If Everything Is Religion, Is Anything Religion?

If Everything Is Religion, Is Anything Religion? January 16, 2020

Seven Ways Atheists Are Religious, reads the headline of a recent Answers in Genesis article written by Simon Turpin, executive director of Answers in Genesis-UK. My curiosity was piqued.

Because of the secularization of the Western World, many people today now identify as not religious (“the nones”). In 2016 and 2017, according to some national surveys, 48.5% of people in England and Wales and 72% of people in Scotland say they have no religion! Many of these people identified as atheists. But are atheists not religious? Atheists will tell you they are not religious, but several characteristics identify atheists as religious. In this article, I deal with seven of those characteristics.

Ah, yes. Of course.

It should be noted that it is particularly difficult to define religion as there is not a universally accepted definition.

This is a good thing to note. I once took a religious studies class where a good bit of time was dedicated to discussing how to define religion. Oh, and different kinds of religion—civil religion, for instance, which if I remember correctly included baseball. The point is, definitions are complicated.

But I get the feeling that Turpin is going to let the fact that definitions are complicated obscure or elide something completely different. Let’s continue on and see:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Under this definition, atheism would not be viewed as religious since the dictionary definition of atheism is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.”

Yet, atheism isn’t just a lack of belief in God (or gods). It was not a lack of belief in God that caused atheists to write books such as The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), or God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens). Those books are designed to convince people that theism is false and that atheism is true. The Oxford English Dictionary also defines religion as “a particular system of faith and worship” and “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.” Under that second definition of religion, atheism is religious. Many atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) spend much of their time railing against the Creator they believe doesn’t exist, and they hold their cause with great devotion and faith.

Wait. Wait! Slow down for a moment!

Let’s dissect this, shall we? One definition of religion includes belief in superhuman controlling powers such as a god or gods. Under this definition, Turpin says, atheists aren’t religious. We already have a problem. “Religion” and “religious” are different words with different meanings. We talk about people having “religious devotion” for things all the time. Like baseball. Or sushi. I suspect that what Turpin meant to say was that under this definition, atheists do not have a religion. Already, words are getting fudged.

So, then Turpin writes that Richard Dawkins was not motivated to write The God Delusion by his lack of belief in God. Sure. But Turpin doesn’t address what did motivate Dawkins—his conviction that religion is harmful. People are motivated to write books by their belief that one thing or another is harmful all the time. This is not religion.

Instead of addressing what motivated Dawkins, Turpin moves immediately to offering another definition of religion: “a particular system of faith and worship” or “a pursuit or interest followed by great devotion.” Like I said: baseball. And also sushi. Or veganism. But here again, words are getting getting mushy.

Check out this line, for instance:

Many atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) spend much of their time railing against the Creator they believe doesn’t exist, and they hold their cause with great devotion and faith.

Okay, sure. But would Turpin say that Trump supporters who are also Christians have two religions? Or that an avid golfer who is also a Christian has two religions? Or that a flat earther who loves to argue on internet forums, and also goes to church, has two religions? I doubt it, because these are not the same things.

We may use the term “religious devotion” for both love of sushi and evangelicals’ prayer practices, but no one would suggest that these two things are somehow the same thing. Both atheists and Christians have things they love and are passionate about. Everyone does. Not everyone believes in a supernatural deity.

A helpful way to know if a system of thought or worldview is religious is to look at the characteristics that most religions share. In his book Dimensions of the Sacred, the renowned anthropologist Ninian Smart set forth seven of these dimensions to detect whether something is religious:

  1. Narrative
  2. Experiential
  3. Social
  4. Doctrinal
  5. Ethical
  6. Ritual
  7. Material

Let’s just briefly consider each of these dimensions in light of the system of thought that is naturalistic atheism.

This is going to start predictably, isn’t it?

Just about every religion has a narrative that explains the world around them. Briefly, the Christian narrative is creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, for example. In the Western World, the narrative of atheism used to explain the existence of life and the world around them is Darwinian evolution, and the philosophy that it entails.

Yes. Yes, it is.

There were atheists before Darwin. And there are many, many Christians who accept the scientific reality of Darwinian evolution. Also, most atheists I know don’t spend much time thinking about this. We exist. We live. We are. We aren’t hung up on lots of existential questions or finding a specific narrative.

Indeed, to the extent that I have a narrative—and I suppose I do—it has a lot more to do with capital and gender and racial relations and social progress than it does with where life comes from. Where life comes from is unimportant to me. It really, genuinely does not matter to me. What’s important to me is how the inequities that exist in our world came to exist, and how we can identify and erode them.

Does that mean my social and political beliefs are a religion?

Anyway, moving on:

The experiential, social, and ritual aspects of atheism can be seen in the recent establishing of atheist churches.

Seriously? Does Turpin really think this is at all common? Because it isn’t. At all. Period. I promise. Besides, what rituals does Turpin think atheist churches would have anyway? This is such a stretch.

I have a ritual. It’s called yoga. (Yes, I really am feeling that snarky, but seriously, this is such ridiculous stretching on Turpin’s part.)

Wait a minute! Body Ritual among the Nacerima comes to mind. You should read it. And so should Turpin. And after he reads it, he should read this Wikipedia article about it, because it’s actually very relevant.

Anyway, moving on!

Atheists even have doctrine and are evangelistic in their promotion of it. For example, a few years ago, the humanist society in the UK teamed up with atheist Richard Dawkins for a famous advertising campaign that they plastered on the side of buses that read, “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” The fact that atheists go out of their way to let other people know what they believe and even come up with principles to live life by (even called, for example, the “New Ten Commandments”) is evidence of their religion.

Does Turpin have any idea what percentage of the nonreligious population—because he states early on that he’s talking about the “nones” in general—actually fund and organize the creation of signage like this? Because it’s small. And I had no idea we had a new Ten Commandments and I’ve been an atheists for ages now.

There is no one atheist book all atheists have to read. There is no one atheist code of ethics, no one atheist set of rituals, no one atheist doctrine. Really. I promise. There isn’t.

Even though atheists are moral relativists, they make ethical claims.

Seriously!? What did I just say! Atheists don’t share any one single moral code! Really and truly we don’t! Individual atheists subscribe to individual moral or ethical beliefs. Not all atheists are even moral relativists. And there isn’t just one moral relativist position, either. We don’t have dogma. We’re not even really a we.

Finally, the material aspect of the religious nature of atheism can be seen in several ways, but specifically, it can be seen in the atheist’s treatment of creation as sacred.

Wait, we treat what like what now? We do not have a club. We do not have dogma. I for one don’t treat creation as sacred. Sure, I enjoy a good sunset as much as the next person, but I don’t exactly go around touching the ground in awe all the time. I mean, what does that even mean?

Here’s Turpin’s explanation:

In an interview in the UK newspaper The Times (April 2019), the founder of the global environmental movement “Extinction Rebellion” Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist, said,

I don’t believe in God, like there’s some person there organising everything. I think there’s something inherently beautiful and sacred about the universe and I think you can feel that just as well as an atheist. A bit of me thinks, “Is there a way to have some form of dialogue with the universe?”

From an atheistic perspective, the universe does not care what you think, or how you feel. So, what would be the point of dialogue?

I’m wondering that myself.

But seriously, Turpin quotes an individual atheist saying that to her, there’s something “inherently beautiful and sacred about the universe,” and concludes based on that that atheists treat creation as sacred, and therefore have a material religion. So guess what? I decided to look up what Ninian Smart, the anthropologist who created the seven dimensions Turpin discusses here, meant by a “material” dimension.

material dimension   Those aspects of religion exhibited in material form, such as temples, paintings, special clothing and pilgrimage sites.

Huh. How about that.

Also, experiential isn’t about going to church, which is how Turpin treats it. But it’s more than that.Turpin isn’t actually using any of Smart’s seven dimensions the way Smart outlined them in his 1996 book, which is the one Turpin sites. Turpin doesn’t even get the terms themselves correct: what he calls the “narrative” dimension Smart actually calls “the mythic or narrative dimension.” What Turpin labeled only “social,” Smart labeled “the organizational or social component.” In fact, Smart gives all of the components he laid out double names, which he says “helps to elucidate and sometimes to widen them.”

In Turpin’s defense, there are lots of study guides online helping students prep for religious studies tests that have include only single-term labels for Smart’s dimensions, and Smart’s 1996 volume isn’t the first time he laid out this seven-fold schema. It’s possible he originally used only single terms. But Turpin sited Smart’s 1996 book, not his earlier work. I don’t think Turpin actually cracked the book he cited.

Anyway! Leaving aside the issue of religious zeal (again, sushi), what counts as religion depends largely on how religion is defined. Which, of course it would! But Turpin doesn’t care about that. He only cares about shoehorning atheism into religion in order to make an ideological point. Frankly, this is far less interesting than actually considering what religion looks like, and what should count (or not count) as religion.

Now, I’m making this up on the fly, but consider three options:

  1. Religion has to involve belief in a supernatural entity or force.
  2. Religion does not have to involve belief in a supernatural entity or force; instead, religion must have an underlying shared dogma or worldview.
  3. Religion is the term used to describe how people view who they are, what values they hold, where they are in the grander picture, and why they matter in the world.

Under definition 2 above, Marxism is a religion. New Atheism is also probably a religion, but it should be noted that not all “nones” or all self-described atheists are New Atheists. Under definition 3 above, everyone has a religion. Religion becomes individual, and is not about the divine or the sacred, or shared dogma.

But see, this is me throwing something at the wall to see if it fits, without having some sort of point I’m trying to make or axe I’m trying to grind. That’s me thinking about the various issues involved because it’s interesting. I’d also be totally cool defining fandoms as religions. That could be really interesting, as a thought experiment. (Also, in this framework, anti-vaxxing is definitely a religion.)

If you’re interested in reading books discussing what religion is, scholars in religious studies and anthropology have written a lot on this. (Start with Catherine Albanese’ Religions and Religion.)

Turpin finishes his essay as follows:

Atheism is a false religion. It is the worship of self where they have “. . .exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The facts that (1) the leader of the atheist church wants to “live better, wonder more”; (2) Daniel Dennett believes child abuse is wrong; and (3) that Neil deGrasse Tyson can have a “spiritual experience” over creation all ultimately exemplify a recognition (whether they accept it or not) of what theologians call the sensus divinitatis (a true knowledge of God, i.e., Romans 1:18–23). It is to this sensus that Christians should appeal in order to show atheists the internal inconsistency of their own worldview. The reason that atheists can value and seek to preserve human life comes from the fact that knowledge of God comes to them not only through his creation but from the fact that they are made in his image (Genesis 1:27).

Turpin, unlike me, has a very big axe.

Turpin thinks he’s writing some sort of gotcha—“Ha! Atheists are too religious!”–but my takeaway is somewhat different. See, I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to fit my Doctor Who fandom into those seven categories. We’ve got the narrative (stories galore) and we’ve got the social (who doesn’t view as a family?). We’ve got the ethical component too—there’s quite a bit of ethical discussion in the series.

As for the material, I already have Whovian kitsch. All I need is the rituals. Hmmm. What an interesting challenge. It turns out that while I may not have an axe to grind, I do have a screwdriver to sonic. I’ll keep you posted on future virtual meetings of the international Doctor Who religious consortium.

One last thing. I found my religious studies classes in college fascinating, perhaps in part because they weren’t about making a point. They weren’t about finding away to arrive at an already determined answer. In fact, questions didn’t have to have answers. It was about an open exploration of ideas. And sure, not every idea was equally good, but it was the questions and discussion—the debate, the mind-blowing moments—that made these classes fascinating, not the answers (or, in some cases, the lack thereof).

It strikes me that, in comparison, the approach Answers in Genesis takes is fundamentally boring. And, frankly, sad.

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