Replacing Religion

The hard part of leaving religion behind is that a whole lot of what most people call religion has nothing to do with metaphysics, and everything to do with the very worldly needs all humans share. Things like social belonging, self-examination, and even ritual are important in a person's life, and many folks have only ever experienced them in a religious setting. How do we, the non-religious, fulfill these needs once our philosophical development has divorced us from not only the metaphysics of our religion, but the secular support structure it provided as well?


In religious society, going to church/temple/fellowship/what-have-you is where most people regularly connect with friends and family. The greatest fear many of the newly non-religious express is the loss of this sense of community. Ironically, this is the simplest problem to overcome, but it's going to require some effort.

Religious groups do a lot of the work for you, when it comes to community. They schedule regular get-togethers, they own or find facilities, and they provide ready-made topics of conversation. The thing is, there are lots of other groups that do that sort of thing, one just has to go out and find them. Hobby-clubs, sports clubs/leagues, martial arts and dance schools, and industry special interest groups are all out there waiting to be explored. There are even groups (like the Society of Reason) who get together *because* they are non-religious, and want to discuss their common beliefs, differences, and challenges.

Some religious groups use the sense of community as a tool of manipulation, both for recruitment and retention. Even if it is not explicitly stated, there is always the threat of being cut off from friends or family who remain with the group. Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid this problem. However, it's worth considering that if someone is willing to write off a friend or family member over a difference of opinion on beliefs, it says a lot more about that person than the one they are abandoning!


Rituals are not the exclusive province of religion. We humans love them. Initiations, ceremonies, family traditions, and daily routines are all rituals. They give us a sense of security and continuity, and they can provide a feeling of connection to the past. Religions use the comfort and connection we take from ritual as a way to make religious services seem more mystical and timeless.

Non-religious folks should not abandon ritual. Ritual makes us feel better in times of turmoil or distraction. It provides small certainties in a world of big uncertainties. Your morning ritual gets you through preparing for the day when all you want to do is go back to sleep, and a wedding ceremony carries a couple through one of the most emotional and overwhelming moments of their lives. It's a huge mistake to think that living a non-religious life makes one immune to the need for ritual in one's life.

Religious services force the congregants to make time for ritual in their lives. The non-religious need to make this time on their own. A ritual can be almost any repeatable sequence of words or actions that speaks to the emotional or mental state the ritual is designed for. It doesn't need to mean anything to anyone other than the practitioner. Those creative enough can invent their own, but some folks may need a group to find common ground with before they find the rituals that satisfy their needs.


Just because a person is non-religious doesn't mean that they have no need of introspection. "Know thyself!" is a common refrain in all words of wisdom, be they religiously inspired or not. In a very real sense, it is the basis for modern psychotherapy, and virtually every self-help book on the market. If a person doesn't know what they really want, and more importantly why they actually want it, they can never hope to effect changes to the world to achieve their goals. Religions recognize this, and traditionally use prayer and meditation to achieve knowledge of the self.

There are two basic kinds of prayer, ritual and intercessory. The first is part of the discussion in the previous section on ritual, but the second is about asking a higher power for answers or finding solutions. Many critical thinkers see intercessory prayer as a useless endeavor, a wishing for magical solutions to their problems. However, in science and mathematics, the formulation of a problem is often the key to solving it. The very act of organizing one's thoughts about what the problem is can often either reveal the real problem underlying the perceived one, or at the very least inherently suggest the answer. In this way, intercessory prayer (when it is more than just a desperate wish) *can* serve a purpose in the lives of the religious, and a valuable one, at that. The non-religious may not need to appeal to a higher power, but they need to learn how to formulate their questions in order to get what they want in life!

Meditation's goal is to quiet the mind, so that the practitioner can "listen" for information not normally available to them. In religion, this information is supposed to come from a higher being or beings, or from some innate metaphysical connection to the universe. It is the "touchy-feely" part of religion, the one that usually involves group chanting or quiet isolation. However, there are many meditative traditions that hold no religious connotations, where the inner quiet is intended to reduce stress, enhance relaxation, and "listen" to information from inside the practitioner's own mind. These traditions can be extremely useful to the non-religious, enhancing both self-knowledge and health.


Spirituality has supernatural connotations, but the parts that make it up, connectedness and peace, ritual, and meditation are all real things in the real world that serve real purposes for the human animal. The non-religious should be careful not to "throw the baby out with the bath water" when it comes to these things, and the newly non-religious must be aware that their comfort awaits outside religion, so there's nothing to fear in exploring their new philosophy, whatever it might turn out to be. There can be spiritual freethinkers and atheists!

Replacing religion - or never having one in the first place?

Incredibly insightful post, but the headline of "Replacing Religion" has connotations, either intentional or not, that I would disagree with. In addition to all the things listed here (sense of community, rituals, self-examination, and spirituality), religions come with a set of rules and dogma. By saying we're "replacing" religion with skepticism/rationalism/etc., it implies that we're also replacing religious dogma with another set of rules. But all the varying viewpoints between skeptics, humanists, atheists, etc. show that we have no dogma to live by. Also, since we're keeping the four aspects discussed above and simply discarding the rules concerning belief in the supernatural, we're not really replacing religion with anything.

There are also people who never had any religion to begin with. Although I attended Catholic school when I was younger, no one in my family was religious at all. Yet we still practice a loose form of ancestor worship out of cultural obligation to our mother country. For me, self-examination takes the form of reading philosophical writings and seeing which schools of thought I agree with. I would advocate for this approach because you can learn why you take certain positions regarding justice and freedom in society - why you believe what you believe.

Replacing the *valid* parts of religion?

That's a good point! I intended the name to reflect the fulfillment of the valid human needs that religion normally services, but I can see how there might be an implication of replacing *all* the features of religion, even the negative ones....

Anyone have a better suggestion for a title?

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist ( is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.