AI: An Atheist Church?

Dutch reverend Klaas Hendrikse has taken a more modern approach to religion. Much to the consternation of Christians in more conservative areas of the Netherlands, he has decided to teach the bible as a book of allegorical fiction, that our life here is all we have, and he has removed much of the divinity from Christianity—even going as far as conceding that Jesus may not have existed at all. He even takes a more Carl Sagan approach to the question of God. What seems more surprising than him doing it at all is that his congregation is mostly in agreement. An attempt was made to have him dismissed, but enough prominent members came to his defense.

Is this the future of Christianity? For all its faults, one has to admit that is has adapted (clumsily, slowly) to the times. What will the stained glass windows look like?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET. Photo courtesy of NASA JPL


Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner. He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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  1. I feel like this is the dying gasp of a religion on its last legs. They are one book away from a coffee morning & a book club.

  2. I think religion is going to be around as long as humans are, but I also think it will inevitably evolve and be shaped by a more and more secular world. I’m with Dan Dennett in that the domestication of religion should be encouraged.
    Granted this is a bit different, and something kind of new, many reverends turn agnostic or atheist and continue to preach, because that’s all they know. It’s very inspiring to see someone bringing their flock along for the ride. Not many christians actually get to learn about the history of the bible, why some books make the cut, what makes some interpretations more likely to be accurate than others. It’s that very knowledge that drives many devout believers out of seminary and back into their hidey-holes of ignorance.

  3. There’s actually a couple of noncognitivist approaches to religion around that deny that religion has anything to do with believing things at all.

    For one, Hilary Putnam seems to hold such an approach (his “Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life” might be a good place to start and it’s also a fairly easy read).

    He’s influenced by Wittgenstein of course (the SEP article on the epistemology of religion has little something on Wittgensteinian Fideism, but it’s really only a little, but unfortunately right now I don’t seem to be able to come up with a really informative source).

    Myself I find these approaches quite a bit of fun, because they tend to make the problem of coming up with a definition of religion even more of a mess than it already is – if noncognitivist approaches hold it does not make much sense to define religion as a certain set of metaphysical beliefs.

  4. I think we can learn a lot from organized religion in terms of cultural support. I encourage secular gatherings and meeting places and the god-free bake sales of the future.

  5. Unfortunately what will happen with this is the same as what happens when anyone pulls a new religious idea out of their ass: the world ends up with another religion. With an estimated 38,000 different sects of Christianity is anyone going to notice one more? That said, the domestication of religion in the west has been going on since the enlightenment and this development seems an inevitable step in that process.

    I’m not all that encouraged though. Here in Australia the evangelical movement, a pushback against the enlightenment if ever there was one, is growing quickly. So I think that while this is one future of Christianity it certainly isn’t *the* future. There will always be people who will look at the prescriptive parts of the bible and see them for what they are, and a certain number of those folk will think it’s a good idea to live by those rules and some those will think that they should try and make the rest of the world follow those rules as well.

    A much more hopeful sign would be when these sorts of uber-liberal Christians join us in fighting their more dogmatic brethren’s attempts to get their religious beliefs turned into legislation. Has anyone heard of a liberal Christian organisation who actively and openly promotes separation of church and state?

    I’m going to have to slightly disagree with you Amy. It’s true that religions do community better than atheists, but the do so in part by playing up in-group and out-group differences. My wish is for a world where the only requirement for in-group status is human DNA and a standard of behaviour that truly reflects the notion that everyone is equal.

    As to stained glass, religions have also got the architecture of community down better than we do. I think churches look like they do because those sorts of spaces encourage social bonding. Mind you this is just speculation. I wonder if anyone has done a study on the similarities between various religion’s architecture and how it effects the notion of community. Annnnnd, thanks to google scholar I’m going to have to keep wondering. It seems like the research into this area is focused around what makes a building “spiritual” and the few papers I looked at never defined what that term means. Bah.

  6. The battle for the survival of religion is being fought in public office. As long as we allow the politicians play loosely with the Law and even push religion agendas openly, there will be religion. Alas, the frequent news, specially in the USA, about religion versus science (about medical treatment, women’s rights, school curricula, etc…) leads me to think the transition to a prominently secular society will take long and be less than peaceful.
    Alright, I openly admit that I fear there will be a war – bullets, bombs and death – because of this.

  7. I’m of the opinion that atheism comes largely from peace and prosperity. In times of trouble people seem to want something to believe in: a reason to not fear death, a proper enemy to hate and fear, structure and rules to keep society functioning.

    The wealthy societies in peacetime have the resources to engage in education and are harder to motivate with fear.

    I guess that means I disagree with Chupacabras, war reinforces religion among the masses.

  8. I guess I basically agree with Ryan, but, apart from war, I’d also add poverty and, maybe most importantly, lack of autonomy or self-determined lives as the main motivations to go religious.

    Apart from taking away the fear of death religion (and spirituality and esoterics, for that matter) seem to allow for a certain degree of autonomy even if you have no control over your life whatsoever – i.e. religion as the illusion of power.

  9. I disagree with Ryan and handling. Many people lose their religion when times get tough, particularly when faced with death and dying. I think that some humans are hard wired to believe and some aren’t and the rest will have ups and downs in their beliefs, unless something profound happens to shake their world view.
    The idea that only smart, well educated and happy people can be in a position to think rationally seems a touch elitist. I will agree that such an atmosphere fosters the security to be outspoken about your beliefs, obviously a very poor person who depends on their community and family wont want to put themselves in a position to be ostracized from that community and may put on airs(as my grandmother would say).

  10. It could be the case, though, that what you are talking about are singular shocking experiences that make people lose their faith, whereas ryan and me might be talking about more a general socio-political pressure that does not actually rise to consciousness and rather produces a disquieting atmosphere in general.

    But I’d agree with your point about the elitist character of the idea that atheism goes with happiness and peaceful times (it seems to evoke those old progression theories that hold that religion belongs to a more primitive state of human consciousness – like Frazer does in his “Golden Bough” – if I remember correctly).

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