A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Holy Smoke

I tried my first cigarette when I was 13, on the back of the school bus. By the time I was 15, I was smoking regularly. I stopped for a year or so when I was 17, but when I started my first full time job at 18, I began to smoke heavily. I continued to smoke around, in fact at least, twenty a day until 16th January 2005 when, after reading Easy Way to Stop Smoking by the late Alan Carr, I stubbed out the last cigarette I will ever smoke.

It was very shortly afterwards, a matter of weeks, that I took my first steps towards scepticism and atheism. Since then, it has often occurred to me that there are many similarities between religion and smoking. I’d like to detail some of them here. Before anyone lynches me, I’d like to point out that I realise the analogy only goes so far (as is the case with all analogies). I’m not saying they are completely the same, I acknowledge that there are also differences. Please consider this carefully before commenting.

For people who are not raised with religion and find it as an adolescent or adult, I think there is something seductive about it that can also be seen with smoking. With smoking, it worked on me. Perhaps it was an image thing, or an element of peer pressure. I think there is a strong element of this with religion too. Potential converts are strongly encouraged to join the religion with promises of fulfilment and eternal life, and when they join there is great celebration. In contrast, leaving the religion is always strongly discouraged and, ironically, when you’re trying to quit smoking, other smokers are often not very supportive, and sometimes even brazen in their attempts to sabotage your efforts. In the absence of critical thinking skills, I can definitely understand someone wanting to ‘fit in’.

And the lack of critical thinking skills is something that both religion and smoking look for in their targets. No rationally thinking person would consider the evidence for and against the pros and cons of smoking, and then make an informed decision to take it up. Equally, a person without any religious upbringing or indoctrination is unlikely to rationally conclude that the claims of a religion are true. Both prey on the weak, particularly the young. I started off just having the odd drag of someone else’s cigarette. Then I’d start having a half at a time. This quickly lead to scrounging whole cigarettes. “You’re always scrounging ciggies”, my friends would say, “but you’ve never got any of your own”. I would tell them that was because I didn’t smoke. “Could have fooled me! Buy your own.” So then I bought a pack, just so that I could pay back the cigarettes I had borrowed from other people. I was hooked before I even knew it. With new converts to religion, I think something similar happens, slowly and gradually being taken in. Alan Carr used an analogy of a fly greedily drinking the sweet sap on the surface of a plant, without realising that it is in fact about to be eaten itself. The harm caused by both smoking and religion can be battled with critical thinking.

And what great harm both have caused, and continue to cause. Both religion and smoking have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands. Both have caused an unimaginable amount of needless suffering. Also, both are capable of harming others. Just as, for example, acts of religiously motivated terrorism can cause pain, suffering and death to non-believers, so passive smoke can cause death and great harm to non-smokers. They are both a danger to society. Just as religion leads to division and segregation, so the social drawbacks of smoking have similar effects. Smokers take breaks together at work. Non smokers normally end up sitting at different tables in restaurants, or suffering the second hand effects. Meanwhile, the children of Catholic and Protestant parents go to separate schools.

Both religion and smoking demand investment in the form of money, time and emotion. They are both expensive lifestyles to maintain for the victims, and both line the pockets of already wealthy people in the process. Endless hours are spent worshipping and praying in church, and many hours are spent smoking, all of which add up to great quantities of time over the years which could have been better spent. And just as religious believers feel emotionally attached to God and their religion, smokers often feel emotionally vulnerable and lacking confidence without their cigarettes.

In both cases, with religion and smoking, the world would be far better off without them and, in both cases, while there is progress, it is slow and unlikely to lead to any dramatic shifts in the foreseeable future. Mankind has come to realise, just in relatively recent (slightly more so for smoking) history, the great dangers that both can cause. Both have reached a point of enlightenment, where awareness of their threats has increased and continues to do so, after centuries of ignorance and darkness.

One question that is often asked of atheists is, “how are you going to replace religion? People need religion. If you take it away, what are you going to put in its place?” Many atheists answer this question on face value, normally with an outline of secular humanism. This is correct in a sense, but the question is actually heavily loaded. It assumes that people need religion. Do they really?

I used to think I needed cigarettes like I needed food. At times, when I was broke in university, I would scrape pennies from the floor of my car and the backs of couches to buy cigarettes while my cupboards were bare. “I need a cigarette”, I’d tell my bemused housemates, “I need one”. When you smoke, you are imbibing poison into your body. If there is one thing that, by definition, your body never needs, it is poison. I didn’t need a cigarette. I needed food. If you don’t eat, you die. If you don’t smoke, not only do you not die, you live longer! It’s easy for me to say that now, but at the time I was convinced that it was an essential.

Just as we are all born atheists, we are all born non-smokers. Do people really need religion, or do they just not know any better? Obviously, not all people need religion – the existence of happy atheists proves that. So why would some people need it and not others?

The essential idea behind Alan Carr’s book, which helped me quit smoking, is that the need for tobacco is an illusion which is created by… …smoking tobacco! Each cigarette creates the need for the next one, and it is only by breaking that chain that you can free yourself from the illusion. When I quit smoking, not only did I realise that I had never needed cigarettes, I felt truly liberated from the illusion. This is exactly what many people who were convinced that they needed religion feel like when they deconvert.

Isn’t if funny how only smokers crave cigarettes? Non-smokers don’t come out of a stressful meeting with a customer and say “I’m so stressed, I need to unwind. If only I smoked!”. Only smokers think they need to smoke, and only people who are religious think they need religion. In both cases, great harm and suffering is caused, or at least always potentially possible, while the perceived enjoyment and benefit is cheap and shallow. I don’t think people need religion. Personally, I think people are better than that.

Religion, as Evanescent has pointed out, works on a principle of telling you you’ve got a disease and then offering you a cure, when in fact, you’re perfectly healthy. In a perverse way, smoking does the same thing. It creates an addiction that you can only satisfy by taking more of the substance you’re addicted to. Both religion and smoking could be compared to someone kicking you in the leg and then offering you a crutch. Once you’re holding it you think you always need it – you don’t! Alan Carr’s book is strongly opposed to ‘replacement’ techniques for quitting smoking, such as chewing sweets. He argued that smoking doesn’t need replacing, and I think he was right. I think this applies to religion too. I believe that every human being, when made properly aware of the facts, is capable of living a happy, moral, fulfilling life without religion. You don’t need to look for miracles, your very existence is a miracle. Throw away your crutches, and walk.

At a recent conference in 2006, an anthropologist and prize-specimen of ‘I’m-an-atheist-buttery’ quoted Golda Meir when asked whether she believed in God, “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God”. Our anthropologist substituted his own version, “I believe in people, and people believe in God”. I prefer to say that I believe in people, and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves, about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God, and to lead fulfilled and satisfied, indeed liberated, lives.

Richard Dawkins

14 Responses to “Holy Smoke”

  1. This is an absolutely brilliant well-written post! Like all good writers, you left me wanting to read the next paragraph, and the next. I’d never considered this comparison before, but it is uncanny! I think the analogy works very well!

    I especially liked the part about the need for both being an illusion, created by the things themselves! And it’s only those “addicted” who seem to “need” them. Why is that I wonder!

  2. I smoked nearly a pack of Marlboro Menthol Light 100s while reading this post.

    Does that mean I can’t be an atheist any more?

  3. Very good, Tobe, very well argued.

    But as a light smoker, I’ve never had a problem with controlling my habit, and I make no apologies. One or two a day during the week, more if I go out on the weekends. I’ve probably smoked less in the past 20 years than many smokers smoke in a year. It is very true that I don’t need cigarettes, and very likely will someday quit. But as long as I smoke outside and don’t blow it in other people’s faces, I enjoy it, and it’s not hurting anyone but me. And the burger and fries I ate for lunch may be worse for my health than 1 or 2 smokes after all.

    Smoking does require a certain amount of denial and cognitive dissonance. But there are many things like that. Getting in your car for instance. And what about drinking and pot smoking? Unprotected sex? Motorcycle riding? It comes down to risk/reward. And I’d like to think I’m in a better position to judge that for myself than others. If I want to shorten or risk my life by choice, no one should be able to tell me otherwise.

    Nicotine is a tricky substance, and I know plenty of people who can’t control their habits. But if you can be a light or social smoker, maybe by your scale that’s equivalent to being a light new-ager who thinks there might be “quantum” reality or coincidences, but doesn’t really know and if pressed will admit they don’t know. Hardly much of a political risk to others.

    On that spectrum, the fundies would be on 3-packs a day no filter 100s.

    I’ll be sure not to smoke around you if I ever (hopefully) meet you. 😉


  4. {cough, cough} Praise Jesus!

    Good post, Tobe. Well, articulated.

  5. It’s 6am and I’m bleary eyed, so please forgive brevity!

    @ Evanescent


    @ The Exterminator

    You’ve lost me?

    @ Blacksun

    I have no problem with anything you’ve said. I’ve not criticised smokers directly at all, and should we ever meet, you can smoke to your heart’s content – it doesn’t really bother me. To be honest, since reading the book, I’ve wondered about how I’d find the reasoning if I read it now. I read another of his books, Easy Way to Lose Weight, and the reasoning was toe-curlingly bad.

    I was a person who could not control my habit. If you are, fair play to you. I put my little disclaimer in at the beginning because I didn’t want smokers to think I was attacking them directly, or that religious people were saying that they were all bad or anything like that. The analogy goes as far as the points I’ve raised and no further. Do you disagree with any of them?

    @ Span


  6. Tobe,

    I actually read Carr’s book a few years back. I think it’s a good method for someone who really wants to quit.

    I don’t disagree with what you said at all. But I’ve always liked to have a consistent philosophy about life, so it definitely raises questions about smoking and why I do it. I don’t hide from questions, and the best way I thought to address them was to spell out my rationale, cognitively dissonant though it may be. In that sense it just bears out your analogy since huge cognitive dissonance is what allows religion to exist.

    All in all, a classic, challenging and thought provoking post. And a great title as well.

  7. @ Blacksun

    I actually read Carr’s book a few years back. I think it’s a good method for someone who really wants to quit.

    Carr’s book caught me at the perfect time. I’d just failed abysmally in an attempt to quit as a new year’s resolution. My confidence was rock bottom and I was desperate for an easy way out. I think I was a textbook candidate for someone it would work for.

    All in all, a classic, challenging and thought provoking post. And a great title as well.

    Thanks. 🙂

  8. One of your best posts.

    Equally, a person without any religious upbringing or indoctrination is unlikely to rationally conclude that the claims of a religion are true. Both prey on the weak, particularly the young.

    I just wrote a brief post saying a similar thing about how religious advertising seems to target the weak.

  9. oops, my italics didn’t work, should have indented 🙂

  10. Hi Cragar,

    Thanks! I’ll check your post out and comment there.

    I’ve fixed your italics. For future reference, it’s instead of [ and ], and quotations is blockquote and /blockquote. 🙂

  11. Cragar,

    Damn wordpress thinks I’m trying to use HTML when I’m just trying to demonstrate it! Screw it, I’ll email you.

  12. Excellent piece of writing. Good argument.

  13. >And what about drinking and pot smoking?

    What about pot smoking? If there’s any cognitive dissonance to be had, it’s between the propaganda that says it’s harmful, and the truth that it is no more harmful than, say, peanuts. In fact, numerous studies have shown that it can actually provide benefits to health. (“Medical marijuana” I’ve heard of, but have you ever heard of “medical tobacco”? I haven’t either.)

    But regardless of that, your situation actually reinforces tobe38’s point! You’re a light smoker who doesn’t *need* a cigarette, just like there are “light theists” who don’t actually need religion. You still fit in the same sort of model. 🙂

  14. I went to a Holy Smokes facility that was supposed to help me quit smoking with hypnotism. No mention of religion. They have a life time guarantee. You can go back as many times as you want for so-called reinforcement. After a while, I got tired of going back. It was a waste of my time and money. I paid $350 for someone to blow smoke up my you know what and try to make me believe that with the power of hypnotism I could quit smoking. Of course that guarantee did not include a refund if it did not work…..which it didn’t.

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