NYT Asks is Atheism a Religion?Posted by Jim Newman on January 23rd, 2013 – 3 Comments – Posted in atheists, religion
Yeah, OK, haven’t we atheists all heard that if atheism is a religion, baldness is a hairstyle. Unfortunately one can rephrase this such that hair or absence of it is a body style, a fashion style. Nevertheless, in spite of semantics the point comes across.
The NYT asks is Atheism a Religion in its Room fro Debate column.
Can atheism replace religion? Is it a religion?
The first debater is Penn Jillette.
Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Doesn’t get any more crisp than that. He goes on to demolish the moral necessity of religion.
Religion is not morality. Theists ask me, “If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.” My answer is always: “I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to … and the number for both is zero.” Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality. Morality is not bribery or threats. Religion is bribery and threats. Humans have morality. We don’t need religion.
He’s not quite right that we don’t do morality because of hope or fear. Certainly, jail, fines, regulations, rewards, and social pressure, all contribute to incentives for proper behavior. He’s right that we as humans have a built in morality machine; it just sometimes needs coxing and sometimes they are invented or extrapolated; just what does adding goodness to the world mean. These incentives that do matter are tangible, humanistic, and real. They are certain, immediate, and adaptive to social choices. A far cry from the absolutist, tyrannical, and eternal incentives of Abrahamic religions. Far also from the animistic and pagan incentives that have an unknowable metaphysical base.
Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share. Feeling love is beautiful. Feeling the earth is 6,000 years old is stupid.
Jillette nails it that religious faith is inherently elitist and undemocratic. It assumes a revelation and superiority of a few over the rest who have no access to the event ever but must believe only. He has an excellent point that faith can exist evidential issues. I have faith that the Big Bang could have occurred. I have faith that my body feels soild though it is more space than not; more importantly I can learn how soild and space apply to the world. These things I cannot see or intuit well personally. I must trust the scientists and experts, as well as the instruments and technology used to find the results. But unlike praying for revelation we can reproduce the results of others. Go ahead, see if you can hear god on command or by necessity, and enable others to do so.
Religion is often just tribalism: pride in a group one was born into, a group that is often believed to have “God” on its side. We don’t need to replace tribalism with anything other than love for all humanity. Let’s do that, okay?
The core issue here is the human use (institution) of tribalism. The vast variety of religions would only be possible with tribalism meeting situational pressures of a demographic in time. So needed during our evolutionary tenure that it will be impossible to eliminate. What we can do is make the circle bigger now because our social and material world is bigger. Whether anyone likes it or not, we no longer live in isolated cultural and material islands. Reciprocity and altruism extend from the family to five levels of separation; we need to value those who are friends of friends of friends of friends of friends and that’s everyone.
Religion also includes fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music, and those can be replaced by … fellowship, joy, compassion, service and great music.
Whatever religion has provided in the way of social foundations can be replaced. Durkheim the sociologist famously quoted for defining religious social traditions emphasized that secular institutions were the way of the future; he dopes not reinforce the separatism of religious moral foundations. While psychologists like Haidt emphasize conservatives as embodying absolute moral foundations and preserving religious and conservative institutions, both liberals and conservatives, religious and nonreligious have moral foundations as well as aesthetics and positive values.
Phyllis Tickle writes What Atheism Lacks is Mystery.
What atheism does not have is the architecture of mysteries. One might even argue that, to the extent that atheism lacks sacred story and narrative thrust, it also lacks transcendence and beauty, both of which are hallmarks of religion. Likewise, the perspective of atheism is caught within the created order, while that of religion, by definition, exceeds it.
I find this passage incomprehensible. Science, reality, and evidence are filled with mystery. even as we know more, we wonder at how little we do know. While this is whistling in the grave yard, we actually do know far more than we did, what mystery there is is disappearing, thank goodness. We need to know more to survive. So much so we value knowledge and wisdom for their own sake knowing utility pops up as collateral good. Indeed, the biggest humanistic issue is getting people educated to handle the more complicated decisions of today. It’d be great to fly through life on some intuitive autopilot but that’s a deadly ignorance. We need more consciousness, not less.
Sacred story? That is any story held dear as near universal value. Science and history and humanism are full of great and sacred stories. As well as narrative thrust. Anyone who teaches history well teaches it as story and narrative. Indeed Hegel’s entire philosophical thrust is history is a transcendent idea that creates progression. If not an idealist, which I am not, the transcendence and narrative of our human history are the many stories of the people, animals, and environments. The transcendence is the idealization of these stories and narratives into laws, practices, and foundations of our philosophies that take us forward while minding the past. From the material world we find and create philosophies that allows us to excel.
The near solipsistic narrative of a baby Jesus is inferior to the child’s tale of the little engine that could. The little engine that could is better, even in its simplicity, in its accessibility and richness to all.
Jim Newman, bright and well