No Third Way
People who reject religion think “religion is not true” but often don’t think about what is true if the idea of God is removed. To say idea X is false is just a negation of X. It’s not a statement of what idea is true in its place.
Most (not all) people reject religion and don’t think about what they believe is true, in its place. Their entire thought on the subject is what’s not true, instead of what is. In that way, they can play a mental trick on themselves, rejecting religion but not owning up to what must be true if religion is false. In this way they think of themselves as neutral on the ultimate question of what is real.
That feeling of neutrality is illusory. If we reject the truth of God, we have to be saying certain other things are true. Just by the nature of what we’re talking about, there is no in-between or third way. We should say “I believe X,” instead of just “I don’t believe Y.”
What Must be True
Here is a partial list of things that must be true, if no religion is.
Things we say are “true” are not true in any absolute sense; we say things are true only because our biology makes it helpful to think of some things as true and others as false. The conviction we have that something is true is a feeling only. Its origin is our evolutionary development to live socially. In reality there is no true or false.
Our feeling of gratitude has no basis in reality, because there is no God to be grateful to, and other people to whom we might be grateful are just doing what they’re programmed to do, same as us. The feeling of gratitude is real enough, because feeling it confers some evolutionary advantage to us, but in reality there is nothing for which to feel grateful.
Our feeling of God’s presence is a feeling only, which is evolved in us just like the orientation toward that which we call truth. Though we may keenly feel God’s presence, there is in reality no God.
The feeling of purposefulness is also a matter of biology; something we experience because it helps us as a species to survive and reproduce. But aside from surviving and reproducing, there is no actual purpose or meaning to our lives.
Beauty in the form of physical things and ideas and virtues are all illusory. Some ideas and things we appreciate more than others, because doing so helps to perpetuate us as living things.
People are nothing more than complex assemblages of molecules, temporarily processing other materials in our environment in a way that we think of as dynamic rather than inert. We call that process “life,” but life like anything else is just mechanistic processes of material things.
There is no right or wrong. To be sure, people are almost obsessively driven by moral considerations, all their lives. But the origin of that moral sense is only biological. That sense is innate only because it is useful to living socially, and living socially makes us more fit for survival. There is no such thing as criminal responsibility. Law and the enforcement of law is purely for benefit of the tribe. It has nothing to do with any moral imperative apart from the sum of human experience and behavior boundaries that it produces in individuals.
It may have occurred to you, in light of the first item concerning truth, that the whole list can be considered not true by its own criteria. It’s nonsensical to say “it’s true that nothing is true.” Mathematicians and philosophers while away whole lifetimes thinking through this paradox (think of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loops” consideration of how meaning attaches to meaningless things). But that is a quandary for another day.