World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Alain de Botton’s TEDTalk: Atheism 2.0

In a recent TEDTalk, Alain de Botton argues convincingly that atheism has much to gain by adopting forms and traditions of religion that satisfy our need as humans for morality, guidance, consolation, community, institutions and ritual. He refers to this new “religion for atheists” as Atheism 2.0.

It’s an excellent talk and I’m in general agreement with de Botton. But he makes a common mistake of framing the conversation as one about religion and atheism (as Erin Anderssen did recently in an article in the Globe and Mail). Instead, we should be talking about Humanism 2.0, not Atheism 2.0. The latter is a world-view based on a non-belief, whereas the former is a world-view based on positive values. (This is why I identify as a humanist and not an atheist.) When framed this way, we see that humanism does indeed provide us with of what we look for in religion, including morality, guidance, consolation and, I would argue, our sense of “something bigger.”

At the same time, a great challenge remains for humanism: it doesn’t provide us with all that we look for in religion, for example community, institutions and rituals. I do not gather with other humanists on a weekly basis to meditate upon our common worldview. I do not perform humanist rituals, nor celebrate any humanist holidays, nor sing any humanist “hymns.” There are no humanist picnics, choirs, yard sales, holiday concerts, etc. to attend with my fellow free-thinkers. What would I hang on my wall or around my neck to identify me as a humanist and signify the bond I have with my kindred spirits?

I believe there are many individuals who self-identify as “religious”, attend church, read a holy book for moral guidance, etc. but who–deep down–do not believe in a supernatural, all-powerful deity responsible for creation. They aren’t believers, but religion satisfies them in these other ways. As such, I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen joke in which a woman complains that her husband thinks he’s a chicken. When her friend asks if they’ve been to a doctor for a cure, she answers, “We would, but we need the eggs.” Many more of us would abandon religion for humanism, but we need the “eggs.”

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