Donald Andrew Henson II

Religion for Atheists

In Atheism on May 1, 2012 at 10:05 pm

You don’t have to be an atheist to be a secularist; you don’t have to be an idiot to be a Christian. Feel free to mix and match. This is one of the main ideas I hope to get across.

Unfortunately, a short survey of the literature available on the topic of secularism might not lead you to that conclusion. I’m thinking specifically about the recent best-selling books authored by the “New Atheists”, a group of writers who, since the events of 9-11, have been increasingly critical of and hostile towards the ideas of Islam and Christianity alike. I’m sure you’ve heard of one or more of them – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are the most famous, but there are others writing along the same lines. All are secularists. If you’ve read anything they’ve written or seen any of their lectures, you already love them or hate them – and therein lies the problem.

The late Mr. Hitchen’s followers loved his trademark condescending patter, his snarky retorts, his ability to decimate his debate opponents; I have to admit that -while I disagree with many of his views on politics, religion, the wars in Iraq and Iran, to name a few – I too miss him. But it was exactly those qualities that put off most Christian Americans; you can’t start a debate by calling someone a blithering idiot, and then expect them to come over to your point of view. Mr. Dawkins also seems to have the attitude that no one with an IQ over 70 could possibly believe in a Creator.

This more-intellectual-than-thou demeanor allows the local pastor and the big-time television evangelist alike to write off everything that secular humanists have to say – if Christians are idiots, secularists are the Antichrist.  It discourages discussion and makes it nearly impossible to find areas in government or society as a whole that we can agree on. As a result, the goal of encouraging a rational approach to society and government is not achieved.

Fortunately, there are some Christians out there who are willing to embrace America’s Enlightenment heritage as eagerly as its Christian one. Writers like Karl Giberson are beginning to explore how Christians might believe in science without losing their faith. Robert Wright, a Southern Baptist, has written an amazing book, The Evolution of God, which looks at our religious beliefs in the light of evolutionary psychology – all the while maintaining his faith.

Furthermore, some secularists are also beginning to concede that rationalism doesn’t soothe all of the many ills of our society, and that religion may have a place after all. Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, delves into some of the positives of religious faith in his lecture, Religion for Atheists.  Take the time to listen to what he has to say – he’s as eloquent and entertaining a speaker as he is a writer.


Perhaps the in-your-face approach of Hitchens and Dawkins works in Europe, but I think de Botton’s approach is much more likely to work in America. If we can convince the faithful first off that we respect them – that we don’t think they’re idiots – then we might have some place to start.

What do you think? Do you love both Virgil and the Virgin? Camus as well as Christmas carols? Share your ideas by leaving a comment.

  1. i agree that a less arogant discussion would make for more progress, though believers can be so touchy and insecure, i’m not sure how far to dial it back. On the other hand, in the face of frightening political movements like the Santorum campaign(just one example), i’m not sure that non-believers can afford to be too passive. I do feel that a good start is to be more open about beliefs(and lack of) than in the past. The school of “i dont know what happens after you die, and you dont either” should come out of hiding. I’m self-employed in the bible-belt, so ‘outing’ myself could cost me friends and clients, but i feel i must. If it becomes obvious in a non-confrontational manner that we are a large and moral group, others might start to ask themselves the big questions without even having a discussion. (i became an athiest without a ‘witness’ or reading any athiest writings) And finally, though i agree Dawkin’s style wont get you very far with Evangelicals and the like, i have joined the Out Campaign at

    • Great comments. I think you’re right – if we show that we’re just normal, thinking people who aren’t trying to destroy the world – maybe Christians will start asking themselves the big questions – I mean, it’s not like the rates for divorce, suicide, subscribing to porn, and the like are lower in the churches than they are in the general population. In fact, some studies show that they are slightly higher. I don’t think anyone needs to hide that fact that they want to live this life based on what they can see and prove.

      Funny that you say – I don’t know and neither do you. When Hitch was still alive, he wanted to get the ‘Four Horsemen’ together to talk about life after death. Sam Harris said he didn’t know now useful that would be – four guys sitting around saying ‘I don’t know’ in every conceivable fashion – haha.

  2. Enjoyed your essay as well!

  3. I understand your point of view on the matter of not being overly confrontational. As the saying goes ” You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is true most of the times. But don’t be passive, choose your battles wisely and be outspoken.
    Most of us come to be non-believers without really knowing it, and without labels. Once we become aware of our non-belief, for some inner reason, we have to give it a name, a label. Maybe it is because, after we have a name for what we are, then we can be part of a group or a community of like-minded people.
    I consider myself to be an atheist because, although it is not in my power to prove with certainty the non-existence of any deity, I live my life congruous with the fact that the probability of a deity, according to available evidence is extremely low (close to zero in my humble opinion), thus being a de facto atheist. If you press on definitions, well, there would be very few true atheists, and most would be strong agnostics, agnostic-atheists, apatheists, or what have you.
    I will still brand myself as an atheist, and even then, atheism is only a part of what can best describe my world view.
    Atheism o agnosticism only pertains to deities, what I don’t believe exists. Those labels don’t explain what I believe in. Humanist, as in the IHEU definition or Bright is more a label that considers what I believe in, and atheism is only what I don´t believe. In fact, I am a Bright.

    Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

    What is a bright?

    A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
    A bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
    The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

    There are points that I can agree with in de Button’s video, such as improving our oratory skills and politeness. I think that more than talk of religion, he is touching on the fact that the secular world needs better PR and more marketing skills, like those used by religion and big corporations.

    You can appreciate art in its many forms, even if it comes from religion. de Button puts it in an all or nothing stance, and that is incorrect. Hate the belief, not the believer, and enjoy music and art.

    Thank you for your post and looking into mine.

  4. i like the openening, and i agree…you don’t have to be an idiot to be a christian, you just have to WANT to believe it really really bad. (and a little brainwashing from birth doesn’t hurt either) some people don’t want to believe in the big bang, and scientists will admit they’re still hashing that out. But to look at a beautiful flower and say that there must be a magic man in the sky is quite a leap(if you not predisposed from childhood to believe such things, by the people you trust to know best).

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