Sunday, March 2, 2014

I don't categorically oppose religion

I suppose I'm what the media calls a "new atheist"--I'm an atheist and I advocate for atheist causes.  Many people see opposing religion as the primary atheist cause.  But in my case, this is not entirely accurate.  I oppose many religions, but I don't know that there is anything wrong with religion per se.

I oppose most religions I see around me, for many reasons.  Faith is seen as a virtue.  Supernaturalism is encouraged.  Voices from ancient societies are thought to have moral authority.  Special privilege and admiration is given to people who happen to enjoy ritual or awe (not that there is anything wrong with enjoying those things).  And of course religious people systematically advocate many specific causes that I oppose, such as Creationism and abstinence-only sex education.

I don't think any of these are essential properties of religion.  Perhaps you think that at least some of them are essential--for example, many people think that if there are no supernatural beliefs, then it's not a religion.  But even so, you can certainly imagine a religion that places a much lower value on faith, does not value ancient morality, and does not advocate such terrible political causes; I would oppose this hypothetical religion far less vehemently.

To make the hypothetical more concrete, what if I moved to some part of Asia?  I know very little about how religion interacts with society on the other side of the world.  In that situation, I would tentatively still oppose religion, but it would be a kind of shallow opposition until I learned more about the specific harms caused by religion in that culture.

Even in the US, there are some "religions" that I have little to no problem with: Unitarian Universalism, Secular Judaism, and the Sunday Assembly.

I put religion in scare quotes because I've heard many atheists argue that these are not religions.  There are likely reasonable arguments to be had about the best definition of religion, but my impression is that atheists are using motivated reasoning; they want to be able to say concisely that they oppose religion, so they're motivated to argue that things they do not oppose do not count as religion.

I don't think it's useful to get too attached to any particular definition of religion--if you're interacting with UU people (who see themselves as having a religion), would you rather argue with them about what counts as a religion, or would you rather work together on more productive causes?  (Disclosure: my boyfriend is ex-UU.)  Another advantage is that no one can cheat their way out of criticism.  If you say you're spiritual but not religious, maybe because you have a personal relationship with Jesus but don't participate in any churches, that doesn't give you an out.  If you think that my atheism is a religion, I think you're really stretching the definition, but also it doesn't matter.  If there appeared an atheist organization that had a hierarchical structure and performed rituals and sermons in a church, it could more plausibly be called a religion, but that still wouldn't make it wrong.

TL;DR: I oppose the major religions in my present society, but I am unwilling to generalize to everything in the world, present or future, which could plausibly be called a religion.


miller said...

First, I think that the term "New Atheist" is a matter of self-identification. If you choose to call yourself a New Atheist, you are; if you choose not to, you aren't.

Second, I think your position about the definition of religion is problematic. I don't think "Religion per se" is meaningful; the English word "religion" is deeply equivocal.

I don't think New Atheists are really trying to define the English word in its entirety; rather, we take one of the reasonable senses of "religion" (supernaturalism, etc.) in English, and say that that sense is the specific sense of "religion" that we oppose. When we say this or that is not a "religion," we are not saying that speakers of the English language are making a vocabulary mistake by using "religion" to refer to those things; we are merely saying that those senses of "religion" are not what we're talking about.

Any confrontational social, cultural or political movement is going to have edge cases where the definition of what they oppose is unclear or inapplicable. As long as there is something that clearly falls under the definition and something that clearly falls outside the definition, the definition is meaningful and can be useful.

It is perhaps the case that some New Atheists writers are slack about communicating this subtlety of our position. Still, Dawkins is fairly explicit abut this approach in the introduction to The God Delusion, explicitly disambiguating senses of "religion" (specifically Einstein's God) that he does not oppose (although he personally does not seem to find the metaphor particularly apt).

You would, I think, be hard put to find any New Atheists spending any ink (or electrons) denouncing Unitarian Universalism, Secular Judaism (indeed, Jerry Coyne, a noted New Atheist, refers to himself as a secular Jew) or Sunday Assembly (which I've never even heard of). I speak only for myself, but as a self-identified New Atheist, I think that even though you do not oppose UU, etc. (nor do I) you can legitimately call yourself a New Atheist without any objection at all from the community.

miller said...

I don't typically use the label "new atheist", but I'm entirely fine with people thinking of me as one. I was never worried that my stance on religion would disqualify me as a new atheist.

The fact that "religion" is an equivocal term is a major part of why I cannot say that I oppose it, in general. For to say that I oppose religion in general would be ambiguous. If you define religion as a particular pattern of organization and practice, that does not describe what I oppose. If you use a definition that refers to supernaturalism, that is a better description of what I oppose, but still not perfect. As in my example, what I oppose most vehemently in major religions are not necessarily their supernatural beliefs.

I also think that it is strategic error to tell people that their religion is an "edge case" and "not what we're talking about". I don't think it goes over very well. The error is especially noticeable when certain sets of atheists start to form quasi-religions. The primary advantage of simply saying "I oppose religion" is efficient communication, but when people are keenly aware of edge cases, it becomes inefficient and misleading.

miller said...

Let's back up, and let me ask: where precisely do you draw the line about what is and is not "plausibly" a religion, and what religion do you object to and not object to, and, in general, where do you generalize or not generalize?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume that you do not take a position that makes it impossible to legitimately generalize at all, i.e. that you do not take the "all generalizations are false" position. One must, of course, be careful about generalizations, and some generalizations can certainly be false.

As I see it, there are four broad categories of "religion". The first is the kind of religion with faith, supernaturalism, epistemic claims about the real world, and a personal god, as well as a social structure (e.g. the Catholic Church). The second is the kind that leaves out one or more (but not all) of the first set of criteria, but retains a social structure (e.g. Unitarian Universalism, maybe). The third kind leaves out *all* of the first set of criteria, retains a social structure, and still calls itself a religion (perhaps UU fits here). Finally the fourth kind leaves out the social structure too, but still uses figurative religious language as metaphor (e.g. Einstein's God, me saying, "I swear to God!").

I think that if we permit the fourth category (and by implication the first three as well) as legitimately "religious," we are defining the term so broadly as to impair, not help, communication. It is so obviously not the case that categorically anti-religious people such as me are not at all interested in expunging figurative language that defining religion in such a way imputes to us a position we do not hold.

If we permit the third category as "plausibly" religious, we seem to define religion as a matter of pure self-identification, as opposed to some matter of "legitimate" self-identification. For example, it would seem somewhat illegitimate for a practicing Catholic who believed in God to self-identify as an atheist, even though I think that "atheist" is to a large degree a matter of self identification. The alternative is that there are some unnamed criteria that legitimizes the term "religious"; if so, we should examine those criteria.

Finally, it is perhaps instructive to examine which category something like Unitarian Universalism really falls. Does the UU "church" and its members actually hold that it is a categorically religious organization, in the same sense that the Catholic Church really does hold that it is a categorically religious organization? In other words, it would seem kind of weird for a person to say, "I'm a practicing Catholic, but I'm not religious," and I think if we asked the Pope if she were both a legitimate Catholic and without error in his position, the Pope would say she was at least mistaken or unclear about Catholicism. In contrast, would it be weird in the same way for a Unitarian Universalist to affirm she was a practicing UU and legitimately deny, without fear of contradiction, that she was religious? If it would not be weird, then I think just looking at self-identification, we should hold that UU is a secular organization that has some (the proportion is irrelevant) people who choose to view religiously, in much the same way that my University is a secular organization that some people could choose to view religiously.

miller said...

I also want to look at the specifically moral/ethical/political dimension and the "philosophical" dimension, which anti-religious atheists such as myself argue is really political.

Morally, there are organizations that meet the criteria listed below (faith, supernaturalism, epistemic claims); we can divide the previous category into those with what I will arbitrarily label as "contra-humanist" values, and those with "pro-humanist" values. The anti-religious argument opposes both categories. The argument is never, and has never been, that religious necessarily entails contra-humanist values. The argument is and has always been that it is just as illegitimate to argue that any kind of value, even the values we agree with, is established supernaturally.

Philosophically, there is "personal" religion -- God is a person, with wants and desires, to which we must at least give proper respect -- and "philosophical" religion -- first cause, ground of being, etc. The anti-religious argument against philosophical religions is that philosophical religion supports rather than undermines personal religion, even though on the surface, it seems that philosophical religion ought to "obviously" undermine the claim that the existence of God entails particular moral values.

miller said...

I think it's best to consider religion as having two (or more) polysemous definitions. One definition is based on self-identity, and the other is based on the facts. If self-identity were the only definition, the concept would lose coherence (and how would people decide how to self-identify?). But self-identity should also inform our categorization because it's not really practical or desirable to argue against self-identity on a large scale. (Here I'm using the exact same model as I would for sexual identities.)

The second definition, the one based on facts, can be many things. Personally I prefer your second definition. I think a religion needs some social structure, and some overarching beliefs or philosophy about how the world works. Supernatural elements are common, but perhaps not necessary. (If a group did not have supernatural beliefs, I would tend to hold them more strictly to the other parts of the definition.)

UU may be a bad example because contrary to assumption I have some critical things to say about UU--or rather my boyfriend does. Maybe I should ask him to comment.

I think there are good arguments to be made about any group which cultivates supernatural beliefs. But there's another common line of criticism against religion--that the very social structure leads to groupthink, in-group/out-grouping, and massive conflict.

miller said...

(continued) I don't take this particular line of criticism, because I think these evils are outweighed by the benefits of communities. It's the supernatural which is bad, not the social structure.

miller said...

I think a particular UU could claim not to be "religious" and not be contradicted within the community. In my experience, telling people that their religious or spiritual views are wrong is highly discouraged in the UU community (this is actually a major reason I left) so someone's statement that they were not "religious" would also go unchallenged. But UU's will also get testy if an outsider calls it a"secular organization" rather than a "religion" because they are annoyed that people who equate religion with theology don't regard them as a "real" religion.

Religion, like virtually all other concepts, is a somewhat confused amalgamation of different things that can't easily be reduced to any clear set of necessary and sufficient conditions. If you want, you can argue for changing how we use the term to reflect something more philosophically coherent. But I don't think it's going to be profitable to argue for redefining the term to exclude UU's (and who else?) in the same breath you express your feelings about "religion" in general. That's just a recipe for confusion.

miller said...

Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me to try to say that I oppose "religion" and then say that (e.g.) very liberal Reconstructionist Jews are an "edge case" and "not what I'm talking about."

miller said...

Based on accounts from drransom, I would be critical of UU for cultivating supernatural beliefs. But the particular way it cultivates supernaturalism is not by having any official dogma, rather it lets individuals believe what they want and taboos criticism.

On the other hand, the lack of any supernatural dogma prevents the organization from doing anything solely based on supernatural justification.

miller said...

But there's another common line of criticism against religion--that the very social structure leads to groupthink, in-group/out-grouping, and massive conflict. . . . I don't take this particular line of criticism, because I think these evils are outweighed by the benefits of communities. It's the supernatural which is bad, not the social structure.

I'm not sure what you mean here by "the very social structure." Do you refer to the argument that religion has a social structure, and social structures generally lead to groupthink, etc., or do you refer to the criticism that religion has (or is) a particular kind of social structure, a kind that is more susceptible to groupthink, etc.?

miller said...

Either way. I mean, it's the classic argument, "Look at all these religious wars."

I could argue that religious organizations are prone to conflict because people become very sure of things that cannot be independently verified. But it's nothing particular about the social organization of religion.

miller said...

But a religion is an organization based on certainty about things that cannot be independently verified. How is that not particular about the social organization of religion? It seems like the very basis of the organization.

miller said...

Simply put I disagree that this is an appropriate definition of religion. I'm not sure how it would perform on the major religions of the world. Even Christianity has a long tradition of "doubting" narratives.