Thursday, January 26, 2017

Christians Defining "Atheism"

Victor Reppert has made an interesting post in which he attempts to define atheism as a religion.  This is a common theme among religionists.  They want to make a lack of belief out to be religion.  One might ask, Why is is so important for Christians to define atheism as a religion?  It's as if they want to place atheists in the same broad category as themselves (ie, religious adherents).  But why would they do that?  You'd think they would want to distance themselves from atheism as much as possible, especially considering the fact that they sharply criticize many atheists for not sharing the same set of epistemological tools they value so much.  For example, the empiricism of many atheists is seen as unduly limiting the sources of legitimate knowledge available to atheists.

Obviously, there must be a definition of religion that is agreeable to all parties concerned before atheists can be expected to enter into any serious discussion about whether they are in some way religious.  Commenter BK, following the dictionary, defines religion as the practice of "religious belief", and then he attempts to define religious belief as something that is about belief or dis-belief in the existence of God.  In this manner, he can include atheists under the umbrella of religious adherents, but he then contradicts himself when he includes Buddhism, because Buddhism, although usually considered non-theistic, isn't fundamentally about belief in God.  In fact, there are theistic Buddhists.  So in the case of BK at least, his attempt to define atheists as religious leads to a contradiction in terms.

As for Victor, he seems to think that religion has to do with belief in supernatural things, and he goes on to define supernatural as that which is outside the realm of "prediction and control".  He's talking about things that don't follow the repeatable patterns that we call laws of nature.  In this manner, he recognizes non-theistic Buddhism as a religion, due to their belief in karmic forces.  This seems to be on the right track, but it doesn't account for atheism being defined as a religion.  So Victor has to come up with a new definition of religion:
Religions are there to ask three fundamental questions indicated by Immanuel Kant: What can I know? What must I do?  What can I hope?
Victor claims that atheists must have a way to answer these fundamental questions.  He then goes on to describe several ideological options for atheists in a manner that relates to those questions.  They include Buddhism, existentialism, Marxism, secular humanism, and objectivism.  But the mere fact that Victor has to bring all these ideologies into the picture tells us that he's glossing over one of the fundamental aspects of religion in his definition.  This is the idea that a religion has to be an ideology of some kind.  An ideology can attempt to answer those Kantian questions, but atheism, in itself, is not an ideology.  Without an ideology like humanism or Marxism or objectivism, an atheist doesn't have the world-view that would answer those questions.  And atheism itself doesn't imply any of those ideologies.  As a matter of fact, there are Christian humanists, and Christian Marxists, and Christian objectivists (think Paul Ryan, who was surprised to learn that Ayn Rand was an atheist).  Atheism, in its own right, doesn't imply any ideology at all.  And that's why Victor's definition of atheism as a religion ultimately fails.  For the record, I think that religion should be defined as an ideology that answers those questions in terms of supernatural forces or powers.

Of course, there is still the fact that any given atheist probably has some world-view ideology.  And whatever that ideology is, it may or may not be regarded as religious, according to some definition of religion.  Atheism, in itself, has nothing to say about that, because it is not an ideology.  An atheist might just as well answer Kant's questions with a simple "I don't know."  And that can hardly be described as a religion.

So we come back to the question I asked at the beginning of this: Why is is so important for Christians to define atheism as a religion?  They certainly do try to go out of their way to make atheism out to be religious.  I think it has something to do with their attempts to equate atheism with certain negative aspects of religion.  This is revealed by Victor in his comment:
Now, consider the fact that it is possible to be a militant atheist. Not all of them are, but some are, just as some Christians are militant. This is a belief that many people care about. But why? Both theists and atheists have members of their group that are very interested in others believing as they do? It matters to how life is lived. The reason seems to be that religious belief affects how we live our lives and what our hopes should be. If belief in God were simply a neutral question of belief, it would not be supported or oppose militantly. But if affects our life choices and our hopes, and atheists as well as religious believers think, to a greater degree or a lesser degree the wrong answer on God leads to wrong answers in some other areas. I take it people don't go on the Internet to argue against religious belief in they don't think this is so. But this means that there are some right answers which in those areas which atheists think theists are likely to miss because they believe in God. Otherwise, why do they care? - Reppert
So if atheism is a religion, that gives the theist license to say that atheists are just as bad as they are.  First of all, the whole idea of militant atheism in our current society is a myth, as I have noted before.  There is simply no equivalence between the coercive and murderous tactics employed by some religionists and the practice of ridiculing beliefs that is employed by some atheists in modern western society.  Not even in the same league.  Yes, some atheists are less than cordial toward religionists, but that's not militancy.   Don't try to drag us down to your level.

But Victor does raise a good question: Why do they care?  I'll tell you why.  It's because of militant religionism.  Religionists are not satisfied to believe what they want and live their own lives in accordance with their beliefs.  They insist on using coercive tactics to force the rest of us into compliance with their beliefs.  If you want to pray, go ahead and do it.  But don't come into the public schools and make my kid pray with you.  And don't try to teach my kid your creationist anti-science bullshit.  If your religion teaches you that gay people should not be treated like everyone else, fine.  Then don't try to run a public accommodation that must by law treat everyone the same, and then complain that your rights are being violated because you have to treat everyone the same.  If you think that abortions are bad, fine.  Then don't have one.  But don't try to tell the rest of us what we can and can't do.  I am bombarded by your religious messages, told how to live, and constrained by your religious rules every day of my life.  And you ask, Why do I care?  What a stupid question.


  1. Skep, as science tugs more strongly at the rug from right under their feet the religiose know there is a deep existential threat to just about every claim they have ever made over the millennia which they believe was a direct result or a causal function of their God's intent. As science continues to radically and dramatically pare down the boundaries of religious claims once deemed unassailable I think it is now beginning to dawn on Christians like Reppert that the threat to his belief system is very real and not going away. They know there are truly serious and fundamental flaws that have been exposed over time in the christian narrative for which there have been no answers. And there is no answer because nothing even resembling a verifiable, evidential or substantive core underpins that narrative that support their claims. Christians like Reppert are slowly beginning to understand they are being found out to be unwitting purveyors of nothing more than just another of thousands of religious mythos, extant and extinct, itself a fully conscripted derivative of the broader genre of Mythology. In utter desperation they are in search of something, anything, remotely conceivable that will accord their religious beliefs some element of intellectual credibility. Their current and miserable strategy is to equate theism with atheism, to argue that the "a" in 'atheism' is silent [Sshhh!] and of little significant value when compared with their theism. There is no question we are watching the act of flailing desperation with this line of argument. But it might have some merit.

    What we are witnessing is the slow but ineluctable transition to Christian Atheism. The core of this transition is the jettisoning of myth, fable, magic/miracles and all related paranormality, collectively replacing them with humanism. The take away concept here is:

    "Although Jesus is still a central feature of Christian atheism, Hamilton said that to the Christian atheist, Jesus is not really the foundation of faith; instead, he is a "place to be, a standpoint".[5] Christian atheists look to Jesus as an example of what a Christian should be, but they do not see him as God."

    I think this transition to Christian atheism is in the right direction as reason, logic and evidence increasingly become the guiding principles for public discourse. But it nonetheless remains a transit point in the journey to atheism which they might not necessarily complete.

    1. That's interesting, but I don't think Victor is ready to make that transition yet. He (like most Christians that I interact with) is still enamored with all the magic stuff that is part of theistic belief. In fact, I get the distinct impression that if they didn't have those supernatural attractions to marvel about, they wouldn't be much interested in a man like Jesus.

  2. It would be interesting to know what Reppert thinks of THIS, THIS or THIS.

    I think this trend is underscored by the profound shift that has been experienced by a relatively isolated but defined community as theIcelanders over the last twenty-year period. What it clearly demonstrates is that religiosity is purely a function of enculturation and socialisation.