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Where Atheism Stops And Religion Begins

Atheism cannot simply be about setting individuals free. It needs to address the deep suffering of society and take aim at dismantling the socio-economic structures that privilege the few while oppressing the many.
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The New Atheists love proclaiming that religion is dying. It's a claim that is hard to argue with. Religion is certainly on the decline all across the world. The "nones" (i.e. those who hold no religious affiliation) rank as the third most popular religion in the world, trailing Christians and Muslims respectively. Historically, we've never seen anything like this. Atheism was in vogue back in the Enlightenment era but despite all the efforts of Auguste Comte and his peers, it never gained traction. Religion was too imbedded in the culture and was the best answer to all those pesky questions about where we came from and what we are heading towards. Today, atheists are armed with the answers Darwin gave and a modern metaphysics that allows them to confidently argue against religious rhetoric and comfortably say that there is no god.

This is a huge cultural shift and, as many prominent atheist thinkers would suggest, a necessary paradigmatic change in human history. What I find disconcerting, though, are the holes being left in the fabric of society as we see the institution of religion retreating. As an example: when Hurricane Sandy devastated the eastern Seaboard, it was the synagogues, mosques, and churches that served as bases of operation for the Red Cross, #occupySandy, and other aid organizations. Religious communities quickly rallied their members to come out and aid the victims of the storm in a capacity that few other organizations could muster. This is not say that the non-religious did not show up in force to aid those affected by Sandy. Far from it. It was an amazing response across the board yet that response was certainly undergirded by and maintained through the willingness of faith communities to open their doors, their homes, and their lives to those who found themselves without.

Or, let's consider the food bank and soup kitchen systems in America. I live in Harlem and almost every food bank or soup kitchen is run by or through a local mosque, church or synagogue. The faith community provides the physical space, the staffing, and often times the funding. This is not to say that those associated with a faith community are the only ones working at or hosting services for those in need. Again, far from it. What I will say, though, is that faith communities account for a large part of these services and many of our brothers and sisters in life would go with far less in life if it weren't for churches, mosques and synagogues.

These are only two examples and they in themselves are not the point I am trying to make. The examples above embody a larger spirit that I want to lift up, a spirit that is embedded, albeit often lost and forgotten, in the world's religions that compel the faithful to serve and love with abandon. Many of my friends who have transitioned from being religious to being atheists speak of the deep existential peace that it gives them. This is huge and nothing to be argued with. Anyone who has found themselves on the despair side of Sisyphean struggle knows just how sweet it is to find the calm on the other side. But contrary to the hyper-individualistic tropes fed to us by American culture, I would argue that finding the calm is only first step. The second and more important step is feeding that calm, peace, joy, and positivity back into society. Whether that is done through mentoring or activism or lobbying or some other form of praxis is immaterial. The point is to take the good and disseminate it as much as possible.

It is dangerous and facile to argue as many prominent atheists do that the decline of religion and the rise of secularism will somehow extinguish the devastating fires of systemic oppression and/or institutionalized racism/sexism/homophobia that are often associated with religions who appeal to an andro-centric God. If religion has completely failed us then we must ask ourselves what we are doing to assuage and correct the course of history. Because truly, if religion is the pariah that weighs society down, than the atheistic antidote must match -- if not exceed -- that which it is correcting.

The new ideology of this age certainly is atheism. There is no arguing that, so, as the fresh new ideological mainstay, atheism must be prepared to assume, and improve upon, the positions once occupied by religious institutions. Or, if not occupy, then replace with new institutions that service the needs of society that government and private enterprise simply are not willing and/or are not capable of holding. It is easy to cast aspersions at the predominate institutions in power but it is a very different thing to replace them with a viable and functional alternative that covers the needs of society. Atheism cannot simply be about setting individuals free. It needs to address the deep suffering of society and take aim at dismantling the socio-economic structures that privilege the few while oppressing the many.

The fight for the oppressed and the impoverished, both emotionally and economically, is what most of the world religions are predicated upon. Yet, the fervor for change among most of the faithful seems to have cooled and the rivers of change have grown stagnant. As evidenced above, there is still amazing work being done but that work is now struggling to survive. There needs to be an infusion of new life and new fervor, things that are found in abundance amongst the New Atheists. It is time that we evaluate how we are going to collectively move into history and what our legacy is going to be. In the words of Muriel Rukeyser, "If we are free people, we are also in a sense free to choose our past, at every moment to chose the tradition we will bring to the future." (1)


1. Muriel Rukeyser. The Life of Poetry. (Ashfield: Paris Press 1996), 21

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