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A Most Stupendous & Audacious Undertaking

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If I were to create a religion, it would look like this:

I’ve often thought about how the leading vocal atheists have the wrong approach to religion.  They spend plenty of time making fun of the contradictions in leading religions and warning of the dangers of fundamentalism, but they don’t think about why people are attracted to religion to begin with.  Simply poking a stick at religion won’t win many converts, but providing something that meets the needs of religious people might do so.  One of the things that people find attractive about religion is that it provides them with an overarching worldview that helps answer the big questions in life, provides a value system, and helps create a central life purpose. 

What would the doctrine of such an atheist-friendly religion look like?  Here’s an outline of how I would structure it:


The origins of the universe are unclear, but what is clear is that we as a species are something incredibly special.  As far as we know, Earth holds the only intelligent life in existence.  That may change in the future, but for now we are a lone bright candle of intelligence in the void.  The fact that an organized society of sentient beings emerged from a disorganized soup of chemicals is more than a miracle – it’s a long string of miracles.   It’s a wonderful triumph in light of physical laws that are neutral to hostile to complex, organized systems. 

These miracles were billions of years in the making. However, as self-awareness has increased, the pace of the “miracles” has greatly quickened.   Cultural and technological evolution and development have supplanted biological evolution as the primary driving forces in increased self-awareness.  For the first time, the emergent intelligence can consciously self-direct its own future development, for better or for worse. 

I'm going to take it on faith (or as a logician would say, as axiomatic) that self-awareness is good. A bacterium is more self-aware than a rock, a cat is more self-aware than a bacterium, a person is more self-aware than a cat, and a society is more self-aware than a person.  Self-awareness lets the universe understand and transform itself, allowing it to behold its own beauty. 

The ultimate purpose of the human race is to raise the matter of the universe to self-awareness, lifting ourselves up to the level of gods in the process. The universe may be beautiful, but it's a tragedy if it's never appreciated by an intelligent being. Science, art, literature, engineering, and other fields of human endeavor are tools to enhance self-awareness.

With our purpose in mind, we must tackle several huge issues.  We have to make sure that the lone candle of intelligence is not snuffed out through negligence or malice.  This means tremendous social progress – developing a society-wide immune system that prevents large-scale wars, catastrophic climate change, and other dangers to our existence.  We need to understand the human psyche and how it can be directed toward good and productive endeavors, both at an individual level and at a societal level.  We need to promote cross-cultural understanding and togetherness.  It also means that we need to start aggressively spreading our intelligence beyond the narrow confines of Earth and the fragile containers of our physical bodies.  Our civilization could be wiped out by causes outside our current control such as the sort of asteroid that led to the end of the age of the dinosaurs.  Developments in space travel, artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology will make our intelligence much harder to wipe out. 

Thus, our mission is clear.  We all have different gifts and different ways to contribute, but we’re working toward a common goal – the spreading of intelligence and self-awareness across the universe. 


Of course, a religion is a lot more than just a central doctrine.   A religion needs powerful narratives, rituals, social gatherings, community outreach programs, and more.  If enough people are interested in discussing this, I might organize a local gathering to talk about it. 

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This bears some resemblance to my assertion that my religion is Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory, to me, describes the oneness of the universe, how small patterns are repeated at large scale and large patterns are repeated at small scale. How we are all interconnected and seemingly small inconsequential actions can have long lasting effects. When I first read about Chaos Theory back in high school I had am epiphany that is the closest thing I've ever felt to how others describe their religious awakenings. Suddenly everything just MADE SENSE. It was awesome. In the original sense of the word awesome.

Of course, a religion is a lot more than just a central doctrine. A religion needs powerful narratives, rituals, social gatherings, community outreach programs, and more.
True, but what you've described here seems to have a healthy aspect of narrative in it as well.

I recently had some extended conversations with a leading vocal atheist who was very much in the mold you describe. I was struck by the extent to which his argument for atheism seemed to boil down to "look at all the stupid people who believe in a religion; people should be atheists because everyone else is dumb." And alas, he expressed himself with only slightly more tact than that, in a public forum to boot.

What I noticed from this was that he wasn't advertising any positive virtue of atheism, or any reason why a person's life would be better if they were atheists; his argument was entirely about why not being an atheist is bad.

I like what you're saying here; this is a positive statement of why these beliefs are good.


It's true I have the outline of a big over-arching narrative. What I meant when talking about narrative was the set of personality archetypes and moral parables that flesh out more specific scenarios. The Bible has plenty of these, some of which are kind of fucked-up. (If a teacher gave elementary-school kids a book to read in which a father tries to kill his own son because he heard voices in his head telling him to do so, many parents would probably be outraged... unless it's the Bible).

(Deleted comment)
I don't think ever-spreading should be the goal, but I think the point was that being confined to a single planet leaves us vulnerable to a whole host of extinction type events. Even if we spread to another planet it'd make self-awareness that much harder to be randomly extinguished by a cosmic or terrestrial event.

That sounds just similar enough to some thoughts I've had along the same lines that we could probably have some great sectarian wars over split hairs. You game?

Hey, the existence of at least one competitor is usually seen as a signal of the validity of a new market sector. Sure, bring it on!

This makes me want to kiss you.


We <3 Matt.

I have had an idea of starting a cult that approaches the universe in a similar manner.

I think I identify as more agnostic than atheist, but this still sounds absolutely fascinating.

I look forward to seeing how it develops!

I’ve often thought about how the leading vocal atheists have the wrong approach to religion.

Oh, I haven't. I only wish they had spoken up earlier.

You see, when someone trapped in a religious household or community is able to hear and read these folks, that person (like a young me) knows that the heresies in his head are not to be despised and feared, but to be embraced. Atheists show other budding atheists that it's alright to be atheists.

Without considering the Overton Window, one cannot appreciate the good work the loud and obnoxious godless voices do. We need this sometimes violent dissent to counterweight those that assume the mantel of supernatural anointment as a foil to all criticism.

So, while I think it's great you're giving thought to moving in a more civil manner with a touchy subject -- and even wish you well with this -- please don't try to silence the protesters who are really doing nothing more than point out the very naked jerk parading as an emperor. His followers need to hear the shouts, if only to protect their own sanity.

And for your reading pleasure, that theme of the universe developing self-awareness? tacit wrote about this thought very eloquently.

I've suspected - more and more distinctly - that this:
You see, when someone trapped in a religious household or community is able to hear and read these folks, that person (like a young me) knows that the heresies in his head are not to be despised and feared, but to be embraced. Atheists show other budding atheists that it's alright to be atheists.
lies at the heart of my own personal issues with the more vocal parts of (mainly US) "evangelical" atheism.

There are those who are atheists because they started out trapped in a religious household or community; and more or less include rebellion in their atheism.

And then there are those who ended up atheists without it being a clear case of rebellion getting there. I grew up in Sweden. I was raised VERY secular christian. And moving from there might be some higher power of some sort somewhere to there probably isn't is not all that much of a radical step.

Correspondingly, the belligerent atheists and the evangelical atheists weird me out slightly more than the belligerent or evangelical adherents to some religion or other - because they are being belligerent or evangelical about what I basically view as common sense. It's a constant cognitive dissonance for me.

I like the energy and scope! Though...

The ultimate purpose of the human race is to raise the matter of the universe to self-awareness, lifting ourselves up to the level of gods in the process.

So, my ultimate goal as a human being is to become a god by making... hydrogen, or uranium, or a rock, or a volcano... self-aware? ;)

I think I might pass on this particular point as it stands, thanks! =)

Re: I like the energy and scope! Though...

As I read this I'm imagining a self-aware volcano as some kind of cheap villain in a B-grade movie. :-) Oh wait, that was Dante's Peak.

Nah, it's more about rearranging this matter into a new pattern so that it can be used for thinking.

So not far off Octavia Butler's Earthseed, then?

You might want to check out Ben Goertzel's Cosmist manigesto which may have some ideas you want to merge or pick from:

Although the blog isn't very pretty, it's been reformatted/edited as a book to be published by H+ Press.

I like your description, but I think you should remove "aggressively" from the description of expansion. It could be misinterpreted 1000s of years later as a reason to start a war ;-)

(although it'd have to be against something that wasn't considered "self-aware" I guess)

It could be misinterpreted 1000s of years later as a reason to start a war ;-) I suppose concepts like holy war were important memes to help a religion survive back in the day. Like good software, good holy texts should be supported and modernized via upgrades.

Assuming that the goal of said atheistic attacks on religion is to convert people, yes, simple denigration of religion fails badly. In argument or contention, condemnation often serves to blacken the condemner. People are more inclined to positively view a party whose reasons for change appear to come from good will rather than malice, positively view and so be more amenable to swaying by. And, critically, yes, providing a worldview and values is needed for conversion, as those are important things one would be trying to supplant. "[T]hey dont think about why people are attracted to religion to begin with." This is brilliant insight. And it leads to a much more intelligent addressing of the matter: "[P]roviding something that meets the needs of religious people might [win converts]." I suggest there are nuances yet, and that "needs" might roughly be broken down into a) fundamental psychological needs (natural needs), b) desires from neurosis (fundamental psychological needs as filtered through trauma and defense mechanisms), and c) desires from mistake (needs as perceived by the needer, corrupted by logical fallacies or faulty reasoning). You can take that comment as "I am indeed interested in discussing this."

There are many kinds of "need". When I explicitly premise the atheistic attacks, saying the goal might be to convert people from religion, I skirt assuming for a reason. It's not safe to assume atheistic attacks on religion are for the sake of conversion. Many atheists will attack religion out of base emotional needs rather than as a coherent effort to bring change. Ironic, isn't it? For atheists to be slamming religion as an emotional indulgence, probably to the detriment of change they desire (actual conversion)? Hypocritically unreasonable. Counterproductive.

Making progress is important. Venting is also important. The two must be combined as well as can be done to support each (with, I would argue, primacy granted to productivity). As with the mentioned hypocritical irrationality, it's easy for these things to combine counterproductively. But that's not necessarily to be the case and it's possible that venting one's emotions can even be done in synergy with getting things done. To do stand a chance at doing this, know your values, know what goals they imply, and know your emotions. Herein lies the rub. What are your values and goals?

I'm of the opinion that getting to(wards) the root of all purpose is important, at least for a thoughtful individual trying to live an inspected life. And if your aim is to craft an ideology or religion for universal adoption ... a pervasive meme to direct immeasurable human power ... being sure of your enumerated values, I would think, is rather important.

Valuing self-awareness does sound good. But what of awarenesses that don't perceive themselves, only others? Still valuable, I think. What about self-awarenesses that can only suffer in protracted dying? Prop them up on life support and deny them death? Valuing self-awareness per se appears incomplete. I'm inclined, for the sake of making others more comfortable, to dismiss the complexities of Purpose as merely being "details", but I can't in good conscience. Clarity on purpose is essential. Always. And supremely so if you're brewing up a religion.

Here we have pontificating, perhaps casually, outlining a thought virus. Or, rather, outlining a conjuration. An egregor. A big one, as your obvious intelligence would be capable of, Nasu Dengaku. I feel it my duty to sound a loud and alarming CRACK! as I see this step being taken, as you approach the boundary of a circle. I ask you to proceed with utmost caution in this stupendous and audacious undertaking.

First, I'm honored that I've received one of the three comments you've ever made on livejournal. (I looked your profile up to see if I know you. I can't tell.) I'm also amused that browsers still support the blink HTML tag. You are also the first person I've met who has a human placenta as a primary usericon.

Figuring out which needs to address and how to address them will be tricky. Fear of death, for example, is a difficult one. Most religious use sweet lies to parlay this fear into obedience to the church, which works out well for the keepers of religious doctrine. Clearly that approach is not welcome here. I'll have to work out an approach for this and other needs in future posts.

You're right that I need to flesh out whether I really mean self-awareness or another related concept. I am looking to have a simple core to this religion from which many conclusions and actions can be derived, so choosing the core carefully will be very important.

I would argue that even if the goal of Atheists isn't to convert religious folk, even just getting people to *listen* might be good enough reason to be less belligerent.

And if these Atheists don't want people to listen (except to be infuriated) then why bother talking?

Beautiful... have you seen the Symphony of Science videos? The best one is "The Unbroken Thread" which reminds me a lot of your description...

The only part I find that I would have personally said differently is the "as far as we know we're alone" part... it's true I suppose, although I'm not sure what that statement is supposed to mean. If I had to bet, I would definitely bet we are not alone... just as I would bet against the possibility of theism. Of course, we are certainly alone in the sense that we don't have anyone to talk to other than each other... whoever else is out there is either too distant or not interested enough in communicating.

That was nice... and I just knew the auto-tune would kick in after a few seconds. :-)

I do agree that we're probably not alone, but until we know for sure we're not alone (and even then) it would be a tremendous shame to wipe ourselves out.

If religious belief were so liquid, we wouldn't have so many religions. Phrased differently, if it were possible to convert a significant percentage of people simply by introducing an improved set of axioms, then one of the existing religions would have already won out over the rest. If anything, the fact that they haven't argues that doctrinal quality is of questionable importance, and that the things that you mention as a footnote are more likely to be the keys to a successful religion.

So given that, I'd argue that the brute force approach of creating a new religion and wooing worshippers away is the path of highest effort and lowest probability of success. Instead, given that axioms aren't pivotal, I would propose working to alter the dogma of existing religions.

In some cases this is already in train - note Christianity's schisms over gay/female priests. You might suggest that this is more an example of why altering axioms doesn't work; I'd suggest that a 50% conversion rate is a tub-thumpingly amazing success rate - and you can always approach the reactionaries from another angle.

That's a good point. It's unlikely that this will convince devout Christians (or Muslims, Jews etc). Anyone who was raised with a particular religion and is reasonably happy with it will likely stick with it even if their leader tries to cover up rampant incidents of child molestation by high-ranking church officials.

I'm definitely not the right person to change Christianity or Islam from within. As you point out, this likely will have a bigger impact than anything I can do from outside.

However, this religion could accomplish other things:
- Providing a positive focal gathering point for a minority group of atheists in an otherwise strongly religious community.
- Improving the reputation of atheism among religious people as a legitimate force for good. (Of course, as long as there are atheist demagogues, religious people will find something not to like about atheism)
- Providing some of the benefits of religion (the happiness boost Seligman researched, social gathering points, guidance and a sense of purpose in time of need etc) to the nonreligious.

Looking at Wikipedia, 14% of Americans identify as nonreligious, but only 0.5% identify as atheist. That's a lot of people that could potentially be positively impacted by this.

I like this idea overall, but the phrase "lifting ourselves up to the level of gods" raised a bit of a yellow flag for me. I think a lot of traditionally religious people might think that idea smacked of hubris, and even non-religious folk might think it sounded dangerous or presumptuous; either way, it might not be great for attracting people.

The thing is, we're already doing it whether we acknowledge it or not. If you took someone from 1000 years ago and gave them a tour of modern society, they would think we were gods.

Perhaps there's a better way of phrasing it. Lifting ourselves up to the level of gods is a careful, massive, multigenerational project. Perhaps if it's community-owned it will be more palatable. Instead of hoping an entity will save us, we're working together to save ourselves. It's very empowering.

North Texas Church of Freethought

You need to see this:


Yes, this. I've long thought / wished for similar things.

The one thing that is competitively missing compared to other religions is the us-vs-them angle. People are (seemingly) hard-wired to want to see themselves as better than the other tribe down the street.

People want their own DNA, or at least that of their tribe, to continue on. Getting people to put more value on memes, higher levels of constructed consciousness, or the human race as a whole will be a very hard sell.

To make a new religion work, you commonly need to make the old religions into bad guys that must be converted or killed. This gives people an immediate goal and sense of purpose. So does the mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" - you need to encourage your followers to start cranking out more followers at as rapid of a pace as possible.

People want to keep score. They want to know they are winning. Or alternately, they want to know they are losing and feeling self-rightious in their own visions of oppression (and fantasies of eventual redemption or heavenly reward).

Your competitive religion is intellectually right on target, but it is lacking in the visceral score-keeping side. "Us versus potential obliteration by an unknown threat" isn't a game that is conducive to keeping score. It is way too high-brow for your typical sports fans and church goers.

Any ideas on how to add these missing elements, other than just wishing enough people are ready to transcend the common need so many seem to have for them?

I think there's definitely an us vs them angle. Prominent atheists have done a great job of pointing out the foibles of existing religions, though I think this has simply alienated and entrenched many potential converts. What I want to create is something that will pull people in; I think the problem of distancing and distinguishing from other faiths has been solved.

The underdog angle should be doable -- we're fighting incredibly powerful centuries-old institutions that are trapping millions of minds with their ideologies and causing senseless wars that lead to millions of deaths.

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