what religions could be

As atheism becomes ever more popular in human society, patience with the beliefs of many religious organisations is thinning. This can often be seen as opposition to religion in general, which has the danger of fueling intolerance towards individuals who hold religious beliefs.

How can atheists avoid falling into the trap of frighening those of a religious persuasion with their utopian vision of a world that won’t tolerate the ‘delusion’ of their religious thinking? 

The history of the human race holds stark lessons for us about tolerance and acceptance of all people, regardless of how we feel about their world views. Just as we have to accept people of all political persuasions, regardless of their outlook, we have to accept people of all religious persuasions – unless they are promoting something that goes against our secular laws, in which case they are a criminal.

I’m not convinced that shouting from the rooftops that religious thinking is delusional, poisonous or harmful in any way helps human society move forward constructively. So I’m going to suggest an alternative way of engaging with the inevitable religious component (indeed majority) of human society. 

We appeal to reason.

We don’t start with ‘reason’ alongs the lines of insisting invisible gods don’t exist. This would be unreasonable. As individuals, we have no way to evaluate the personal experience of other people in terms of something they believe is supernatural. We can only honestly say that it’s unlikely, but also acknowledge that unlikely things happen all the time.

We appeal to reason in terms of helping religions evolve into something that is more personal. We convince adherents that given the variation in religious interpretation over time and across cultures, it is only reasonable to assume that religion is a strictly personal experience. Religious institutions could still usefully exist as facilitators for discussion, as hubs for disseminating information about the history of all religions and these personal experiences, and also as centres to co-ordinate valuable community services.

What religions should come to realise they no longer can do, is issue rules or even guidance. 

If we take Christianity as an example, it has evolved from a religion that encourages slavery, to one that denounces slavery. It has evolved from a religion that encourages communism, to one that generally fears communism. It has denominations that encourage family planning, demoninations that prohibit family plannings; it had interpretations that allow women and homosexual preachers and interpretations that deny them a role. You get the picture.

Religious institutions have no place in issuing rules or guidance, because they have proven themselves to be entirely inconsisent and unreliable. Besides which, everyone prefers to live by the secular laws we have developed rather than running the risk of opening the doors to something like Sharia law or their competing religion equivalent.

So instead of arguing for religion to end, I think we should put the case for religions to develop into something that makes more sense in today’s society, something that can reflect the experiences of all adherents. If we can convince adherents to take the institution out of religion, we can ensure that individuals can have a say in their own beliefs based on their own experiences – and that’s a valuable freedom for everyone.