of awakedness.

24 12 2009
Tim Dean

CogitoErgoCogitoSum, ad hominem attacks will get you nowhere on this site. Keep it civil and mature, or I’ll delete your comments.

If you feel I’ve misunderstood something, then explain it better. As it stands, I feel I’ve responded to, and sufficiently dismissed, your original claim that atheism is a religion.

24 12 2009
Paul

Mr Dean is looking for “An institution designed from the ground up to be flexible, revisable, pluralist, inclusive, non-dogmatic, rational and scientific, but also wondrous, supportive and able to satisfy our deep seated need for meaning and morality.”

I think Mr. Dean may not understand something about religion, which is that it must be felt to be true, deep down. Something that is flexible, revisable, pluralist, and non-dogmatic is unlikely ever to produce that feeling of truth that traditional religions do. Most of the time, so far as I know, traditional religions produce that feeling by putting the numinous at the center of their rituals and religious life. Now, the numinous might very well be incompatible with Western science and rationalism, but it is not necessarily supernatural. Once again, Nagarjuna is the best example I have of this. Using skeptical arguments, he tries to show that the metaphysics taught by the Buddha are the only way of consistently interpreting our experience without failing into logical contradictions, while at the same time pointing out that the world cannot be comprehended discretely. I suspect that once one begins to posit that the numinous stands at the center of the universe, whether or not your numinous being is supernatural or natural, you will find yourself dogmatically opposed to the ontological commitments of scientist who view the world as discrete components. The feeling of elevation, which to my mind is what sustains a religion over centuries and allows it to cross borders, cannot be squared with a worldview which denies the numinous ontological dignity superior to that of the discrete. For if the sense of the numinous that one experiences during elevation and mystical experiences doesn’t correspond to the reality of the numinous, then it is too easy to take the view that mysticism and religion truly are like opiates. Once influential people hold that view, a religion can no longer play the role of binding communities together and restraining action, as has I think been seen to be true in Europe in the 20th century, with all of its attempts at political ideologies been attempts to fill the gap that Christianity vacated.

24 12 2009
CogitoErgoCogitoSum

Go ahead and prove your fear of truth and delete my comments. Look up the word “bigotry” and get back to me.

Shall I truly feel obligated to reiterate myself and elaborate on simple English?

Dont accuse me of ad hominem. You truly did not comprehend. I stated truth. You either didnt understand simple English or you lack the cognitive power to comprehend. Those are the only two options. Why dont you tell me which it is.

26 12 2009
Tim Dean

Hi Paul. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that most (but not all) traditional religions offer an unequivocal truth – at least on the surface. Most religious traditions also have much debate, multiple interpretations and disagreement beneath the surface. I don’t think a secular religion need be much different.

I see its approach as being like a Little Book of Answers accompanied by a Big Book of Questions. The former would provide the worldview and guidance, but they would be linked to the debates going on underneath. Having that transparency might not appeal to some – but I’d never expect a secular religion of this type to appeal to everyone.

But the secular religion can still fulfil many of the roles of traditional religion, such as providing a worldview and helping us live a good life – as well as binding communities together. It would never strive to everything, just to fill a few gaps that have opened with the decline of traditional religion.

I’m also sympathetic to Nagarjuna-style metaphysics myself – but I don’t think it precludes a scientific worldview. One only need see science as a tool to describe the phenomenal world, which is, after all, nested within the numinous rather than distinct from it. So science does help us to understand the numinous – just not in its entirety. Still, metaphysics doesn’t need to be locked down with all questions answered before we decide to build practical institutions to help people live a good life. The debates will no doubt be ongoing – hence the commitment to openness, debate and transparency.

And Cogito, your ravings are just embarrassing yourself. I’m more than happy to engage in discussion of issues. So drop your pretence and let’s debate like intelligent individuals – with respect, clarity and humility – shall we?

27 12 2009
Paul

Mr. Dean, thanks for the response. I mistook your post for saying that a secular religion would rest on a basis as flimsy as scientific consensus. Actually you were only thinking of a religion that is honest about the things which its adherents do not agree about.

You have posted multiple times on the idea of a secular religion, but have not provided much of the content that a secular religion would actually have. I’d be very curious to know what would be in the Little Book of Answers, and even more interested in the Big Book of Questions.

Also, the reason I keep bringing up Buddhism is that I am skeptical that anyone will successfully found a new religion, especially a secular one, during this period of time. Almost all of the dominant, traditional religions in the world have had as their founder a morally charismatic holy man. Often times miracles are attributed to these men, and the credibility that the founder could and did perform miracles convinces many to become followers in the first place. People who are already atheists aren’t very likely to follow such a person. I think that the most chance of success that anyone will have in creating a lasting, secular religion is to reform a religion like Buddhism, not to create a new one.

10 01 2010
Pete

Secular religion? I’m not so sure a religion can be assembled in the same manner a Senate Committee for Oversight of Costal Resource Management can be. Where’s the passion? The feeling? Although… I would enjoy getting more religious holidays were I can gorge myself and and watch sports. Could a secular religion have that?

10 01 2010
Tim Dean

I second the notion of more religious holidays!

And I agree that traditional religions wouldn’t work in the manner of a Senate Committee – but I’m only appropriating the word ‘religion’ because we all know what it means, and a secular religion would be made to fill the hole left by the absence of divine religion. That said, it would be structured very differently.

Although I don’t think that precludes the passion at all. Every time I look at the stars, or at nature, or even contemplate the periodic table, I get an immense sensation of wonder at the natural world. That wonder can, and should, be a pillar of a secular religion.

10 01 2010
James Gray

Certain forms of Buddhism doesn’t require anything supernatural, so does that count? I suspect Zen would fit in here.

The old schools of philosophy are probably what you would like. Stoicism and Epicureanism were places to go to for spiritual reasons without the need for non-rational weirdness.

Christianity was originally a “philosophy of life” rather than merely a religion, but that wasn’t “fun” enough apparently.

We should address the questions “what is religion?” and “what is spirituality?”

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