Atheism as Religion

In the Washington Post this morning I found a blog I should have been reading a lot longer: The Spirited Atheist.  In this installment, Susan Jacoby declares the need for atheists to define themselves.  She respectfully disagrees with Stephen Prothero in his post in USA Today about the “Gentler Atheists” despite Prothero’s inclusion of Jacoby in his list of the gentler atheists.  Prothero, my ever wonderful graduate adviser with whom I tend to respectfully disagree as well, says that the strong-fisted atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris is heading towards extinction.  He sees women, like Jacoby, replacing the hard-line angry-white-man-atheist variety.  Jacoby, while not completely dissenting, says that Prothero’s piece “is a perfect example of all of the distortions of atheism cherished by anti-atheists.”  She takes the remainder of her column debunking the “Myths of Atheism.”  As a historian of religion with several students working on secularism-related projects, I’m surprised that Prothero is guilty of assuming some of these myths.  Or that he neglected to acknowledge them in his article.  I’m not surprised that Prothero’s list is almost entirely women, since he’s about as far from an angry-white-man scholar of religion as can be.  (Though he is still unmistakeably a white man from Massachusetts.)  Sorry Steve, the concept of categorizing atheists into “gentle” and “hardline” isn’t going to cut it for me.  And I’m going to guess that if I’d handed Steve a paper on atheism, he’d say the same to me.

Jacoby’s myths of atheism (for her complete explain go read her blog):

Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. …

Myth No. 2: Atheists think all religious believers are stupid. …

Myth No. 3: This brings us to the most common false stereotype about atheism–that it is a religion and, furthermore, that “atheist fundamentalism” is as intolerant as conventional religious fundamentalism. …

Myth No. 4: Atheists believe that science explains everything. No. We believe that science offers the best possibilities for explaining what we do not yet understand. Science–in contrast to religion–is a method of thought and exploration, not a set of conclusions based on unchallengeable assumptions. Science is always open to the possibility that its conclusions may be proved wrong by new evidence based on new experimentation and observation. Monotheistic religion’s bedrock assumption is the existence of a god who always was and always will be. Atheists (at least those with a scintilla of scientific knowledge) would never claim that the universe always was and always will be.

Myth No. 5: Atheists deny the possibility of “transcendent” experience. They can’t see beyond the material world. This stereotype is partially true, but it all depends on what you mean by transcendent. …

Myth No. 4 I will talk about in depth later when I address more science and religion concepts.  But in the meantime, I’ll say only that one who puts complete and infallible faith in science is as guilty as anyone with blind faith.  It’s rare that you’ll find a critically thinking person, religious or not, scientist or not, who would say that they don’t believe that science to a certain extent provides some of the “best possibilities for understanding” and that it is a method of thought and exploration in a way that religion can never be.

Myth No. 2 is what I spent most of my senior project talking about.  At a liberal arts school, you’re likely to find more atheists in a religion class than religious students.  (On the other hand, at most liberal arts campuses, I think you’re more likely to find atheists than religious students anyway.)  Only an ignorant atheist will consider religious person unintelligent.  I can only speak from experience, but I believe that my parents, both priests, are very smart, intelligent and very well-educated people, both holding terminal degrees in their fields (Mom has MDiv, Dad has MDiv, MTh, and DMin).  Many members of my church are MDs or PhDs.  And most atheists recognize that.

Myth No. 1 was my entire freshman year of college.  Bard’s First Year Seminar program “What is Enlightenment?” and the “Limits of Reason.”  Most of the philosophical atheists I know will spout Kant, et al.  Those who don’t quote the Enlightenment folk directly are paraphrasing their thoughts, know it or not.

Myth No. 5 I’m still undecided about.  I’m honestly not sure whether I think atheists can have transcendent experiences and consider themselves still atheist.  Jacoby is right, it depends on the definition of transcendent.  HOWEVER, i’m going to wager a guess that they can experience the transcendent, it’s called communitas, and it doesn’t have to come from a strictly religious experience.

And that brings me to Myth No. 3, what Jacoby thinks is the most common misconception of atheism.  And here is where I will disagree with her, and why I am still Prothero’s student after all.  While there is no “United Church of Atheism” it still falls under two types of religious categories.  It is one of John Cobb’s pseudo-religions, something like Marxism that may not fall under an organized religion but that still promotes belief and ethics.  Speaking of it as a sociological phenomenon, atheism is also a religion in the sense that it has every right to be categorized as a religionIn this sense, atheism is very similar to the spiritual-but-not-religious category.  There is no s-b-n-r seminary (schools for Wiccans do not count, Wicca is a religion), there is no Church of Spirituality, but there are groups of people who believe.  As a religio-sociological phenomenon to be studied by a scholar, that’s all that needs to count!  There can, and are, atheist fundamentalists, though more and more often I don’t always see Hitchens as a part of that group.  On the other hand, I think that the atheist fundamentalist character is largely a religious-media invention, just as the ignorant religious character is.

But what Jacoby wants, and what I want as well, is a clear definition of atheism, and of what an atheist is.  There are plenty of dictionary/encyclopedia entries on religion, but even still not enough scholars of religion are talking about atheism!  Once upon a time, our breed talked about secularism, thinking (in the 1960s-ish) that religion would die off in favor of secularism by the 21st century.  Of course everyone who said that was happy enough to eat their words at the inaccuracy of their predictions.  But secularism is still different from atheism in many respects.  Secularism is a belief that can simultaneously be held by a religious individual, and more often than not is one held by s-b-n-r people, because secularism generally implies the desire for a separation of the public and the private, the political and the religious.  (A very Protestant belief.) And for basic argument’s sake, an atheist is one who denies the existence of God.

But why isn’t “gentle atheist” an acceptable category?  Because it places a gender on religion or on atheism.  These are not things that need to be gendered!  Steve is a recovering Second Wave feminist trying to transition his way into the Third Wave.  I know this from conversations related to my MA thesis.  My understanding of the Third Wave, which in religion crosses more into Queer Theology, is to move beyond gender categories as identification.  Perhaps under old academic regimes and rigor it’s worth feminizing aspects within religion, but there is little point in doing so as socio-religious category at this point.

So here I am talking about academic categories, but that’s what Prothero will always be thinking about, as a historian of religion.  We religionists live and breathe on academic categorizations, even those like me who are trying to break out of the mold.  So let’s start defining atheism, but without gendered categories.  Let’s look at atheism as another religion–the academic construct of religion, that is–and define the faith that Jacoby and Hitchens share to a certain extent.

As always, more to think about later.  I will, however, probably always stand by my point that atheism is a religion.  And that’s primarily because I was academically raised on Geertz’s definition of religion:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1985: 4)


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4 Responses to “Atheism as Religion”

  1. aforcier Says:

    atheism is just a stop. (you make it way to complicated)

    you are told that a god exists (theism). oopps… none is found (atheism). you accept to be (human). next… what do you do with the rest of your life?

  2. Meg Gatza Says:

    Of course I’m going to disagree with the concept of a “simple atheism.” It’s like being a “simple Christian.” There’s always another qualifier, another entrenched belief, another means of practice. But aside from examining individual ahteists, the concept of atheism as a social phenomena–in the way religion is a social phenomena–is extremely complicated.

    But one of the beautiful things about Academia is to overcomplicate things, and then to deconstruct and reconstruct a concept in a meaningful way. My argument is that using the tools of religious studies, atheism is one of those concepts prime for eventual reconstruction.

  3. Chris Palmer Says:

    Always a good distraction from work reading your entries. Personally I found a lot of Susan’s article to be annoying, and Myth 3 particularly so. The thing that she was failed to do, which I am very glad you did, was to include what she believes defines a religion.

    She seems to imply that having ‘sacred, authoritative texts’ is a key part of being a religion. Sacred is a pointless because it’s obvious religious connotations just create a circular argument. The texts aren’t sacred because it is not a religion, and so it is not a religion because it has no sacred texts etc. However if she doesn’t believe that works like “On the Origin of Species” are as fundamental and authoritative to modern day biology/science and therefore to most atheists, as the Bible is to modern day Christians then I think she is mistaken.

    She also fails to explain why ‘atheists claim to “know” there is no God’ is
    integral to the myth of atheism as a religion. Christianity is not considered a religion because it’s practitioners claim to “know” God exists, but because they believe God exists (whether they claim to “know” it or not).

    But the thing that annoyed me the most was her claim that “no intelligent atheist can ever claim that his or her ideas constitute absolute truth” yet a few sentences before she mentioned “materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days”. If you don’t know it to be absolute truth then how can you claim something to be impossible?

    I think this is really where the ‘atheist movement’ gets held up. They hide behind the lack of education vs lack of intelligence argument, so they can call people uneducated rather than stupid. And they all too often act all high and mighty by never claiming to know “absolute truth” and by being willing to adapt their ideas, all the while scoffing at the “impossible” things that many religious people do believe.

  4. aforcier Says:

    the path to “not believing” is at time arduous and complex. much can be said. and debated. and put into boxes. but there is a point where… not believing becomes natural. – santa no longer exists -. you’re done. there are no “other qualifier or entrenched belief” attached to the god left behind. the mind turns forward… and yes a new “foundation” for our existence may be formulated. and, of course, that too is not simple. but it is not in reference to theism or atheism but to a life to be lived.

    to the believer, i am an atheist, to myself, i am simply human.

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