Is Atheism Another Faith? by JacobSilitonga


									                                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

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

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 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.
  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
  See the official website of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
  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.
  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
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).
   See also, Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Metropolitan Books, 2004, a
Kindle edition, see introduction.
lawsuit; see also,;
   See my note on ‘faith’ at 1.
   Trinity College, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population, 2008
   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.
   Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, 2010.
    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).
   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.
   I recognize that my view is nonetheless atheistic from a believer’s perspective.
   Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation, Routledge, 1992, at p. 12.
   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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