Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Religious Atheism?

Today I read an article by Lloyd Eby of the World Peace Herald entitled, "Viewpoint: The religion of atheism." In the article, Lloyd Eby argues that atheism is itself a religion:

Religion has to do with what a person thinks or believes about first or ultimate things. German theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was especially insightful and instructive on this, saying that religion has to do with what he called "ultimate concern." "Our ultimate concern," he wrote, "is that which determines our being or not-being." Furthermore, "every human being exists in the power of an ultimate concern, whether or not he is fully conscious of it, whether or not he admits it to himself or others." In this sense of religion, religion is unavoidable because every person does have an ultimate concern and therefore has a religion.

The first mistake that Eby makes is that he tries to equate religion with belief itself. Eby thinks that religion is an "ultimate concern," and since everyone has an ultimate concern, then everyone has a religion. To Eby, it is not possible to have a religion only because he mistakenly equates the concept of religion with the concept of mere belief (regardless of what the belief is).

If Eby is correct about this definition of religion, then doesn't the word itself become superfluous? Why even talk about religion when the word belief, or the phrase "ultimate concern," will suffice?

To help illustrate my objection to Eby's article, I would like to use an analogy: hair. Let's equate hair with religion. There are different hair colors and styles that represent different kinds of religions. So what would atheism be? Atheism would be baldness. With this analogy, one could indeed be bald (or "without hair") and therefore have no religion. But Eby wants to redefine the definition of the word "hair" so that it instead is synonymous with the word "scalp." This causes all kinds of problems, and the most notable problem being that the word "hair" would no longer be usable to identify whether or not anyone has any actual hair on their heads.

To look at the analogy more technically, the word "hair" is a positive claim in that it denotes the existence of hair on one's scalp, while the word "bald" is a negative claim in that it denotes the absence of hair. Eby is attempting to remove the positive and negative distinction between the theistic and the atheistic in the same way that redefining "hair" would remove the distinction between having hair and being bald.

But regardless of any attempts by Eby to remove the positive and negative difference between theistic and atheistic claims through the redefining of the word "religion," there still needs to be a way to differentiate between the two. Redefining the word "religion" creates a vacuum in which another term must take its place in order to fill the void. What happens if we let Eby get his way? We need to find a replacement word.

I would suggest "faith" as a replacement word. If Eby is right, and everyone is indeed "religious" even if they are atheists, then we can help differentiate between camps with the word "faith." The positive and negative uses of the word would be "faithful" and "faithless" accordingly.

But what would happen if both Eby's shifting of "religion" and my shifting of "faith" were to take place? I have no doubt that the Ebys of the world would try to redefine "faith" so that it includes the faithless too! These people are constantly trying to include atheists in the "religion" camp, in part, to help share the burden of proof, and also in part to remove the distinction between camps because it makes theists uncomfortable to hear atheists use the word "religion" as a label against them. It is another way for theists to say, "You make fun of us for being 'religious,' but you are actually in the same category, so you are just as silly as we are!"

Atheists most definitely have an argument advantage through their lack of religion, and this is because of the burden of proof. The only way to share that burden is to remove the positive and negative distinction between atheism and theism, and the only way to do that is through the redefinition of words, which of course removes the meaning and the defining powers of those words.

In reality, there isn't much for us atheists to worry about. This is because the faithfuls' attempts to redefine the word "religion" will likely not succeed if only because it makes the word powerless and superfluous. In addition, there are likely many theists who will not be aware of the burden of proof and will not want to be placed in the same "religious" category as those who have no faith. And finally, even if the redefining of "religion" does succeed, it will create a vacuum, which will have to be filled by another word out of pure semantic necessity. Essentially, a new word will "take over" the definition that the word "religion" used to have, and the word "faith" looks like a good candidate. To be sure, the faithful would likely attack whatever word fills that vacuum, but it doesn’t matter, because the vacuum will always remain, vacuums tend not to want to exist, and there will always be more words -or even new words- to fill that vacuum.

No matter how you cut it, there will always be a need for a word like "religion." Simply redefining the word that fulfills this need will not remove the need itself. Lloyd Eby will probably have to learn that the hard way.


BlackSun said...

Great post, Aaron. This is one of the major strategies of believers. And they don't just do it with atheism. They do it to strong emotional and political effect with science.

I've lost count how many people have insisted to me that science is just another 'belief system.' They cite the 'fact' that experts often disagree, that Newton was proved 'wrong' by Einstein, etc. They don't understand that scientific knowledge can be superceded without reducing the validity of the scientific method one bit.

It's also self-defeating. Those who make these claims must not realize that on top of being a weak argument, they are also acknowedging that their own beliefs are 'just' beliefs, and not inherently valid.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Aaron. It eloquently and with illustrative example discusses a reoccuring theme in modern religious apologetics.

If you ask me, arguments like this one are simply the retreat of mainstream religion into postmodernism. It's one of the main prongs of the war on science. There's no objective truth, and its all just ideology, so why not pick the one you like best? Even the fundies embrace the tactics of radical postmodernism, even though they deride the philosophy (a tactic that's going to reap unpleasant consequences down the road for them, if you ask me.) But even though it makes them slipperier and more infuriating, I view it as a good sign. Obviously, they're starting to realize that the reality-based approach is tilting in our favor, so they're attempting to retreat and reconsolidate on higher ground. If they have to retreat into the castle of solipsism, then we've won. ;)

UberKuh said...

Eby is on crack. Morever, how can someone claim to place faith in something that no one can, by definition, define? "I believe in something that is defined as being beyond my ability to know what the hell it is. This is my religion. I choose to believe in whatever I want, which is to say that, in the end, I believe in nothing." If atheists are religious, then I say theists are atheists.

Aaron Kinney said...

Thanx for the compliments everyone!

Blacksun and Tanooki Joe, you guys make very good points. People with their minds stuck in imaginative ideologies have issues understanding concepts like science where opinion and wants have nothing to do with the truth.

And Uberkuh, you got a nice retort there. If atheists are religious, then theists are atheists! It reminds me of my old "There Are No Theists in Foxholes" posts. LOL!

Francois Tremblay said...

I would suggest the word "spirituality" to designate what this guy calls "religion". In my mind, not everyone is spiritual either. There are many people who don't give a shit about purpose or our place in the universe. Not that many people, but still.

WIthin spirituality I would count two categories - worldviews that are based on dichotomies, pleasing people by making them "special" ("saved", "holy", "soul", etc), erecting basic dichotomies with the universe ("material" vs "immaterial", "natural" vs "supernatural", "divine" vs "worldly", etc), and worldviews that are based on integration.

Anonymous said...

I'm an agnostic with a cynicism for all religions with their inherent belief of afterlife. The reality is that both major and splinter religions have a very human originator who created and sold a belief framework that appeals to the desperate need of people to survive.

However, my agnosticism is based on the unanswerable question of who or what caused the creation of both our universe and perhaps an infinite number of other universes. From a pragmatic point of view, that reality at least forces me to accept that an undefined power exists. Unfortunately, that leads to the philosophical question of who created that power and that debate is useless since it goes beyond anything humans can comprehend.

So, like most humans, I would like to believe in an afterlife. However, for me, I'm forced to accept that we are star dust derived from our known and unfeeling universe and are no more religiously significant than the earth we walk on.

Graeme said...

Science can always change it's mind when new evidence presents itself. Religion tends to be stuck in it's thousands of year old dogma. Atheists opinion on how we got here is based in facts, theists on poetry

Jim Jordan said...

Hi, Aaron
You make some good points but I'm afraid you missed a big point. Since you are an atheist, you believe that there is no God. Therefore you believe that this life is all there is. This belief must influence how you see the world. As you've said yourself in the after-life-believing loco stories, their reality was poisoned by their belief. Your reality is not poisoned by this belief because you believe there is no after-life. A world-view that is used daily to help us decide what to do next in our lives is in essence our "religion". Are you not a believer also? If I'm missing something here, let me know.
Each person also has a unique world-view. The religion of the person who murdered their two children bears no resemblance to my interpretation of Christianity. There may be no other person who believes exactly as she does (let's hope).
So the hair analogy is true if you consider a head of hair with 6 billion different follicles (1 per person), some closer than others. The atheist area would be the "bald spot". But their are hair follicles below that bald spot, these are invisible. Who knows what would happen if you started to apply Rogaine. But, no, this is getting too wierd.
Always a pleasure reading your blog.
Take care,.

Anonymous said...

Hello all,
I was reading the post of how most scientists today are atheists, I have a few quotes and comments on that topic. I am a Christian and I do believe in a God and in Jesus, that all can be saved if they accept Jesus and the fact that most things in life are out of there own control. I and many of my friends have decided that Christianity is at war (not physically as so many like to think). It would seem that many other peoples not of my religion or thinking agree with me. Now I have read many atheist articles and many seem to talk about their "scientifical support" and how most scientists are atheist. Sun Tzu said "In war, numbers confer no advantage, do not advance relying on sheer military power." In otherwords, if you want to put down someone, don't do it by saying how many people agree with you. That is not only foolish but cowardly. Many of your "supporters" will probably think that I am a fool for believing in an afterlife and of God. Do so if you must but listen to my story.

I was once in a rather heated argument with an atheist of like mind as you. He said,
"There once was a car reck, in which a single person in one car hit a car with many persons. The car with the one driver hit the car with, say one driver and four passengers. Well, the singular driver was instantly killed, but the others survived. Now when they were all interogated, they could not agree on their story. They all had the same events, places and characters, but all differed in all ways." Now this story set off a question in this atheists mind,
"What really happened?" Well, neither he nor I could answer completely and we talked it over for some time. (forgive me, I am almost through.)
Finally the atheist, whose name I have neglected to mention is Arthur, came up with this theory
"That when the people could not come up with a truth, they realized that there was no truth! And therefore, since there is no truth, there is no God, and since there is no God or truth, there is no lie, nor devil, and since there is neither of those, there is no good nor evil, nor light nor dark, nor heavan nor hell, nor love nor hate." After saying that quite breathlessly he looked at me with the expression quite distinctly of "beat that".
Well, I thought for a minute and then responded,
"Is that the truth?"

Ponder that....