5 Questions to Determine Whether You’re Still Religious

I suppose you’d really need a well-qualified psychologist and cultural anthropologist to come up with this list, but I’m doing my best. Giving up on “god(s)” is not really giving up on religion, especially if you’ve grown up in a religious family or community. It’s very likely that many of your “morals” or philosophical perspectives on economics, legal ethics, and politics are still shackled to religion. Normally, these perspectives are not a core part of any religion, but are what I tend to call “cultural parasites” that were added later and are sometimes even at odds with the core tenant of the religion itself. Think of the case of Protestant Christians extolling the merits of unbridled capitalism in Mega-Churches, contrasted against Jesus’ teachings of eschewing worldly goods.

Most philosophies have always feared to take this condition on (including noted atheist Bertrand Russell), with the notable exception of Nietzsche’s existentialism1. Nietzsche exhorted people to examine their convictions and question their origin, and discard any that were not justified. Justification is always and intrinsically subjective, and in Nietzsche’s world most people are not brave enough to face a totally subjective universe and take what they want from it. With no outside or demonstrably superior source of morality, there is no objective standard. All standards are inexorably and correctly credited to fallible humans (please, spare me the current popular mythology of morals coming from genetics), and as such they are open to challenge and change. In a democracy or republic with popularly elected representatives, community moral and legal standards are further subject to the mood of the mob, where a voting majority can sweep away the rights of any minority2. Even in the US, if enough people wanted to, they could amend the Constitution and make Christianity the mandatory State religion.

So, the best thing to do is to read some philosophy and actually think about your beliefs, challenge them on your own, in the way of Socrates, and discover your own truth3. But lacking the time, you could just take a quick read through my five part test and see if any apply to you and your convictions. And keep in mind the admonition of Nietzsche that “…fear is the mother of morality.”4

1. If you believe in “good” and “evil” in an objective sense…. you might be religious

It’s amazing how often you hear or see comments on atheist web sites and in conversations where people claim to know “good” from “evil”. Where does this come from? Why is there any assumption whatsoever that your “good” equates to mine, or that we can agree on what constitutes “evil”? In the real world, there are very few “black and white” situations. There are some things in the natural world where there is an absolute standard, as with electric charge, but it is quite rare outside of materials science. Most things that humans come into normal contact with are composites, in transitional states, or incapable of absolute quantification. Are there “good” and “evil” sheep? What color is “good” and how do you test for it?

Classifying abstractions as “good” or “evil” is a practical impossibility, except on a very narrow definition. Societies are not run on narrow definitions. Take theft. Good or evil? Taking from another person is wrong, unless it’s taxes, or eminent domain, or taking something back which was originally acquired unfairly, or it’s taken to prevent a greater ill (like taking food from speculative hoarders during a famine), etc. And then there is the whole area of what is being “taken.” How do you handle intellectual property rights? How about “property rights” to clean air and water, or a sea view? It’s very complicated. On a narrow view, you could say “taking candy from a baby is evil” but others might say you are preventing childhood obesity and the early onset of diabetes. Our world can’t even agree on whether it’s ok for well-armed soldiers to shoot down children armed only with stones; just ask a Palestinian.

Even when you look at human actions, there are few cases where you can get agreement on “evil” or “good” (for example, Christopher Hitchens would disagree with Mother Teresa’s conventional designation as “good”5). Even someone like Jeffrey Dahmer probably has fans among other homosexual cannibals seeking to turn people into docile zombies. Personally, I would find it hard to consider someone “evil” if they were likely mentally ill, and Dahmer would fall into that category for me. In reality, it’s probably impossible to find a human about whom nothing good can be said6. Do you just go with the majority view? So in Japan (and America, which refused to charge any member of the Royal Family for war crimes), Prince Asaka Yasuhiko is not “evil” despite the fact that, acting under Emperor Hirohito’s order in 1937 to disregard the provisions of international law regarding the treatment of Chinese prisoners, troops under his command carried out the Nanking Massacre, slaughtering civilians over a six week period in 1937 of perhaps as many as 300,000 people. But in China, a land of more people than Japan, he is regarded as a personification of “evil.” So who is right?

If you can’t face the fact that there is no objective “good” or “evil”, then you may be religious.

2. If you think that morals are “natural”…. you might be religious

Many philosophers who were uncomfortable with deriving their moral authority from “god” or from what they considered to be a fatally flawed book of religious tenets, and they have come up with a wide variety of explanations that basically come down to “what I am espousing is naturally right.” This goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and is probably more popularly known through the works of the European Enlightenment thinkers starting with Spinoza, who basically substituted “Nature” for “God”. Were he writing today, it might have been “The Force” instead of Nature.

More modern thinkers try to link the “nice stuff” with some sort of natural human condition. Citing studies on children, or arguing for the genetic preference of humanistic traits are de rigueur with today’s authors. Another thing you see are studies of bonobos, which are a sexually active, matriarchal society ape relative of ours. Bonobos became popular once it became well known that chimpanzees, our closest ape relative, are patriarchal, engage in what amounts to tribal warfare and murder, has demonstrable cruelty, will trade sex for food (humans call this prostitution), engage in rape, and in generally not the sort of characteristics that if manifest in a person you would want your daughter to date7. Tarzan’s Cheeta was never like this… but then they only used female chimps in Hollywood films, as Americans are offended (or awed) when they see the size of a male chimp’s testicles.

For me, these contentions are just an excuse not to present a cogent argument. Once again, the proponents are appealing to a higher authority, in this case “nature,” “genetics” or some sort of other inherited mummery. They do this because they want other people to accept their recommendations without argument on morals or ethics or whatever else they are advocating and also obviate the need to justify their conclusions. Resorting to a higher authority (in this case, “nature”) is nothing but an acknowledgment that you don’t have a good argument.

It doesn’t matter whether we are presupposed to act one way or another. It’s like debating whether homosexuality is natural. It doesn’t matter. As an intelligent species, we value the use of reason, not hormones, in deciding on a course of action. Morals should be the same. Calling your higher power “nature” rather than “god(s)” doesn’t change the same stunted logic behind it.

If you can’t accept that your morals are just your own beliefs and, as such, are de facto no better objectively justified than anyone else’s, then you might be religious.

3. If you think your philosophy can be encapsulated in the Golden Rule… you might be religious

The Golden Rule sounds nice, just treat others the way you want to be treated. Until you think about it, and then come to realize that this means totally ignoring the majority of human behavior. People don’t act this way, any more than they “turn the other cheek” unless the person doing the slapping is capable of doing a lot worse to you than just a slap. BTW, a perhaps better rendition of this rule was coined by Johann von Goethe: “Treat people as if they were what they should be, and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.” But this is also highly condescending and is more like advice for rulers than those subject to the rules…and it probably sounds better in German anyway.

People don’t follow the Golden Rule, other than perhaps your Grandmother within her ladies club, and the only philosophy I know that tried to capture the Golden Rule’s underlying assumption of equality and apply it in a societal sense was in “The Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels. Should the McDonalds’ store manager pay the fry cook the same wage as herself, just because it’s the way the fry cook would want to be treated? Who determines how each person wants to be treated? Listening to some Americans complaining about the Affordable Health Care Act, you get the sense that some people don’t want health care. Treating people equitably presupposes that they are equals to start with. Nice idea, and its fine for your relationships with family and close friends, but it falls flat in the real world.

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Trying to use the Golden Rule as a basis for your laws would be an exercise more suitable for Laurel & Hardy than Rumpole of the Bailey (my apologies to persons reading this who missed the cultural references to a slapstick comedy team and a British TV lawyer). Just think of adjudicating a shoplifting case. Store owner “I don’t want people to steal from me.” Shoplifter “If I had the money Wal-Mart has, I would be happy to give free shirts to needy people.” Should the store owner treat the shoplifter how they would wish to be treated or will it be the other way around? When you start looking at laws, it’s obvious that the Golden Rule always seems to be interpreted in favor of those in power. It is not really used in any area of law, from water rights, to patent protection or criminal laws. Both perspectives on an issue are rarely if ever taken into account; the perspective of the “haves” in practice always seems to triumph over that of the “have nots” in every Eastern and Western legal culture – including the otherwise enlightened code of Asoka.

People like the Golden Rule as a personal philosophy because it’s pithy, easy to remember, and they know it from their religious roots. Surprise, surprise, as an idea it’s been around for ages and in almost every culture in one form or another. It works as a fine guide for close personal relationships between equals, but it’s not a philosophy or even a statement capable of being rationally expanded into an internally consistent philosophy. Maybe it’s easier than actually reading some philosophy, to get a grasp of what the options are, and far easier than actually coming up with your own philosophy. It’s surprising how many people trot the Golden Rule out as what is supposedly their guiding legal principle. Wrong on all counts. It’s religions that dumb things down, and tell you that all you need are Ten Commandments (most of which are not used as laws nowadays anyway, or 613 commandments if you’re Jewish). So don’t think deeply about the issue, just find a nice sounding answer and stick to it. Looking like you’ve been hit on the head once too often, while saying your philosophy is the Golden Rule, is entirely optional although quite popular.

If your personal philosophy is totally divorced from the real laws of the world, you may be religious.

4. If you think things happen “for a purpose”… you might be religious

The rainbow looks wonderful, maybe you will have a good day? The moon is full, maybe romance is in the air? Your favorite sports team won, so maybe you should buy a lottery ticket since your luck is changing. Just what is sending you signs? And why would a rainbow, visible to thousands, be there to convey a special message just for you? Yet many atheists harbor these sorts of feelings, which are a residual mindset from the days when god(s) were looking over you but were incapable of sending you a phone text message and so instead use the reflection and refraction of light through water vapor to send you a cryptic message that you are supposed to interpret correctly as a message to buy GM stock, ask your co-worker out on a date, or order an Hawaiian pizza for dinner.

Nature doesn’t send you messages. If the sky is dark, it may mean rain, or it’s night time. Lady luck is no more existent than the tooth fairy or Hanuman or Kali. Please don’t talk about elevating the “law of probability” – which is not really a law anyway outside of a narrow area of mathematics – to the level of some superior power guiding your life. Swapping an uncaring “god(s)” for some sort of probabilistic force might make you feel better, because you’ve lost the anthropomorphic aspect, but it’s the same subservient attitude.

In this same category, I would also put the excuse of predestination. Now it’s true that some physicists (especially clockwork Newtonian ones, if there are any still hanging around) consider the world to be one of predetermination, based on a sensitivity to initial conditions8.  According to this concept, each neuron firing in your brain could not have behaved other than it did. While this is interesting dinner conversation, or a topic of contention when you’re stoned in the college dorm and couldn’t get a date for the evening, it has no impact on morals, ethics or laws in our society. Saying that every action is predetermined is about as efficacious as saying that god(s) did it but it doesn’t give you a basis for a personal philosophy. It’s an excuse for not taking the time to identify one.

If the world is sending you signals or your life is governed by probabilities indistinguishable from “god,” then you may be religious.

5. If you think that harmful actions result in people “getting what’s coming to them”…. you may be religious

For me, I think the one thing supporting religion, more than a fear of death, is the desire that justice will be done…eventually. Justice is the most critical component of urbanized living or a large tribal social life. Aristotle said: “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” Law is what distinguishes us from the wolves.

This need to correct the injustices that people are unwilling or unable to correct in life is a strong motivation behind the concepts of divine justice, karma and reincarnation. Invoking “karma” often also falls in this category. As humans, we wish that the investment banker who made millions from creating deceptive investment products that cost people their retirement savings would be punished for it. But it doesn’t happen in life (at least, not in Obama’s America). Some of the Japanese officers behind Unit 731, guilty of terrible atrocities against Chinese civilians and war prisoners, went on to head major corporations in Japan. The heirs of Leopold II of Belgium can live high off the wealth accumulated through the vicious genocidal horrors perpetrated on the people of the Congo and even enjoy seeing statues of this murderous relative in public squares in Belgium. Ever since laws have been promulgated, people have recognized that some laws are to protect some people and disadvantage others. “The more laws, the less justice” was an observation by the first century BC Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, and it remains true today – especially if you look at the American federal tax code, all approximately 5,600 pages of it.

The world is manifestly unfair, with two standards of justice in every country I’ve ever encountered. There is no unseen hand of justice moving from generation to generation (as in reincarnation, which doesn’t need a god to operate, but which is still supernatural in nature). Karma is not a force that means that people who take advantage of others will someday be victimized themselves, it just means that people who know about you will think about you based on what they know. People who are nice may be treated nicely by others. But it doesn’t work this way in practice. People who are rich and powerful tend to stay rich and powerful regardless of whether they are actually nice to anyone, and justice never seems to catch up with many law breakers. We are now on our third generation of despotic ruler in North Korea, responsible for the deaths of how many people? The family of the Shah of Iran live in America and were allowed (by America) to keep all his ill-gotten gains. The heirs of Ferdinand Marcos currently sit as elected members of the Philippine Government, and were never stripped of their wealth, and the same goes for the heirs of Suharto in Indonesia.

Thinking that there is some equalizing tendency takes away the personal imperative to seek justice, which usually means going against the established powers. The alternative is to fight for justice, or accept a tremendous sense of frustration and injustice. The only justice that will be done, is that which we instigate for ourselves.

If you think that justice has a way of happening on its own, you may be religious.


So, have you come away with a clean slate, or are there some things you need to think about? The hardest questions to answer are those we ask of ourselves, if we are honest.


1See my earlier blog on atheist morals and objective standards of morality at http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/atheist-morals-don-t-read...

2Giovanni Sartori is one of the best authors on this subject, and his “The Theory of Democracy Revisited” is particularly good. He famously said that democracy was self-destructive, but this was an observation going back to Isocrates in 400 BC. Giovanni Sartori is one of the best authors on this subject, and his “The Theory of Democracy Revisited” is particularly good. He famously said that democracy was self-destructive, but this was an observation going back to Isocrates in 400 BC.

3Some good books for this purpose are at http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/13-books-atheists-should-...

4From Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”, Chapter V, The Natural History of Morals.

5Christopher Hitchens, “The Missionary Position”.

6Other than perhaps the “Thomas” character in the “Old Harry’s Game” UK radio comedy series, by Andy Hamilton. Some of the series is now on YouTube, and is a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. BTW, if you think that Wikipedia is a reliable source of information, just compare the size of the listings on “Giovani Sartori” and that of “Jeffrey Dahmer”. Popular culture wins out over academics every time.

7Jane Goodall is the authority on chimpanzees, and she has an impressive list of publications, and if you’re interested in the topic, I would recommend “Brutal Kinship” and “The Chimpanzees of Gombe.” For bonobos, and other apes in general, take a look at Frans de Wall, et al., “Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us About Human Social Evolution.” Most charts on evolution show that humans are closer to chimps than bonobos, and frankly if the two groups lived side by side, I would expect that the chimps would be visiting on the bonobos the ape equivalent Rome’s “Rape of the Sabines.”

8Please forgive me for not getting into the whole issue of quantum uncertainty and flux, etc., as this blog is already running long and further rambling by me on various concepts current in physics is not totally germane to the blog.

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