Feser’s Typology of Atheism (Part 2)

Today, I’m returning to Edward Feser’s typology of atheism.  Monday, I took a look at ways atheists approach religious philosophy, today the focus is on responses to religious practice.  Here’s how Feser splits up atheists:

A. Religious practice is mostly or entirely contemptible and something we would all be well rid of. The ritual side of religion is just crude and pointless superstition. Religious morality, where it differs from secular morality, is sheer bigotry. Even where certain moral principles associated with a particular religion have value, their association with the religion is merely an accident of history. Moreover, such principles tend to be distorted by the religious context. They certainly do not in any way depend on religion for their justification.

B. Religious practice has a certain admirable gravitas and it is possible that its ritual and moral aspects fulfill a real human need for some people. We can treat it respectfully, the way an anthropologist might treat the practices of a culture he is studying. But it does not fulfill any universal human need, and the most intelligent, well educated, and morally sophisticated human beings certainly have no need for it.

C. Religious practice fulfills a truly universal or nearly universal human need, but unfortunately it has no rational foundation and its metaphysical presuppositions are probably false. This is a tragedy, for the loss of religious belief will make human life shallower and in other ways leave a gaping void in our lives which cannot plausibly be filled by anything else. It may even have grave social consequences. But it is something we must find a way to live with, for atheism is intellectually unavoidable.

Last time, I thought it was reasonable to think you could assign individual religious traditions a single category, but the system breaks down here.  Unless I’m just rating religions on ‘ritual’ generically, my scores for an individual religion will whipsaw wildly depending on what practice we’re talking about.

Most individual religious practice falls into a kind of A* Feser doesn’t account for: it’s not particularly pernicious, but it is useless.  Genuflecting before you sit at Mass, crossing yourself and saying a prayer when an ambulance passes, saying a blessing over food… the worst harm you’re doing yourself is the opportunity cost of spending time on useless ritual.  No worse and no better than knocking on wood.

There are legitimate scary type-A practices.  The readiest example I have is Michael and Debi Pearl’s biblically-inspired spanking regimen that has been linked to deaths and serious injury.  Also on the list: ex-gay reeducation camps.

Then there are a fair number of type-Bs.  I can certainly imagine that requiring yourself to discuss your transgressions with someone else keeps you honest and can help you get out of the hole (provided the sins on your church’s list are actually harmful).  When I experimented with prayer, I learned to be better about wanting other people’s good, not just my own.  But these salutary effects are in the B-block because I don’t think they depend on religion being true to work.  After all, as I pointed out after the Lenten prayer experience, my quasi-Kantianism was so wrong that you didn’t have to be all that correct to be able to spot my error.

I suspect Feser wants me to put ‘ritual’ broadly defined into type-C, but I don’t buy it.  Although atheists are still arguing about what atheist ritual and secular authority should look like, there’s no denying plenty of non-religious ritual has taken root and flourished.  Trust me that “I love CTY and I love the Passionfruit” will bring a certain subset of the geeky population to tears.  Secular ritual isn’t an innovation, either.  Immigrant communities and trade associations formed tight-knit societies that incorporated shibboleths and ritual.

What makes religious ritual unique is its ability to be small-c catholic.  Anyone can be Catholic and walk into a church anywhere in the world and hear the same liturgy (though, with my weak French, it was hard to pick out anything but the set-in-stone phrases when I attended Mass in Notre Dame).  That universalism is something secular ritual can’t match and is the closest anything comes to type-C practise.

But we’re already losing it.  And this isn’t a case of mo’dernity, mo’problems; the balkanization of Christianity started a long time ago.  At this point, to get into type-C, an atheist would have to wish to actively roll back the Reformation and put the Church at the center of life.  I’d like it if there were a universal center to life and if people had the kind of common frame of reference and language that the KJV used to provide, but I can’t try to build all that around something I believe to be false.

The real answer is probably that the population is too large to sustain a universal core culture.  Technically, the problem is that the population is too large and that there’s not a universal measure of distance.  I can be connected to people arbitrarily far away so it’s hard to build up communities.  I’m still not sure what the solution is.


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  • Patrick

    He also really shouldn’t be including religious morality in A, but not B or C. And he probably shouldn’t be including religious morality and religious ritual in the same scale at all. Rituals have moral valence for religious people, but atheists aren’t likely to see it the same way.

  • I curious as to what you mean by “Most individual religious practice falls into a kind of A* Feser doesn’t account for: it’s not particularly pernicious, but it is useless.” Genuflecting, crossing myself and saying a prayer when an ambulance passes, saying a blessing over food are all things I find useful. They remind me of God’s presence in the world and of my relationship to him. How is that useless?

    • leahlibresco

      Useless from the perspective of atheism, which is what Sullivan is describing. From our point of view, there’s no utility in reminding yourself of your relationship with a non-existent being.

    • keddaw

      Useless from every perspective (including objectively) outside of your own particular superstition. Like touching wood, crossing your fingers, throwing spilled salt over your shoulder, doing whatever it is after you break a mirror, avoiding black cats crossing your path.

      In fact, it may be more like having a lucky charm (e.g. sports people often have a lucky pair of shorts or socks) which ease your nerves and enable you to play better hence reinforcing the (non-existent) effect the lucky charm is having. The belief that the thing has an effect has an effect on you rather than the thing. A placebo effect if you will.

  • Will

    As for “harmless”, the late John Campbell would have spotted the trap immediately– “Define ‘harm’!” There are plenty of Christian-baiters who claim they are “harmed” by anything that reminds them of our presence outside the four walls of a church.
    The Secular Humanist Declaration (the one Asimov signed) asserts that it is “immoral” to baptize children (but apparently, not to circumcise them). But if I asked for a list of children killed or injured by an occasion I can not even remember, I am sure they would only sneer at me for being so obtuse. (As the sponsoring organization did when I demanded that they stop sending me their mailings.)

    • Caio

      The relevant passage from the Secular Humanist Declaration:

      I think it’s pretty clear that the reference to baptism is in the context of raising a child in the religious tradition. (Myself, I would consider it generally akin to the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead: taken alone, pretty much harmless, but potentially upsetting.)

      The question of children is particularly thorny. I’m sympathetic to the rationalist idea that defining yourself by something you believe is epistemologically irresponsible and therefore, the most moral way to raise a child is in an environment of intellectual openness, not only of matters of religion, but also politics, sports, and other areas of intense polarization. This doesn’t preclude raising a child in a faith tradition, but it does mean being forthcoming about the inherent uncertainties of the human condition.

      • Caio

        Damn it, I fail at html. Here is the actual passage:

        We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, to confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent.