Atheists believe in reason; but does ‘reason’ exist? Is Atheism Another Faith? Atheists should stop protesting and pursue their own moral vision Y. Stuart Nam June 30, 2011 The New York Times recently ran an article under the intriguing headline of “Atheists Seek Chaplain Role in the Military.” It was a thought-provoking story about military atheists (or more inclusive non- believers) who are campaigning for their own chaplain as another distinctive ‘faith’ group. 1 Religious people probably think such a campaign absurd since ‘atheist chaplain’ is a contradictory term. 2 The movement, however, makes a great deal of sense, at least in the context of the military where chaplains play a critical role as a general counselor for soldiers and their family members as an officer outside the chain of command. Military atheists also feel that they are subtly discriminated against compared to the religious who receive institutional support for their religious practices (e.g., prayer time or place). 3 The issue of course has unique implications for a constricted society like the military inside which the issue of life and death also is much more acute. But I think it also raises a broader question for society at large about whether atheism or lack of religion, especially established ones, is, or rather should be considered, another faith we as a society need to recognize as a sort of minority religion that warrants protection. We Americans live in a constitutionally mandated secular society. But American secularism is mainly political and legal, not social and cultural. 4 Despite constitutional separation of church and state, Congress opens its sessions with a prayer to God by tradition. Most members of Congress are Christians and public school children are required to recite the pledge of allegiance that states “under God.” A recent poll shows that Americans are now comfortable with even Mormonism in that Mitt Romney’s faith won’t be a hindrance for his presidential ambition. 5 But the same poll shows that atheism would be a deadly liability for a presidential hopeful. 6 A 2006 Gallup Poll survey also confirmed that a vast majority of the American public (84 percent) were not ready to elect an atheist as president. 7 Most polls consistently show that atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in America. Even taking into consideration that America remains one of the most religious countries in the world by any measurable account, American atheists still seem to have serious perception problems. It is no wonder then that only 1-2% of Americans voluntarily identify themselves as atheist. 8 Most religion surveys show that people would rather characterize themselves as “not religious” or “non-believers.” 9 It is debatable whether such different labeling translates into substantive differences in their beliefs or that people merely prefer a more acceptable term. Why Do Atheists Have PR Problems? One of the reasons that American atheists have such a negative reputation, I suspect, has something to do with the outrageously militant atheism of a handful of celebrity atheists dubbed “angry atheists.” It is unfortunate that the American public identifies a broader range of non-theists with a few prominent atheists who often have pecuniary motives underlying their militant, sensational, outrageously offensive atheism. Such prominent atheists often attack their own strawmen, caricatured, simplified, distorted, extremely literal, fundamental or evangelical versions of the Abraham religions’ narratives. Their commercial success as author or speaker suggests more about our society’s shallow understanding of religion in general than their force of intellectual persuasiveness. They also do great harm to believers’ perception of the most reasonable non-theists, secularists, agnostics or non-believers. The typical definition of atheism is understood as a “lack or rejection of a belief in God.” Such a widespread but simplistic notion is not only superficial but very misleading. Classifying people into either a believer in a deity of a certain theistic religion or its denier is absurd in its self- centered logic. In a culture where an absolute majority is theists, one often forgets that the word ‘atheist’ in its origin is a judgmental term coined by condemning theists who have always enjoyed the status of a power majority in the West. Historically, in America and Europe, being called atheist was akin to social and political death, if not necessarily a literal one. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), for example, played a prominent role as one of the founding fathers. But his body could not be even buried properly since he was socially denounced by his critics as atheist for his open deism. 10 Paine gets much less credit even today, if mentioned at all. 11 Historians have reason to suspect that many other prominent founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin also subscribed to a similar view like Paine’s. 12 But one difference proved so critical to their life and historical legacy; Paine was an open activist of deism, which was considered practically atheism back then, while others kept it relatively secret. It is therefore important to recognize even today that there are subtle differences between activist atheists and a fast growing number of quiet non-believers, who are now estimated to be as large as 18% of the American population. 13 If you include those who declare themselves as Christians but almost never go to church on Sunday, the number might be much higher. Nonetheless, even when the country has constitutional secularism secured in its place, standing up as an atheist still comes with invisible perils in a theistic culture. Many American theists consider Buddhists technically atheists since they think Buddhists do not “believe” their Christian god. Buddhists are, however, still respected in the sense that their faith is recognized at least as a legitimate religion they agree that the law should protect. Atheists, on the other hand, are not recognized for having a dissenting but respectable belief and consequently not respected socially and even by the judiciary. 14 In the military, for example, atheism is not treated as one of the legitimate spiritual preferences on the record for various functional purposes (e.g., burial or funerals). Seeking official recognition as another distinct faith (or technically even religious) group is a practical solution for military atheists since that would instantly make them eligible for equal access to the institutionalized resources all recognized religious groups already enjoy. Civilian atheists, on the other hand, probably would vehemently refuse to let themselves be characterized as another faith group, not to mention a religious one. 15 Unfortunately, atheists’ negative knee-jerk reaction to their belief being characterized as another faith is based on two equally widespread but mistaken notions: first, they erroneously equate ‘faith’ with a monotheistic religious belief in a deity following the American parlance of the monotheistic faithful instead of using it properly as a firm moral outlook on life for which there is no proof following a standard dictionary definition; second, they insist that they simply stand on reason. The first is simply due to linguistic confusion; the second is philosophically indefensible, contrary to their typical self- understanding (I will not attempt to make my philosophical argument on this point in this short essay). ‘Reason’ is Enlightment Age propaganda that no longer carries moral force against religion By insisting that ‘reason’ (or ‘scientific rationality’) is on their side, militant atheists often do not realize that they are actually acting quite unreasonable and even irrational even by the strict scientific standards they almost worship. So long as one is not completely ignorant of the history of modern philosophy and science, one has to acknowledge that there is no such thing on earth like what they call ‘reason’ as implied by them to be value-free, ahistorical, mathematically correct measure of epistemological standard. Any belief that there is such measure of truth that people can and should agree on is dangerous fallacy. One has to “believe” in the existence of ‘reason’ just as blindly as atheists argue that theists believe in the existence of God. ‘Reason’ is in fact merely the name of a propaganda introduced by liberal Enlightment thinkers who wanted to use it as a new rhetorical weapon against the old establishment, including the Church. Like ‘reason,’ atheism also cannot be understood outside its historical, social – and, most importantly, cultural background. According to a 2008 survey on the demographics of the American non-religious, the single largest group by race/ethnicity was Asians (29%), followed by “other” (19%), or those who declined to identify their race or ethnicity. 16 No one expected that Asians would turn up as the largest single ethnic group of non-religious. A subtle difference can be found between the labeling of non-religious and atheists; it would be wrong to characterize them as atheist (some religion scholars and media make this mistake) since they simply do not share a monotheistic tradition and culture as a sub-cultural group of recent immigrants from a different religious culture. They may not be “religious” in the context of the Western theism; but it does not mean that they are religiously vacuous minds. If aliens ask us if we believe in @%^, we cannot say if we do or if we do not since we just do not know what @%^ is. The aliens may try to teach and even force it upon us (as colonial Christians tried to convert the conquered indigenous). But assume that you cannot really understand it unless you understand the aliens’ culture; and you cannot really understand their culture unless you are genuinely part of it. Then, we are simply out of luck, although we can always pretend. Calling Asian Americans - even those who are not practicing Buddhists or Confucians - atheists is like aliens calling us anti-@%^ simply because we just do not understand @%^. The Western conception of a typical religion based on theism does not apply to most East Asian traditions. Confucians do not even go near any conception of a supra natural since they reject any type of metaphysical speculation as idle intellectual indulgence. 17 In East Asia, they had to invent a word to translate ‘religion’ into their own language since they never had such conception until they started interacting with Europeans. The idea that the human conception of deity is universal is a persistent Eurocentric error. Religion is human fellowship, not deity worshipping A recent religion survey also shows that American atheists are highly educated and have better “knowledge” of religion than the self-declared faithful. 18 That is not surprising since you should know what you are rejecting in order to reject it, particularly when what you reject is the religion of a power majority. It also shows that atheists tend to focus on logos of the religion while the religious on its pathos. That the faithful of a religion does not have as much “knowledge” about their religion as well as those who reject that religion does not necessarily mean that the believers are ignorant of their own faith since faith is not a matter of knowledge for them. That atheists are “highly educated” also means that modern Western education tend to lead intellectuals to confuse scientific methods and their hypothetical findings (reasoning) with the dogmatic scientism which denies religion a legitimate place in a civil society. In its Latin origin, ‘religion’ means “re-binding” with other fellow human beings. 19 In my view, religion is nothing but a fellowship of people who share a similar outlook on life and beyond; its main underlying purpose is to help each other cope with human suffering and also to share joy of life. Religion in this sense is very communal at its core; and one cannot fail to see in every religious phenomenon. It is hard to define religion to everyone’s intellectual satisfaction, but nothing should be called religion unless it offers some kind of social bonding among the followers. The conception of deity or deity worshipping is not as essential to religion as atheists often think it is when you look at religious phenomena on a global scale. ‘God’ is actually not as important even for the monotheists as atheists often erroneously believe it is. 20 In a sense, atheists take God far too seriously than sane believers do. The true motive and ideal of religion has more to do with humanism hidden behind religious props. In my non-Christian view, Jesus’ story is nonetheless powerful and moving not because it is a story of a prophet or God who once emerged in a human body and exercised some miracles. Underneath the mystic legend, whether it is historically fictional or not, is a real humanistic cry for transcendental justice by a minority people who suffered injustice beyond imagination by most people living in today’s civilized modern democracies. That pathos stays alive among Christians today through the collective memory and perpetual reinterpretation of what Jesus’ symbolic ordeal means in terms of today’s human ethics and ideals, particularly through their historical rituals and symbols of communion. Unfortunately, what angry atheists often see in the Bible, however, is merely an ancient religions’ unbelievable claim in their ahistorical reading even though some evangelicals and fundamentalists read it that way. 21 Is Science Modern Form of Salvation? American atheists are found to be generally well educated. Most academics or scientists are dominantly atheists, for example. Educated people’s sin of our time, however, is their tendency to oversubscribe to the so-called “scientific worldview” without proper skepticism a scientific attitude calls for. They approach religion with the ample dose of scientific skepticism but not scientific enterprise itself. Some intellectual atheists argue that their atheism is nothing but sheer rationality demanded by scientific knowledge. But what they overlook is that “rationality” is another name for metaphysical belief (faith) scientific methods cannot affirm one way or another. Science, like religion, is another secular manifestation of the human desire to understand its world and purpose. The scientific enterprise is historically a humanistic endeavor inspired by religious motives; it can be therefore equally religious in terms of its believers’ passion to want to “know” nature. Scientific knowledge as a form of inductive reasoning is by definition fallible and will always reflect the inherent limitations and bias of human cognition. “The idea that being scientific simply means being irreligious is a particularly naïve one,” says British philosopher Mary Midgley, who argues that science is now being pursued as the modern form of salvation. 22 American atheism reflects a unique American history and culture. A huge segment of American Christians are evangelical; equally evangelical is their reversed mirror image, American atheism. The exact profile of American non-believers remains elusive mostly because of the chaotic labeling and the inherent limits of survey methodologies. But we should try to see the real people behind the labels; the humanistic desire to “re-bind” with fellow human beings remains just as strong in this hectic modern lifestyle. We should recognize that one’s religious belief is often not one’s own. A culturally isolated, ahistorical and completely independent individual – which intellectual atheists often suppose themselves to be - exits only in a philosophy book as a conceptual decoy for a clever argument. People carry on their lives with ample amount of the preexisting cultural bias since their cultural preferences and intellectual orientation are fostered during their upbringing. Ludicrous is judging people as an isolated individual based on whether the person “believes” in God or not since such an exercise, as conducted in most telephone-based religion surveys, become meaningless when applied outside the person’s cultural background (hence historically-irrelevant Asians turn up as the biggest ethnic group of American atheists). Except for those celebrity “angry atheists” who have financial interests in staking their name on it, there are some genuine atheists who are motivated by their own authentic faith. Some of those genuine atheists form their own grouping under the banner of their own moral worldview. 23 Such a move, like the military atheists mentioned earlier, is inevitable if they want to move beyond their denial of the existence of God or the perpetual stage of unproductive protest. Instead of revolting against other people’s faith – particularly around the empty debate on the existence of God based on the mistaken Western ontology 24 - atheists should instead channel their energy into cultivating their own social values. In order to start that path, they should first acknowledge that their atheism is indeed another faith – instead of pretending that it is sheer rationality or reason – that deserves equal respect and protection (and equal logistical support in the military context). Atheists Take God More Seriously Than Believers Do A persistent problem with American atheism is not its perpetual minority status in terms of the number of people openly supporting it; it is their lack of desire to grow beyond it. What does atheism really stand for instead of against? Is it really about just refuting the existence of the deity they dismiss as not much more than a mistaken metaphor in the first place? Is it about helping other people or fighting their own reversed mirror image? Unlike in the Enlightenment Age, attacking religion with the rhetorical device like ‘reason’ no longer carries moral force since the Church is no longer a political power institution. Many people today stay with their religion of family tradition not necessarily because they conceptually so much “believe” in their religion’s (often dogmatic) doctrines (as many atheists mistakenly think they do) but because they are part of the tradition’s product themselves and also, more importantly, value the time-tested communal human fellowship it offers. Unless atheists also offer their own worldview in an equally “re- binding” manner and grow it into a humanistic culture of its own, they will never win over people’s hearts. The military atheists and a better organized group of atheists such as the Secular Humanism show a positive step toward that direction. 1 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/27/us/27atheists.html. I am not certain that the campaigning military group sees themselves as a group of faith; ‘faith’ here should be understood as a firm belief such as moral worldview and its code of conduct for which there is no proof following a standard dictionary definition in a secular sense rather than a religion as often used as interchangeably in American parlance by the religious. 2 Many words are contradictory, confusing, ambiguous and even chaotic according to lexicographers. Dictionary definition is a mere technicality determined following actually usage of the word; the former does not dictate actual, always evolving usage. See broadly, Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, Walker & Company, 2009. I also met a chaplain at a medical service who professed to me he was openly an atheist with a degree in theology 3 See the official website of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (http://www.militaryatheists.org/) 4 Political and legal secularism does not mean that atheists won a political victory as erroneously believed by some theists since the constitutional secularism was introduced by the religious for the religious who knew that religious persecution almost always came from another religious groups who worshipped even the same god. 5 http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/The-Vote/2011/0608/Why-Mormonism-might-not-be-a- problem-for-Mitt-Romney 6 Ibid. 7 Ariela Keysar, Chapter 3 “Who Are America’s Atheists and Agnostics,” Secularism & Secularity, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, ISSSC, 2007, at p. 33. The book is freely downloadable at Scribd (http://www.scribd.com/doc/17142803/Secularism-Secularity-Contemporary-International-Perspectives). Also see Keysar’s note 2: “For comparison, 38% of the public believes Americans are not ready to elect a woman as president, 42% to elect a Jew and 91% to elect a gay or lesbian (the only other group to attract more negative feelings). 8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism#cite_note-31 9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism#cite_note-31 10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine 11 See also, Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Metropolitan Books, 2004, a Kindle edition, see introduction. 12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deist 13 http://www.alternet.org/rights/139788/40_million_nonbelievers_in_america_the_secret_is_almost_out/ 14 http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2011/0516/Supreme-Court-declines-to-hear-So-help-me-God- lawsuit; see also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance; http://www.arlinc.org/ 15 See my note on ‘faith’ at 1. 16 Trinity College, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population, 2008 (http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/reports/NONES_08.pdf) 17 Confucians differ from agnostics in that the former avoids transcendental questions altogether while the latter still makes a speculative claim that the existence of a deity cannot be known. 18 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, 2010. http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/religious-knowledge-full-report.pdf 19 Exact etymological derivation of ‘religion’ remains disputable. Some scholars tend to derive it from the Latin word ligare (”bind, connect”), probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or “to reconnect.” It is popular since it means re-binding or reconnecting the people (or with God). 20 There are many religions in the world –and throughout history – that have nothing to do with the conception of God, god, or gods, however you define ‘religion.’ Once you step out of a monotheistic cultural tradition, which however proves very difficult even for religion scholars who remain largely Eurocentric, you will see why the perpetual puzzle of the existence of God is more of a cultural question rather than a philosophical or even scientific one. 21 I recognize that my view is nonetheless atheistic from a believer’s perspective. 22 Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation, Routledge, 1992, at p. 12. 23 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_humanism 24 I argue that many traditional Western philosophical questions are illusory puzzles derived from the mistaken ontology inspired by Plato earlier, fortified by the following Christian thinkers and rarely challenged throughout the history of philosophy. What ‘exists’ or not is a wrong question to ask since the question presumes it is a question for our senses; but our senses alone cannot determine what exists or not (e.g., we cannot see, hear, smell, touch, feel particles whose existence however is not questioned at all by modern physics), not to mention that our senses are often fooled. Furthermore, what does ‘existence’ mean once beyond the realm of our human senses then? It is a hard question since the question of existence itself is fundamentally linked to a metaphysical conception of nature. The ontological question of God in a typical atheist-theist debate often presupposes a materialistic and mechanical universe. I instead propose that we ask what we can experience in a broader sense striving not to have any human-centered preconception of nature.
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