Monday, 26 March 2012

How to turn "religion" into an empty, meaningless concept

First of all, I want to make it clear that this blog is not intended to be one of those dime-a-dozen "atheist blogs." Not that there's anything wrong with them, but I do feel that the whole "God question" (as traditionally construed, the question of whether or not a personal, i.e. theistic God exists) is something that you deal with at one stage in your life, and then maybe poke at it once every now and then but, for the most part, you set it aside to focus on more interesting questions. Not only that, but there are some damn good atheist bloggers out there, who actually do tackle the God question on a regular basis and, you know, debate creationists and whatnot in a really entertaining and engaging fashion, and I don't want to compete with those guys or fit myself into a niche that's already well-filled by much brighter minds.

That said, I expect I'll probably be doing some of that aforementioned poking at the God question now and then on this blog, and this is pretty much one of those "pokes." Well, sort of. To be more precise, I'm dealing with the oft-heard silly claim that "atheism is a religion," specifically as it is spelled out in what is definitely one of the dumbest articles I've read this month. What a colossal mess.

The author's main argument is spectacularly weak, and hinges on the thesis that "if your [belief] system is about God—or about the non-existence of God—God is still at the center of the argument's 'aboutness.'" Because atheism is "about" God, at least in the sense that it is primarily the denial of the existence of God, that, um... makes it a religion. Yeah. Anything that is "about" God, in some broad sense, is somehow a religion. That's setting the bar pretty low, but whatever. Maybe by this logic, Marvel's Thor comics are holy scripture. I don't know.

Responding to the statement "If atheism is a religion, 'off' is a TV channel," the author makes the profound claim that "God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he's dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there's a TV." Well, does this mean that everything is a religion? Any old collection of beliefs is a religion? Is there any way at all to get away from that "TV" entirely? I mean, either you believe in God, or you don't. Even if you're an agnostic or a "fence-sitter" of some sort, that's still ultimately a non-theistic position (you're "unsure," at best, which is to say you still don't actually "believe" in God). Is the author saying that it's impossible not to be religious? If that's the case, if every set of beliefs counts as a religion, then no set of beliefs counts as a religion, because a religion is just synonymous with "any set of beliefs." The author makes a safe space for political libertarianism, of course, because that is "about liberty" just like "hockey is about mullets and pucks." So, alright, hockey's not a religion. Libertarianism isn't a religion. But even a hockey-playing libertarian either believes in God or doesn't, and so is religious! Buddhism isn't about God. If anything, it's about attaining a state of peace and tranquility in a world of impermanence and suffering, without any reference to God. Not a single one of the "Four Noble Truths" is concerned with God. Does that mean Buddhism is not a religion?

To be fair, I think the author's real targets are not atheists in general, but rather what I call "movement atheists." What are movement atheists, you ask? Well, pretty much anyone who makes a big stink out of fighting religion at every turn and promoting atheism as a "cause." The movement atheist is the adolescent cousin at Thanksgiving dinner who throws a shit fit when Grandpa says Grace. Granted, a lot of these people do admirable work promoting things like women's rights and LGBT rights, and combating efforts to introduce creationism into science classrooms, and I'm not going to shit on them for that. I just feel that a lot of this can be done (and, of course, is done) without dealing with God at all. As a result I'm not really outraged by the article in question; I just think it's a stupid and clumsy way of juggling concepts just to piss on some people the author doesn't really like.

I'm not out to "defend" atheism, because I don't believe (as the author seems to believe,) that atheism is a "belief system." It's not. At best, it may or may not be an attribute of a given belief system, which is to say that your belief system and ontology (your personal catalog of "things that exist") may or may not include a personal God. Atheism, in my view, is a lot "smaller" than the author seems to think. The author is perhaps unwittingly giving atheists more credit than we deserve. One may not have a belief system at all. I don't feel that I do. This isn't a boast, but merely an admission; I don't personally feel that I can organize my own imperfect and incomplete hodge-podge collection of beliefs, hunches, perspectives, and suspicions into a perfectly organized, coherent system of any sort, and I sympathize with Nietzsche's famous "mistrust [of] all systematizers," and his claim that "the will to a system is a lack of integrity."

But none of this changes the fact that theism is still an unsubstantiated claim, an unwarranted doctrine among many. And if you recognize this, you're an atheist or non-theist. I'll give the author credit for taking a shot at the absolutely humorless, moralizing "movement atheists." But I dislike the author's attempt to water down and weaken religion by making it into just "anything that is about God."

This is a poor definition of religion. I don't believe there is any absolutely correct or final way of defining words and terms; language is, of course, mutable and conventional. But some definitions may be better or worse, or more or less complete, than others in some practical sense, for given purposes. A religion, as I understand it, is something which provides orientation to our comings and goings, which gives some kind of coherence or unity to our dealings with sense experience and particular states of mind; we might say that the person who haphazardly acts and reacts to life's events and stimuli is not properly "religious," even if he or she believes in a personal God, while the person who has a unifying stance towards existence as a whole has a religious sense. Religion isn't about what you believe or what you don't believe, but in how you live. I have, at times, found myself to be religious in this way, even as an atheist.

I think an atheist or theist can be religious. But neither atheism, nor theism, is itself a religion.

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