(I had a poli-sci professor who once compared me to my namesake: slow and meandering. Other students in this seminar years ago wondered how I could take such an insult, but I was acing the writing-intensive course so I didn’t see it that way. This 900 word post grew out of a FB conversation I had once a few years ago brought about by a group reading of The Atheist Reader. I’ve cut some throat-clearing about how New Atheists often come off as jerks about both theistic belief and religion.)
Putting the truth of the existence of a god or gods to one side for a moment (an admittedly strange starting point for a post on atheism), religion itself isn’t really a theistic or atheistic thing. It is the case that certain religions do make truth claims about their theologies, but what religions actually are isn’t about theology. What religions are actually about is organizing human society by making social structures of the individual’s religious impulse, and giving the individual a meaningful way of hanging onto an otherwise ineffable experience. Liking or not liking the way a society is organized (say, along the principles of particular religious teachings) isn’t an argument about the theistic truth claims. In the West, we have demoted religion from the only way to legitimately organize society to being one contender in a way to organize society using a pluralised political process.
The argument that the scientific worldview has developed the most comprehensive, falsifiable method for understanding the truth value of claims–and that it doesn’t require the support of a theistic component–is a powerful one in favor of atheism. I suspect there are a lot of atheists in the world because the scientific worldview argument is so powerful, maybe even plenty of reluctant atheists. (Parenthetically, let me observe that neither the atheists in the collection nor I are presenting anything like an original argument.)
Natural processes can account for anything you’d care to point to in the world. If humans have a religious impulse, then it got there in response to stimulus in the world. If humans attribute the religious feeling to a god or gods, then natural processes say that the propensity evolved, and evolved independently of whether or not there are gods or even just one. Did the religious impulse evolve because there is a supernatural something-or-other, or did the religious impulse evolve as a by-product of some other evolutionary advantage, or under some other pressure? I suppose someone out there can point to research on the subject, and I’d welcome the reading. Regardless of the answer, the religious impulse is there–part of the human condition.
A number of the atheists in the collection consider the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling an actual evil in the world. I wasn’t aware that evolutionary biology made value judgements about evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps the religious impulse and/or the religious feeling are side effects of evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps. An evolutionary adaptation which is harmful to the survival of the species (which, if the evil claim coming from a materialist means anything, is what it must mean) should not survive. (Maybe it arose in just the last couple of hundred of thousands of years, and will die off as a maladaption. Maybe atheists are themselves, biologically, an evolutionary adaptation.) An evolutionary adaptation (or side effect) with neutral survival implications might hang on for ever. An adaptation which improves survival will tend to solidify its position. It will improve survival if it confers some advantage over real world challenges. This isn’t a theistic truth claim, nor it is not an atheistic truth claim.
Anyway, “I don’t like religion (or god),” and, “I don’t need religion (or god),” aren’t really arguments. They’re assertions which ultimately don’t persuade me.
And that’s really why I’m not an atheist. What atheism offers isn’t enough of an explanation of my subjective experience of the world.
And, really, all I’ve got is my subjective experience of the world. I believe there is an objective reality, that my subjective experience of it isn’t all there is to reality, that my subjective will has (at most) very little impact on the world unless I take affirmative action. I believe the scientific worldview has done a lot of good in the world. I think it’s done a lot of harm in the world, too. Germ theory has probably been an unalloyed good in the world. Nuclear science possibly has a ton more to answer for than it’s been good for even when things like radiation treatments and smoke detectors are factored in.
My subjective experience has included experience of the religious impulse and of the religious feeling. I believe those impulses and feelings are a part of me because they respond to something real in the world. I haven’t read much Dawkins, and I’m sure he’s got something to say about this experience on my part (I’m lazy, maybe someone can point me to it). If his explanation doesn’t allow my experience to inform my opinion, then that’s a pretty anti-humanist position.
Not being an atheist doesn’t make me a Catholic, nor a Sunni Muslim, nor a Hindu, nor a pagan, nor an anything. (I might be a Taoist, though… and I’ve had some experiences I’m pretty sure need more than scientific materialism to comprehend) Not wanting to be slotted into a religious social organization doesn’t mean I’m a godless heathen, nor does it mean that I cannot take comfort in certain religious developments as part of my human heritage.
As strange as this may sound to some religious believers, some theists, some atheists, some materialists and some others who are both smart and rigorous, being intellectually honest about one’s beliefs does not entail accepting the logical conclusions of them no matter what. Intellectual honesty does not demand finding what lies behind every belief. Intellectual honesty does not require that all one’s beliefs be examined and any that conflict with one or another be scrutinized for the permanent dismissal of one or another. Intellectual honesty merely requires that one be able to consider one’s beliefs, determine what they really are, and live accordingly.
This is a great post. Thank you for sharing! I've always said that many atheist conflate God's religion and Man's religion inappropriately. If the Christians are right about the set up of the universe, Jesus is deeply disappointment in what man has done to his teachings.
You have chosen atheists to blame for not offering you something you can act. Atheism does not claim to offer anything other than a simple assertion that it does not believe in a single or multiple deities.My view is that you ascribe your own meaning, generally a superficial one, to nuanced concepts like religion, theology, atheism, and so on. You have reached the admirable point of understanding that being subjective is all one can possibly be, and rightfully trust or have faith that there is something bigger or objective. Being “objective” is aspirational, like judges in the court of law or jurors during a trial or a mediator. I would expect that an atheist will say neither subjectivity nor objectivity will sustain a rational thesis that some imaginary deity exists even when dressed up with some infallible dogma or mythology.You appear to know little of the New Atheism but enough to casually mention Dawkins and you do not mention any of the works provided in the “Atheist Reader.” Who made sense to you? You appear to believe that Atheism is static rather than dynamic. To learn more about “New” Atheism, might I suggest “End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004)” by Sam Harris and his thin volume “Letter to a Christian Nation” to understand why an atheist will take offense to your aside, “New Atheists come off as jerks about both theistic belief and religion.” I don't think we or they do, but leaders of the Abrahamic faiths do day in and day out.Consider the history of internecine warfare among the Abrahamic triad before hurling a rhetorical stone at atheists who today simply refuse to be quiet in the face of their religious intolerance, inherent hatred and violence, their disastrous dogmas of Dominionism and Millennialism. New Atheists have simply decided that unbelievers have remained silent for too long in the face of public assertions of religious dogma and myths that present a clear danger to the continued viability of the planet to sustain humankind. We can no longer allow unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs! I agree wholeheartedly that the Taoist belief system is far superior to any of the Abrahamic triad. On that much we appear to agree, although as a Westerner I feel most comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist where rigid dogman and fanciful mythology is eschewed in favor of principles, principles that appear to me to be most suited to your own spiritual journey.It's futile and unworthy of sustained effort to argue whether religion or science has done more or less for the progress of humankind. And, there may be a “religious impulse” but history reveals that this impulse like any unrestrained one to terrible horrors, injustices and tyranny, although some good to be sure. The question is whether or not religion as you defines it as an organizing method is essential to humankind's organizing around some other much more beneficial and progressive “impulse.” I believe ethical behavior is possible without religion, without God. Note that the “impulse” would cease to exist if not for death. Therein lays the crux of the spiritual Gordian knot. But for death there would be no religion, the impulse to “know” and to “understand” the “stuff” around us however would remain – the scientific impulse. I am willing to argue that scientific reason will ultimately trump religious faith and I have aligned my life accordingly. I can see that you are making spiritual progress, and my comment is meant to encourage you to continue, but I must point out that based on your blog I suspect that your political science teacher has accurately described your intellectual efforts. Your instructor did not say that you were incapable or stupid. Wise Gautama warned young Siddhartha against being “too clever.”Finally, as for your view of “intellectual honesty” I agree.I think. 😉
Hi Leo! Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your taking time to press me on these things.I take your point of superficiality seriously, but not too seriously since this is, after all, a personal blog rather than a highly rigorous forum. I'll be sure to take a look at your suggested reading. As to the Atheist Reader… it's been a few years; and although I do remember using the word 'shrill' at some point in the discussion about it, it seems there was at least one essay in the collection which didn't peel the paint… maybe it was written by a woman (were there any women in the collection?)… I'll have to pull it out of storage to be sure.I agree with you that atheism is, at its root, a simple claim about there being no deity or deities. Further, I see it as a somewhat broader claim that there is no non-material reality.So far as that goes, I'm with them on both those claims. And I'm with you that “ethical behavior is possible without religion, without God.” And I agree about theocratic governance, including the profoundly troubling forms of Dominionism & Millenialism.You note that I blame atheism for not offering something I can act, and (I think) you mean to point out that such an offer isn't, in its simple assertion, something atheism is obliged to make. If that's what you mean, I agree as well. But in the strongly anti-religioius form (as distinct from its simple assertion form) which atheisim seems often to take it leaves me with no way of dealing with the human drive I've termed the religious impulse. I agree with you that any human impulse, left unrestrained by reason, will bring on, as you terrifically put it, “horrors, injustices and tyranny.” But what I took from the Reader was that, generally for the atheisit authors in that collection at least, any expression of religion is an unmitigated negative for the human condition. It came off then, and still seems now, an absolutist position I cannot subscribe to.
My brief response during a brief coffee-only lunch regards your question about the origin of the “religious impulse”, and the assumption that it must be the product of evolution; that is that it conveys an evolutionary advantage.
My first thought is that evolutionary timelines are so long that there must always be unusual byproducts which confer no evolutionary advantage. In this example, the starting point would be when humans either first developed what we’d think of as consciousness, or maybe when spoken representative language begins (or maybe they’re the same thing, but whatever); and the end point would be when the practice of modern sciences becomes widespread.
That’s thousands of years, maybe hundreds of thousands, but in the context of species evolution, not very long. So you have one of the first generations of conscious human, and she’s handled her survival business for the day, what then? It’s natural for us to wonder how things work, but between the moment of wondering and the development of a framework to understand something like “what is rain and why does it happen” is a leap even the most gifted person can’t make alone.
It makes sense, then, that people develop gods as a way to explain the things that they can’t get at otherwise. The evolutionary advantage, I’d argue, comes from the understanding that religion can be used as a way to consolidate and wield power, and also to differentiate “us” from “them”.
I could be misunderstanding what you mean by the “religious impulse”, as it could mean that enduring wonder at the physical world, or maybe the unnamable feeling that comes from contemplating one’s own existence and place in an immeasurable universe.
Regardless, I used to be a militant atheist, but it was rooted less in honest questioning of existence and more in a way to feel superior by picking apart the weak theology of those around me. It wasn’t cool, and it missed the point.
An interesting turning point for me was something I read by a British Zen writer (I haven’t a clue who, sadly).
He likened the “where are we from?” and “which religion is right?” sorts of questions to being on the ground, with a poison arrow stuck in your side. To spend your time examining the arrow, wondering how it was made, from which sort of bird the feathers came, or the backstory of the person who shot it isn’t the most productive approach. The key is to pluck the arrow out.
So I don’t bother myself with how we got here, other than in good natured conversation. If pressed, I don’t believe in a God or Gods, but that’s really not the question, as it doesn’t impact the right way to live whatever life remains. That’s its own puzzle, and requires its own sort of effort, but at least it’s more useful to me than tut tutting people for their honestly held beliefs.
Thanks for an interesting post!
Thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts, Tom. Since this post is something like seven or eight years old (re-upped as part of a larger project of blog consolidation and link clean-up), it might not surprise you to learn I’m not entirely certain what I was talking about then.
However, I have held onto the idea of the religious impulse for that whole time, and somewhat longer. In my current usage, it’s a sort of special case of the ‘social’ part of ‘humans are social animals.’ Humans are social in a bunch of ways, and one of them is in meaning-making. Being social, to me, means community formation and some consensus on organizing. So, when I use it, ‘religious impulse’ is simply the part of human experience which draws individuals into meaning-making groups.
Which is a pretty broad thing. I don’t limit ‘religion’ to god stuff or supernatural stuff. I wrote a post called “Why we hold hands” which went into the religious experience of the Irish dance group I attended for years. I think some people have legitimately religious experiences in sports fandom.
I think you’re probably right, that the religious impulse could easily be a side-effect of some other evolutionary development. And, of course, it’s worth observing from time to time that evolution isn’t directed, it’s a jumble of mutations–some of them helpful to survival, some not, and some (I imagine) with no particular survival implications at all. And, like any human characteristic, some people experience it more intensely than others, and for some people the characteristic … causes problems. I, for one, would like my variable blood pressure to not kill me by ranging so high. So, too, I would like the human religious impulse to not take shapes like Jonestown… or other, more current, forms.
So that’s a downer of an end. Go read the post about dancing.