Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back to the Atheism Discussion: On the Nature of Religion

Two of my Facebook friends, Kara Rae Garland and Brian Shaughnessy, have taken exception to some of my earlier statements on atheism.  I was surprised to see they were personally offended by a few of my comments. While I've got an uncommon talent for offending people, I thought I was clear that I had no problem with atheism per se as a belief system.  As with most other belief systems, it can produce reasonably moral behavior if followed by reasonably moral people.  It's also arguably less dangerous than many other belief systems insofar as it emphasizes reason over unquestioning belief in divine authority.  And no matter whose metaphysical conception of the universe is correct, I can hardly imagine the Being whom Bruce Cockburn called "Lord of the Starfields" and "Voice of the Nova" is going to get Hir knickers in a twist because some bipedal primate on a small planet questions Hir existence.

Brian and Kara are both correct in stating that Internet trolls are rather low-hanging fruit, and that there are considerably more sophisticated atheist thinkers whose arguments deserve consideration.  This whole series started out as a response to some Weenie-Waggler atheists discovering Jason Miller's blog. Now it's looking like it's  going to turn into a book-length manuscript in the near future. And so, when I'm done with Melancholia and Lilith's Children I'll probably turn my attention and research efforts to contemporary atheism and (hopefully) give the subject the treatment and respect it deserves.  Until then you can consider these postings to be at best preliminary sketches from a work-not-quite-in-progress.

(I owe Brian a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Stephen Jay Gould's concept of "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Gould, a nonbeliever, has expressed succinctly one of my main contentions - that there is a place where the realm of science ends and the realm of religion takes over. He also correctly criticizes the issues which have occurred when the two realms get conflated and notes that "Young Earth Creationism" is an American phenomenon which is repudiated by most mainstream Christians. As is the case in many Internet debates, I suspect when the smoke clears both sides will discover they have a good bit more in common than they first imagined). 

Brian and Kara both took umbrage with my claim that atheism is a religion.  Brian noted, "As the saying goes, atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby." In my earlier post about "True Unbelievers" I listed some of the ways in which Internet troll atheists behave like Dominionist Christians.  But now that we've picked the low-hanging fruit, let's take a look at the word "religion" and see how it applies to the situation at hand.

Many have stated that religion of necessity involves belief in a Supreme Being or Beings.  I earlier provided several counterexamples of religions which do not involve such belief.  And as T. Jeremy Gunn noted in the Harvard Human Rights Journal
One of the many difficulties encountered in reaching a consensus on a legal definition of the term [religion] is that, at root, “no convincing general theory of religion exists.”[20] Three of the principal theories about religion are: first, religion in its metaphysical or theological sense (e.g., the underlying truth of the existence of God, the dharma, etc.); second, religion as it is psychologically experienced by people (e.g., the feelings of the religious believer about divinity or ultimate concerns, the holy, etc.); and third, religion as a cultural or social force (e.g., symbolism that binds a community together or separates it from other communities). Definitions of religion typically begin by assuming one of these three different theoretical approaches.
By all three of those theories, atheism qualifies as a religion.  It is concerned with the underlying truth of the existence of God: it rejects that existence categorically and feels the need to make a public affirmation of (lack of) faith. It involves the feelings of the believer about divinity, the holy, etc. and the perceived dangers of those feelings/beliefs in self and in others. And it binds a community together: one may attend atheist conventions, join atheist forums, and support various atheist organizations and atheist causes.  "Stamp collecting" would only qualify under the third theory, and that marginally. "Not collecting stamps" wouldn't make the grade at all, since to the best of my knowledge there are no organizations which seek to create a community of non-stamp collectors.

I might also add to that the idea of religion as a set of beliefs which shape one's gestalt, one's way of engaging with the world and arranging the various points of data which continually flood our brains.  Beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of Deity/Deities certainly has an effect on the way one perceives the world: so do beliefs of the role of and proper way of engaging with these Deities.   The same New York forest may look very different to an Evangelical Christian who sees the Lord's Creation, a Wiccan who sees the Presence of the Goddess, and an atheist with a degree in botany who sees a biosphere with characteristics common to both Northern Hardwood and Oak-Hickory Forests.

A lack of interest in stamp collecting does not shape our moral and ethical beliefs or our ways of interacting with fellow humans: belief in God/s or lack thereof certainly does.  That shaping may be for good or for ill: one can excuse atrocious behavior or be spurred to exemplary deeds based on religion or on atheism.  But whatever their effects, atheism and theism both shape the individual's worldview in ways which are very different than the effects of stamp collecting on even the most ardent hobbyist.