Atheists and Traditions

Religion has a lot different facets that different people find appealing:

  1. identity/community
  2. transcendence/awe/altered states of consciousness
  3. rituals
  4. tradition/culture
  5. purpose/guidance
  6. belief in the supernatural

And surely many others. It’s my impression that people tend to focus on a few of their favorites among these components and ignore the rest. It’s just as true of the devout as it is of the apatheists, agnostics, and atheists. It’s just that people tend to see each religion as a monolith, so the difference in focus from one believer to the next is not always obvious. By contrast, it’s very obvious that the non-religious have to pick and choose.

These choices lead to an eternal conflict (see here and here):

“I think it is very, very nice of Greg Epstein to want to ape religion, and maybe there will even be some people who find his ideas appealing,” Myers tells the Phoenix via e-mail. “However, I’d remind him that just as we can be good without god, we can also be good without rituals, good without sacraments, [and] good without priests and chaplains. I can appreciate that he’s offering a small step away from the old superstitions, but we can go so much further.”

Or, let me break it down further:

atheist #1: I love church! I don’t think that non-belief should be something that disqualifies you from going to church. Let’s reclaim church and show everyone that atheists go to church just like other good people.
atheist #2: WTF? Church stinks! I don’t have a “church-shaped hole” in me any more than I have a “god-shaped hole” in me. And I’m sick of people implying that you need church to be a whole person or that going to church is somehow superior to not going to church.

I had this same conflict with the novel Duck Egg Blue. I’m very happy that the Unitarian Universalists are there for the folks who like church and aren’t so interested in belief and theology. And I’d like to see the same acceptance the other direction, i.e. acknowledgement that lacking interest in church doesn’t make you defective or inferior. 😉

Personally, I think non-theism is orthogonal to all of the items on my “religion-facets” list except the last one. It neither encourages nor discourages them. Being an atheist doesn’t mean you have to stop celebrating Christmas if you don’t want to, and it also doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to like Christmas (if you don’t) out of some misguided belief that there’s something wrong with people who don’t like Christmas.

Same for the others on the list. Some people like rituals more than others. People experience awe in different ways. Some people like to like to keep a connection with the culture of their youth (and read/write about it on blogs like this one), others hardly give Mormonism a second thought after giving up belief. And that’s OK.

p.s. What do you think of the new masthead?


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. TGD says:

    Great article! And I love the new masthead.

  2. hypatia says:

    I like the new masthead! I’m going to plead ignorance however and ask what is the exchange going on between the women at the top and the suits? Is that from something recent?

  3. chanson says:


    LdChino made the new masthead. I’m not sure what that exchange is from. Maybe the church dudes are protecting the plaza from those sleveless ladies.

  4. Holly says:

    I also like the new masthead. And when the weather’s OK I frequently wander around MSP (and occasionally Temple Square itself) without sleeves (and even sometimes without a bra, frankly) and I’ve never been hassled by anyone but sister missionaries who want to share the gospel. These women look like they might be holding hands, which could attract the ire of the suits, or they might just have asked the wrong person for directions. In any event, it reminds me never to make eye contact with middle-aged white guys in dark suits when I’m anywhere near church property.

  5. gus o. kahan says:

    Gus O Kahan, attempted to post a comment on Mormon Matters, 10/30/09
    Ardi and the Rise of Mormon Symbology

    Censorship: Unfortunately on Mormon Matters sponsored by the “Religion Making Business” is not receptive to any comment counter to Mormon Party Dogma.
    First casualty on Mormon Matters is Truth.
    As a concerned global citizen I am posting my comment on Scari.Org.
    Response to: Mormon Symbology
    Mormon Symbology,
    In Recognition of Wilted Mormon Dogmatology
    Darwin mutters when speaking of mormon matters.

    As they say, open up the windows, let the bad air out.?

    ps. please list Scari.Org under Mormon Counter-Apologetics
    Google search image or text: “Religion Making Business”

  6. chanson says:

    Holly — Hmm, well maybe Chino will stop by and remind us of where that photo came from…;)

    Gus — Considering that your other comment mentions Viagra, it’s possible that it got caught in the Mormon Matters’s spam queue (as opposed to being censored).

    I can list your site with former-Mormon blogs, but it doesn’t appear to have a standard blog format. Is the precise address of the main page of your Mormon-related blog?

  7. One question that I’ve been thinking about is how we teach our children to be good people outside of an institution that gives us regular, structured opportunities to talk about good principles. I have some idea, but a little part of me still worries that without a church, children may grow up aimless and fall into empty consumerism.

    BTW, the subtitle is a bit hard to read. Maybe adding a background to it with a little transparency would help. Adding this to the theme’s CSS stylesheet should do the trick.

    .description {
    background-color: white;
    -khtml-opacity: 0.75;
    opacity: 0.75;

  8. chanson says:

    Jonathan — that’s a good point.

    When it comes to church and kids, I always think in terms of the bad lessons and values it teaches: the importance of conformity, treating unquestioning obedience to authority as a virtue, and judging oneself and others according to a checklist of petty, pointless rules that distract you from the big picture of empathy.

    OTOH, there is that aspect of having a structured time when the child is encouraged to think about what it means to be good. If you’re not taking them to church, then you need to find a way to be sure they spend some time on thinking about what it means to do good to others.

  9. chanson says:

    p.s. thanks for the css snippet! We’ll look into adding it to our files.

  10. LdChino says:

    I stole that photo from Ontario’s The Globe and Mail:

    From the caption:

    Two protesters are asked to leave the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah, by Mormon Church security during a protest over the detention and handcuffing of two gay men for holding hands and one kissing the other on the cheek last week.

    I was pleased to see that chanson chose to run with the masthead. The subtitle is very hard to read. Hope everyone is enjoying their weekend.

  11. John Moeller says:

    LdChino: great masthead! It’s perfect.

  12. chanson says:

    Chino — Thanks, that’s perfect! I think it really captures the point of the blog’s name!

    Jonathan — I updated the css, but it seems not quite right. When I get a minute, I’ll try to figure out how to fix it…

  13. t.n. trap says:

    “I have some idea, but a little part of me still worries that without a church, children may grow up aimless and fall into empty consumerism.”

    Because no active Mormons have fallen into empty consumerism? Or do regular church-goers participate in a more fulfilling, non-empty consumerism?

    I think the fear of how your kids will learn how to be good people without weekly church is exactly that, a fear. I have that worry, too (I don’t think it is a rational fear), but I also worry about some of what my kids are learning because they are going to church (similar to what chanson mentions above). I’m just lazy enough to let the formal time they get at church be enough. If we weren’t going to church, I’d come up with something else.

    I’m a fan of practical teaching in this area, anyway; spending time with my kids, getting involved in their lives and teaching them along the way.

    The good people I have known, I don’t see a pattern in why they ended up good people, I don’t see a formula. The most I can come up with is something in their parents, some kind of work ethic or a fragment of their personal morality or behavior that was just enough to send their children off in the right direction. And it’s something that I don’t think Mormonism really teaches well (or at least, it gets lost in all the Mormon minutia and effluvia).

  14. aerin says:

    I like the new masthead as well.

    I think children should be given the tools to make their own mistakes (age appropriate) and to learn from them. Time to learn about and contemplate other people’s experiences is also helpful (not everyone has a home, food on a regular basis, access to transportation, etc.).

    My only caution about having church be the *only* place in the family where these things are discussed is that sometimes things are taught in church that parents disagree with. I found this with my own parents as I was becoming disaffected.

    I would say to my parents, well, I thought you believed “x,y,z” because that’s what I had learned in primary/Sunday school. Maybe it was polygamy – maybe it was dating mormons only – I don’t recall. My parents were shocked and surprised and didn’t understand why I hadn’t asked them about that.

    Well, I had no idea that they would disagree with those topics or perspectives. So why would I have asked them?

    My husband and I discussed lying the other day with our four year olds. In a movie we had watched, the main character lies to her father.

    It wasn’t an extensive conversation – but I don’t want for them to reach the age of 16 and not know how my husband and I feel about things like lying to one’s parents. So I think it’s absolutely important (if you attend a religious institution or not) to have lots of conversations with your children (or others) about morality – figuring out what morals are acceptable or not.

  15. Wayne says:

    One aspect of raising kids to be moral and kind etc. Is to be that way with your children, and keep the channels of communication open. So, when a kid messes up they know that mom and dad will listen to them when they explain themselves.

    Open communication obviously does not belong to the religious. I do think, though, that religion can function to give an alternate understanding to social expectations. Also, in a family setting where open communication is the norm religion functions as another conversation starter.

  16. Organized religion is problematic for me because those whose job it is to uphold the boundaries of a faith tradition (pastors, bishops) are always in some ways unable to be humble in their work. They have to maintain limits and exact punishments: “Oh, you can’t do this or that, even though there are people who are doing this and that. We don’t do this or that.” I always question the reason for this “we” (in the same way that racial minorities question the “we” in the word “American.”) I guess for me, I’ve never experienced a church setting where this wasn’t an issue.

    Dallin Oaks in his recent talk at BYU-Idaho basically had to paint all “acting” homosexuals as atheists in order for his argument about freedom of religious speech in the public sphere to be poignant. If he were interested in the public sphere as it is, then he would have mentioned pro-gay spiritual positions. He avoided a battle of the supernaturals because, nowadays, it only makes transparent the hand of man (back during the Crusades, it made God hypervisible). It’s much easier to paint one’s opponents as godless, because then the battlefield is clear. A spiritually humble person wouldn’t do this, though. They’d help open others’ eyes to the multiple possibilities of being “good” in this world. I’m not saying Oaks isn’t humble, but I’m just saying his organized faith tradition limits his humility.

  17. chanson says:

    Alan — That’s a good point.

    Keep in mind, though, that Oaks had another political reason for painting homophobia as the religious position and acceptance of homosexuals as the godless position. I think Craig summed it up well here:

    Because of the constitutional issue of separation of church and state, the state cannot favour one religion over another. Even if we were to allow it to favour religion over non-religion (which we don’t allow, or are trying not to at least), it still could not constitutionally or legally allow conservative religions to overrule liberal religions on this or any other issue.

  18. chanson says:

    The good people I have known, I dont see a pattern in why they ended up good people, I dont see a formula. The most I can come up with is something in their parents, some kind of work ethic or a fragment of their personal morality or behavior that was just enough to send their children off in the right direction. And its something that I dont think Mormonism really teaches well (or at least, it gets lost in all the Mormon minutia and effluvia).

    I agree with this point.

    I’ve been thinking about the comments of t.n. trap, Aerin, and Wayne, and I’m still trying to decide what — if anything — I should do to be sure my kids are getting an education in ethics.

    As it is, we spend a lot of time talking with our kids, and they tell us about their ideas and interests. And we discuss different issues that come up. For the moment it’s mostly behavioral issues (ask politely, don’t hurt your brother, share), but that may change.

  19. I would want to nuance Craig’s argument somewhat. Mormons are unique in that they believe God to be very supportive of American constitutionalism (D&C 98:5-6); Mormons are interested in being good nationalists, patriots, constitutionalists. So, I don’t think it’s about the separation of church and state, because as I’m sure Craig knows this is as much of a false dichotomy as the separation between spirituality and homosexuality. The “separation of church and state” has created a multiplicity of organized faith traditions, all of which have constituencies that vote, and who affect the state on interlocking issues (gay marriage, abortion, death penalty, etc). So, I don’t see a limitation to Oaks’ speech in this regard (or as Craig puts it: “his lack of intelligence”). Rather, the limitation is how Oaks must frame what’s on the ground in order to maintain his specific constituency, and this framing is what I see as troubling in the long run because of its inaccuracy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.