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.