Do we need an atheist religion?

In this TED talk, Alain de Botton (an author who specializes in popular philosophy) proposes “Atheism 2.0,” which rejects all deities and supernatural acts but caters to the “ritualistic side” of some atheists.

The highlights:

  • 0:32: Implicit snark directed toward Richard Dawkins
  • 4:00: Begins tirade about how education, in contrast to religion, fails to provide guidance for how to live (e.g. how can we be moral?). Here de Botton neglects the fact that in countries where religion has taken a nosedive, morality remains high—indeed, often higher than in religious countries.
  • 7:00: Says that we need to “structure time” through calendars, so we can think about certain things at certain times.
  • 7:50: We need rituals. 
  • 8:30: We need to learn the art of oratory, which supposedly is so important in religion.
  • 9:40:  We need to adopt ritual baths from the Jews: a fusion of brain and body.
  • 10:40: We need to learn how to use and interpret art as propaganda: art should be didactic, and explicitly so.
  • 12:30:  We need to learn how to foster sociality by forming institutions. The Catholic Church is his example; all we need is a secular institution like the Vatican: multinational, branded, and with a clear identity.

This is all a facile attempt to appropriate the trappings of religion as something essential to an atheist world.  But do we need sermons and the endless repetition of “lessons”?  Secular Europe does just fine without these things.  What we need, as sociological studies indicate, is not stained glass, potted lilies, and a gasbag orator, but a society that cares about its citizens.  For, as those studies show, societies that tend to be healthy are also the secular ones, and their citizens need not turn to sky-fathers for solace.  Yes, we can have our rituals of marriage and funerals, but ritual baths? Calendars marking when we should observe what?  I think not.


  1. Phosphorus99
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    If religion is a consequence of evolution – and it must be in the naturalist paradigm- how in the context of determined beings without free will could a desire for “religion” be “bad” ?

    • microraptor
      Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Because just because something is an evolved trait doesn’t mean that it’s good.

      I, like many humans, have a taste for foods that are high in sugars and fats because thousands of years ago, when the majority of humans lived as hunter-gatherers it was a useful survival trait to prefer energy dense foods.

      In 21st century America, however, food is not a scarcity and I’m at no risk of starvation, which means that my taste for such foods puts me at risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. It’s an evolved trait that’s got a very high chance of killing me.

  2. zengardener
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    If you all feel so strongly, just go to TED, watch the speech, and rate it.

    Unconvincing, unconvincing, unconvincing.

  3. blackbrain
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    We already have rituals in atheism.
    They are called “the scientific method”.
    They already involve:
    A lot of guidance and didactic learning.
    A lot of speeches (or “sermons”, as Alain would call them).
    A lot of repetition. Really, a LOT of repetition.
    A lot of structured time and synchronized encounters (conferences, symposiums, etc…) .
    A lot of oratory and rethorics (too much some people would say).
    A lot of pilgrimages (conferences and congresses worldwide).
    A big community made of a lot of other communities.
    And a lot of institutions already.

    Those rituals took us to the moon.
    And even proved that exercising your body actually helps increase intelligence.

    • shermy
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      Excellently put…
      Perhaps these things could be celebrated in a similar to the way they have been practiced, and by those who think celebration and ritual are missing from their ‘atheist’ lives. I think that is what is being proposed here: an opt-in social/ritual experience for those who think they could benefit from it.

  4. Chris Booth
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    This entire talk is un-thought-out drivel.

    It is also dishonest–or he is shockingly uneducated.

    It was very hard to listen to this; he is a hyperaccomodationist–so much so, that he cedes vast territories to religion that are not and never were religion’s. I am appalled at the poor quality of this pabulum. Is he taken seriously by anybody but the religious, and if so, why? (Or has he set himself up as a kind of pet “atheist” for the religious?)

  5. Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    In my opinion, the main benefit in being without religion is to be free of ridiculous constraints. Religion has never been the shining light of morality just vindictively spiteful. I am certain that being free from ritual and superstition allows humanity to discover better ways to live in peace together.

  6. madamX
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    My thoughts:
    1:25, I’m annoyed.
    2:55, I’m offended.
    5:10, I’m offended.
    6:10, I fucking hate sermons.
    7:00, what the fuck is he talking about?
    7:50, I still don’t know what the fuck he is talking about.
    8:02, I was just looking at and admiring the beauty of the moon yesterday.
    8:59, preachers = amens = ?
    9:54, my physical action of taking a bath is also backed up by a philosophical idea. The difference is my idea isn’t shit.
    10:52, only the religious appreciate art? I’m offended.
    12:14, the subjective qualities of art make it interesting!
    12:58, I’m offended.
    14:12, books written by individuals don’t change anything?
    14:34, I *have* learned things from religion like people are gullible and power corrupts.
    15:01, and the mechanisms religions use to spread ideas could be considered amoral too.

  7. theinstinctofnottobecomeextinct
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Do we need an atheist religion?

    YES, indeed! I see a meaning in having one: Being united. There is no world-wide atheist lobby yet. We cannot form a mass.

    Therefore i believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. RAmen.

    • Mettyx
      Posted January 22, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      Exactly, (New)Atheism movement will fade into margins again if people act foolishly as many did in this topic.

      They fail to comprehend basic stuff about politics and social psychology. It is very disheartening to see atheists being so irrational.

      • Dermot C
        Posted January 22, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

        De Botton’s proposal is nothing more than a rehash of ritualised worship of the Supreme Being and the ‘Cult of Reason’ promulgated in the early stages of the French Revolution, of the ‘Religion of Humanity’ advanced by Ludwig Feuerbach and Auguste Comte, and Lunacharsky’s ‘God-building’ in the early part of the last century, countered by Lenin. The idea in all cases, was to worship at the altar of humanity and to purloin many of the cultural practices of organised religion. None of which has lasted.

        Yes, as a cultural Catholic, I appreciate the ‘smells and bells’, but only in a distanced, anthropological and, one must admit, slightly nostalgic, sense; but that is a long way from advocating a religion of the secular. What would it look like? What would it do? Commune with itself on the ferocity with which each member disbelieves?

        Given its repeated failure to catch on in the last 200 years, why would it succeed now?

        • shermy
          Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

          It can be done. A disagreement, yes, but an actual serious and intelligent response, and one worth consideration. Well done!

      • Posted January 22, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Good grief! If you seriously think we need anything like a religion for that, you’re hardly being rational! In fact, I think you seriously misunderstand gnu atheism.


      • mordacious1
        Posted January 22, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        I’m willing to be the Gnu Geesus, but only if you guys promise not to nail me to a board or claim that my mother was a virgin (she certainly was gnot!).

      • tomh
        Posted January 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Mettyx wrote:
        They fail to comprehend basic stuff about politics,

        I see you making a lot of assertions without any explanations. Just what is this basic stuff about politics that you think atheists don’t understand?

  8. christopher
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    the same reason i so easily left religion is why i don’t need ritual in atheism. i can walk outside and be amazed, i can “observe” the lunar “ritual” of waxing and waning, changing seasons, return of the Juncos or Humming birds, i have professors rather than priests, etc. i dont need some weak-minde psuedo-atheistic sophist to tell me what gives my life and death meaning.

  9. KP
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Just once I’d like to hear one of these accomodationist atheists explain why we don’t hear analogous talks by pastors urging believers to incorporate more reason and evidence in the evaluation of their religious truth claims.

  10. Persto
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    I have heard this argument before. We need a purpose, a god, a religion. Blather, prattle, yak, and on and on.

    Gnu atheism does not require a religion; rather it demands a search for truth. Feder contended, “We might not be able to get to absolute truths about the meaning of existence, but we can figure out quite a bit about our world—about chemistry and biology, psychology and sociology, physics and history, and even prehistory.” Atheists do not need a god or a religion, but rather the unremitting quest for understanding and the desire that this pursuit will yield a sufficiently contenting harvest. Virgil stated, “happy the man who has learned the causes of things, and has put under his feet all fears, and inexorable fate, and the noisy strife of the hell of greed.”

    I am of the opinion that scientific discoveries about and empirical evidence of our universe and our existence should be and is sufficient to inspire awe-filled curiosity about the nature of our existence. Who needs religion?

    Gnu atheism does not need a religion because it does not need to be defined. It is precisely the lack of a strict definition that sets it apart. You cannot pigeonhole gnu atheism; it encompasses all forms of secular thought. There is no dogma, doctrine, or code. Gnu atheism is not a religion; it is not necessary for atheists to support identical philosophies or beliefs. Atheists should not subscribe to one particular worldview. (Religion does that.) Disagreements are healthy and heated discussion is welcomed. All atheists do not need to concur on personal ideals; rather the beauty of atheism is it represents independent and self-regulating thought, unburdened from the shackles of religion and god. Religion-it cannot be disputed-provides some societal good and offers comfort to the disillusioned and frightened, but that does not make it worthwhile, reliable, or valid. Pinker stated, “Sometimes we choose not to know things because we can anticipate that they would have an uncontrollable effect on our emotions.” This most assuredly explicates people’s inability to shake off religious beliefs. Atheism is the antithesis of religion, as it should be. So, I say appreciate the depth and value of atheistic knowledge, but don’t corrupt gnu atheism with religious ideas.

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      The idea that atheism is in need of a religion is absurd. However people who speak of an “atheist movement” or identify themselves as “new atheists” or, even more idiotically, as “gnu atheists” give the impression to others that they already are a religion. There may be more atheists around than there were 50 years ago, although, to be honest, the impression I get in the UK is that there are less. But even if true, that does not thereby constitute a “movement” and does not deserve a special label. As far as I am concerned “atheist” is merely an adjective that applies to me as does the phrase “medium height and slightly over weight”, but it would be absurd to self-identify as “gnu medium height and slightly over weight”

      • Posted January 24, 2012 at 4:11 am | Permalink

        Why do you consider “gnu atheist” to be idiotic? You do know the origin of the term, don’t you? It’s a useful identifier of a loose community of people who are, broadly, atheists because of a naturalistic, sceptic, pro-science worldview and who are willing to be and are openly critical of religion and religious privilege. (If there was a community of people who were of medium height and slightly overweight because of a common worldview and with common views on, say, the ills of size 0 models, then they would be deserving of a distinctive label.) The label “new atheist” was thrust upon this community. However, because these attributes are nothing new – Ingersoll, for example, fits the description – the community subverted the label by adopting the homonym “gnu” (or near homonym, depending on what variety of English you speak).

        And in what sense do gnu atheists give the impression that gnu atheism (rather than gnu atheists themselves) already is a religion? Theists often claim that atheism (without any qualification) is a religion, but that’s equally bogus. Excepting, perhaps, the sense in which football can be someone’s religion — but I don’t seriously think that that’s what they – or you – have in mind.


        PS. I’m not sure about 50 years ago, but according to British Social Attitudes 28, 2011-2012 Edition, 50% of UK citizens now have no religion compared to 31% in 1983. Not all of these people (in either year) would necessarily self-identify as atheists or agnostics (with agnosticism practically equivalent to weak atheism), but I doubt that there are fewer atheists (of all stripes) now than there were then (of 50ya for that matter). I suspect, although I have no data to support this, that the majority of the growth is due to an increase in apathetic or apgnostic atheists (“apatheists”) — i.e., those who just don’t care whether or not there’s a god — rather than those who came to their atheism through a positive worldview such as naturalism.

        • Posted January 24, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

          The label “new atheist” was thrust upon this community. However, because these attributes are nothing new – Ingersoll, for example, fits the description – the community subverted the label by adopting the homonym “gnu” (or near homonym, depending on what variety of English you speak).

          What do you mean by “this community”? Doesn’t that give the impression that your brands of atheism is a religion? Why do you speak of worldviews? Religions have worldviews, the very concept smacks of dogma. If you want to have a “community of atheists” with its own distinctive “worldview”, go ahead and label it however you like, but don’t have the timerity to to assume you speak for “atheists” and if your “community” acts like a religion, don’t be pretend to be surprised if it is treated like one.
          I’m sorry if this sounds disrespectful but I am not a member of your club I don’t have to accept its rules!

          • Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

            “Doesn’t that give the impression that your brands of atheism is a religion?” — It’s a leap to go from “community” to “religion”. And gnu atheism isn’t a “brand[s?]” of atheism – it’s a label for a variety of people who just happen to be atheist (weak or strong, agnostic or ignostic, &c., &c.) because of a broadly common worldview and with broadly common attitudes to religion.

            “Religions have worldviews, the very concept smacks of dogma.” — I think you’re putting the cart before the horse here. Philosophical naturalism, for example, is a legitimate worldview (“a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world” – NOAD) that’s about as far as possible from a religion. There’s no authority and no principles that are regarded as incontrovertibly true.

            don’t have the timerity to to assume you speak for ‘atheists’” — Who is claiming that gnu atheists do? I for one certainly don’t — didn’t I just explain (twice now) that gnu atheists have particular attributes beyond their atheism? Clearly not all atheists share those attributes. Apatheists certainly don’t. And didn’t Persto say “All atheists do not need to concur on personal ideals; rather the beauty of atheism is it represents independent and self-regulating thought”?

            “if your ‘community’ acts like a religion” – Again: In what way is this loose community acting like a religion?

            “I am not a member of your club I don’t have to accept its rules!” — What rules? (And no-one’s asking to accept any non-existant rules!!)


            • Posted January 24, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

              I am getting ready to a philosophy discussion group which starts is about 45 minutes time. As far as I know everyone in the group is an atheist and I would be quite surprised if anyone wasn’t. This might be called a community of people who happen to be atheists.

              How can you use a label like “gnu atheist” and claim you just happen to be atheist?

              How does the claim that “gnu atheists have particular attributes beyond their atheism” differ from the claim that that gnu atheism is a brand of atheism.

              How can you use vaguely insulting terms like “apatheist” and claim that the “community” you claim to represent does not have rules?

              If you are not acting like a religion then why do you suppose I should take into account what Persto said when I am arguing with you? Moreover I don’t need his nor anyone else’s permission not to concur with anyone on personal ideals. There is no inherent “beauty” to atheism; it does not “represent independent and self-regulating thought”; it is merely the position that one does not believe in a God or gods – no more, no less.

              As for your “gnu atheism”, if it looks like a religion, acts like a religion and quacks like a religion don’t be surprised if people think it is a religion.

              • Posted January 24, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

                I hope you had fun!

                “a philosophy discussion group … might be called a community of people” — I’m not sure that this is a definition of “community” that I was previously aware of… 

                “just happen to be” — That was sloppy wordsmithing. Mea culpa. Read it as, “who are atheist because of…” That is, distinct from (a) atheists who are atheists for different reasons, and (b) atheists who are not vocal on religion or who are accommodationists or … I would also grant you that not every atheist who shares those attributes would necessarily self-identify as such nor would I claim them as such.

                “How does … differ from the claim that that gnu atheism is a brand of atheism” – You answer the question yourself, in part: “[atheism] is merely the position that one does not believe in a God or gods – no more, no less”. The point is that gnu atheism describes something broader than gnu atheists’ atheism. To my mind, a “brand of atheism” wouldn’t indicate anything broader than atheism. In fact, given the “no more, no less” definition, I’m not sure that there can be brands of atheism.

                Why do you think that “apatheist” is a vaguely insulting term? There’s no value judgement in saying that some people are atheists because they show or feel no interest, enthusiasm, or concern about the question of the existence of zero, one or many gods. In what way does my use of it say anything about the community having rules? The term’s not widely used, but I don’t see its use as being peculiar to gnu atheism. Even if it were, why would that be evidence for rules?

                “If you are not acting like a religion…” — I’m really not sure where you’re going with that. I cited Persto because he was making the point that atheists “do not need to concur on personal ideals” contra your assertion that gnu atheists presume to speak for all atheists. It’s certainly true that for some (but, agreed, not all) atheists atheism is a manifestation of “independent and self-regulating thought” – I guess many would more often say “freethought”. Is there beauty in that? I can see why Persto might say so. Certainly, the clear association of atheism in general (and gnu atheism) with freethought does argue against any kind of dogma.

                “if [‘gnu atheism’] looks like a religion, acts like a religion and quacks like a religion” — Again, you’re very vague here… In what way does gnu atheism look like a religion? In what way does gnu atheism act like a religion? In what way does gnu atheism quack like a religion?


      • Persto
        Posted January 24, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        I surmise your disputation is mere semantics. You just detest the appellation gnu atheism. You didn’t vocalize anything incompatible with what I stated in my post. In fact, you simply recapitulate every point I made by endeavoring to contradict me in some enigmatic respect.

        Movement? Movement implies deliberate structure and organization. Where in anything I said would you procure the postulation of intentional organization?

        Height and weight are physical characteristics constructed by genetic traits. You cannot say,”I want to be taller.” And it happen. You cannot associate with tall people and become, magically, a tall person.
        While you possess some degree of personal control over your weight (exercise, diet,etc) you are restricted by the molecular structure and function of your genes, genetic behavior, genetic inheritance, and the laws of physics. You, if healthy, are physically confined to losing and gaining a determined amount of weight during your lifetime. Personal opinion and external forces are irrelevant.

        However, atheism represents a cognizant and volitional choice that can be drastically and directly influenced by external occurrences and individual thought. Granted, personal selection is rangebound by physical laws, it is still a conscious decision, whether determined or not(More than likely is.), it is definitely not categorically the same as height or weight. Apples and oranges.

        We, as humans, have a proclivity towards collective community or clique. It is an ingrained evolutionary trait. Primitive remnants of our tribal origins. So, while you may not intuit the desideratum to identify yourself as a gnu atheist you, almost certainly, identify yourself in some ideational way. So, why fault gnu atheists for doing the same thing?

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:44 am | Permalink


  11. Posted January 25, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    There can be no question that religion appeals to many people because of rituals, the sense of community etc. One can try to rise above these “base” feelings, or try to redirect them. Hitler, Stalin, Kim and many, many other dictators consciously modelled their own cults on religion, and to some extent it explains their popularity. Of course, they were evil. But what if someone good did the same thing? There are advantages and disadvantages. Discuss.

    Northern Europe is often cited as an example of a very non-religious society which by almost any sensible definition is better than anywhere else to live. This is largely true, and is why I have lived here most of my life. (I grew up in a very backward country, in Texas.) However, taking Sweden as an example since I am quite familiar with it, the society is extremely full of rituals. Midsummer is the best known (obviously originally a pagan festival), but there are many other similar rituals throughout the year (one which involves eating crayfish in the light of Chinese lanterns—as stylized and ritualistic as anything religion has to offer). Also, although this was true more in the (really!) good old days than today, the state is seen and welcomed by many as an extension of or replacement for the family. And the calendar is very important (how can it not be, when the seasons are so in evidence?). And all of this is more real than religion is in more moderate countries where many people just go through the motions; people don’t celebrate midsummer or the crayfish fest because they feel they have to, but because they enjoy it.

  12. shermy
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    There was one time that was missed on here, and subsequently missed by the majority of commenters (apparently?)

    1:30 “I’m interested in a kind of constituency…” targets those who *want or acknowledge* some sort of ritualism in their lives.

    If you redirect your powers of nitpickery to that of basic comprehension, you might not find such offense in someone expressing a fairly reasonable idea. If the type of person is ‘ritualistic’, directing people to a ‘ritual of reflection and logic’ might actually help, no?

    And why should a snark at Dawkins cause anything but amusement. Now *there* is a religious zealot dressed in the trappings of atheism. I’m an atheist, but I tell you this: I don’t join up to ‘club atheism’ through an inability to think about my non-belief myself, nor do I mindlessly (or as a blanket) pour scorn on religion or the religious, or belittle people for having a cultural immersion in religion. In actual fact I’d preferred not to have to even mention RD in this post at all, but since something said in mild jest of him is cited as if a negative – or implicit sacrilege – then I might add that he has been responsible for some of the most ridiculously illogical things I’ve heard in my life, and in no way represents a perfect rational mind, and in no way represents the atheism (an absence of a belief!) to which I subscribe.

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  1. [...] sounds like an appalling idea to me. I see that Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, finds the idea to be “a facile attempt to appropriate the trappings of religion as something essential to an atheist [...]

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