How should we define — and assess — atheism?

DANIEL ASKS:

Is it becoming possible to be religious without believing in god? (the lower-case “god” is Daniel’s usage)

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This is partially a repeat from March 22, 2013, when The Guy posted “Is atheism a ‘religion’? Is the Pope Protestant?” That headline indicated the idea seems ludicrous on its face. Yet, as the item explained, things are actually somewhat complicated.

The Guy won’t repeat that material here. Meanwhile there’s intense interest not only in definitions but in atheism’s role in society, to judge from the 69 lively comments posted in response to The Guy’s June 21 item on the unhappy “track record when atheists wield political power.” As an admitted theist, The Guy would like to thank all atheists who responded. These matters obviously deserve another look.

First, can people be “religious” without belief in God, or a god, or gods? Yes, absolutely. This is not “becoming possible” now but has long been true. The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam. The Buddha Dharma Education Association, among others, states flatly that true Buddhists do not “believe in a god.” Yet teachers like Kusala Bhikshu tell us “a lot of Buddhists believe in God” while others don’t.

Or consider the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, self-defined as a “religion” yet creedless. It explicitly welcomes atheists as members in good standing alongside those with a God-concept. Humanistic Judaism likewise designates itself as a “religion” but eliminates the Jewish God.

However, those are obvious exceptions. Most atheists have no involvement with “religious” groups, don’t consider themselves “religious,” and may feel the label is a slur.

One comment distinguished between ordinary atheists with a live-and-let-live attitude toward belief versus atheists who turn “religious” in their zeal to oppose “religion.” This referred to the recent “new atheist” authors and activists who not only argue against God but may demean religion and religionists as stupid or evil, or seek limitations on religious rights commonly recognized by democracies.

Since devout religion and convinced atheism wrestle with the same issues, The Guy suggests everyone call a truce and speak of atheism not as “religious” but as a “philosophy” or “ideology” or “worldview” or “metaphysical stance.” Comments?

On to the June question and answer about the historical facts when atheists exercise political power, which were calculated to provoke discussion and certainly succeeded!

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The track record when atheists wield political power?

DUANE’S QUESTION:

He’d like to know what The Religion Guy was talking about in this from “Religion Q and A” on June 8: “When atheists seized governments in the 20th Century they fused their belief in unbelief with state power and enforced it with a cruel vengeance unmatched by the worst cross-and-crown tyrannies during Christendom’s bygone centuries.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy was thinking of hard facts about Communists holding political power. To explain the comment (which compared Communism with Christianity, not Islam) let’s first consider the most famous cruelties centuries ago when Christians dominated politics (events today’s churches would rather forget).

* The Crusades. Starting in the 11th Century, European Christian forces fought Islamic invaders over control of the Holy Land. The two religions suffered some 3 million deaths, according to necrometrics.com, where librarian Matthew White compiles estimates on history’s death tolls.

* The Spanish Inquisition. Historian R.J. Rummel figures from the 15th Century onward Christians executed 10,000 heretics, though many times that number died from abuse or disease while in prison.

*The anti-witch hysteria. In the 16th and 17th Centuries Germany executed 26,000 supposed witches, plus some 11,000 elsewhere in Europe, according to a University of Missouri – Kansas City scholar.

*The Thirty Years’ War. With this 17th Century European catastrophe, population estimates are sketchy but many millions died from battle or disease. As with many long-ago wars this one mingled national with religious rivalries, in this case Protestant vs. Catholic.

Plenty to repent of there. And we’d add millions more from the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities if Hitler’s regime acted out of Christian belief.

The tyrant himself was baptized as an infant and thus a Catholic on paper. However, the adult Hitler was a cynic who manipulated churches for political advantage and privately held Christianity in utter contempt as weak and devoted to Scriptures of the Jews he despised. Hitler and his henchmen don’t count as atheists either, since they felt nationalistic nostalgia for pre-Christian paganism. Admittedly, all too many German Christians tolerated or favored Nazi anti-Semitism.

Then for comparison, here’s the track record for some atheistic regimes on what White calls ”unjust, unnecessary, or unnatural” deaths:

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Do religions influence China’s atheistic rulers?

MADDIE ASKS:

How much of … eastern and western religions have had an influence on the [atheistic Chinese Communist] Party’s ideology?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Not much, on the surface, but there’s obvious affinity with Confucianism that the Communist authorities don’t admit. However — Is Confucianism a “religion” or a mere humanistic philosophy, since it lacks defined gods and supernaturalism?

Dr. G. Wright Doyle, director of the scholarly Global China Center, is currently in China researching Maddie’s issue and has edited a magazine issue on shifting Confucian-Christian relations (see below). He e-mails “Religion Q and A” that “on the level of daily practice” most Chinese see little ethical influence from Confucianism while on the theoretical level it’s hard to trace “conscious influences of Chinese traditional religions” on Marxism or Maoism.

However, he thinks ancient Daoism’s yin-yang dynamic of opposites does have a counterpart in Marxist embrace of Hegel’s dialectic in history and that Daoism complements Communism’s denial of “any absolute truth or abiding ethical standard.”

As for Confucianism, China’s Communists explicitly rejected it from the beginning. Yet Doyle says their “dictatorship fits well into the Confucian concept of the emperor as father and mother of the people” and with “hierarchical social structure that expects complete and unquestioning obedience from subordinates.” Confucianism also agrees with Communism’s this-worldly materialism and its communalism in place of individualism.

T.S. Tsonchev of the Montreal Review says “we can even argue that Communist China, in many respects, seems more Confucian than Marxist.” After all, Communism was an import from modern Europe while the ancient religions the party recognizes, even Christianity, were born in Asia. Oddly, the Party does not list Confucianism alongside its favored Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Tsonchev is among many who consider Chinese Communism a ”political religion” with its own Mao-worship, scriptures, doctrines, mythologies, icons, idols, and festivals.

The Party requires members to be atheists. Yet Doyle says many have “personal commitment to some form of religion, especially Chinese Buddhism and, recently, Christianity.” He remarks that Party members “at all levels contribute large sums of (ill-gotten) money to temples, either in order to procure personal peace and prosperity or to assuage a guilty conscience.”

State policy is defined in the Constitution and the Party Central Committee’s 8,000-word “Document 19? on “the religious question” (1982). Neither text hints that religions influence the Party or state, nor do they recognize that citizens might find value in faith.

Remarkably, the Constitution pledges “freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.”

Ah, but what’s “normal” in Communist eyes?

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The silent swan song of Wojciech Jaruzelski

The silver Swan, who living had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Orlando Gibbons, “The Silver Swan” (1612)

Poland’s last communist leader has been laid to rest at Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery following a funeral Mass, reports The New York Times. Written with a Warsaw dateline, the May 30 story entitled “Walesa Among Ex-Leaders at Funeral of Political Enemy” recounts the political controversy surrounding the funeral of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the article omits the religious controversies that animated the Polish press in the week following his May 25 death. And that is a shame. For in focusing on one strand of the protests to the exclusion of all else, the Times has missed a significant element of the story.

Now the New York Times was not alone in omitting the faith element. Reuters and the BBC also reported on the controversy over giving a state funeral to the last Communist president of Poland; the  man who in 1981 imposed martial law to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. It is unlikely the Times reporter in Warsaw was unaware of the religion angle in light of the attention given to the topic by the local media. Was this the right editorial decision, to focus on politics alone?

The lede begins:

WARSAW – With demonstrators chanting on the streets outside and the three surviving Polish presidents in attendance, perhaps the most polarizing figure in modern Polish history was honored on Friday at a funeral Mass in the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army.

The article reports that while the prime minister stayed away, the current Polish president and two former presidents, including Lech Walesa sat in in the front row of the service.

Perhaps to bury Jaruzelski, not to praise him? The political angle appears at the top of the story, while we get a slight hint of the religious controversy.

Just a few blocks from the city’s tourist-choked historic district, several hundred gray-haired protesters held up signs denouncing General Jaruzelski as a “traitor,” a “murderer” and a “servant of Moscow.” Many carried banners from Solidarity, the trade union led by Mr. Walesa, who said he had agreed to attend the funeral because, among other reasons, a Roman Catholic Mass, celebrated by Bishop Jozef Guzdek, was included. (During the Communist years, General Jaruzelski would not have gone to a Mass.) …

The protesters followed the funeral to the Powazki Cemetery complex, the most prestigious in the country. Many were angered that the general was being buried there. Nearly a thousand people clustered in the narrow pathways between the headstones, some whistling and shouting against the general, others offering support. A small group from the National Movement, a far-right party, staged a mock funeral across town at the cemetery where 20,000 Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis in World War II were buried, saying the general did not deserve to be interred at Powazki.

The Times summarized the reasons for the protests with this paragraph:

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Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

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Épater le bourgeois catholique

Stories about religion seem to do odd things to otherwise sensible reporters. Some news articles ignore the religious element of a story, or they suspend judgment (and belief) and accept without question or examination the claims of religions.

In my most recent GetReligion podcast with host Todd Wilken of Lutheran Public Radio I argued the fracas at Harvard University over a Black Mass was a fake story. By saying it was fake, I do not mean that it did not happen. Rather the press went along for the ride in a story about Satanic claims that set off a massive over reaction by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

What we had was a student club seeking to shock bourgeois Catholic sensitivities with a faux outrage — and the leadership of the Catholic Church responded by using a bazooka to swat a fly.

How did this happen? Because reporters did not do their job and ask the hard questions at the start of the controversy. Once the hysteria began, it was too late to do anything. What we had was a Catholic version of the Terry Jones Koran burning story — this time with people involved in planning the event making conflicting claims about whether this rite would take place with a consecrated host.

After the story broke I posted an essay at GetReligion entitled “Why should the devil have all the best press?” that discussed the then planned Harvard Black Mass along with the annual academic conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on exorcism. I argued that the newspapers should have asked some hard questions of Harvard and the Satanists who were supposed to be putting on the Black Mass.

Questions like: “Is this a real religion or are you recreating a scene from a 19th Century French horror novel and calling that a religion?” Or, “When you say you are Satanists what do you mean by that? Are you devil worshipers? Followers of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan?”

Which leads to the question is the ’60s Satanism of LaVey a bona fida religion or a scam?

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Some new facts on Harvard’s Satanists from Daily News

The Harvard Satanist story will not die. Monday’s Black Mass continues to generate conversation on social media. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are full of opinions and, in some cases, new information about Monday’s planned Black Mass at Harvard.

Into this mix has stepped the New York Daily News report that provides some new facts. In fact, this second day story answers several of the questions I raised in my GetReligion piece “Why should the Devil have all the best press?”

From the Daily News we learn that the Black Mass scheduled for next week is not a religious ceremony, but a literary event. At the top of its story the Daily News notes there is no historical evidence that Black Masses were ever celebrated. In its typically crisp style it noted:

The black mass is an inversion of the traditional Catholic Mass that medieval people associated with witches. The witches were accused of stealing a consecrated piece of Communion bread for the mass and worshipping the Devil. However, there’s little evidence that the specter of black masses was anything more than myth that was used by people in power to justify witch hunts and trials.

Of course, it would have been nice to have seen some attribution for that sweeping statement, but that is not the key point of this post. The key is that the team at The Daily News interviewed some of the organizers and reported the information that they are claiming this alleged Black Mass is a mere literary construct, not a religious event:

Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves says his group contacted the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club to organize a re-enactment of a black mass based on the imaginings of French writer Joris-Karl Huysman in the novel “La-bas.” Huysman wrote the novel during the French Occult Revival of the 1800s.

I presume then the club will recite portions of Chapter 19 of La-bas, (The Damned), which presents the Black Mass. However, if you read the service it is quite clear this is not magical or religious language, but a Huysman rant against the crimes of the Catholic Church. A sample:

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Why should the devil have all the best press?

Satan sells newspapers.

Where would newspapers or television be without devil stories? Satanic ritual abuse, exorcisms, secret cults and rituals, demon possession — all are beloved by editors, and as Dan Brown knows well are snapped up by readers. I would make my fortune if I could write a story whose key words include Satan, an albino member of Opus Dei, Miley Cyrus and the Episcopal Church.

The Satan angle has propelled the news of what would otherwise be an unremarkable conference being held this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum into the eye of the European press.

Coincidentally, a student club at Harvard has caught the attention of the Catholic Church and, through one of the heroines of the Catholic blogosphere, the American media after they announced plans to hold a Black Mass. The reaction to the Harvard story leads me to ask whether the press has sensationalized this incident. No one seems to have asked the question: What sort of Harvard Satanists are we discussing? Atheistic Satanists in the tradition of Anton LaVey, devil worshipers or silly students?

Which also prompts me to ask, who gets to define what a Satanist is?

The European wire service ANSA reports:

Catholic prelates from 33 countries are in Italy for the ninth annual conference on exorcism. ‘Exorcism and Prayer for Liberation’ is on through May 10 and is expected to draw 200 participants from countries as far afield as Australia and South Korea. Events are spread between Rome and Bologna. “It’s devoted mostly to priests who are the first to learn the ministry of exorcism, but not only to them,” said Father Cesare Truqui, an exorcist from the Legionaries of Christ, which is organizing the conference together with Catholic organization GRIS. “A priest is usually side by side with a group of laypeople who help,” he told Vatican Radio.

The story provides colorful comments from Father Truqui, who:

… noted that Pope Francis in his April 11 homily admonished the faithful to “learn to fight the devil … who exists even in the 21st century”. “The pope reminds us,” added the exorcist, “that speaking of demons doesn’t mean creating a new theology outside the Gospels, but rather staying within Jesus Christ’s teachings”.

It was after having read these Italian press accounts of the annual exorcism conference in Rome that I came across stories in Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald about Satanism at Harvard. (The Boston Globe has since filed their report.) The story has piqued the imagination of the Catholic press and spawned (spawn of Satan?) a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Is the noise justified from a press perspective, though?

The Herald approaches the story through a statement released by the Archdiocese of Boston calling upon the school to “disassociate” itself from a Black Mass planned for Monday.

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