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#15 Why Humanists Need to Make the Shift to Post-Atheism
George Dvorsky   Dec 17, 2012   Ethical Technology  

I’m getting increasingly annoyed by all the anti-religious propaganda that litters my Facebook newsfeed. Look, as a fellow humanist and atheist, I get it. Organized religion is a problem on so many levels that I don’t even know where to begin. I’d be the first person to say that something needs to be done about it and I’m delighted to see atheism become normalized in our society and culture. But seriously, folks, what are you hoping to achieve by posting such facile and inflammatory material?

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2012? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 16 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.

The following piece was first published here on May 15, 2012 and is the #15 most viewed of the year.


Who are you speaking to? Are you doing it to make yourself feel better? Or do you really feel that through this kind of mindless slacktivism that you’re making a difference and actually impacting on real lives?

It’s time to put these toys away and consider the bigger picture. Humanists need to start helping people make the transition away from religion, while at the same time working to create a relevant and vital humanist movement for the 21st century.

The intellectual battle against religion has already been won — and a strong case can be made that the victory came at the time of the Enlightenment. The struggle now is to find out why religion continues to persist in our society and what we can do about it. I have a strong suspicion that posting pictures of silly church signs isn’t helping.

For those of you who have been part of organized religion, you know how hard it is to break free. I’m one of them. Compounding the inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance is the problem of breaking free from the in-group. It is not easy for people to just pack up and leave their communities, nor is it easy for them to face the inevitable backlash from their families. The thought of leaving religion can be completely debilitating on so many levels. Posting a rabid comment or image on your Facebook wall isn’t going to help anyone get through this. In fact, all you’re doing is re-enforcing a tribalistic urge and alienating those most in need of help. These actions can only serve to stratify and polarize the lines even further.

Instead, what I’d rather see are more focused efforts on understanding how and why religion continues to spread, and what kinds of interventions and approaches are most effective at helping individuals move past it. There’s been amazing work done in this area by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom subscribe to the meme theory of religious propagation. I myself have argued that religious fundamentalism is a kind of disease and that religion works best by dictating the reproductive processes of its hosts. I’d like to see more work done in this area as we work to improve our cultural health.

In addition, we need to figure out the best way to pull religious people out of their situation. This is probably the most difficult challenge, and there are no easy answers. I’m a staunch believer in education and the idea that we need to equip children at a young age with the powers of free thought, critical thinking, and skepticism. We can’t make decisions for others, but we can give them the tools to help them make the right decisions for themselves. More radically, for those deeply entrenched in fundamentalist religions and cults, there’s always the possibility of deprogramming. The trick is to start the intervention.

Lastly, I’m hoping to see atheists move past the religion bashing and start thinking about more substantive issues. This is what I mean when I say post-atheism. It’s time to set aside the angst and work more productively to help those who need it, while working to develop a world view and set of guidelines for living without God. It’s unfortunate and tragic that so many humanists have equated the movement with atheism, while completely forgetting their progressive roots.

Humanism is about the betterment of all humanity and the contemplation of what it is we wish to become. It’s about taking control of our own lives in the absence of divine intervention. And it’s about taking responsibility for ourselves and doing the right thing.

This is where our energies and attention needs to be focused. Not in ridiculous Facebook timeline posts that serve no one.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


It would help if you elaborate upon what exactly it is you mean by unhelpful criticism. I’m not convinced that posting pictures of “silly church signs” serves no purpose. Appeals based on rationality have been made for centuries and have only had so much success, and we already have a pretty comprehensive understanding of how religion manages to stay entrenched. Using emotionally-based factors such as shame and ridicule is powerful and eschewing them will severely limit our aims.

I will post the same comment that I posted in May. By the way, it may be helpful to readers to say that this is a repost of one of the mosr popular articles of 2012.


Good article George. One comment though:

Re “we need to figure out the best way to pull religious people out of their situation.”

I have a better proposal: why not just leave them in peace until _they_ choose to ask for help. Forcing help on person who have not requested help sounds arrogant and socially dangerous to me.

Also, this attitude legitimizes its opposite: the attitude of those believers who in the middle age “helped” non-believers to believe, often with the aid of torture instruments.

A constructive approach is always wise, but.. I have this Facebook friend.. - His name is Kacem El Ghazzali, a 20 year old Moroccon Atheist who is becoming quite famous, - Infamous to some.. - He had to flee his native country because of death-threats and the risk of being locked away and is now living in exile in Switzerland. Only a couple of hours ago, I saw him writing on Facebook: “Atheist Census, - what a great idea”. Curious as I am, I visited “Atheist Alliance International”, and I did not hesitate to register. One has to answer a few questions and is given the option - as a non-religious person, to register as an atheist, a freethinker, a rationalist, an agnostic, a humanist, a secularist and.. those were the options I remember offhand. I registered as a freethinker myself.. - What is REALLY good to see, is that more than 700 Iranians have registered so far ! - That is 3.5 times more than Danes, and double of Swedes ! - Israelis also are high on the list, and numbers are climbing fast. - I don’t know about you, but I find this project constructive, and in a minute I am going to spread the message.. on Facebook. I’ve already written about it on my blog. I invite you all to register, - if you care about atheists World-wide, that is. Here’s the link:

... and after postatheism comes postsecularism: that which provokes us onward to a posthumanity of radical flourishing in creativity and compassion.

@Lincoln: How would moving past the separation of church and state provoke us toward those things?

ShaGGGz, here’s some elaboration on my comment:

I think the problem is deeper than just a matter of changing thinking. From your article and the post above about the atheist registration website, it appears that many are simply exchanging one ‘in group’ for another. The thinking whether religious or atheist is ‘us’ against ‘them’ with the salvation of ‘them’ justifying denying the other person their full rights or humanity.

The best way to eliminate religion is to live as if it doesn’t matter. Be polite to your religious friends and your atheist friends, not because they are religious or atheist, but because they are your friends. The only way our species is going to move forward is by evolving our ethics to the point where it is everybody’s job to respect themselves, the world they live in and the other beings that share it with them.


What if all the thugs go on strike, Alex?

Alex, reformism isn’t enough. Institutions have to be revamped, you can’t merely leave the ancien regime intact while inculcating respect.
Churches, for starters, cannot remain ninety five percent business, five percent spirituality. I don’t even appreciate the nuclear family anymore, as agape love/respect is a nonstarter (because love and respect is given to the family with little to spare). Don’t want to conflate academia with activism; however it is safe to write IEET is more oriented towards radicalism than a penny’s worth of wish tossed into the fountain of “evolving our ethics to the point where it is everybody’s job to respect themselves, the world they live in and the other beings that share it with them.”

At IEET they look into what is outmoded—with the inference we want to radically change the status quo. Peacefully, yet radically.

One more (three a day is quite enough) comment for today:
Alex, it isn’t to pick on you, I’m old-fashioned, rather backwards-looking. Being religious is a part of it, religion is inherently old-fashioned. That is to write militant atheists are IMO correct. We have to decide whether or not we want radical change—if we don’t we are apologists for the status quo; if we defend religion too much we are apologists for the status quo.
As a priest you know we can’t serve two masters; everything I’ve seen suggests living in the past while wanting the benefits of the future (to put it simply yet effectively) probably will no longer work. Religion is part of the past, religion is the past.

So that George is correct in writing militant atheists are too strident—if they weren’t strident they wouldn’t be militant atheists—doesn’t mean militant atheists are not correct. Question is why is it you defend the right of militant religious groups to say whatever they wish, for pro- ‘life’ organisations to call abortion ‘mass murder’, yet militant atheists, who thus far have negligibly interfered, are aggressors?

As I have said ad nauseum, religion isn’t limited to the formal religions that most people think about when they think ‘religion’.

People make a religion out of sports teams, marketing brands, austerity measures, consumerism, technology, politics, family and the list goes on. I am not just saying that people get passionate about those things.

I am saying that people look to those things (or some other) as a source of salvation from the trouble of the world. They expect that this salvation will come without any significant work by the individual. They also engender ‘sacred thinking’ by which I mean that opinions and concepts are held in a different part of the brain from day to day concepts and are not susceptible to change by fact.

Thus organized religion may be the past, but until we change our neuro-biology, religion will still be part of our lives. We will just call it something else.

As for the wishing fountain of evolving ethics, why is it so unlikely that people might take responsibility for themselves and the world? We predict changes beyond our imagination in every area of existence, except for what goes on inside our heads. (Actually, not quite, several people are pushing ‘ethical pills’) I wonder what would happen if a few people decided that responsibility was the thing that they were going to put in that sacred part of their brain.  Why wait for someone/something/some god to come and save us when with a little work we can start the process ourselves?

(will try to answer with one comment- one comment might have been what Cygnus meant by ‘postcard’)
Naturally, you are right that religion can mean anything the subject wants religion to mean however religion can also be shorthand for organised religion as distinct from subjective spirituality. I’m not anti-religious (religious in the shorthand-sense) yet I personally—not referencing you or anyone else—want to avoid making a virtue out of necessity: humans IMO are not compatible beings thus religion is a pretentious buffer for all but the minority who may be truly pious and therefore free of this pretense; e.g. ‘saints’.

“As for the wishing fountain of evolving ethics, why is it so unlikely that people might take responsibility for themselves and the world?”

You mean transhumans, not mere ‘people’. Transhumanism is for [though of course not limited to] transcending such shortcomings. As long as ‘we’ remain merely human we cannot be genuinely responsible. But then, the meaning of responsibility will change when ‘we’ are different beings.
A great mistake so-called conservatives make is projecting current meanings into the future.




Have to add one more comment for today:
why be concerned about militant atheists when they can’t even arrange for ‘In God We Trust’ to be removed from US legal tender? Madalyn Murray O’ Hare tried to do just that and she disappeared. Um, let the disappearance of O’ Hare be a warning to all those who would usurp the authority of the Almighty.

we’ll continue to talk past each other on this, and why should we necessarily agree? Your perspective as a pastor doesn’t have to coincide with another’s more secular views. Something you ought to be told, in case you don’t know, is: the overwhelming majority of nominal atheists—perhaps 99 percent—are actually agnostics who want to be unequivocating. They very well may not want to say to the religious,

“I don’t know if there’s a God, but a nexus is indicated… after all, believers do great charity… my grandfather was a believer… we don’t know the mysteries of the cosmos… sometimes I think about the role of Jesus in history… did a Being create the universe?...”

That sort of thing.

Or they can say,

“I’m an atheist, and that’s that.”

Simple, rather refreshing:

That Meme in the article.., shouldn’t it say: What if I told you: You can be religious and not bash atheism..

There is a World outside America, but George’s article seems to focus on what is happening in, say, California, Montana, etc. - As a Dane, this debate is of interest “only” because of what is going on around the WORLD, like the Arab World, in Iran and other places, where atheism is risky business. I don’t know, perhaps that Meme in the article is of some relevance in progressive U.S. circles, but in a Global perspective it is completely turning things upside down.

@Lincoln+Alex: Your tendency to redefine religion as basically anything that instills profound feelings of transcendence is tiring, illegitimate and useless for the purposes of this discussion. We are talking about a sort of dogmatic ideology whose falsifiable claims of fact have been falsified, which nevertheless impels its hosts to act as if they haven’t.

@Alex: “The best way to eliminate religion is to live as if it doesn’t matter.”
Funny. I, the zany, militant anti-theist would love nothing more than to live in a world where people acted like this.

@Intomorrow: “You mean transhumans, not mere ‘people’.”
Transhumans are people. Personhood is cognitive.

“Transhumans are people. Personhood is cognitive.”

But IMO if (when) you change cognition, you incrementally change the person, thus incrementally change personhood.


.. at the risk of posting 4x today (but it’s Sat. night):
when personhood is changed to a certain degree it isn’t the same personhood; you can’t merely write “personhood is cognitive” and leave it there, it is the whole package of what it means to be a person.
Reason I’m focused on that is because I notice the old-fashioned think the old meanings of personhood are threatened—
because from their perspective they are correct, what it means to be a person by conventional standards is being whittled away.

@Intomorrow: Yes, when you change the cognition, you change the person. What I was getting at was your apparent separation of “transhumans” from “people,” I suspect on the colloquial equating of people/persons with humans. The category of person transcends the human, even though the latter is currently the sole known instantiation.
Yes, the old meanings of personhood are/will be threatened, in the same way that gay marriage “threatens” traditional marriage, by expanding the circle of inclusion.

Yes, there’s personhood, and then there’s personhood plus.
(Re: relevant to a discussion of religion, gays are a good example of how the old-fashioned err by progressive standards at least. The old-fashioned think gays are unnatural, ungodly, and this threatens the conventional worldview.. while at the same time the abortion many straights dislike so much is heterosexually-caused—not gay-caused. Tnus the old-fashioned worldview is somewhat flawed even by its own lights).

Anyway, the stridency of new atheists is of little consequence: few who are convinced are going to be unconvinced; few who are unconvinced are going to be convinced.
Religionists are at least as strident as atheists and probably more so—it can be contended believers are more authoritarian.

The clincher for me is the religious do care about families—but only really their own; this lack of agape negates the core of religion..

@Intomorrow: Most personhood nomenclatures I’m aware of have the fully sapient, i.e. baseline human, as the apex - there is no “plus,” though a case could be made that extrapolating the current system would lead to such a conclusion. Should be fun convincing bioconservatives of this position…
Yes, religionists/dogmatists have been shown to have more authoritarian-leaning personalities, a great asset in the culture war.

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