Repost: What Will Replace Religion?

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from November 2006.]

One argument for theism that I have always found interesting is the argument that humans do not have desires for which there exists no corresponding object in the real world. For example, we desire water, and water exists; we desire food, and food exists; we desire love and friendship, and those things exist. Similarly, this reasoning goes, human beings innately desire fellowship with God, and this strongly suggests that God exists.

This argument is clever, but naive. A straightforward application of its logic would lead to the conclusion that there is a Santa Claus at the North Pole, pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and lamp-dwelling genies that will grant the finder three wishes. After all, various groups of people have desired all these things to be true, and why would we have these desires if there existed no object that satisfied them?

The apologetic response would probably be that these examples are overly specific, and that we should instead consider the general objects of desire, and not the specific ways in which people hope to attain those desires. For example, rather than Santa Claus or leprechauns, the general trend is that people desire gifts and wealth, and it is possible to obtain both those things in the real world.

However, this reasoning can backfire on the apologist. How do they know, I would argue, that God is not the same kind of thing - an overly specific example of a general human desire which can be fulfilled, just in other ways?

Many of my fellow atheists, in their books and websites, focus on attacking religion and arguing for its elimination. This is understandable, given the harm that supernatural belief has wrought, but I believe there is an underlying point that needs to be addressed. Religion is extremely widespread and popular, and it could not have gotten that way unless it was filling some important human need. No attempt to overthrow religion is likely to be successful unless it addresses this need; it never works to take away from people something that is important to them and offer nothing in its place. Yet I have seen relatively few atheist works that attempt to envision our ultimate goal, a world without religion. I intend to do just that. In this post, I will cast my gaze over the horizon and imagine that all our goals have been achieved - that all varieties of superstition and unreason have faded away, that religion no longer tyrannizes the minds of humanity - and sketch a picture of what I think that world would ideally be like.

Although religion provides its members with some social services, that is not the only reason for its popularity. After all, there are many other community groups that also provide social services that do not have nearly as large a following as churches do. I believe the true reason for religion's popularity is that it inspires the sense of spirituality - it makes people feel as if they are involved in something larger and more significant than themselves. This is a basic human desire, and at the moment, religion has little competition when it comes to fulfilling it.

But there is no intrinsic reason why this need must be fulfilled by belief in supernatural beings. As many scientists and naturalists will testify, the intricate beauty of the natural world, truly understood, provides at least as powerful an inspiration to the sense of awe as any of the small, anthropocentric belief systems taught in churches. I can envision a world of groups that speak to this sense with genuine spirituality, rather than the packaged, mass-market version sold by religion - not churches in the religious sense, but places of humanist fellowship where people freely come together to fill their lives with meaning and to learn about the world they live in, the better to revere its beauty.

Imagine, if you will, a humanist church that met at night under the open sky, discussing the true nature of the planets and stars, and the incomprehensible vastness and majesty of the cosmos of which we are but a very small part. Imagine a humanist church that spent its Sundays not shut up in a musty building, but on nature walks and hikes, teaching its members to appreciate the beauty of the living world, to identify all the species they see and understand the magnificently complex web of their interactions. Imagine a church that chose sermon topics not from one ancient book, but from the writings of great philosophers and scientists throughout history, or one that did not even have a sermon as such but rather a discussion, with every member an equal, of the virtues of a particular book or essay.

This would not be a religious service. There would be no prayers, no sacred texts, and no rituals invested with beliefs in magic. However, there could well be rituals, in a secular sense and without extraneous supernaturalism, to commemorate and celebrate milestones in the lives of community members, such as a wedding or a coming of age. There could also be humanist holidays, premised not on deeds allegedly performed by past religious figures, but on dates of seasonal significance such as the solstices and equinoxes - again, as part of teaching the community to feel connected to the natural world and to understand the basis of that connection - or on important historical events. If there were tithes, they would go not to prop up a wealthy and unaccountable church hierarchy, but to be reinvested to aid worthy causes in the community and beyond.

These gatherings could have their own dedicated meeting hall, or - an idea that appeals to me - they could simply rotate through the homes of community members, eschewing formalism as much as possible in favor of the simple pleasures of warmth, light, fellowship, good company and good conversation. Instead of a hierarchy of obedience where one person always stands in the relationship of authority to every other congregant, this role could be filled on a weekly basis by different members of the community. After all, no one person has a deeper sense of spirituality than any other, nor does one person have all the answers to life's mysteries. We can always learn from each other.

Through these deep and meaningful interactions with our fellow human beings, our friends and loved ones, we can meet the human desires for spirituality and involvement and fill our lives with happiness and meaning. The invention of the term "God" is and has always been just a misguided attempt to produce this same feeling from an ethereal source (an "imaginary friend" in a very real sense), when in reality it must, by its nature, be grounded in the genuine love and friendship of people around us. Religious apologists who believe that desire to worship the supernatural is primary are confusing cause and effect.

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7 brilliant Japanese words we need in English

Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

Culture & Religion
  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
  • If you've ever wanted to describe the anguish of a bad haircut, the pleasure of walking in the woods, or the satisfaction of finding your life's purpose, read on.

Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku


While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

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