One question that sometimes crops up in the debate between atheists and theists is whether atheists have their own religion. Should the atheist’s goal be to end all religion or would this amount to ending human nature? There’s much confusion in this sub-debate that goes away with just some rudimentary analysis, so once I clarify the question at issue I’ll address the question itself.
Note the difference between these two questions: “Does the atheist have a religion?” and “Is atheism a religion? Often, it’s the latter question that’s discussed. See, for example, this NY Times debate. The atheist typically answers this latter question by saying that atheism is just the denial that there’s a god or any other supernatural entity, so were that negative position to amount to a religion it would be a pretty paltry one. And the theist then responds by saying that the atheist is committed to more than just that denial, since the denial has positive implications. For example, if God didn’t create the universe and there’s nothing supernatural, the universe must have a natural origin; also, if there are no miracles, everything in the universe must have some mechanistic explanation. So is some religion implicit in the essential atheistic proposition that there’s no God? By this point, the theist has shifted from the latter question to the former one and has conceded that atheism by itself isn’t a religion. If we’re talking about implications of the atheist’s broader worldview, we’re asking whether the atheist is typically committed to some religion in addition to flatly rejecting theism.
What is Religion?
The next area of confusion has to do with the definition of “religion.” If the atheist rejects theism, and all religions are theistic, then of course the atheist can’t consistently have any religion. And indeed, one of the main definitions of the word assumes that a religion requires a set of theistic beliefs, such as the beliefs that a god created the universe and intervenes in that creation. However, this definition should provide little comfort for the atheist who maintains that all religions should be abolished, because there’s a notorious fact about religious studies which is that because religions are so diverse, religion scholars have little consensus about how to define "religion." For example, certain forms of Buddhism are atheistic. Just because a word is popularly defined one way, doesn’t mean experts or laymen interested in getting at the underlying truth have to follow the vulgar way of understanding the matter.
Still, if there’s not much expert agreement about what all religions have in common, perhaps there's little gained from asking whether the atheist is religious. Clearly, the answer depends on your understanding of religions. Mine includes the sociological studies by Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade as well as the work of existential theologian Paul Tillich. For Durkheim and Eliade, the essence of religion isn’t theistic belief, but the social practice of worshipping something held to be sacred. On this view, religion is a means of uniting a group around a common cause. Social unity is needed, of course, because society has many external and internal threats which loners can’t overcome. Genetic lineage provides some biological mechanisms for social unity. For example, parents usually form an emotional bond to ensure that they help to raise their children. But the larger the social group, the less sufficient these biological mechanisms and so social mechanisms develop to overcome the emergent challenges to group cohesion.
One such social mechanism is based on the distinction between the sacred and the profane, which in turn piggybacks on the instinctive disgust response. According to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Durkheim realized that the notion of the supernatural depends on the concept of nature and that the Scientific Revolution revolutionized the latter. Durkheim thought of sacred objects, in turn, as hypostatized collective ideals. This is similar to Oswald Spengler’s theory of the cultural style that unites a race of people. Once a group is captivated by something, the group may set that thing apart from ordinary, secular life, treating it as sacred, as transcendently great. To mix the sacred and the profane is to contaminate the former with the latter. This is why the Christian (or Roman) idea of God’s incarnation not just as a human but as a crucified human was so controversial, especially to Jews. At any rate, the religious person is disgusted by the prospect of reducing the sacred to the profane.
You can see, then, why religions are so universal. Religions solve the social problem of unifying ever-larger groups of disparate individuals. But just as a genetic lineage can be hidden, if the parents choose to keep their union a secret or if someone has multiple sexual partners, so too social allegiances can be unclear, given our capacities for deception and double-dealing. Here, the Handicap Principle comes into play: we can signal our true intent by a sort of conspicuous consumption, by ensuring that the signal has a sufficient cost to the signaler. The more extravagant the signal, as in the peacock’s display of its tail feathers, for example, the more trustworthy the display of intention. Thus, the more bizarre the idea of the sacred and the more costly the culture of worshipping the sacred object, the greater the practitioners’ commitment and so the stronger their social bond. A classic example is the Jewish practice of circumcision. But even the elementary notion of a transcendent deity is sufficiently strange to rule out cases of casual deception among followers of a theistic religion. That is, if you’re going to merely pretend to follow such a religion, your lie will be tested since you’ll have to say with a straight face that you believe there’s an invisible person who has magical powers, and so forth.
How, though, do we come to call anything sacred? Here I’d turn to Tillich’s existential idea of the ultimate concern. We all face the threat of anxiety, owing to the existential predicament of just being naturally alive, that is, of being involuntarily incarnated in suffering bodies. We cope by overcoming physical obstacles with practical know-how, which culminates in modern technoscience. But the mental obstacles of doubt, fear, horror, and anxiety can be overcome only with mental tools, as it were. Ultimately, we must choose a satisfying way of life or live with the consequences of failing in that regard. We must take a leap of faith in an ideal with which we resonate, which stirs our emotions like a great artwork. This ideal, which gives direction to our life, will be our ultimate concern, our sacred object or god.
New Atheism, Science, and Religion
So with that definition in mind, I repeat the question: Is the typical atheist religious? What’s interesting to me here is to think what a truly irreligious life would be like. How could you live with no ultimate concern, with no sacred ideals? What would be your mental solution to the universal predicament of existing as a person, accursed by sentience and reason? Even the ultrarationalist Vulcan characters from Star Trek have a spiritual idea of logic and religious, Buddhist-like practices of meditation and of repressing emotion. If you had no ultimate concern in life, what would stop you from killing yourself? In short, once we distinguish religion from theism and think of religion in sociological terms, the idea that atheists have their own religion gains plausibility. As for the content of this atheistic religion, at least in the American-led West, I’d look to the modern philosophy of secular humanism, that is, to the liberal ideals of social progress through (1) rational conquering of nature, ignorance, and fear, (2) the liberation of information to ensure equality of opportunity, and (3) democracy and capitalism to honour our dignity as self-governing, godlike beings. In that part of the world, these tend to be the modern atheistic ideals, or ultimate concerns. As for the religious practices, I’d turn to the rituals of Western consumer culture and to the worship of pop celebrities.
But the matter doesn’t end here, because the atheist typically refuses to concede that she’s in any way religious. So what peculiar sort of religion must be kept secret even from its members? One problem is that the atheist likewise assumes that religions are theistic, so that the notion of atheistic religion strikes her as absurd. The other complication is that if we’re speaking specifically of New Atheists, we must take into consideration the fact that science has replaced philosophy as atheism’s main support for these atheists, and science is historically and popularly opposed to religion. Have a look at this list of old and new famous atheists, excluding deists and agnostics.
17th C: Spinoza (philosopher)18th C: David Hume (philosopher), Marquis de Sade (aristocrat, philosopher), Denis Diderot (philosopher, art critic), Baron d'Holbach (philosopher)19th C: Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet), Feuerbach (philosopher, anthropologist), Max Stirner (philosopher), Marx (philosopher, sociologist), Schopenhaurer (philosopher), Nietzsche (philosopher), Freud (psychologist, psychiatrist), Charles Bradlaugh (politician)20th C: Bertrand Russell (philosopher), H.L. Mencken (satirist, journalist), A.J. Ayer (philosopher), Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Foucault (philosopher), Madalyn Murray O-hair (activist)21st C: Sam Harris (philosopher, neurologist), Dawkins (biologist), Dennett (philosopher), A.C. Grayling (philosopher), Christopher Hitchens (journalist), Victor Stenger (physicist), Lawrence Krauss (physicist), P.J. Myers (biologist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), Bill Maher (comedian), Michael Shermer (science writer, historian), Richard Carrier (historian)
Other names could be added to this list, but the point is that we should expect that the earlier atheists of the modern period tended to be philosophers or at least philosophy-centered in their atheism, if only because the sciences hadn’t yet been professionally severed from philosophy. If we count the current century as the beginning of New Atheism--and in particular Sam Harris’s response to the 911 terrorist attacks--we can see that science has replaced philosophy as the power behind the movement. Science now has much greater impact on Western culture than does philosophy, so atheistic philosophers play second fiddle in the current reincarnation of atheism. The Wikipedia article on New Atheism reinforces this point: “The New Atheists write mainly from a scientific perspective. Unlike previous writers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent, or even incapable of dealing with the ‘God’ concept, Dawkins argues to the contrary, claiming the ‘God Hypothesis’ is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified.” (Jerry Coyne agrees with Dawkins on this, although P.J. Myers does not.)
So the assumption is that New Atheists can’t be religious, because their atheism is mainly scientific and science is opposed to religion. But again, keeping in mind that religion isn’t the same as theism, the notion that science is opposed to religion is demonstrably false. Not only were the great early modern scientists deists, they were also members of secret societies like the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, and the Illuminati, which had all of the religious trappings (minus the theism). Granted, science has had a famous and enormously negative impact on monotheistic religions and on supernatural cults. The successes of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin have led to the presumption that science and religion are polar opposites, the reason being that anything so destructive to religious interests can’t have anything to do with religion. Indeed, there are memes in the air that science and religion are “at war” and that Reason and Faith are opposites. Again, though, if we confine ourselves to the sociological understanding of religion, there’s no need to accept the presumption that science and religion are like fire and ice.
Still, there’s the New Atheist’s stubborn resistance to the very notion that the way she lives might have a religious aspect. I think this resistance is explained partly by the fact that New Atheism is largely a political movement which therefore has strategic considerations. The purpose of New Atheism is to prevent religions from harming secular societies, and so New Atheists have tended to target the most destructive form of religion, which is so-called fundamentalism, as in American Creationism or terrorism from the Muslim world. Given this political agenda, the New Atheist doesn’t want to blur the lines between the sides of this power struggle. In war, an Us versus Them dynamic emerges: the good must be clearly separated from the bad, and so if religions tend to be theistic, and crazy theism is central to fundamentalism, we shouldn’t treat atheism as guilty by any such association. Note that this exhibits the very tribal dynamic that’s essential to religion in the sociological sense. What’s sacred here is the preservation of liberty in secular society, and when Creationists corrupt American science education or when terrorists destroy symbols of capitalism and democracy, not to mention killing many people who should have enjoyed their human rights, they mix the sacred and the profane and arouse the disgust of liberal atheistic humanists.
Yet another reason why atheists think the question is absurd is because we’ve inherited the distinction between the secular and the religious spheres. Secular life is defined in terms of worldly, profane things which are explicitly opposed to sacred, religious things. And atheists identify with the natural, this-worldly, and otherwise secular way of life. Therefore, most atheists assume, they can’t possibly be religious. The paradox, then, is in the idea that secular life can have a religious aspect, that something worldly and profane can be implicitly or explicitly regarded as sacred, holy, or of ultimate concern. This paradox dissolves once we realize that the division between secular and religious life was drawn from the Christian perspective. Christianity is theistic and so what’s of ultimate concern to the Christian is something supernatural, in which case (fallen) nature is left as the profane world. But that’s just the Christian viewpoint, to which the definition of “religion” needn’t be confined. So of course something which the Christian regards as profane and not central to (Christian) religion can be worshiped as sacred from some non-Christian religious perspective. The Christian doesn’t worship anything that's exclusively natural, but a pagan is free to do so. To take some uncontroversial examples, Wiccans worship nature, as do other pantheists and cultists who worship extraterrestrial aliens. So just because atheists identify with natural life, which is held to be irreligious from the Christian perspective, doesn’t mean that nature can’t be sacred and thus religious from some non-Christian, New Atheistic perspective.
Why it Matters
You might be wondering why the question even matters. Who cares if there’s some sense in which an atheist can be religious? Well, here are two reasons why the question is important. The first is a strategic advantage for atheists. If the atheist wants to put an end to theistic religion by converting theists to an atheistic worldview, exaggerating the differences between the two sides is counterproductive. It’s easier to take a baby step than to leap over a chasm, so if the conflict is between two forms of religion, the theistic and the atheistic kinds, this way of understanding the common ground should help attract theists to atheism. But when the atheist lets her tribal impulses get the better of her, devoting herself to her cause to such an extent that she demonizes the Other as perfectly impure (profane), as having virtually nothing in common with noble atheists, she ensures that the conflict will persist until the end of time. Theists and atheists have much in common: both have ultimate concerns and both hold something sacred apart from the profane; both have religious, roughly tribal ways of unifying their social circles. Of course, there is still a conflict between the two sides, but this is the conflict between two sets of ideas, atheistic naturalism and theistic supernaturalism, and between some of their behavioural consequences. If the theist is faced with the choice of jumping ship for some entirely irreligious shore or of merely jumping from one ship to another, from some monotheistic religion to a naturalistic religion, the theist should be expected to have an easier time doing the latter than the former, and that should please the atheist.
Second, when we appreciate the religious side of atheistic culture, we can more easily evaluate which atheistic religion is best, whereas when we deny that the question of atheistic religion makes even the least bit of sense, we foreclose that evaluation and instead open up the possibility that many atheists settle for an inferior religion. Indeed, I think there are at least two contemporary atheistic myths, what I call Scientism (liberal secular humanism) and existential cosmicism. Scientific atheism is philosophically inferior to the darker, existential atheism, in the old Socratic sense: the scientific atheist doesn’t know herself that well; in particular, she pretends she’s opposed to all forms of religion and faith, and that’s manifestly not so. She’s likely, or at least possibly, religious in the above, sociological sense. As for irrational faith, she likely has a sex life which she keeps secret because its nitty-gritties have no rational justification and are in fact as embarrassing as theism should be to the theist. Moreover, our reasons always run out when we face the question of how to defend our ultimate concerns. At the very least, scientific atheists have philosophical assumptions, which will be less rationally justified than her scientific knowledge. Philosophy is continuous with science but also--on the opposite side of the continuum--with art and aesthetic taste. The ideals of liberal secular humanism aren’t purely rational, if only because they’re prescriptive; moreover, these ideals are especially hard to rationally justify now, because for thousands of years they’ve been framed within theistic worldviews which the atheist rejects.
So notwithstanding the atheist’s conceit of being ultrarational, atheism, whether old or new, has an irrational side. The question is whether the atheist’s philosophical and religious ideals should be inspired by (1) the technoscientific taming of nature, the shams of democratic and capitalistic freedoms, and the childish narcissism of Western ego-worship or by (2) an existential recognition of atheism’s dark, cosmicist implications and an aesthetic and virtuous preference for those stories/myths that help us cope with the harsh facts of natural life. For strategic reasons, the New Atheist likes to pretend that atheism is logically demonstrable and scientifically supportable, whereas theism is a tissue of irrational, made-up stories. To a great extent, this is indeed so, but this isn’t the whole story. All philosophies and religions are, at some level, irrational and made-up, which is to say that they’re chosen because they feel right, according to something like a taste in art. Stories are artworks made up of ideas and words, and worldviews are partly made up of such stories. We don’t logically prove that our ultimate concerns are best nor do we conduct an experiment to falsify alternative ideals; instead, we tell or presuppose metanarratives/myths to feel better about our choice of a life direction, and when our actions are in line with that choice, we’re practicing our religion. Contrary to many postmodernists, though, I don’t think all ultimate concerns are equally valuable, so the aesthetic, philosophical, and religious question arises as to which ultimate concerns and myths are best. Atheists need to face that question and the first step towards doing so is to understand the sense in which atheists can be religious.