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Atheist Religions

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I've been doing a bit of reading, hopefully as a prelude to doing a bit of writing, about the millennial strand in certain Atheist movements, especially among the so-called "New Atheists."  This isn't about that, but I guess a slight explanation is in order.  In my study of medieval religion, there is a constant argument over how much, or to what extent, medieval religious movements, both heretical and orthodox, were millennial.  This is to say, how many of them sought to create conditions sufficient for the return of Jesus and the establishment of the heavenly kingdom on earth?  The answers historians give range from pretty much all of them to almost none.  The arguments, however, revolve around a general definition of the millennial.  Millennial movements share the following characteristics (borrowing from Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium):
  • They are collective in that all the faithful will benefit from them;
  • They are terrestrial in that they will occur in this world, not in some spiritual realm;
  • They are immanent in that the redemption of the world is coming suddenly and soon;
  • They are total, in that all life on earth will be changed; and
  • They are miraculous, in that supernatural agents are required for their completion.
With the exception of miraculous, claims of collective, terrestrial, immanent, and total transformation are akin to those made by the so-called "New Atheists," a claim that I hope to flesh out at a later point.

My immediate impetus to writing today, though, is a question that has been popping up a good bit lately--whether atheism ought properly to be considered a religion.  It shows up in a variety of forms, with interesting ideas such as "serial dogmatism" presenting themselves as explanations for why some atheists behave as they do.  I would like to attempt a preliminary response to this question inspired by the thoughts of others, but also through my own consideration of atheist millenarianism, and of the possibility of interfaith cooperation between believers and non-believers.

Part of the problem is, of course, definitional.  Atheism, properly, is the belief in no god or gods.  That's it, as some of the above writers have rightly pointed out.  It has no content beyond that.  In a sense, it is the antithesis (though not necessarily the enemy) of Judaism or Islam, whose important content is solely the belief in a god.  If Jews and Muslims only believed in their god, I would argue, then neither Judaism nor Islam would properly be religions.  They would simply be different names for theism.  Both atheism and theism, then, are opinions concerning the existence of a deity or deities.

If, as I have suggested, atheism is in a sense an antithesis to Judaism and Islam, what is it that separates the latter two from simply being merely religious opinions?  What makes them into religions?  In a word--and one familiar to Internet users--content.  Judaism and Islam present adherents with a set of rules for living.  Through following these rules, through the embrace of orthopraxy (this is, perhaps, an oversimplification, but I think it justifiable), one shows one's religious bona fides.  Christianity, to address the remaining Abrahamic faith, has content, too, but this content is expressed in a series of beliefs (the Trinity, the Resurrection, the ascension, the Second Coming, etc.), showing an interest in right belief, or orthodoxy, alongside various practices.

Neither orthopraxy or orthodoxy are immanent in the religious opinions of theism or atheism.  However, they are immanent in certain movements that are atheistic at their core.  Communism, for instance, is based on the notion that through class struggle, a society run by the workers will emerge.  Will emerge; Marx said it was inevitable after history had run its course.  In Cohn's terms, the Communist millennium is collective, terrestrial, immanent, and total (no supernatural agents need apply).  Most utopian ideologies that aren't based in a pre-existing religious tradition, fall into this category.  Buddhism, at its core, is also atheistic, though one can argue whether the liberated self and the primordial unity it joins to are supernatural, and enjoins upon its users a mode of living, the Eightfold Path.

The New Atheists follow the same well-worn track.  There is a set of beliefs one must subscribe to, for instance, the adequacy of modern science to explain all phenomena; that religion is a simple illusion that deludes the gullible; that engagement with the religious is accommodating the irrational; that the world would be better without religion.  Sounds a lot like millennarian thinking to me.  There is also the evangelical bent, that we atheists must work towards bringing others to our view.  It is confrontational, and as I have suggested elsewhere, counterproductive.  You don't need me to tell you that; the boys at South Park, vile parody of Richard Dawkins aside, nailed it years ago.

So, is atheism a religion? No.  As we have seen, it is a religious opinion, like theism.  But there are atheistic religions.  More traditionally, we can refer to the various philosophical strands of Buddhism or of Taoism that have as there basis a monistic totality from which we have been separated and to which we can return.  We can refer to "secular" philosophies such as Communism.  And to that number we can add the various groups of evangelical atheists, most notably the New Atheists.  As for me, I like to think I subscribe to humanistic atheism, something I need to explore more later.  Whatever the case, as atheists we need to understand that our work, though important, is essentially religious work, and not delude ourselves otherwise.


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Michael G Bazemore, Jr., is a history professor, writer, SCUBA diver and dad-to-be living in Raleigh, North Carolina. When he's not doing history, he is reading and occasionally blogging, on whatever interests him at the moment. He earned his M.A. (more...)

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