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Why Atheists Should Be Allowed To Cherry Pick From Religion

Ever since Darwin published Origins, Nietzsche declared the death of God and Hitchens argued that religion poisons everything, atheists have struggled with atheism. Some deny the supernatural but are “spiritual;” some deny the historical credibility of the scripture, Torah or Quran but value their principles; some don’t believe in anything that cannot be explained by science yet maintain that humans possess an intangible essence or that there is an afterlife. I’ve even met folks who call themselves “atheists who believe in God.”

It’s easy to understanding said beliefs as inconsistent or incompatible; how can someone both believe and not believe in God? Be scientific and religious? This attitude ignores a truth that doesn’t get said enough: atheism is diverse.

The repetitive and attention grabbing debates between fundamentalists and non-believers are one reason this is forgotten. It’s easy to assume that only two opinions exist when searching “atheism” on YouTube or Google returns talks and articles from only William Lane Craig or Christopher Hitchens.

But most atheists know that the worldview of the fundamentalist and staunch non-believer inaccurately portrays religious belief as black and white. These more mainstream atheists know that there is a fairly large middle ground where religion and atheism can exist simultaneously to promote human flourishing. Religious people can believe in natural selection and be pro-choice even though many texts suggest otherwise while atheists have no problem being moral and giving to charity even though they never went to Sunday school.

When it comes to scientific claims, Hitchens and Dawkins are right: the world wasn’t created in a few days; natural selection is an observable phenomenon; God probably doesn’t exist; one can be moral without religion. But when it comes to how we ought to behave and what we ought to value the great religious texts got a few things correct. The problem is that hardcore atheists don’t let the mainstream cherry pick the good parts of religion without criticizing them for being inconsistent or intellectually lazy. We have to allow atheism to incorporate those religious practices and principles that we know contribute to human flourishing.

My conviction is not only a reminder that atheism is more diverse than some make it out to be, but also that atheism can be improved if it considers the right religious themes.

In a recent TED lecture Alain de Botton assumes a similar position. He explains:

I am interested in a kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines… I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines… but – and this is a very important but – I love Christmas carols! I really like the art of Mantegna, I really like looking at old churches and I really like learning the pages of the Old Testament. Whatever it may be you know the kind of thing I am talking about: people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic communal side of religion but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now these people have faced an unpleasant choice: either accept the doctrine and have all the nice stuff or reject the doctrine and live in a spiritual wasteland…  I don’t think we have to make that choice… there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. To me atheism 2.0 is about a respectful and impious way going through religions and saying what could we use. The secular world is full of holes… a thorough study of religion can give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.

The good news is, I think, most people agree. The problem is that they don’t get the coverage.

At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s remember that knowing how to live the best possible life requires both humanistic ideals as well as ideals from many of the great religions. As Jonathan Haidt concludes his enjoyable book The Happiness Hypothesis, “by drawing on wisdom that is balanced – ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative – we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning.”

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for bringing up the positives of religion! From my end as a religious person, I think it’s important to note that there’s a difference between belief (which is often a sticking point between religion and atheism), and being part of community of purpose. It’s like The Onion article: “Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bulls**t” (http://www.theonion.com/articles/black-gospel-choir-makes-man-wish-he-believed-in-a,231/) — while there certainly is a cognitive aspect to religion, in my mind, it’s much more important to experience the emotional aspect to it, and to see how a sense of community can enhance our positive impact on the world and provide us with meaning and fulfillment.

    January 29, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks for the comment Geoff. Yes – and research shows that the happiest people tend to be part of strong social circles. (Very funny Onion headlines as usual!)

      January 30, 2012
  2. There was a time when religion dictated all aspects of life, from clothes, relationships to employment and behavior. But this is no longer the case. Today religion and atheism are not ways of life but instead are solutions people come up with when they question their own existence. Atheist and religious principles become a set of axioms from where everything else is deduced. This separation of life and its origins allows us to enjoy the things we want to without being at conflict with ourselves.

    January 29, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      You might be right in terms of atheism. But for most people of the world religion still dictates all aspects of life. Don’t forget that.

      January 30, 2012
  3. Unfortunately the New Atheist vs God debate has promoted the idea that we must take sides, and that a gulf is fixed between the two positions. This limits our imagination, our sense of grace and our sense of ourselves as ridiculously small bits of the universe who are capable of thinking bigger than we are.

    January 30, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      I agree

      January 30, 2012
  4. Hallelujah! (at the risk of being judged to be religious!) Thank you for this balanced perspective. Fundamentalists … whether religious or atheist seem to me to be two sides of the same coin .. extremely lacking in humanity/humility/humour! Like Groucho Marx, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

    January 30, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Ha – I should have used that Marx quote. I’ll save it for next time.

      January 30, 2012
  5. The funny thing is that outside of Christian Europe the idea of borrowing ideas and practices from religion is quite standard. I specialise in Indian religions and it’s clear that from time immemorial each Indian religion has borrowed ideas, images, symbols and practices from the others. Buddhism borrows from Jainism and Brahmanism and animism, Vedanta borrows from Buddhism, Hinduism borrows from everyone. It’s quite possible that Zoroastrianism was a major influence on India religion. Tantra was a grand synthesis of ideas from across the spectrum – probably partly in response to a major social/political crisis initiated by the Huns destroying the Gupta Empire. As I understand it this was the norm until monolithic European Christianity came on the scene and started rejecting and destroying, rather than welcoming and assimilating, heterodoxy.

    I have no problem with our culture borrowing what is successful from other cultures, or from subgroups in our culture. There should be natural selection amongst memes. In fact I’m rather flattered that Alaine de Botton has undertaken this analysis eve though he dismisses my religion, Buddhism, in a rather casual way. At least he is not rude and aggressive about it – in this he is the quintessential Englishman, and I can’t help but like him. (Unlike Richard Dawkins)

    One of my friends talks about social or cultural “apps” – more complex and functional than memes, In order to prosper we need to look around at what apps work and use them. And we need to look at the apps that are outdated, or buggy and retire them. There’s no point in being sentimental about legacy code. Even though nostalgia is a major feature of the Baby Boomer generation (my parents) we need not fall into that hole with them.

    I welcome this new turn in discussions about religion and secularism, I welcome the content of the discussion, and the tone with which the opening statement has been delivered. I hope religious people are able to respond in kind.

    January 30, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Great comment again. Very thoughtful. I think I agree with what you are saying. I wish I know more about Buddhism also (:

      January 30, 2012
      • earlier Please ensure that you have an usrndntaeding of what I have said and what you are talking about. I did not assume that my.points were valid. They were uncontested therebg rendering them valid. Though even now they are under poor fire.1 The Hebrew definition of the word bird just means a winged creature. This was long before the concept of a mammal ever existed. It does not bother Christianity.2 The age of the earth IS relevant to reality, i agree. I did not at all contradict that. Focus. I said that it is relative in regard to the Bible.3 I am not going to get into a Does God Exist debate with you, as you have struggled to comprehend the difference between an English and Hebrew translation. I can scarcely imagine how you would behave and all of which you would.misread in an expansion. Also I just don’t care enough. If you want to read some arguments, do your homework, student. If God is supported, miracles are supported.You won’t though. You will continue to live in your deluded bias world wherein not believing in God actually makes you a smart guy. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I have tried to anticipate some of the things opposition might say so that I might prepare in advance.However I did not expect the sophomoric debate tactics displayed here. Actually, it quite gives sophmores a bad name. I contend that the reading comprehension you have displayed and the baseless, unsupported points you have raised would receive a failing grade in a sophmore class.You are the atheist poster child. You are an exemplar of the unsophisticated argumentation on the internet.

        October 23, 2013
      • Thanks for that! It’s just the answer I needed.

        March 14, 2015
  6. It’s great that you’re honest enough to declare that you’re cherry picking and that you want to cherry pick, but you fail to acknowledge the very fundamental problem that exists with cherry picking which, I think, quite simply makes cherry picking NOT an option.

    Here’s the problem: how do we determine which cherries to pick? I’m not talking about the cultural and literary values of religion – of course we should be awestruck by the architecture and encourage everyone to be familiar with scripture so they can in turn fully understand world literature – but you extend this embrace of various religious aspects to religious morals. Religious morals are the one part of religion that we should whole-heartedly reject.

    Why? Because they’re not religious in the first place! When we read any of the major religious texts and come to some conclusion about which ideals we’d like to cherry pick, the very thing that allows us to do this is the fact that those ideals are NOT unique to religion, they didn’t come from religion, and religion has no monopoly on them now.

    We can look at the Bible and we can say that loving thy neighbour is great (though when we think about it a little further, we might run into some philosophical ifs and buts that show up the problems of adhering to tempting proverbs at face value), but we shouldn’t say our outlook is therefore partly Christian; we should say that we therefore partly agree with the Christian outlook. The reason that this distinction is of vital importance is because by taking on certain religious morals and claiming that they are religious in origin, you give the notion of adhering to religious morals a certain legitimacy. And then when someone else comes along and says they’ll cherry pick the xenophobic ideals, who are you to say that you know better which morals to pick?

    Yes, Christ said some nice things, but we could and did work it all out without him, so we shouldn’t risk giving credibility to harmful religious dogma by associating ourselves arbitrarily with the good.

    January 30, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Let’s see. When it comes to the question, “what should we cherry pick,” I think we should turn to psychological research, particular research done in positive psychology for answers. Science can tell what we ought to value. That is a whole other discussion however.

      The question of “where do morals comes from,” which you raise, is a tricky one. It is difficult to say if certain moral principles where there all along and religion hijacked them or religion actually created and facilitated them. Seems like you think the former. I can understand this position. I am partial to it. But I am willing to give some credit unlike you.

      January 30, 2012
      • I wouldn’t want to paint religious history as unequivocally bad by saying that it hijacked already existent morals – certainly, I can agree that it facilitated (but did not create) them because it codified them in scripture, allowing a coherent moral system to be spread on a national and international level.

        My contention is that along with the good, religion also promotes very, very bad moral ideas. It seems that your desire, and the desire of many others, is to turn to some codified system of well-thought out morals. In that case, I would suggest that we instead turn to the great philosophers of the world from all nations rather than the major religions, as they at least acknowledge their fallibility and the room for intellectual debate around how we should live. A. C. Grayling did this in his “secular Bible” called ‘The Good Book’, which you may be interested in.

        January 30, 2012
        • sammcnerney #

          Meh, philosophers won’t be very helpful. Scientists will, I think.

          January 30, 2012
          • Do you think that philosophers are of less help than scripture? If not, then I think you should be promoting the value of science-based morality rather than scriptural cherry-picking.

            January 30, 2012
            • sammcnerney #

              I would say they are equally useless. What I didn’t emphasis in the post is that the best moral values and frameworks have come from Enlightenment ideals/rational secular thinking. I think that’s pretty clear. But that’s doesn’t mean scripture can’t help (even if it’s a tiny bit).

              January 30, 2012
    • I think if you listen to what Alaine de Botton is saying then is it clear what Sam might mean by cherry picking.

      January 30, 2012
      • I have indeed listened to Alain de Botton, despite finding him quite repulsively pretentious, and my fundamental criticism of cherry picking as a good approach still stands. As I said before, I have no problem with appreciating our cultural heritage and with searching for some communal ideal that replaces religion, but I do object to these specific statements in the article above:

        “But when it comes to how we ought to behave and what we ought to value the great religious texts got a few things correct.”

        Emphasis on “a few”, and so what? Those same values are found in many philosophical texts, in many pieces of great literature, and elsewhere. Why should seek to single out religion when religion is the only one of these that seeks to control and punish? How about we take the same morals from a different text that doesn’t offer morality with a threat?

        “The problem is that hardcore atheists don’t let the mainstream cherry pick the good parts of religion without criticizing them for being inconsistent or intellectually lazy.”

        I think it’s right to criticise given what I said in a previous comment about the dangers of legitimising theological morality.

        “We have to allow atheism to incorporate those religious practices and principles that we know contribute to human flourishing.”

        I think this requires much greater substantiation – as far as I am aware, there is no proof that these ideals as codified by the world’s religions is the *only* way to contribute to human flourishing, and given the abundant clarity of the suffering that they cause, I am instead advocating that we cherry pick the exact same morals but from philosophical texts that don’t damn gays to hell, don’t denigrate the rights of women, and don’t foster a xenophobic mentality.

        January 30, 2012
  7. To me, “atheists who believe in God” is a contradictory statement. It’s like saying you’re a “vegetarian who eats meat”. Someone who identifies themselves as an atheist, but accepts the possibility of a deity, or higher power, is an agnostic. Perhaps I am just arguing semantics here, but “atheism”, by definition, is the rejection of all deities.
    I do not see anything wrong with cherry picking ideas from different religions, however. I do not think that this legitimizes the negative aspects of these religions in any way. There are worth while ideas in many religions, like the nature worship of pagan traditions, the beautiful simplicity of the Tao, and practices like meditation or yoga, which have been show to have some health benefits. Even the more dogmatic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) have great ideas that are worthy of our attention. Whether these ideas can be found in philosophy, or other texts, is irrelevant. It’s not where you get the ideas, but how you learn from them and incorporate them into your life.

    January 30, 2012
    • Of course it matters where you get the morals from! If you get a moral from the Bible, then you would rightly assume that the other morals in the Bible should be followed too. That’s obviously a bad approach because of the ridiculous rules that you’d end up following. If we go to the Bible with preconceived notions of what we are and are not willing to accept, then what is the point of turning to the Bible in the first place?

      Again, it just seems that people want their innate senses of morality pithily and proverbially encoded in some scriptural system external to themselves. Well that’s a desire that has to be challenged.

      January 30, 2012
      • If I were to read the Bible (which I have never done from start to finish), it would be for it’s historical and cultural significance. There is a huge difference between taking inspiration from something, and following it dogmatically. If someone takes inspiration from one part of the Bible, you cannot rightly assume that they follow every moral idea presented. It’s the same with any philosopher or any person you’ve ever met. I might agree with some things that you say, but that does not necessarily mean agree with everything you say.

        January 30, 2012
      • As I read your response, I don\’t see that you bleieve in God *in order* to help you make decisions about life. Rather, you seem to try to make decisions based on reason (meeting your goals, etc.) and compassion (how others are affected, etc.). God only comes in after the fact.If you think about it, this is the case in all situations. Life is happening, and we\’ve stuck in the middle of it, trying to make sense and have a bit of experience while we can. Your friend who expressed envy theists have an authority, while I have to figure everything out! isn\’t an uncommon reaction to this. Some people think it would be easier if there was an absolute monarch to whom we could defer all our decisions, to whom we could bring our confusion and ask for clarification and guidance. Although I can sympathize with the feeling, I don\’t endorse the solution of wishful thinking.As for my decision making process, I try to be as deliberative and as reasonable as I\’m able to that usually means asking others for their frank input. Guilt is a helpful reminder of where we\’ve gone wrong in the past. Being as scrupulous as we can be when making decisions of ethical consequence (and I think most decision are of that kind) is one of the responsibilities that falls on our shoulders in the absence of a creator. And why complain about that, or any feature of reality it is beyond our power to change?

        February 7, 2013
  8. Chalie B #

    What a load of crap. This author has about as much understanding of atheism as I do extra-terrestrial dance forms. Thinking that atheist reject god presupposes a god, and there ain’t any. Try rejecting snarkosis fallacious. Don’t know what that is? Spend a couple of thousand years spinning fables and tales about snarkosis, and soon you’ll have all kinds of people thinking it’s real, and that they know what it is. Even the word atheist presupposes god-existence. Get outside the box, try Reason instead of reasons, and you might discover everything is an accident of chemistry. If you do, you’ll see why statements like “This attitude ignores a truth that doesn’t get said enough: atheism is diverse.” is ridiculous. Atheism isn’t diverse; no god, end of sentence. Perception of atheism may divide among weak minds, attitudes toward religion practitioners may also, tolerance toward people who think atheists need healing, just like those darned homos, will certainly be detectable among people who live happy godless lives, but to say atheism is diverse is to cast godlessness into the same little box of isms such as Catholicism, Zoroastrism, Buddism, etc. It ain’t a practice nor a set of arbitrary regulations.

    February 6, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Sorry, not sure what you’re trying to say Chalie B. Your comment was difficult to follow. Sounds like you didn’t like the post; I got that much. Feel free to expand, but please make it understandable.

      February 6, 2012
  9. Tauriq Moosa #

    Hey Sam. You are a very talented and wonderful writer. I love your stuff. I’m going to be linking to your latest post about irrationality in my new blogpost, next week. Just a note: Darwin wrote “Origin” not Origins, as in On the Origin of Species.

    February 8, 2012

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