01/19/14

One of these things is not like the others…

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 9.18.25 PMI’ve had multiple conversations in the last year about whether atheism is a religion. I don’t self-identify as atheist for both political and ideological reasons, but most of the critiques I see of atheism—which are usually critiques of atheists, and usually about how mean they are—only shallowly engage the ideas they critique and beg the very questions atheists are asking.

A way to get behind the question is to ask what function atheism-as-religion has for the parties who make that claim. It’s easier to deal first with those who self-identify as atheist. The closest thing I know to religious atheism is the Sunday Assembly, whose recent split seems to have been over just how much to explicitly cater to atheists as opposed to a more general humanism. (As a side note, it doesn’t seem the best tactic to argue that a “split” is evidence that atheism is a religion). They meet together, sing songs, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company. If you want to call atheism a religion in a colloquial sense based on groups like these, so be it.

I’ve found, however, that those who claim atheism is a religion are usually members of a “rival” religious tradition. The argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Christianity is defined by a belief in God (Jesus).
  2. Atheism is defined by a belief that there is no God.
  3. These are both beliefs.
  4. Therefore, an atheist critique of Christianity is invalid because the two are both belief systems.

There are many problems with this argument. Beginning with the end, if it were the case that all belief systems are structurally the same and they therefore have no ground to critique each other, this would undercut any criticism of another institution. This might be helpful if we judged systems solely on the basis of structure or organization without any evaluation of content, but we don’t, and that leads to the next point.

There is a gap between points three and four implying that all beliefs are qualitatively the same. This is a disingenuous argument because it separates belief as a thing out in the world separate from believers, those who create belief through acting in the world. Sure, a belief is a belief, just as a law is a law, but we wouldn’t likely argue that all laws are qualitatively the same. They pertain to different aspects of existence and we judge some of them effective and others not-as-effective.

What the argument is saying is that the act of believing is equivalent in both cases. Again, this is technically true, but it is disingenuous because it negates the content of the belief. It partakes in the sociological idea of rational choice, which suggests that we pick our way of being in the world as if picking a value meal at McDonalds. In truth, we are already enveloped in a world that disposes us to prefer some ways of being over others. Sincere adherents to a tradition prefer their traditions. They think their tradition is better for them than others for a variety of reasons. It may be because of potential theological consequences; it may be because of social preference. One is deceiving one’s self, however, if one both claims to be a member of a tradition and claims that his or her tradition is no better that any others. (Of course, one other option is to being to realize you don’t prefer a tradition as much as you thought you did, that realization becoming a catalyst for change. Such was my experience.)

If we look at the specific beliefs (assuming that the defining belief here is the presence or absence of God), no better case can be made. A monotheist affirms that there exists a supernatural being of higher order that interacts with humanity in some way. Those who are not monotheists do not necessarily believe that there is no God (although they may); they simply lack a belief that monotheists have. These are not the same thing. The first implies the existence of a divine being and suggests that one’s decision is whether to affirm its existence. The second denotes the presence of belief in one case, and an absence in the next.

The reason the argument is not usually made this way is, in part, because the presumption of divine beings has been prevalent in Western society for all of written history. (We may be even genetically predisposed to affirm a higher power, anthropomorphizing what we cannot explain.) The existence of God has been normalized to such an extent that is the starting point for all discussions about religion. Thus the absence of belief is characterized as a belief in itself, which from a normative stance is also seen as an attack on existing belief. This is not to say that atheists do not attack “believers.” It is to say that “believing differently” is a poor way of conceptualizing an absence of belief.

So what is a better way of conceptualizing those who, from the perspective of religious traditions, do not believe? A better way might be to look at what they affirm. Far be it from me to speak for atheism; rather I want to suggest that all ways of viewing the world are not belief systems. Or, more precisely, all are not faith systems. In discussions such as these, there is slippage between the two ideas. It is possible to justify belief, but it is not possible to justify faith. Faith is belief in the absence of—or because of the absence of—justification. Its primary criteria is not being subject to falsification. Other epistemologies are defined by their being subject to refinement, criticism, and inquiry. The substance of faith cannot be changed, and this is why it cannot be considered as an equivalent form of knowledge to any other that is subject to such falsification. One might even try to argue that faith is better than other forms of belief, but it cannot be the same.

We come full circle here. The faithful can argue, “Well I can’t prove that God exists, but you can’t prove that he doesn’t!” That is indeed the case. I can neither prove that unicorns exist. Luckily I don’t need to because very few if any think they do. The point is that when other epistemologies come to the fringes of their systemic ability, they may speculate, but they do not assume or create other forms of knowledge to compensate. This certainly does not mean a lack of desire to know the unknown. It entails a humility about our systems and abilities of perception that is in keeping with the history of humanity.

I’d be interested to hear if I am missing possibilities. Is it possible to both identify with a particular tradition and yet not think that it is qualitatively better for them to be in that tradition than others? Is it possible to view faith as an epistemology like any other?

01/6/14

The Last Line of Defense?

Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Caravaggio – Sacrifice of Isaac (Wikipedia)

Up until the last couple years, I have prided myself on not allowing my worldviews to sway discussion in the classroom. To oversimplify a bit—and speaking primarily of the humanistic disciplines—I thought the university was divided between “activist” professors, those who can’t help but betray their investment in the issues they discuss, energizing some students and alienating others, and “neutral” professors, those who keep their views hidden so as not to abuse their power and give a balanced presentation on all issues discussed. I was ambivalent about the first model, but I aspired to be the second model, perhaps because of humility, perhaps because of timidity.

I was reminded of how conflicted I now am about the latter model in when reading an article on religion and violence by Hector Avalos. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He’s also a former Pentecostal preacher and an outspoken critic of religion. He is something of an enigma in being a professor of religion who is openly critical of not only his former tradition, but religion in general. He’s written a book calling for the end of his own discipline of Biblical Studies because it attempts to perpetuate as a living text a book that he argues is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world. There are certainly others within Religious Studies that are critical of some religion, but not many like Avalos. I’d like to hear about his deconversion some day.

But back to the article, which is entitled “Religion and Scarcity: A New Theory for the Role of Religion in Violence,” a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence. The article is a riff on his 2005 book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. The point of the article—and the earlier book I presume, though I haven’t read it yet—is that violence is caused by a scarcity of resources, real or imagined, and religion is particularly dangerous because the source of justification for the scarce resources it centers around are intangible, and thus unverifiable in any way. For example, because of the belief that a supernatural being, God, condemns homosexuality, many Christians believe that traditional values (i.e., their values) are under attack with the increase of same sex relationships, and it is consequently their duty to correct the situation, with violence if need be. Sacred space is another example Avalos gives. All the monotheistic traditions want a piece of the action in Jerusalem because each is under the impression that its God has imbued the land with sacred significance for them. One does not need to know much history to know how much violence this belief has caused.

After citing examples of scarcity, Avalos gives a critique of the ethics of religious violence with the following syllogism:

  1. What exists is worth more than what does not exist.
  2. Life exists.
  3. Therefore, life is worth more than what does not exist.

Although I wouldn’t say I disagree, there are certainly more convincing ways to delegitimize religious violence, including the historical examples above. His point, however, is that this violence is taking place on the basis of empirically unverifiable claims. Not land or oil or wealth—although these all can be implicated as well—but faith.

What I appreciated was the candidness with which he made his conclusion. Given the immorality of religious violence, there are two conclusions, Avalos contends. One would be to modify religion so that it does not manufacture scarcities, and the other would be to remove religion completely. The latter would not remove all violence, but would remove one source of purely immoral violence. He doesn’t make a strong case for the first option, partly because I don’t think there’s a strong one to be made. Postmodern Christianity is certainly fighting for this approach, and from an individual perspective, I understand it. It’s one I tried to pursue for some time and have some lingering sympathies for. However, I think that this approach only hides the symbolic violence that religion can still contribute to in other spheres. I’d call this the Pontius Pilate approach. I’ll wash my hands of the whole thing, and if people happen to get hurt, it’s not my fault.

The second approach, the one Avalos spends more space discussing, is to rid the world of religion. How so? With education. By exposing religious thinking to the same process of rational thought and empirical evidence that governs other spheres of inquiry. He ends with the following: “Even if it can never be achieved, the most ethical mission of academic religious studies may be to help humanity move beyond religious thinking.”

I cannot vouch for the ethos of other religion scholars, but this is definitely not how I learned to teach religion. The religious studies scholar’s role in the twenty-first century seems to be to defend religion. This role seems to have been accelerated after 9/11, when many Americans had little difficulty believing that Islam existed only for violent ends. (Indeed, many still do.) Religion scholars have perpetually mounted a concerted defense of religion, usually by denouncing acts of violence as not religious in their very nature or making some sort of separation between good and bad religion. I wrote about that in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing last year. While the intention of many was likely good, attempting to halt the proliferation of violence upon violence, it seems to have furthered the role of the religion scholar as the defender of religion. One doesn’t need to defend religion on its own merit in order to denounce violence against those who are religious, and it has produced some unthinking scholarship.

It is abundantly clear that religious traditions have had and do have intimate associations with violence, in physical, symbolic, and systemic forms. I suppose the charitable question would be the following: If, as any sincere religious believer would have to think, eliminating religion is not the best option, and assuming one wants to minimize violence, how can one remove the violence and keep the religion? (Hint: the answer is not to dissociate violent acts done in the name of religion from religion. That just offloads the problem.) I think this second approach may actually be the more difficult one.