Beyond Bad Religion

In response to one of my recent posts about Heathen’s Progress, ChristianAtheist wrote:

“OK, so we know what bad religion looks like, in terms of lots of propositions, ineffability at the points at which you need clarity, lots of cognitive biases, irrationality and an emotional investment in a group membership that is hard to shake. What would good, non-fundamentalist, realistic, eyes wide open, flexible religion look like? And will a group of people adhering to such a theology be able to form a cohesive, sustainable group?”

That’s a good list of what’s bad about some faith communities. I would add: a heaping dose of arrogance and self-righteousness, hostility toward other spiritual pathways, and suffocatingly-tight control over the personal behavior of group members.

What would constructive and creative religion look like? Certainly the quality of relationships within the community would be crucial. People would treat each other with care and respect, allowing flexibility for individual differences instead of embracing members in a vise-like grip.

Instead of being belief-centered, such a community would be value-centered, focusing on the commitments we make to each other and the larger world. One such commitment would be: Always stay open to new discoveries, including the discoveries of the physical and social sciences.

I have met many people who have felt a deep need to belong to a positive and non-dogmatic spiritual community. When they meet like-minded individuals they are delighted to make those connections. The formal and informal groups they create are often strong and viable.

Any other suggestions?


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6 thoughts on “Beyond Bad Religion

  1. A focus on action rather than theory, since we can be a little more certain about the value of actions rather than beliefs, ideas, emotions, etc? A group that is outwardly focused may perhaps be less prone to internal conflict and negative group dynamics, once they have a rough idea of their values. And personally, I think I feel more “meaningful” (perhaps closer to something transcendent?) when I have done something useful than when getting tied down in theology.

    • Very good point. For example, service work and social change work (where there is general agreement). And helping the children of the community explore spirituality and values in a non-dogmatic, reality-based manner.


  2. It is interesting that you say a good religious group could be based on values rather than beliefs. What do you think underpins those values, if not beliefs – not necessarily metaphysical beliefs, but beliefs about what is good and how to achieve it?

    I would include action at the individual level too, that is supported by the values of the group. Often it seems that people feel guilty that they are not taking part in standard religious behaviours, such as helping with church activities or ambitious social projects. Looking after an elderly relative or bringing up your children well should be endorsed by the group just as much. Plus I would like work-life balance to be a fundamental value of any religious group I belong to! (Actually, the value underpinning that is probably something along the lines of living a sustainable life, in the sense of not trying to change the world and burning out in the process – finding a way to live a useful life that can be sustained over the long term.) What other values might be included?

  3. Good point about the importance of individual good works.

    Re: “What do you think underpins those values, if not beliefs …?” It does make sense to express values as beliefs — I believe in the worth and dignity of all persons — although I myself think of this as a statement of commitment to treat people with respect rather than a statement of facts about “all persons.” And we obviously need some beliefs about facts to make any value-commitments at all. For instance, I need to believe that persons exist (fact) before I commit myself to respecting them (value). Then in order to know how to realize my values in practice, I need to know a lot about facts, to develop good strategies.

    The fact/value problem goes back to trying to understand how to ground, justify, our core values. Sam Harris seem to think science is the appropriate basis, since he’s written a book called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Have you read that one? It’s going to be a while before I get to it, because I’ve got a mountain of reading to do for my current book project on philosophy of mind. But after that I want to read The Moral Landscape and similar publications. I wrote a little about this topic in Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions, but there’s a lot more to say about it!


  4. This reply is interesting because before reading it I was just planning to write something about Sam Harris! I haven’t read it but I have read some reviews of it (in the Guardian and the New York Times) and I have just attended a seminar at Oxford University (on what evolution can tell us about the ethics of neuro-enhancement for improving relationships by Brian Earp) in which the relationship between science and values was briefly discussed and Harris’s contention rejected, as seems to be the fashion from the reviews I read. But I am not sure. People change their mind from being anti-homosexuality partly because science that tells us it has a genetic basis (even if this doesn’t account for it fully); and white people became less prejudiced towards black people once it was shown there are no physical differences that would imply their inferiority. Obviously there are other reasons for changing one’s prejudices, such as changing social norms and becoming friends with people from the outgroup, but the science plays a part in at least the former. What I believe about the nature of consciousness will affect my values about animals and unborn babies, and those beliefs should be congruent with scientific findings, even if there is more than one possible interpretation. What other examples can we think of?

    I agree about needing facts before deciding on beliefs and values. Will think about this some more.

    The other issue about values is the order of importance. I might think that the dignity of all persons is important but might rate scientific progress higher. Or one person may value relationships more highly than efficiency, but her friend the other way round! Within debates between religious and non-religious, it often seems to be the case that there are shared values but one gets more excited about, say, looking after the environment and another about monogamous sex. They both agree they are important but some things are more important than others. Is this down to personality differences or are there more fundamental values underlying these ones?

    P.S. This is much more fun than CiF – there aren’t any angry, bitter, arrogant posts! (I hope I don’t speak too soon….)

    • Re: “I might think that the dignity of all persons is important but might rate scientific progress higher. Or one person may value relationships more highly than efficiency, but her friend the other way round!”

      That is exactly the sort of thing I want to reflect upon before I write much about how we should ground our ethical judgments. It’s not easy to know how to deal with contradictory “weightings” of ultimate goals.

      The seminar on “the ethics of neuro-enhancement for improving relationships” sounds fascinating. And there were several articles about enhancement in Free Inquiry, Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying these exchanges! If you know of others who value respectful interchange, consider recommending the blog:


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