God is Dead. Now What?

1 02 2011

Atheism is a negative thesis: it only asserts that there is no God or gods. It doesn’t, however, put forward a positive thesis on how to live life. Yet the religion that atheism challenges does provide a positive thesis on how to live life (flawed though it might be in many cases).

Abandoning religion because of accepting an atheist argument often means divorcing oneself from the practice of religion, and that can have negative consequences, such as eroding community bonds, making us feel isolated, encouraging a turn towards empty hedonistic individualism and leaving a void in our lives.

As atheism is only a negative thesis, it cannot fill that void. The fact I’m an atheist does little to determine my positive beliefs about how to live a good life. We need a positive thesis on top of atheism – something that isn’t stressed by the ‘New Atheists’ or gets discussed much in atheist circles.

Even secular morality, while centrally important, is often couched in the language of dry reason and abstract philosophy. Humanism and other secular worldviews tend to be something you believe in rather than participate in.

In a column of mine that ABC Religion posted today, I argue that one possible way forward is to appropriate the tropes of religion to build a secular institution (or institutions) that gives a positive vision of how to live a good life and actually helps people to live that good life by participating in a secular culture. It’s religion sans God.

Already the comments are flowing – and, not unexpectedly, there’s criticism coming from both sides. I’m interested, though, to see whether this idea resonates with many people, particularly those who are quietly atheists yet are not quite ready to turn their back on their religion. I’ve already received a couple of messages from readers of the column that have expressed as much.

I’ve also set up a dedicated email address – secular dot morality at gmail dot com – if anyone wants to share their thoughts with me about secular religion. I’ve been talking to a few people locally about starting a small group to discuss secular religion and start practising what it preaches (if that’s the right term…). If you happen to be in Sydney, perhaps you can join in.



11 responses

1 02 2011
baalbek.org » So what if God is dead?

[…] Dean writes that, as atheism is purely a negative thesis, it offers no recommendations on how to live well. He seems to suggest that this is a weakness; I wonder if it is not one of atheism’s greatest […]

1 02 2011

Strangely enough both groups, the pious believers as the atheist tends to forget the agnostics.I don’t find that innocent. As less as I find it innocent to wish for an artificial head born moral instead of trusting in the natural ethic of being in the own self nature in each instant of life. The old neo platonist division between soul/body seems still the base of the most concepts. Instead of an almighty head ego, maybe feeling our reality again, would bring a more authentic personal and interconnected perception not bind to new “good” rules imposed to humans.

1 02 2011
Simon Thomas

Hi Tim

Thanks for your message. I’m not sure if my “comments” feed is working correctly, so thought I’d better reply on your blog just in case.

First of all, thanks for your post, which I think is useful.

Secondly, I’m very sorry for any confusion caused – I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you were finding flaws in atheism, and have amended my post accordingly. The new entry is here, if you’d like to check it – http://baalbek.org/so-what-if-god-is-dead/ – and I hope I’ve avoided any unintended misrepresentation this time.

All best wishes, and thanks once again


3 02 2011
Blamer ..

Thought-provoking stuff. There’s certainly much of secular value to be learned from studying successful religions.

To “appropriate the tropes of religion” doesn’t sit well with me. That is, if you mean borrowing religious metaphors for use in important secular dialogue.

To me there seems to be a systemic problem with religious metaphors. Religious concepts are uniquely dependant on metaphysical objects all too easily reified. In-built ambiguity may even go someway in explaining how these metaphors persist in their dualistic state. When religious words and phrases are used, we’re far more likely to be talking passed each other, than recognising the need to unpack these familiar terms to see if they are meaningful and relevant to the (secular) point at hand.

6 02 2011
danny b

Good article. The only quiff i have is that I just don’t see the atheistic worldview leading to a selfless religious institution. The comfort given by a belief in the notion that one is not alone, and that the purpose of life is to emulate an all-loving deity, seems to me a good reason for participation in an organization, such as the church, which requires individuals to give of themselves. I cannot foresee the ‘Church of disbelief’ taking off if it isn’t hinged on a metaphysical moral grounding.

Why would anyone who contends the selfish gene is all-governing, and that life has basically no metaphysical meaning, want to join a ‘church’ that required them to go against the instincts of evolution? (and I have taken the evolution of altruism into account)

I’m not saying your idea isn’t wonderful. I think it is. And I think a few humanistic atheists would gladly join the new organization. Similarly I wish to dear God that my atheist friends at university, and outside, would want to join the new church. However, the selfish outlook that emerges for most (but defiantly not all) who see life as nothing more than the here and now, would I think, rather go on living a selfish, hedonistic life, rather than join a group that would impede on there good time.

I don’t want to sound like a downer. But I just see the philosophy of atheism (and I’m not arguing that this philosophy is wrong!) generally leading to selfishness rather than selflessness. Hence the likelihood of a church, which is hinged on selflessness emerging, seems slim.

6 02 2011
Tim Dean

Hi danny b,

You raise a few points that actually underpin precisely what I’m saying. A moral system can’t be built on atheism because atheism doesn’t make any positive claims. Thus a ‘church of disbelief’ would indeed never take off. A secular moral system/secular religion needs to be built in its own right.

And I disagree that a naturalistic (and evolutionary) picture of life has no metaphysical meaning. Yes, it has no metaphysical meaning imbued in it from the outside; it’s up to us to imbue it with meaning. And we do that all the time. There’s no metaphysical necessity for you to love your family, but you do, and that love lacks no potency as such.

Evolutionary ethics also doesn’t imply individualism – some argue it does, but I suggest they’re wrong. If anything, evolution tells us that ‘we’re all in this together’, and that social life and cooperation are to be valued, and morality is the way to foster these. We can still be self-interested on the ultimate level and have genuine altruism on the proximate level.

A secular morality can find reverence in the natural world, can be committed to human wellbeing, can advocate morality to foster cooperation, and can help people find meaning in their lives – all without mentioning God or atheism even once.

7 02 2011
danny b

Hi Tim,

I agree there is a great need for a secular religion/moral system in our society today. However, I do not believe that an unassisted humanity would choose to enter into a new religion of secular morality. Rather, I think that the church of secular morality would drown under the weight of selfish individualism.

I too believe evolutionary ethics doesn’t solely imply individualism, but I do think it champions selfishness. Strictly speaking the love of ones family is a survival mechanism. Deity based religions, in many instances, work to destroy this survival mechanism in ways a secular morality never could. For example, a extremest christian may choose to take a bullet for a person she has never met due to a conviction in the idea that a follower of the deity should try at all times to ‘do good unto others’.

The belief in the deity is the fuel for selfless actions such as this. This sort of moral generosity is solely based on a belief in an outside force, take god out of the equation and the woman would no doubt have acted selfishly. In the new religion next-level altruistic acts would generally be non-existent, unless they were indirectly beneficial.

Furthermore the secular religion could not command this sort of moral fervor, as it does not have a perceived fuel outside of itself (real or not isn’t the point). The secular church would simply be a larger scale family unit where individuals practiced forms of kindness because they would expect to receive them in return (‘we’re all in this together’).

The new religion, without a potent outside fuel, would exist in theory, but like humanism, be practiced by very few. Most would choose to live for their direct family units and for themselves, finding meaning in self-fulfillment, rather than selfless compassion.

7 02 2011
Joel Welty

Give the Unitarians a try; they are close to what you are wishing for. Next best bet: Humanist organizations which meet, as churches do. Very few people go to church for religion; they go for fiends and merely tolerate the religion as the price of entry.

23 02 2011

Do you have any evidence for the statement “encouraging a turn towards empty hedonistic individualism”. Causation not correlation.

Why paint “secular morality” as one “often couched in the language of dry reason and abstract philosophy” and discount the potential for a more participatory Humanism?

Furthermore, before declaring the death of religion and concerning oneself what comes next consider that: “More than 1.1 million students (out of a total student population of 3.4 million) attend non-government schools in Australia. More than 90% of these students are in religious schools”. Religion is not dead, unfortunately.
Religion has no place in politics or our school system yet we continue to accept religion in the political arena and we continue to fund religious schools.

We seem unable to even introduce secular ethics classes into our school system without interference from religious institutions.

What possible moral or ethical argument can be made for the Australian Christian Lobby campaign to have children forced to endure either scripture classes or “no formal instruction”. Exclusionary, unethical, divisive.

And to the religious commentators, just how successful do you think religion has been at installing a moral framework in society? How did we arrive at this problematic individualistic outcome? Perhaps it was those non-believers (Reagan/Bush/Howard/Thatcher) that introduced/perpetuated the political policies which led us here?

23 02 2011
Tim Dean

Hi Simion. There is ample evidence that the erosion of close community ties and absence of a ‘higher purpose’ has resulted in a more inward-looking world for many. They focus on their work as a form of identity, focus on wealth as a metric of success, focus on their family and close friends to the exclusion of neighbours, retreat into the home for entertainment rather than participate in local events etc.

For sources, see Martin Seligman, particularly his ‘Why is there so much depression today?’ (1990), Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism (2002) or Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a new science (2005). More recently, this piece talks about recent findings that highly religious people are on average happier than non-religious people.

Also, I don’t “discount the potential for a more participatory Humanism”. In fact, I’m calling for just that.

I also haven’t said religion is dead, only that God is dead (philosophically), and the very reason that religion still thrives is because atheist philosophies have failed to fill the gap left by God and lure the religious to secular alternatives.

What I am wholeheartedly encouraging is a more vibrant debate amongst secular thinkers about what we are trying to achieve. I’d suggest we need something positive and participatory, and the secular community would do well to fire up and start building new secular institutions and cultures now.

23 02 2011

Head birthed institution and so called culture, will always fail, as will any artificial dominance attempt.
The new who in reality is the eternal human has to come from the true acceptance of ourselves and out nature, not through new concepts of guiding mistrusting our inner flexible intelligence who included emotions. Curiosity and compassion and natural.

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