In my view, we don't need an alternative to religion, and we don't need religion. Religion serves a useful purpose for many people, but not a necessary one, and we are all most likely better off without its unique attributes.
A friend of mine recently challenged me on this point. He says the question of "what replaces religion" is vital, and worries that the immoral and irrational beast of consumerism is taking over where religion is falling behind. He pointed out that consumerism fulfills some of the roles traditionally filled by religion, such as offering a sense of community, a group identity, and a public place for emotional support.
I'm not convinced. As far as I can tell, consumerism is not an alternative to religion, and religion is not an alternative to consumerism. In America, religion and consumerism are both thriving, and neither one seems to be intruding on the other’s territory. I don’t see consumerism stepping in to fill a void left by religion, nor do I see it taking over religion’s role in people’s lives. I just see it as its own thing, which sometimes works together with religion and sometimes separately.
Of course, for some people, religion is a check on their impulses towards consumerism. ("Should I buy another pair of pumps? What would Jesus do?") But I doubt atheists are disproportionately represented in the world of consumerism. So, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear that consumerism would be significantly empowered if religion were somehow suddenly to disappear. (Not that I think religion is going anywhere any time soon.)
Also, the mentioned aspects of consumerism and religion are far from distinguishing. These functions (establishing a sense of community, group identity, and a public space for emotional support) are fulfilled in many different ways: secular holidays; fairs; conventions; online social networks (Facebook, MySpace); discussion forums; museums; psychoanalysis/therapy; the gym; book clubs; coffee shops; literature; films; television; newspapers; research centers; cultural centers; performance centers; libraries; schools; sports; playgrounds; work; and even public parks.
It doesn’t seem to me that religion and consumerism hold a monopoly on these public functions. Far from it. The world is not short of ways for people to come together and share their experiences, dreams, fears, and so on.
Religion does serve a particular function which is not shared by these other things, and it’s not shared by consumerism, either. The one thing religions do that other social institutions don’t do is establish death as the ultimate entrance/transition into something better than life itself.
If people think they need religion, it is because they don’t want to squarely face mortality. They fear the very idea of a life that doesn’t serve some higher purpose. That’s really it, I think. The “what replaces religion” question is thus only vital if you think people need to believe in an afterlife.
I also think the reason a lot of non-religious people defend religious belief is because they know how hard it is to face death and wish they had the comfort of religion to help them deal with it.
Incidentally, if consumerism did happen to increase as religion decreased, I would not view that as such a bad thing. I do not think consumerism is worse than religion. Consumerism has its problems, to be sure, but it does not try to hide from rational scrutiny the way religions do. It does not put itself above our scientific concerns, the way religions do. Sure, consumerism plays on our irrational impulses and makes false promises. And it often distracts us from our best interests. But those problems pale in comparison to the threat posed by religion. You don’t see people blowing up buildings or starting wars because they want to further the cause of IKEA. And you don’t see people trying to limit science education, outlaw abortions, or stop stem cell research because they just love to shop.We should also consider that consumerism is changing with the Internet. People have much more power as consumers. They have more information, more connections with fellow consumers, and a more direct connection to the goods and the producers of those goods. This is all good. There is a lot more potential (and incentive) to make people more responsible and informed consumers.
The best way to deal with the problems of consumerism is to encourage efforts to ensure the responsible buying, selling and marketing of goods. The answer is definitely not to encourage people to be more religious.
What we can do--the only moral thing to do--is teach our children how to think critically and productively about life, and to approach their existence as intelligently and responsibly as possible. And that means, among other things, not protecting religious organizations from scrutiny . . . not in the public classroom, and not anywhere else. Religion is too powerful and pervasive to be ignored in the public curriculum. Most parents are not equipped to educate their children properly about the history, psychology, and sociology of religion. Most don’t even want to. That is a huge problem, and the status quo is just to ignore it or, worse, to make excuses for it.
Now that I think of it, there is one thing that should replace religion: education.