Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How is Atheism a Religion?

Why would people say that atheism is a religion? The face of the question does seem pretty silly and should probably be "Who would say that atheism is a religion?" But people do get told sometimes that, say, atheism or Marxism or secularism is a religion. For instance, when I was a freshman in college, the textbook we used for my Religious Studies class classified those three things as religious viewpoints--as, in fact, religions.

But why? Why would somebody classify them that way? For the man on the street, the classification just seems dumb. What kind of crazy logic does one use to make that statement?

The logic behind these kinds of classifications (atheism, Marxism, secularism are just three more religious instantiations) isn't exactly crazy or convoluted, but it does seem a little silly--think of everything you'd have to include. The enabler of the classification is an expanded definition of "religion." This usually only occurs in academic circles, and one example is religion as "a system of belief." If we are using that definition, then the others all seem to fall into place--sort of. Think of how small an atheist's (as opposed to a Marxist's) "system of belief" is--one belief, "God does not exist." However, if one pulls implications from this, like the truth of, say, existentialism or Darwinian evolution, then one plausibly starts extending the number of beliefs housed under the system of belief called "atheism."

But it's still silly. This all started when the Enlightenment started opposing "beliefs" to "knowledge" (which is actually something that started earlier, with the Greeks). They did so to put Christians on the defensive. You couldn't be an open atheist in the old days, but as the Renaissance wore into the Reformation, and then with the advent of the New Science, atheists (all of whom were intellectuals) became bolder and bolder. And they had a lot of built up resentment over having to be in the closet. The Enlightenment was the explosion of all this. Particularly with Galileo and Newton doing such fine work, they started asserting their supremacy over Christians by making invidious distinctions between tradition and reason, prejudice and rationality, superstition and facts, beliefs and knowledge, etc.

As time has worn on, however, religious intellectuals have learned from their mistakes. In particular, they've gone on the offensive. The Enlightenment was able to make all of these invidious distinctions because they believed (mostly because Kant had said so) that their philosophy was presuppositionless--bereft of assumptions. Christians had made the mistake (from this point of view, a tactical mistake) of resting their philosophy on faith, on the unarguable nature of God. Well, Enlightenment philosophers jumped all over this. The New Science opened up massive hope for not just having to accept things on faith, but being able to prove them. So, everything unprovable, unarguable, must be based on second-rate faith. Like faith that unicorns do, in fact, exist.

Theologians tottered off into a corner, licked their wounds, and began to scrutinize just what had happened. They noticed that these Enlightenment folks liked to talk about everything, that offering clipped "the Bible tells us so" (even when you sing it) isn't good enough for them. They wanted arguments that played by the rules of logic. "Okay," they said, "we'll give you an argument." They honed in on the notion of "presuppositionless," noticing that the atheists' most-used weapons hinged on it. They noticed that for an argument to get off the ground, you need to take for granted certain things--you can't argue about everything all at once. The Enlightenment notion of "presuppositionlessness," however, seemed to suppose that Enlightenment philosophers didn't have to take anything for granted--they had no assumptions. But any argument that is made clearly shows that to be false--every argument has assumptions.

They rolled that around in their heads for a while and eventually figured out that if Enlightenment philosophy was true, it was impossible, but since it was not impossible (it being an historically instantiated actuality), it had assumptions--assumptions that could be attacked, just as their's had been attacked. One line of attack is this: if beliefs are opposed to knowledge based on the fact that you can't argue or prove beliefs and you can about knowledge, then your "knowledge" (for instance, "there is no God") has a background of belief that cannot be argued or proven.

This little story is, of course, not literally what happened (atheists, in fact, had more to do with giving Christians these weapons then they themselves had to do with creating them). But I hope it shows the outlines of how calling atheism a "system of belief" makes sense. This little tall tale is, in fact, what leads directly to the contemporary inflammation of creationism, or intelligent design as they're calling it these days. ID defenders like Phillip Johnson, Ken Ham, and Michael Behe blend together things learned from evil post-modernism with wonderful Bible dogmatism in the weirdest possible way--and yet it is fairly coherent, just really stupid. I take the recent "backlash" against Darwin to be the clearest signal, far more powerful than anything Rorty or anybody else has written, for us to finally and forever ditch Enlightenment philosophy and all of its remenants. Adherence to Enlightenment philosophy and its rhetoric is what allows Johnson and his compatriots a foothold, or a "wedge" as they like to call it. If we ditch Enlightenment, scientistic rhetoric, the wedge has no crack to enter.

To sum up: atheism is a religion only if you define religion in broad, almost useless ways like "system of belief." Such a definition might be useful for certain, narrow academic purposes, but for the most part those of us in the real world need something with a little more bite. If your definition involves the accumulation of multiple labels for a person (i.e., a Christian is also a democratic citizen, meaning that Christianity as a system of belief does not include democracy as a system of belief), that a person is the intersection of a number of "systems of belief", then atheism is a pretty weak system of belief because "system" seems to imply more than one belief: God doesn't exist. Atheism then becomes the call for the abandonment of a particular kind of system of belief. It becomes the suggestion that the sector in our network of systems of belief, where beliefs that revolve around the word "God" exist, should cease to be a sector in which we do any thinking, it should be emptied out and left alone.

So if somebody brings up the "fact" that atheism is a religion for polemical purposes, just counter by saying, "Yeah, okay, if you stretch religion so far as to include atheism, then its a religion. But it's still the religion that says that all this God-talk is pretty pointless." Switching the grounds of debate from "belief" to "stuff we talk about" is fairly effective.


  1. SO ok, Christianity is a religion because it not only prescribes to the beliefe in "GOD", but it also believes in "systems/laws", "Covenants/morality", "salvation/worship and the list goes on?
    However atheism is not a religion because they simply, don't believe in "GOD", further more since the athiest system of belief is so small? They believe in "NOTGOD".

    Hm, wouldn't it be fair to say that packed behind the system of belief in, "believing in notgod", contains within it the system (idea/intuition) of belief in, believing in notsytems, notlaws, notworship, so on and so on. Just as with the everyday Christian who knows vary little of the bible, they're belief and idea of God contains the affirmation of all those things in reverse.

    So it seems that perhaps a religion is not a matter of what one thinks necessraly, as much as it is what one does? Catholics in they're whole "DEEDS" bit.

    Ultimately, I probably tend to agree with you. But it seems to be a matter of perspective.

    One last thing - Fantastic blogg Matt. I love Pirsig! Tons of info here I've been milling over here and there.

  2. Matt,

    Often people seem to be narrowly focused on only the "major" Western religious traditions (some of the "minor" ones including Native North and South American religious traditions). And people also often seem to overlook the distinction between orthodoxy ("correct belief" as in Christianity) and orthopraxy ("correct practice" as in Judaism).

  3. Scott RobertsAugust 19, 2006

    I agree that "system of belief" doesn't work well to define religion. I go with James' definition: the belief that there is something basically wrong with us, and to fix what is wrong with us requires [insert some word here: like 'supernatural', 'shift in consciousness', etc.] measures. Thus, Buddhism, without mentioning God, is religion, while the modern, Western secularism is not.

    By the way, here is a concise view of faith held by many contemporary Christian theologians. Also, have you read Rorty's article "Anti-clericism and atheism" in Religion after Metaphysics? In it, he says he has stopped referring to himself as an atheist.

    But, to pick a bone, I've got to complain about your rant against Intelligent Design. True, it is not a scientific theory, as ID proponents want to claim. But it does accept evolution, and so needs to be distinguished from the Biblical literalists who expound creationism. Further, neo-Darwinism is also not a scientific theory, and since its proponents claim it is, I don't see why you dump on ID but not on neo-Darwinism. Both theories accept that biological forms have evolved over long stretches of time. ID claims that the odds of that happening by chance and natural selection are too small to be believed. Neo-Darwinists claims that those odds are not that small. Since no one knows just what those odds are, one accepts one or the other based on presupposition, the ID-er in a belief in God, the neo-Darwinist on a belief in materialism. (By the way, I reject both, based on a belief in not-so-theist idealism.)

  4. Dr. Idio,

    I apologize for the length of absense between your comment and my reply, but apparently there was a problem with my blog that I was unaware of until recently.

    One thing I don't want to say is that people believe things they don't know about. It's one thing to talk about the unconscious, but I think it a bit much to say that believers or nonbelievers who know very little about X have a whole host of beliefs related to X that others who know more would have. For instance, I could coutenance the idea of an atheist who had a very well thought out series of beliefs and such condemning or denying God and whatnot. But on the other hand, I think there are those atheists who simply don't know and don't care--they don't give it much thought than in answering the question "Do you believe in God?" with "No, not really."

    But yeah, all of this definitely matters on what perspective you're taking on the subject. There are many ways to split the differences between these people over here and those people over there. Some are more useful than others, all depending on what purpose you have in mind.

    And thank you. I'm glad you've enjoyed the meager offerings on my blog. Pirsig is, for whatever reason, captivating for many people.

  5. I here you,
    I was really just pickin at your post. Albeit in a vary elemetry way.

  6. Matt, I do keep coming back to the "religion as a belief system" view.

    Even with "faith-based" belief, there can be a great deal of contingency, so I end up with scales of gray right across the range of dogmas from objective science to the more tradional notion of a religion.

    Did you see this post ?

  7. Matt - have you read this Stanley Fish essay: here.

    I'd be interested in your take (if you have the time) on my talk on idolatry (about 1hr long) - which covers some similar material, and gives a bit of background for why I think atheism is a religion, albeit a very pale imitation of one.

  8. "Once you realize what idolatry is, then of course you don't want to actually make things more important then they really are. And logically, once you've accepted that you can't get away from the reality of God."

    Hey Sam,

    The Fish piece has Fish at his usual top form and its mainly a recapitulation of the main themes of his book The Trouble with Principle. In that book there's a point at which he says, "It is my thesis that there can be no justification apart from the act of power performed by those who determine the boundaries, and that therefore any regime of tolerance will be founded by an intolerant gesture of exclusion." (167) In the margins I have written "grasp the nettle". Having read bunches of Rorty and Fish before reading that particular book, I'm already quite accustomed to dealing with the conclusions he draws that make most others run for the hills.

    I am the person who, after accepting Brown's analysis as fairly reasonable (though perhaps I think it is less accurate, or at least less hopeless sounding, then perhaps Fish does), replies as Fish imagines: "Yes, now I see, thanks to Brown, exactly what substantive values inform liberalism despite its denial (at least in some versions) that it harbors any; but those values are fine by me, and I will continue to affirm them even if it means being intolerant toward those who reject them." After all, I've already read Rorty saying that about the only reaction we can have to people like Loyola or Nietzsche who think democracy is a horrible idea is that they are "mad".

    So when I turn to you wanting to think that "atheism is a religion, albeit a very pale imitation of one" a couple things come to mind. First, I still wouldn't call it atheism if you are following the train of thought in Fish's argument. What's replacing the substantive values of your version of Christianity can only be different substantive values, in this case we could call them secularist values. And second, it doesn't seem entirely right to call secularism a pale imitation of a religion if by that you mean it doesn't have substantive values like religions do. Secularism does because it is exactly the unmasking move that Fish, Brown, and MacIntyre perform that shows that the only thing that can push aside a substantive value is another substantive value. Now, of course, if you're just being dismissive of secularism by "pale imitation," well, then have it, though expect the usual reciprical response.

    My suspicion is that you like what Fish says because you're informed by MacIntyre, i.e. that secularism isn't a substantive tradition and so is leading us down the path of "calamity", as you put it in your talk. But I do think that's wrong, that secularism is a tradition. Check out, for instance, Jeffrey Stout's book that I finally started reading, Democracy and Tradition. I absolutely love Stout (and his three main interlocuters, as in his earlier book, Ethics After Babel, are Rorty, Hauerwas, and MacIntyre).

    I didn't have a chance to get the whole way through your talk, but I did reach the point at which you enunciated that main theme of the talk (given above) and your definition of idolatry. (And, I might say, your English accent is absolutely adorable.) The third thing that then occurs to me about secularism and religion is that, given your definition of idolatry, I certainly can logically find belief in God unappealing because in my view of things, according to my substantive values, idolatry swings free of belief in God.

    Democracy is not my God because I think God is compatible with Democracy. However, not all Gods are. In my view of things (which differs from Fish), you can be a theist or an atheist and still be a secularist. But both of us would be idolaters in your view because we place Democracy above God (in a certain way). And, on the other hand, you'd be idolaters to us because you place God above Democracy (in a certain way). This is as it is, as you say in your talk, because reason is a slave of our passions, a slave of our values, a slave of our assumptions--not the other way around.

    So, if your definition of religion is "that which has substantive values" then I'm not so sure about atheism, but surely secularism is. And that brings us no closer to figuring out how to resolve our substantive differences. As I read Fish's reporting of Brown, I began by thinking (as I imagine Fish did when he read the book), "I can't wait to get to where she offers up some different options then liberal tolerance." As I kept going along, I started getting the sinking feeling that this was another one of Fish's many sermons against what he's previously called "anti-foundationalist theory hope". And yep, it was. Brown had no alternatives to liberal tolerance to offer.

    Brown's description of Locke's influence on our society as being the essentializing of difference has some real bite to it. But until I hear some better ideas, how better to manage our differences, what would be better on balance then secularism is on balance, then there's nothing I can do but keep grasping the nettle. As Churchill said (roughly), "Democracy is the worst form of government ever made, except for every other government attempted." I read Brown's diagnosis and the only thing I can come up with are policies that work within secularism's compass to ameliorate the problems she's identified. I don't have the imagination to come up with a new compass.

  9. Matt,
    I have a dull brewed answer to this in terms of Pirsig. A system exists (a beast, a cultural immune system) only in so far as that system has a value system which defines and gives it food for survival. Religion is a cultural immune system with a set values, athiesm is not, it's value system is nothing more then it's simple system of government for example. As an individual, that's the value systm it feeds outright. Atheism in terms of value systems as it relates to the beast (that higher level of qulaity) is nothing. All it is is simply any systm of value outside the beast of religion and represents religions prejudice. That is, there is the beast of religion, and there's everything else, there's atheism... But this is simply what religion chooses to call this beast, it may perhaps be blissfully unaware that what it may in fact be refering to is some other governing body of value (which again is another beast within itself), so atheism is really a racist term of the beast of religion.

  10. On our level of quality you have the wetback, the spic, the wop, the cracker, the nigger, the chink, charlie. To call yourself an athiest is nothing more than bowing to religious prejudice, like african american culture calling eachother niggers. Since you don't know what you are, you go by the largest value systems assesment of you and brand yourself accordingly. What other system of value is there besides the state? And who wants to associate themselves with that in the absence of religion? We'd jsut assume be athiest, "I'm not you, I'm what you call not you's".

  11. Hey Matt - thanks for listening to it (and I'm glad that the accent is appealing). But I think you've slightly misunderstood what I'm arguing for. Idolatry is simply a way of describing the misallocation of priorities - of treating something as more important than it really is. Now that latter phrase is rather question begging, as it assumes that there is some 'really is'; put another way, it insists upon the primary reality of values (it's a good dog, and all that). So my point about atheism is really two-fold - and hopefully this'll be a bit clearer. 1. Idolatry only functions properly (as a therapeutic term) when it is coupled with a rigorous mysticism, ie the ultimate values can't be captured in our words or practices, it is always something beyond and above us, even if the reality of engaging with it is foundational. 2. Atheism (or secularism) is still a structure of values, whether or not it terms its highest value 'god', or whether it has several competing values (polytheism). That's what I mean when saying it functions as a religion - it embodies a scale of values. (In practice, atheism is often simply a rejection of idolatries within Christian (and other) religions - it's an offshoot of an internal theological debate). What I meant by 'pale imitation' is that a religion, or a faith, is necessarily all-encompassing, and saturates the whole of a life. I don't see that happening with atheism, on the whole, although I do see it as possible. Have you read Tom Wolfe's 'A Man in Full' - that's got quite a compelling portrait of a life governed/ beginning to be governed by a secular value system.

    Hope that's a bit clearer ;-)

  12. PS the Fish article was a random addition to my comment, tho' I can see the link.
    PS 2 Blogger is playing up, and I apologise for the duplication of the previous comment!!

  13. On your first point about idolatry, your definition is probably why people like me think its best to just leave talk about idolatry behind and find other ways of expressing ourselves.

    On your second point about atheism (or as I would like to call it, secularism), I can certainly accept that it has a scale of values and in that way functions like a religion (though at that point I think we are stretching the definition of "religion" in what I previously called academic ways). And still, on this count I cannot say that secularism is a pale imitation.

    What my comments about atheism being the call to abandon a way of talking are suggesting is that secularism takes the heart of its tradition of values to be in a different location than theists do. Something like democracy becomes the heart for secularists while other areas become less central. Secularists think of themselves as citizens first and atheists or Christians second. Their self-image is different than that of people from past eras. People who would give up democracy before giving up Christianity are not secularists or democratic, and, I might say, are somewhat dangerous.

    Take George W. Bush. He strikes me as someone who'd give up democracy before other things (like being wrong). That's dangerous.

  14. Matt - I think I'm going to take up this issue on my blog. I'll send you a link when I do.


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