The False Binary Between Atheism and Religion

Church against a beautiful night sky

For the past year or so now, I’ve been caught in the strange, lonely, interstitial space of no longer believing in the existence of a personal God but still deeply valuing the role of religion in my life.

Looking back, I realize that I’ve been quietly grieving for my faith in a literal, personal God for most of my twenties, and that it was only in 2017 that I finally accepted the death of my personal God. It took a long time to grieve, to even to build up the courage to pull the covers back and peak into a world without God. God felt more fundamental than my skin, breath, and blood. To lose Him felt like the loss of everything.

Like all grief, I finally came to accept it. The world is still a more frightening place for me, and I’m living with the presence of existential questions that faith protected me from. I am, finally, an agnostic. But I’m living a life that was once too terrifying for me to even comprehend.

Despite that final acceptance that I don’t know what happens after I die and that I cannot go beyond the magisterium of science, I still find myself in church. I still pray, and I still experience God. I still do mystical practices like yoga and meditation. I still read the Book of Common Prayer. I still identify as a deeply religious and spiritual person. I am intellectually an agnostic, but in practice a mystic.

This has been an even harder place to live, because people don’t understand it. How can I consider myself religious if I no longer believe in a literal, personal God? If I don’t believe in a personal God anymore, why not just identify as an atheist? Or agnostic? Why still identify as a Christian? Fellow agnostics and atheists (rightly) point out the horrors of blind religion, and are dumbfounded that I stay. The devout are perplexed and offended that I claim their religion while not even believing in (though devoutly hoping for) the existence of the supernatural.

I couldn’t put to words why this hurt and frustrated me so much, but I knew intuitively that it was simply wrong. We all have a need for binding narratives, myths, rituals, and communities — what is that if not religion? And religion can exist without superstition. In fact, it *should* exist without superstition. Yes, religion is often the catalyst for horrific abuse, blindness, and violence, but it is simply illogical to therefore say that *all* expressions of religion are such, or that religion cannot evolve into something better. I found myself excluded by both the atheists, who (in my experience) generally believe all religion to be corrupt, and by the religious, who believe that religion requires a belief in the supernatural.

And then, finally, someone came along who could explain to me what the hell I was experiencing. And that person was Lucien Greaves, the spokesperson for the non-theistic religion The Satanic Temple.

The Satanic Temple is a religion that honors the metaphor of the Miltonian Satan, who rebelled against the oppressive, religious authority of God. The Satanic Temple is also a socially active group, defending religious diversity, and the church-state division.

Lucien Greaves gives an articulate description of religion without superstition. On the Duncan Trussell Family Hour, he explains,

Well to us we turn towards the literary Satan, and we believe this metaphorically. We don’t believe in Satan as an actual, conscious deity. We are not theistic in any case, but to us that doesn’t disempower us as a religion. We fight for the rights of non theistic religion, and the legitimacy of an atheistic viewpoint still being able to have the exemptions and privileges of any other religious group, because we think that’s the only way that can work in a democratic pluralism – that you allow any item of religious opinion to have equal weight on these types of questions.

But, you know, we get a lot of pushback from atheists, saying, “well, then why call it Satanism?” As though it’s arbitrary. But it’s not to us. You have a lot of people saying, “Well clearly, you wouldn’t choose the name Satan if you weren’t just trying to aggrieve Christians, or poke fun at them or agitate them in some way. But that’s completely detached from the reality on the ground as well. I mean, we’ve been encultured into this society where the judeo Christian construct means a lot to you, whether you want it to or not. I mean, it has some effect on your life, and that metaphor is always going to be powerful to you.

Lucien Greaves is speaking of religion as a form of inner guiding myth. He expounds on this concept further here:

In the FAQ section of their website, the Temple answers the question “If you do not believe in the supernatural, how is TST a religion?” With the following:

The idea that religion belongs to supernaturalists is ignorant, backward, and offensive. The metaphorical Satanic construct is no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate for. Are we supposed to believe that those who pledge submission to an ethereal supernatural deity hold to their values more deeply than we? Are we supposed to concede that only the superstitious are proper recipients of religious exemption and privilege? In fact, Satanism provides us all that a religion should, without a compulsory attachment to untenable items of faith-based belief: It provides a narrative structure by which we contextualize our lives and works. It provides a body of symbolism and religious practice — a sense of identity, culture, community, and shared values.

My discovery of the Satanic Temple has left me feeling deeply affirmed and vindicated. Here is a non-theistic group, unapologetically claiming and defending religion.

The Temple has helped me understand that we have all, religious and non-religious alike, bought into a false binary between atheism and religion. And this is a very recent false binary: some of the world’s oldest religions, like Confucianism and certain traditions of Buddhism are non-theistic.

I think this false binary is deeply tragic. I think religion at it’s best is a wonderful, empowering, beautiful thing. More than that, I believe many people *need* religion. We need inner myths and binding communities, and the loss of those identities is simply cataclysmic and impossible to describe to those who have never experienced such loss.

But not only is this false binary sad, it might also be dangerous. What happens when the deeply religious, like myself, feel that in order to embrace science, reason, and intellectual integrity, we must reject our deeply beloved religion? This creates a death-lock. It’s a draconian deal: embrace science and reason but give up your most important identity, community, and guiding narrative. Most religious people aren’t able to handle such cognitive dissonance. I certainly wasn’t. The end result is religion that does not have the option to evolve into a more enlightened, scientific, and compassionate state. It may be that atheistic hatred of all religious expression has helped create religion that cannot evolve. Non-theistic religion, not a world completely void of religion, is the future.

The option of non-theistic religion means that I can finally grow into a deeply religious *and* skeptical human being. I can have my symbol and my brain. More than anything, I want to see other religious people offered the same opportunity.

6 thoughts on “The False Binary Between Atheism and Religion

  1. Thank you so much for this post. As a nice Church Lady, I found it very helpful. Although I have no wish to leave the church, I often struggle with the split between my inner religious life and the outward forms of worship. Reciting the Creed, for example, is important for me, but I always ask myself what exactly do I believe in this? I never seek to offend my fellow Christians in the matter of supernatural belief, but again, I ask myself whether these beliefs contribute to the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit, which I do yearn for. It’s a great relief to see that someone else also wrestles with similar issues.


    1. I’m glad the article was a consolation for you. I think this strange in-between place is incredibly lonely and misunderstood, so I want to give voice to it. It’s good to know we aren’t alone.


  2. Definitely not alone. I think there are many, many of us in various practices and in-between spaces, here in America and out across the world.

    Regarding Greaves and friends, their metaphor is powerful, all right … I haven’t read Milton, so I’m lacking important context, but coming from my background emotionally it’s like trying to understand a group who chose to call themselves the Hitler Temple or the Slave Trader’s Temple, because I was raised to believe that Satan was personally and cheerfully responsible for those evils … it’s a pretty visceral thing to imagine trying to get past, even now that I believe the true causes of such evils were things like greed, arrogance, psychopathic lack of empathy, megalomania, and other aspects of the human condition. Maybe I just need to read Milton to understand, but probably I need a different metaphor….

    But. The rest of this is powerful in positive ways for me. I am one of those who needs religion, I think–I’ve never had the freedom to live without it, regardless of my beliefs (leaving now would probably cost me my marriage), so I guess I can’t say how I’d do. But in parallel with commenter Linda’s experience, as I recite the creed, I find myself wondering what of that any part of me really gives assent to. I usually let my religious feelings carry me through that, since my intellect is undeniably agnostic. And in parallel with you, I find the death-lock either-or of intellectual honesty vs. religious participation to be untenable. I think there needs to be some place for those of us who need both in our lives.

    Letting go of the psychological influence of various forms of religious orthodoxy has been the single best thing I’ve done for my mental health, with one possible exception: mindfulness practice, which I need as a daily rite and long to surround myself with some of the symbols of, as I find a lot of meaning in it. I don’t accept all the tenets of Buddhist philosophy, any more than I do all the tenets of my Catholicism. But I’m not sure what I’d do without either presence in my life, without the symbols and the seasons, the rituals and the communities, the grounding and the affirmation of human spiritual need.


    1. I couldn’t agree with you more – I need embodiment, rituals, seasons, communities. I also greatly relate to what you’re saying about the Creed. It’s an uncomfortable moment to recite and then realize I don’t believe any of it. And yet I choose to say it anyway. My hope is that a larger space can be carved out for people like us. I think there are a lot of us out there.


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