Kennedy — the erstwhile MTV VJ (when MTV still had had Vs to J, and no that’s not a euphemism) — published an article over at Reason.com the other day explaining why she thinks atheism is a religion. As a mesotheist, I’ve often thought that some atheists exhibit some similar tendencies as theists, so I was interested to see her own take.
Unfortunately, what she presents is less of an argument and more a muddled series of assertions and loose correlations. For example, she imprecisely cites a study by Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, which looked at neurological events during religious experiences, such as meditation and prayer. She concludes from this that “humans are wired or biologically predisposed to believe in something,” which is nothing short of a generous hop, skip and jump in logical analysis. All it proves is that people who are religious think in similar ways. My friend Dave posed a great question via Twitter:
.@KennedyNation Did Newberg’s work show atheists using the same part of the brain as theists? This was unclear and seems an important detail
Rather than waiting for a tweet-back from Kennedy, I checked out Dr. Newberg’s publications for myself. As far as I can find, in the amount of time I was willing to put into the matter, I could not find any evidence that Newberg studied any self-described atheists. In fact, all of their studies seem to focus primarily on hyper-religious people — Tibetan monks and Carmelite nuns and that sort. To postulate all humans work in the same way as that subset of humans which is devout to a particular belief (regardless of what the belief is) does not pass prima facia muster.
Even if it’s true that all people, including atheists, have a sense of “something greater,” does that mean atheism is, itself, a religion? Of course not. But guess what — neither is theism. Atheism and theism are, fundamentally, statements of a priori belief about the existence of something that cannot be understood by empirical study or inductive reasoning. However, neither atheism nor theism are statements about the nature of man’s relationship with such a supernatural entity or entities. There is a common saying among evangelical Christians that Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship” that is a flippant reference to a deeper etymology of the word religion.
Religion (Latin religionem) has always had two senses. The first sense is a reverence for or belief in a divine power. If that was all people meant by religion, then we could take data from places like the headline from this random Washington Post article and conclude that 92% of people in the United States are religious. The sniff test tells us that such an interpretation is foul: Having a sense that “something greater” exists and being religious are two different things. That’s because the second sense of the word religion is a sense of law, of ritual, of devotion to the thing you believe. That’s why almost all early sets of laws have religious (!) elements to them. Many contemporary people who believe in the supernatural do not necessarily adhere to a set of rigorous religious principles, and thus while being theists they are not actually religious.
(Incidentally, lack of deontological fortitude is a common argument among atheists about why they think most people are not, in fact, theists. If one believes in God, they argue, then they would act in ways that God has commanded them to act. I think this points to a similar, if polarized, misunderstanding as Kennedy makes of the distinction between belief and religion.)
By way of counterpoint, there are people who are religious but not particularly theists. A historical example is that of Benjamin Franklin, who openly despised many of the beliefs expressed by the religious leaders of his day. He wasn’t exactly an atheist, but he considered himself a Deist, allowing basically that there was a God who created the world but beyond that could say nothing more. In his Autobiography, Franklin lays out 13 virtues in an attempt to arrive at “moral perfection.” He developed this list about the same time he stopped going to church, because he found that “not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, [the peculiar doctrines of our sect] seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.”
Of course, Kennedy doesn’t argue that modern-day atheists are religious because they practice this sort of Franklinian adherence to secular virtues — even though some do! Rather, she asserts that they are religious because they fervently state their opinions about the lack of evidence for supernatural phenomena. But fervently stating a belief is not religion. It’s zealotry.
Now, I have to be careful myself, because the etymology and modern usage of the word zealot has a religious connotation. But what Kennedy is criticizing isn’t the organization of beliefs implied by the word religion, but the intense and incipient emotional actions incited in some people based on their beliefs. These actions can be anything from angry verbal expression to more insidious and destructive acts of terrorism. Zealotry can occur in both a religious and non-religious context (e.g., Timothy McVeigh claimed agnosticism and said science was his “religion”).
What it all boils down to is a fundamental conflation of terminology, not just by Kennedy but by many others (and, admittedly, myself sometimes). Imprecision runs rampant in today’s world, where people use vague language to explain half-considered ideas. And unfortunately, it often leads to the very sort of religious — or non-religious — fervor that just pisses everyone off.