...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 1:09 PM [+]
What is Religion
Having a degree in it, one would think I could easily define it. However, I think it may be harder than you imagine. I will say it need not involve metaphysics or the numinous or the supernatural, but I would agree it must involve faith. That said, I think faith is FAR more common than people think - even amongst the most devout (yes I use the word very deliberately) atheist, a great deal of faith is employed. Indeed, they BELIEVE they have the universe quite figured out, or at least anything that isn't yet figured out, will eventually fall neatly into place in their tidy worldview. I'm not being insulting here, generally speaking I think this is a part of our human vocation. It's quite natural to want to have a grasp on these things - what the world is all about; the big questions. One way I would be inclined to define religion is that it is a system of interpretations of our perceptions that "ties it all together" and is the lens through which we make sense of most everything.
You may remember the MTV VJ Kennedy? Well she recently got in some hot water by claiming that atheism was a religion on the Bill Maher show (Why she'd go on that show I do not know, as it is my decided opinion that Maher is a condescending, arrogant jerk). But, anyway, she recently wrote an article about this experience (warning: there are naughty words). Curiously enough, she happens to be an Orthodox Christian (didn't know that) and I wondered about that when she humorously states that she didn't know what fire and brimstone was until she insulted atheism.
Not surprisingly, much of the heat she got was provided by that very common vector of passions: Facebook. I can't imagine what her thread must have looked like...oh my!
Anyway, the argument over whether atheism is a religion stems from the issue of whether or not the definition of religion must involve the "supernatural." Of course then we run into the problem of what exactly is supernatural, because quite frankly many of the things being discovered in the realm of quantum physics certainly bucks the title of what we used to call "natural." In other words, we keep on finding out that the universe is far more complex and full of wonders than we imagined and I'm not at all hesitant in suggesting that we have only begun to scratch the surface. Therefore what might have been supernatural yesterday may be decidedly natural today. "Supernatural" was often seen as some mysterious force breaking the "laws of nature", however what we are learning is that the "laws of nature" make congressional laws made complex by thousands of pages long look like child's play.
Despite what Penn says in the article, I think atheists MUST employ some degree of faith in order to suggest that all of the big questions of the universe are answered by their secular, "naturalistic" perception of the world. In this sense, I personally believe that the agnostic is the intellectually honest person who is NOT employing any faith by saying they don't know the answer to the big question. I need to be clear and say that the many unanswered big questions about the universe are not an apologetic for God's existence ("God in the gaps" as they say), but we must also consider that an atheist employs as much faith filling the gaps with their worldview as any theist claiming to do the same.
If you've ever read the works of Richard Dawkins or talked much with any of his
disciples...ummm... followers...ummm...fellow atheists of like mindedness, you'd quickly ascertain that these folks see all of the universe through the lens of Darwinism / natural selection. They do not hesitate to make highly debatable claims without a shred of scientific evidence to suggest that evolutionary theory explains everything about us - this is particularly evident in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In essence, these atheists wander about the world, taking it all in and then filtering it through their faith in Darwinism as THE all encompassing theory of everything. I've heard them working it out in their head as it spills out verbally asking how it is that such and such a thing evolved - often positing an explanation and as long as it has some degree of possibility to it, it's largely taken as fact, for what other arbiter of the universe brings things into being?. Really, not terribly unlike a theist looking at a mountain range and in his / her mind marveling at God's handiwork.
All of that aside, I wonder if the better approach to the main issue at hand is instead of saying that atheism is a religion, that we say that atheists are quite religious in the practice of their atheism.
Kennedy notes one study that tends to suggest than humans are "naturally" inclined to be religious. In actuality there have been numerous studies that demonstrate this, and even the likes of Richard Dawkins and his entourage have not surprisingly offered an evolutionary explanation for our inclination to be religious. As I noted earlier, we all want to understand the big picture and we all have a natural sense of the numinous and awe at profound beauty (That we even recognize profound beauty as being distinct from beauty that fulfills our various desire, I think speaks volumes). Such things are tickling our religious inclination.
But what Kennedy discovered is that all of the same passions theists pour into their religion, atheists pour into theirs! No one likes to have their tidy worldview tinkered with or made light of. Atheists have enjoyed making of fun of theists (e.g. Flying Spaghetti Monster) and have claimed utter contempt and superiority in the face of the angry response they get at such insults. Well, as Kennedy has found, turn the tables and call their faith as faithful as any faith and the response rather proves the point. Insulting a person's religion gives rise to passionate responses, whether the supernatural is involved or not. Bill Maher has made an entire movie ridiculing religious belief in order to propagate and build up his own. I'd suggest that if one were inclined they could make a movie about the religions of atheism and pull out of the woodwork all manner on insane atheists to paint a rather ugly picture of that faith.
I'll go a step further and suggest that politics is also a religion unto itself - even if we believe that the only religion we have is the one that we think only informs our politics. Sometimes the line between the two is very difficult to discern and all of the same passions are quick to be employed. Atheists, having no church, will often seek one in the political arena. Or...perhaps they will just give up and admit that they ascribe to a religion.