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A Religion for Atheists

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I just finished reading a book written by Alain de Botton entitled Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Use of Religion. I found the book really intriguing and pragmatic. The book draws the readers' attention to the reasons why religion has been so enduringly successful over the history of humankind by examining its social and individual benefits. It is like an instruction manual for the burgeoning number of atheists who are trying to get organized, recognized, and come out of the shadow of obscurity and a "none of the above" identity.

In a nutshell, this book discusses in detail the strategies and tactics that have been utilized by religions for so many millennia to appeal to the masses and keep their adherents fixated on their rituals and prevent them from defecting. The author believes that atheists can also benefit from and utilize these approaches in order to survive and succeed as a viable alternative to religiosity.

Religions offer a communal vision. They teach us how to seek communal help and not just deal with our vices, sins, pains, and problems alone. We human beings immensely benefit from living with other people because we are innately in need of belonging, charity, sharing, interacting, doing things together, and aligning personal interests with the group's interests. Religions also instruct us to be humble; to respect other people, especially parents, elders, friends, and neighbors; to sacrifice for a cause; and to acknowledge personal shortcomings and repentant to others--Judaism's Day of Atonement is one example of this. In addition, repetitively memorializing various occasions is the hallmark of any religion and this enhances its helpfulness; some occasions, among others, are weddings, the death of loved ones, and rites of passage such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah.

Religions have competently relied on building institutions to coalesce and strengthen their rituals. Merely writing books and scholarly papers, as atheists do, is not enough to popularize an ideology. Religions need institutions that, among other things, remind us that we cannot overcome our problems in our own way. Institutions are the most efficient mechanisms though which human emotions, tendencies, inclinations, and genetic dispositions can be exploited, reinforced, and elevated into something really instructive or even distractive.

In particular, it seems religions today have successfully duplicated many promotional strategies already utilized by modern business corporations to successfully market and advance their products, including the use of mass production systems, modern media, brand proliferation, and even fear mongering. While business firms create and sell worldly products, religions address our emotional needs. Even negative publicity such as the violent acts being recorded and posted on the Internet and social media have served religion by emboldening its diehard followers and dedicated operatives. In brief, religions have successfully used business strategies like economies of scale through the collective power of institutions in this modern age.

Likewise, religions have used branding, shared visual vocabulary, and slogans to bring about homogeny, thus intensifying the benefits of mass production. Religions love uniformity and hate divisions and local variations because these are viewed as the enemies of uniformity. Religions, similar to giant business corporations, rely on consistency and acting in concert. They, for example, provide instruction manuals for believers to follow for everything they do, including worshiping, praying, dieting, clothing, friendship, and the way they build their houses. Just like business firms that do not trust their employees, religion leaves nothing to the discretion of believers. In most cases, believers have no choice but to act in blind obedience. Regularity and harmony are essential to the success of business as well as religious institutions. For instance, if you travel 500 miles away from home, you know what you will get if you go to a McDonald's restaurant. Likewise, when a Muslim travels to another Muslim country, he or she expects to perform the required rituals at exactly the same time and in the same way as is done at home.  

Business corporations use their resources, expertise, and their facilities to expand into various areas related to their core activity and offer complementary services or products; the same is true for religion. Religion has effectively infiltrated into every aspect of peoples' lives by capitalizing on the trust people have in its brand and reputation; examples of this include food preparation, aesthetics, finance, attitudes, weddings, intimate life, and even dealing with modern phenomena.

Repetition serves religion quite well as seen in five times daily prayers in Islam, religious calendars, events, and memorialization, resulting in replication that makes even the most nonsensical ideas seem like self-evident truths. It is the nature of human beings to absorb and be influenced by ideas and concepts if they are repeated enough times and delivered through a variety of media and religions understand this. If people are bombarded by falsehoods--like seeing a picture of a religious saint on the surface of the moon--they will eventuality believe them. Yet again, religions, like big corporations, have the ability to commodify things. This involves transforming small and even trivial ideas into huge phenomena much like transforming free water into a multibillion dollar bottled water business thanks to the genius of American entrepreneurs. Religion likewise has the ability to do the same thing when it comes to the domain of rituals. It can elevate even a trivial moment into a big spiritual occasion, into zealous feelings, and this is reinforced by repetition and group participation, like in chanting.

The author of this book wants to persuade us that atheists can salvage some of the good lessons we have learned from religion and put them to good use. Religion and the institutions it has created can be utilized to solve many of the problems atheism has to confront but without religion's supernatural source.   According to the author, the key challenge to atheists is not to utterly reject religion, but to instead exploit the good ideas put forward by religion to boost atheism's chance of increasing its appeal to the masses who are habituated to religion. In other words, identify and discover the good aspects of religion and put these to use by creating a new kind of religion that is trusted, beneficial, modern, and followed not because of any promise of hell or heaven or the bliss of eternal life, but because it is practical in our modern time and it leads humanity to a better collective life. You can call this religion whatever you like; personally, I would prefer to call it the Religion of Humanity. The focus of this book is that atheists are missing the boat by not learning from religion how to adapt their current message. I would also add that atheists need to learn that people seem to be more strongly drawn to believe in something rather than in nothing.

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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