Religion for Atheists

by Kyle Cupp on March 20, 2012

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Ned Resnikoff challenges the supposedly easy path of superficially translating religious ritual and practice into forms that an atheist might find acceptable and beneficial:

A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists). The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre.

Doing so, says Ned, “would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct ‘spirituality,’ the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity.”  Instead, if atheists have an interest in reforming and putting religious rituals to their own purpose, they would be wise to build a theological foundation and seriously engage “with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists.”

This is exactly right.

A religion is irreducible to a set of tenets and practices, meaning that you can’t treat it like a cafeteria without corrupting the whole.  This goes for traditional religions and for secularized religious rituals.  Why? Because religion is a way of being-in-the-world.  The intelligibility of a its parts emerges only within the framework of the religion’s whole logos and mythos. The liturgy of the Eucharist, for example, makes sense only when understood in the contexts of biblical interpretation, Christology, ecclesiology, Old and New Testament narrative, theology of prayer, sacramental theology, the goals Christian life, etc.

Any religious ritual that’s worth a damn needs a theological (logical and mythological) foundation, developed over time and situated within society and the larger world.  Without this, you may have some nice clothing for a “spiritual” journey, but you won’t have a new or improved sense of direction or a cause to take a first step.

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