IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE TO BE "IRRELIGIOUS"?
Is it really possible to be “irreligious”?
On the one hand, it’s entirely possible to be irreligious. In another way, it’s impossible.
“Irreligious” roughly means “apatheist” (or “apathetic toward theism.”) An apatheist is generally bored with the entire topic of institutionalized spirituality. The basic vibe is, “I don’t care about religion. I can have a completely fulfilling life without it.”
On the one hand, going irreligious is clearly an option.
It’s obviously possible to live without participating in traditional organized religion.
In fact, people have been abandoning organized religion in droves. Fewer young Americans today (2022) affiliate with organized religion than ever before in American history.
The reasons aren’t hard to understand. After all, religion is often presented in ways that seem bizarre, irrational, and nonsensical to outsiders. Even to insiders, the experience is sometimes one of boredom, guilt, platitudes, obligations, and more boredom.
Religion also competes with a world overflowing with seemingly endless pleasant distractions. Given all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that an increasingly common response is just to throw the whole ball of wax overboard.
Apatheists aren’t against religion, necessarily. They often just see it as a matter of taste – and they don’t have a taste for it. The thinking, generally, is “Do your thing.” Some people are into sports, painting, or bird-watching. In the same way, some people are just “into religion.” Whatever floats your boat.
For these reasons and others, it’s possible to be “irreligious.”
But in another way, it’s impossible to be irreligious.
There are at least two basic approaches to this.
We can describe them as “the existential” and “the intellectual.”
Every one of us faces “existential riddles” in life.
What should I do with my life? I have to do something with it.
What should I give my life to? I have to literally “spend” it in some way. What’s a smart investment?
I don’t want to waste my life. How can I avoid that? How do you live so you won’t have regrets?
If we’re all seeking happiness, what is “happiness”? And how do you find it?
How do I navigate between short-term happiness, long-term happiness, or the many varieties of “happiness” that are available?
How do I explain suffering in life? What’s my response to it?
Every young person seems “full of potential.” What would it mean to fully “realize one’s potential”? What does it mean to waste it?
How should we raise and educate kids so they won’t become jerks, but will become decent?
How do I know what’s right and wrong? Good and evil?
How should I treat people? Should I lie, cheat, steal, bully, rape, or murder, for example? Why, or why not?
If I know that one day I’m going to die, and one day everyone I know is going to die, what gives life meaning? If everything ultimately leads to nothing, what’s the point?
Regarding every question above: how do I know?
Suppose I have bad, mistaken, or toxic answers to any of the above. How would I find that out? How long would it take? By the time I found out, would it be too late?
There are plenty of other “riddles,” but that’s enough for now.
We all face and answer these questions, one way or another. This includes apatheists, atheists, agnostics, and everyone else. Even if we don’t answer them consciously and verbally, we answer through our actions in life.
Even saying, “I don’t want to answer these questions!” is still an answer.
In this sense, we’re like Oedipus facing the Sphinx. We have to either answer the Sphinx’s riddle or be eaten. We either choose our own answers, or they’ll be chosen for us.
We have to give our lives to something, after all. So, what will we give our lives to?
Our answer to that question defines for us “that which has ultimate value in life.”
And one way to define “religion” is “our answers to the ultimate questions of life.”
In this sense, we’re all “religious.”
Our answers to these questions are important.
They form the basis for the “code” we live by.
They serve as the foundation for everything we think, feel, and do.
This brings us to the second response: the intellectual.
Existentially, we have to answer the questions. We can’t avoid them. But how do we answer them?
Some individuals would answer something roughly like this:
“I’m neutral and unbiased, and I only use objective, empirical, scientific evidence for my beliefs. If something can’t be proven or demonstrated, I won’t believe in it. I don’t make any ‘leap of faith.’ That means I’m not biased, because I make no assumptions.”
The implication is that some people are biased, and others aren’t. “The biased” are those who make assumptions. “The unbiased” don’t make assumptions.
With this kind of thinking, an assumption is often seen as a “leap of faith.” These leaps of faith are seen as “religious.” Those who make assumptions, then, are “religious.” Those who aren’t religious don’t make leaps of faith, don’t make assumptions, and therefore see things objectively.
The conclusion, then, is something like this: “You religious people make assumptions, so therefore, you’re biased. But we non-religious folks make no assumptions, so therefore, we’re not biased.” The hidden implication (assumption) in all this is that some people are able to avoid making assumptions.
The overall approach is one that attempts to use a scientific approach to all problems of life. It’s the effort to use science, and science alone, when solving even the most fundamental personal decisions we all make.
But that’s approach is flawed.
In reality, it’s impossible to make no assumptions.
We often think of knowledge as solely “additive.”
We often think about knowledge the way kids think about candy: the more, the better. The more information we get, the smarter we are.
This approach assumes that the smartest people have simply acquired the most facts and information. According to this, humans are like encyclopedias, and those that are thickest, heaviest, and most chock-full of facts must be the smartest. The smartest people would be the winners of Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit.
But this doesn’t seem to be how things actually work.
The “game of knowledge” isn’t merely one-directional.
The approach sketched above assumes that there’s only one side of the equation – that of empirical fact-acquisition. But there’s another side.
Knowledge is also “subtractive.”
Real intelligence doesn’t consist of merely gathering piles of knowledge, and piling them on top of other mounds of knowledge.
There’s also the reverse. Amid these mountains of data are pockets of bad data – “things we know that just ain’t so.” These can produce blazing insights or clarity when they’re removed. This often means digging down with the aim of reaching the ground or foundation all the other knowledge is based on. These are the basic assumptions that allow us to orient and organize the data.
There’s digging down with the aim of reaching the ground or foundation all the other knowledge is based on. These are the basic assumptions that allow us to orient and organize the data.
Raw information has to be interpreted. Our basis for interpreting data is that “ground” or foundation for the rest of our knowledge.
Mountains of data can easily be interpreted based on false assumptions.
This is quite common, in fact.
Two economists can review the exact same data. But then they’ll sometimes disagree on nearly everything. Each will then declare that the other is wrong. They’ll argue endlessly, get nowhere, and resolve by deciding the other is crazy, dumb, ignorant, or evil.
Why, and how? They interpret that data differently. Because they typically refuse to discuss their personal philosophies, worldviews, or the basic assumptions they make that lead them to interpret the data in the way they did, and which then led them to their conclusions.
In other words, they prefer to attack each other instead of knowing themselves.
This same dynamic also serves as the basis of paranoia and conspiracy theories.
If someone starts with the initial assumption, “Everyone is out to get me,” they can then acquire vast amounts of knowledge to support that claim. They can become experts at providing supporting evidence and rationalizing away any counter-evidence. But that entire collection of facts might be based on a faulty assumption (eg, that “They’re all out to get me.”)
The trick, then, lies not only in collecting information like a hoarder, but also in becoming inner archaeologists.
The task isn’t merely to adopt a pose where someone imagines “I’ve rejected all assumptions,” but to dig down and uncover the assumptions our thinking is based on.
Anyone who imagines “I have no assumptions” is mistaken.
The individuals who consider themselves to be completely “objective” and “impartial” and who claim to make no assumptions try to assert, in a sense, that “I’m a tree, with branches and leaves, but I have no trunk or roots.”
Every set of ideas rests on foundations.
Every line of thought has to start somewhere.
Every field of academic study makes assumptions. They call them by different names.
Mathematics starts with “axioms.”
Logic starts with “premises.”
Philosophy and theology call them “first principles” or “givens” or “presuppositions.”
Other disciplines call them “worldviews,” “paradigms,” “visions,” “the lens you see through,” or “the perspective (I’m) coming from.”
Even the hardest of sciences – physics and chemistry – rest on philosophical ideas.
Classical science aims to be objective. But there’s an entire discipline on the philosophy of science, and it’s full of controversy – which scientists often bypass, sometimes understandably. Even physics and chemistry make assumptions in the ways experiments are set up (“assume a frictionless plane”), the ways results are interpreted (“X means Y, therefore we should do Z”), and the strengths and limitations of the scientific method itself. They make assumptions about the effectiveness and reliability of induction, which allow them to extrapolate specific experiments that apply to the greater universe at large. The statement “empiricism is the only way to know reality” is a philosophical assertion, not an empirical one. And so on.
There is no “assumption-free zone.” It’s not so simple to claim that “You make assumptions, and I don’t."
We’re all swimming in ideas.
And every idea has a starting point, or a prior, foundational idea it rests on.
Take the simple phrase, “I’m hungry.” Even that implies the existence of a state we describe as “hunger,” the problem it poses, the possibility of solving it, and the existence of “I.”
To claim that “I make no assumptions” is like saying “This football game will be on Sunday, but it will never begin.”
Even the idea that “we shouldn’t have assumptions!” is itself an assumption. (Why should we assume that?) The idea that “I don’t have a worldview” is itself part of a worldview. The idea that “the scientific method is the only way to know truth” isn’t a result of the scientific method. (It’s a philosophical assertion.) The idea that “There is no objective truth!” is asserted as though it’s an objective truth.
Things are often more complicated and paradoxical than we think.
None of this means we should abandon all hope of objectivity.
If we’ve learned anything from our disastrous forays into postmodernism, it could be this: while perfect and complete objectivity (“no assumptions”) might be impossible in practice under all conditions, it’s often still necessary as an ideal. It’s worth aiming for. We shouldn’t ignore the North Star because we never reach it. The point is to navigate by it. Abandoning high ideals doesn't make us more genuine. It makes us more lost.
Abandoning the ideal of objective truth entirely (in journalism, for example) leads to abandoning objectivity whole-hog. That’s a path to insanity. Abandoning objectivity suddenly redefines (reinterprets) everything as mere subjective opinion. That reduces all opinions to feelings. All arguments then become mere subjective emotional battles, or contests of who feels the most strongly. It leads to a strange kind of Freudian Darwinism, where emotional might makes right.
A better approach, it seems, acknowledges both sides of the equation.
The trick is to find the sweet spot where we don’t blindly worship the ideal of objectivity, but we don’t completely abandon it either.
To assume that “I’ve achieved perfect objectivity, but you haven’t, therefore, I’m unbiased, and you aren’t” is flawed, incomplete, less-than-objective thinking.
The better alternative is to assume that we all have assumptions, and sanity lies in the direction of uncovering them, understanding them, and being honest about them. This removes the holier-than-thou pose some adopt, of “You’re biased and irrational, but I’m not.” That approach fuels a strange kind of hubristic superiority complex which is hardly neutral on the emotional level and easily turns toxic.
Both approaches, then – the existential and the intellectual – arrive at one basic conclusion.
It’s impossible to be irreligious.
Even if we decide to stay uninvolved with traditional organized religion, we can’t avoid facing the existential riddles life puts to us.
We also can’t avoid making certain assumptions in answering those riddles.
All of this leaves us in a certain predicament.
Clearly, the effort to become irreligious over the past several decades (and centuries) hasn’t resulted in a gushing, life-giving flow of pure reason, clarity, and objectivity. Hopefully, given our recent history, we’re painfully aware of that now.
We can admit that it’s impossible to live without answers to the basic questions of life, even though we might decide to toss the entire history of humanity’s efforts to address these questions (in the forms of the major spiritual and philosophical traditions of the world.)
But then, where does that leave us?
It saddles us with solving the existential riddles of life entirely on our own.
And that is no small task.
The greatest minds of history have struggled with these problems over centuries, with chapters of both success and failure.
Yet we often decide to take them on entirely by ourselves, based on our own limited experience.
We might have tasked ourselves with solving the most difficult problems in the universe while simultaneously rendering ourselves spiritually illiterate. We probably wouldn’t try to reinvent the entire field of mathematics in order to understand our finances, yet we often seem to be fine with doing that when it comes to spirituality and religion. The stakes in this, though, aren't just money, but life itself.
Under the weight of that burden, we scramble for answers.
But answers don’t necessarily come easily. In some ways, those who consider themselves irreligious have kneecapped themselves. Going fully apatheistic often means tossing everything that lies beyond their own limited personal experience.
That creates a vacuum.
Something eventually comes in to fill that vacuum.
In this situation, to paraphrase Chesterton, it’s not that we wind up believing nothing. It’s that we wind up believing anything.
It’s a paradox: what begins with skepticism can often end up with gullibility. When we reject organized religion, we don’t actually wind up irreligious. Instead, we often wind up with lesser, half-baked, amateur, homemade religions. We can easily wind up with a loose rabble of platitudes, slogans, and song lyrics bound together into makeshift personal philosophies held together by duct tape and bubble gum.
The vacuum left behind gets filled with all sorts of substitutes.
For example, it might get filled with celebretheism (worship of celebrities), statusism (worship of status), drugism (worship of drugs, alcohol, or other addictions), kidism (worship of one’s children), televism (worship of television), political fanaticism, self-help cults, and so on.
Any of these can become the “game” we’re playing in life. In practice, they become the ultimate answer to the question, “What are you giving your life to?”
In this sense, we can “give” our lives to status, tv, addictions, political systems, or any number of other forces. That act (or series of acts) decides, for each of us, “that which has ultimate value in life.”
Those who decide to be irreligious, then, don’t actually become non-religious. They just swap one religion for another.
So, what’s a better approach, then?
None of this is meant to suggest that all major religions have nailed it, and all we have to do is relax, plug in to one of those, and all our problems will be solved. After all, many of the original issues that inspired the irreligious to move in that direction still hold.
There seems to be a sweet spot somewhere in between.
That “sweet spot” seems to lie somewhere between the wholesale dismissal of all major religions and the assumption that all major religions have currently arrived at a state of final perfection.
Here’s a humble suggestion or two.
Instead of an effort to be irreligious, and with the awareness that we have to give our lives to something, we could open an investigation to seriously figure out what that “something” could be – in a sense that makes use of our highest potentials.
The major religions offer a recommendation along these lines: to give ourselves to the highest, most ultimate perfection we can even conceive of – or even beyond anything we can conceive of. While this can play out in various ways, at the very minimum, it definitely isn’t at risk for aiming too low.
Instead of trying to avoid all assumptions, with an awareness that assumptions are inevitable, we could embark on a quest to discover what our assumptions are – and whether or not our assumptions are actually solid. The effort is also to seek out the assumptions that lead to sanity, clarity, happiness, and so on. The approach, in so many words, is to not just seek out the best that religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions have to offer, but also to “know yourself.”
Much of this means establishing a solid groundwork of a life philosophy, getting clear on a worldview, and getting existentially fit. It will likely entail a no-nonsense approach to spirituality, a little training in philosophical self-defense, a bigger taste of experiential spirituality, and an effort to solve The Big Questions of life in a way that leads to thriving.
Again, religion can be easily caricatured and presented and in a way that makes it seem entirely unattractive. The effort to become irreligious is one understandable reaction to this. If someone’s experience or understanding of religion has been entirely toxic, “the way of irreligion” might be a higher path for them.
But other paths might be higher still.