Recently, Scipio has been very hard on atheism. In a previous post he tried to distinguish between “Wholecloth Atheism” which is a position about religion in the broadest sense (and really the position of the new atheists) and “sentence atheism,” which is simply a position about the possibility of God. He still thinks this distinction is fundamental.
But the profession of wholecloth atheism makes the atheist’s job much tougher: there is more to deny, and hence more to define. I received this in response to a blog posted a few days ago, from a certain Mary Helena Basson, whose thinking on the subject deserves broader exposure than the “Comments” portion of this site permits.
” I often think that this atheism verse religion ‘war’ is in large measure a result of a misunderstanding as to the nature of religion. Religion is not theology. Theology is only the superstructure, a replaceable superstructure, to a bedrock foundation that is part of our human existence. Sadly, once theology becomes synonymous, in people’s minds, with religion, it is religion that gets short-changed. Atheists can do battle with theology until kingdom come – but ‘god’ will simply move on…Knocking theology is playground stuff. In the the adult world we have to live with religion. But what is religion if it is not to be equated with theology?
I found this definition many years ago:
Hans Küng: Christianity and the World Religions, vxi:
“Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person …sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates, by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially”.
Alongside the tortured history of repression and dogmatism that theology has spawned, religion, in the above sense, has contributed much in the way of compassion for the human predicament. Unfortunately, life does have it’s dark side and it is here that atheism seems unable to put anything on the table. It’s all very well admiring the wonders of the world, looking with awe at the starry skies but when it comes to demonstrating compassion for the sick, the infirm, the handicapped, it has no ready made calling card, no on-tap reservoir of moral conduct. I’m not thinking of simply following rules but more of an inbuilt sense of proper conduct. Granted that such an inherent sense of right and wrong is part of our human nature – and thus we should all be so inclined to do good – it’s just that religions spell it out, spell some version of it out, thereby giving religious people an edge, so to speak, in the compassion department.
The argument that people can be doing good because of the prospect of a heavenly reward is possible – but bottom line is that for the one receiving the compassion, it is the compassion that matters not the possibility of an ulterior motive on the part of the one being compassionate. Quite frankly, to think that religious people are only compassionate because they are obeying some commandment is to knock not just religious people but all people. Working with the sick and dying, working with Aids sufferers, this work requires something that cannot be achieved by people who are only obeying the rule book. It is not religion that engenders such compassion, such empathy – religion can only enable it, give a voice to it and, naturally enough, to give such action a godlike accolade. And atheism? Too often it’s ‘men of the mind’ fail to look downwards, down to the depths of the human experience where the true measure of our humanity is displayed.
What atheists need is more of the attitude of “a deeply religious non-believer” (Dawkins) Such an attitude would do much for atheism! Keep the moral high ground – give no slack to theology – but don’t let go a basic part of our humanity by denying religion it’s right to function. Dawkins, in [The God Delusion], although he differentiates between Einsteinian religion and supernatural religion, good and bad religion?, he, sadly, in his desire to knock supernatural theology, missed the opportunity to give atheists a view of religion that would allow them to retain a measure of respect and acceptance of religion. But then, to be charitable, perhaps its the religious (in the above broad definition) that need to stand up and clearly state what it is they are trying to defend against the atheist hoards….
I agree. But then, who decides? I like Küng’s definition–even at times Küng’s theology–but his definition of religion is a theologian’s definition, designed, I think, to be as spongy as possible to facilitate an ecumenical and pluralistic agenda–spongy in the sense that it is contrived to absorb all competing definitions. It’s a definition almost every liberal theologian can get behind, and one which will leave every conservative Christian scholar and professor of Islamic “philosophy” scratching his (or her) head.
That is the problem with definition. The most specific ones are narrow, helpful and controvertible; the most spacious are embracing, inclusive and virtually useless. Christianity was easy to define when all Christians, more in theory than in fact, embraced the Nicene Creed and (in the west) the spiritual sovereignty of popes. –Less easy to define after the eruption of the protestant challenge that left pieces of doctrine scattered everywhere while new ones were being created. When definitions fail, for reasons ranging from loss of confidence to changes in belief and practice, we resort (a la John Hick) to typologies, because typologies are merely descriptive, not definitive.
There is the added problem of who, and by virtue of what kind of training, is qualified to define religion. Richard Dawkins, because he is “scientifically minded,” but with no formal background in the study of religion (a training I am sure he would regard as a handicap, anyway)? Hans Küng, a theologian, with longstanding interest in the phenomenology of religion, but equally a faith-perspective that blindsides him to the undeniable wisdom of atheism?
If you don’t like these options, there is a whole supermarket of choices out there, ranging from the merely interesting to the downright nasty /1/: Religion is “a cultural system” (Geertz), belief in an “unseen order” (William James); “what [the individual] does with his own solitariness” (Whitehead); “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence” (Bellah, and also Geertz).
If you’re addicted to Hegel, religion is (somewhat mystically) “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind.” If you are Fielding’s Parson Thwackum (and many still are), then when you say religion “[you] mean the Christian religion;
and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion;
and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.”
Among skeptical intellectuals, after Marx (“Religion is the cry of the oppressed creature”) there is Mencken’s notion that the sole purpose of religion is to “give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny,…[and] to induce those powers to be friendly to him,” and Freud’s verdict that religions “are illusions, fulfillment of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.”
Omitting argumentation completely, we have the flatfooted view of Thomas Edison that “Religion is bunk,” and of Mark Twain, who quipped that “Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.”
From the early twentieth century onward, perhaps climaxing in Bertrand Russell’s paraphrase of Santayana (“Religions are the great fairy tales of conscience”) –which looks like a paraphrase of Mark Twain–there is a consistent effort to key religion to the slightly earlier “anthropological” conviction that religion is nothing more than belief in gods, spirits, and ways of protecting yourself from things that go bump in the night: “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”
That is just the lunch menu. A full list of definitions would include the attempts of ethicists, cognitive neuroscientists and pagan priestesses to come to terms with the “nature” of religion. About all anyone can agree on is that religion is not about the ordinary, but it is–in a way still cognizant of James’s piercing and frustratingly maldeveloped assessment–related to the experiential: to the world as we interpret it.
The sheer volume of the menu should cause serious and reflective atheists to question whether short-cutting and categorical freebasing (theology is to religion what wet is to water) is the best way to approach the subject.
Ms. Basson is right when she implies that Richard Dawkins missed a golden opportunity to highlight the complexity of religion and to distinguish between the theological axioms that are really the target of modern atheist critique and the less cooperative subject matter called religion. They are not the same. For wholecloth atheism ever to be a garment someone can wear, it needs to be fashioned carefully, not just fashionable.
/1/ Props to Dr. Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary for his work in keeping track of definitions.