The purpose of this article is not to disparage theology, or rational or critical approaches toward religion. Those approaches have their own place within the larger discourse of humanity, and I am glad they exist. However, I want to argue that taking religion out of its social habitat and considering it as merely an academic subject-matter is not enough, and would invalidate the experience of many atheists.
In my experience, usually, atheists who have a solely academic and rationalistic approach toward religion are usually not anti-theists. And in an academic vacuum their arguments make sense: religion is not monolithic, sophisticated theology elevates the concept of God from a mere superstition into a curious subject of rational debate, to the academic even anti-theist’s very definition of religion is suspect, for it seems to exclude many secular or humanistic forms of religion.
The anti-theist, however, usually analyzes the world in a politically loaded manner. To the anti-theist – usually – the existence of God is the least relevant aspect of the religion, and sophisticated theology and secular or humanistic religions are not significant factors enough to make them reshape their understanding of religion.
Of course, this is a rough and mainly hypothetical distinction. Few people are solely academic or political. Also, many people can be considered both an academic and an anti-theist, and many people might fail to identify with this categorization. But humor me – I make these two imaginary types of atheists in order to make a point, they are the archetypes of attitudes.
I am an anti-theist. However, I do not write with the intent of dismissing the first approach and affirming the latter, I write with the intent of convincing the academic that they should not dismiss the anti-theist out of hand, and consider them an example of faulty thinking.
An academic might consider the anti-theist’s reason for leaving religion irrational. And in a strictly rational framing the academic is right. I speak for myself: I left Islam because I found the Qur’an to be a morally repugnant book. I became an atheist after that. One can object to me that the validity of the idea of God is not contingent upon the moral value of the Qur’an. Indeed, why did I not examine Christianity or other types of religion before deciding that I am to be an atheist?
If you listen to the deconversion stories of many atheists, you will find many who left religion and the concept of God behind without embarking on a rational approach. The Problem of Evil might be a rational argument against an omnibenevolent omnipotent god, but not all kinds of god. Yet many people have had crises of faith and have left religion entirely after witnessing some devil. Many such accounts of leaving religion are emotional, rooted in sorrow, anger, hope, overall, deeply personal or political narratives.
And these are all valid reasons for rejecting religion, even if they do not stand the litmus test of rational and critical debates. They are valid not because either the academic or the anti-theist is right, but because religion is a different entity to the academic and the anti-theist.
To the academic, religion is primarily a truth-claim. To the anti-theist, religion is primarily an identity. Of course both of them realize that religion is also what the other considers it – but not primarily.
The anti-theist rejects religion as an identity. The anti-theist considers religion as a social hierarchy, an institution of power, a pillar of human civilization. A truth-claim can only be rejected rationally, but an identity can be rejected the way all identities are rejected.
The academic would probably feel more sympathy toward the anti-theist if they remind themselves of the way other identities are rejected. I reject my Iranian identity. I do so because I find the idea of nationality divisive and harmful. This does not imply that all nations are equally bad to live in, or that all nationalists are evil, or that the idea of a global democracy is possible in a foreseeable future. “I am an internationlist, I reject all nationalities” is a political act, an act of defining oneself in an ethical fashion, and the same is true of defining oneself as an anti-theist.
If one looks at deconversion not as a cogent argument against theism but as cutting one’s ties from an identity, all the “irrational” reasons are shown to be valid reasons. To me, my Muslim identity was an acceptance of a social order, therefore the moral repugnance of the Qur’an was a valid reason for me to cut ties with this identity. I was not first a theist then a Muslim – I was a Muslim. Theism was part of the Islam package. When I left Islam, theism became instantly irrelevant.
Some religious people are theists because of rational reasons. I am certain that among academic theologians many such theists are found. But there are also many people who are theists simply because it is a major component of their identity, and one can reject identities for moral or emotional or personal reasons, and if the theism falls through the cracks of this shift in identity, let it fall.
The academic and the anti-theist are both right. But when they say “I am not religious”, they mean different things. Equally valid things, but different. That is why they sometimes end up misunderstanding each other so profoundly. I hope this article might pave the way to better understanding.
Thanks for reading.