If there’s one thing I really understand, it’s religion. And yet, like a biologist who is unable to truly define what “life” means, I am at a loss for formulating a perfect, succinct definition of religion. Like a biologist, I have to “know it when I see it,” and my view will not be the same as everyone else’s.
I find some people who reject the idea of gods to be religious, in some ways I might even include myself. As it turns out, gods are not a necessary component of religion. Religion doesn’t even need mythology.
We tend to think of religion in the modern sense, limited as we are by the handful of faiths we come in contact with (less than a dozen, really, of the thousands that have existed). We think of their shared characteristics as the foundations of faith, but the truth is that the idea of gods is no more common or required for a religion than dietary restrictions, ethical guidelines, or even genital mutilation.
Like most people who spend time studying religion from a secular perspective, I have settled on the conclusion that the only thing all religions have in common is ritual. Whether you believe there’s a daddy in heaven watching over us, or that scores of gods are enacting divine soap operas, or perhaps that everything has a spark of the divine, or even that Xenu left us here trillions of years ago… there are rituals you can perform that will “help.”
Religion is sort of like the history of human understanding. Religion is all about cause and effect. Before the monotheistic faiths took over, one of the primary religious ideas in the West was Cosmic Sympathy, the idea that all things are connected. It explained how people could tell the future by reading tea leaves or animal entrails or the flights of birds. It was the basis of astrology and all kinds of magic.
The lunacy! Chew on Willow bark and your headache goes away. Insane witch doctors!
As it turns out, lots of rituals “work” in one way or another. Sometimes we manage to figure out (through trial and error… lots of error) that certain natural substances have interesting effects on us. Sometimes the mechanism of action is nothing more than simple psychology, which today we would chalk up to the placebo effect.
Science is almost a religion. Science changes far too quickly to be recognizable as a religion. If religion were ice, science would be water. Some people treat aspects of science like religion, especially medicine. Plenty of people dutifully take their pills on a regular schedule with faith in the doctor and pharmacist. Some of them are taking placebos and don’t even know it… which is actually part of why it works.
There are also lots of different ways of classifying ritual. There is superstition, which I like to define as “rituals the observer finds ridiculous.” There are rites of passage, which are some of my least favorite rituals. I particularly hate the rituals of initiation or hazing, but I am also annoyed by transition ceremonies (particularly graduations and other self-congratulatory embellishment spectacles). Even brushing your teeth may be seen as a ritual of hygiene.
All rituals work. I may not successfully make someone experience pain with a voodoo doll, but the ritual itself provides the practitioner tangible utility in the form of emotional release. My prayer to cure someone’s disease may not elongate their life, but it will ease my own stress. I could choose to perform any ritual I wanted, and the more I believe in it, the more I gain. Ritual is the natural human anti-anxiety.
So what of atheists? What are our rituals? Well, for one, some of us feel compelled to comment on religious news of the day. Some throw rocks at churches. Some talk to friends and family about our lack of belief.
Sure, we probably don’t pray or look down on gay people, but most of us hope for the impossible and plenty look down on religious people. Atheism can easily be a religion, and it can even be a faith if one lets it.
If “I see no evidence for gods,” turns into “There is no God,” you have stepped into the circle with those making unverifiable claims. Who is worse, the Christian who looks down on atheists, or the atheist who looks down on Christians? To me, it is the atheist, because Christians are often told they are better by their books and preachers. What excuse does the atheist have?
The most common ritual in religion is one that many people have heard of, but rarely think about or understand. The Scapegoat ritual has deep origins and is present in every ideology that has ever been formulated by mankind.
Playing on the cause and effect nature of magic, a scapegoat is something that we are told must be destroyed. If it is destroyed, good things will happen. The rains will come, the sun will rise, all people will live together in peace and harmony forever and forever. This last one is actually a tenant of the religion of some Atheists.
“If only religion were gone,” we’re told, “the world would be [insert suspect claim of utopian society here].” Getting rid of religion won’t do a damn thing if Atheism acts precisely like a religion.