Archive for December, 2007

Premier Blair, Catholicism and Christianity

December 31, 2007

One of the big news stories in Britain in the Christmas period was the announcement that the former prime minister, Tony Blair, had converted to Roman Catholicism. It was hardly a surprise. His wife, Cherie, is a Roman Catholic, and Blair had been attending Catholic mass for years. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, wished him well. Some Roman Catholics welcomed his entrance into the Church. Others, such as the British MP and Roman Catholic, Anne Widecombe, questioned his acceptance into the Church because of the passage of legislation by the Blair administration that contradicted Christian and Roman Catholic doctrine and belief, such as civil partnerships, which acted as ‘gay marriages’ and the demands that Roman Catholic and other adoption agencies accept gay parents.

My own view in this is that Blair’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is largely a matter for his conscience. While I understand way some Roman Catholics may have misgivings about the architect of policies they find repugnant joining their faith, his conversion itself seems sincere. Hopefully the fact that now both parents are of the same faith will strengthen the bonds of his family as such arrangements have done for many others of widely different faiths.

What is remarkable about Blair and his Christian faith is not the specific denominational aspect, though if Blair had become a Roman Catholic while a serving Prime Minister it would have caused constitutional complications because of the role the Prime Minister plays in selecting the bishops of the Anglican Church. Clearly there is a conflict of interest in requiring a person who is not a member of that faith to supervise it. It’s why over the past few decades increasingly more functions that have previously been reserved for the government and Prime Minister have been taken over by Church itself through its General Synod. No, what is really remarkable was the uproar in certain quarters that Blair was a practising Christian at all.

Blair’s genuine devotion to his faith seems to have been regarded by some as constituting a radical attack on the legacy of the Enlightenment. Indeed, after Blair talked about praying just before the invasion of Iraq and other major decision, there was a torrent of sneers and what can only be described as invective from certain Secularist quarters. The former Conservative MPs Matthew Parris and Michael Portillo made pronouncements to the effect that this was retrograde irrationality and superstition, and that faith should have no place in politics. It was an especially bizarre statement from a couple of former Conservative MPs, whose party has always had a strongly religious element. From the comments some atheists left on the web pages of the newspapers reporting Blair’s religious pronouncements, you could be forgiven for thinking that Blair had formally torn up the constitution, and officially declared Britain to be a theocracy with himself as Supreme Pontiff, under whom all decisions would be made through prophetic utterances made in a trance state.

Yet clearly this wasn’t the case. Blair did not reject the usual process of rational deliberation and thought, and despite some of the more emotive pronouncements from part of the British secularist community, the Test and Corporation Acts have not been introduced, nor the system of church courts that existed in England before the 19th century to try crimes like adultery. And contrary to some expectations, the Spanish Inquisition are not torturing people in comfy chairs in a dungeon somewhere below 10 Downing Street.

In fact Blair’s deep personal faith is only what was considered both natural and respectable in British politics before the 1960s, when the social mood started to change and it became accepted wisdom that faith was by nature irrational, and socially and politically repressive. The result of this seems to have been a mood in certain quarters that no politician who has religious beliefs should be allowed anywhere near power.

Yet Blair’s statement that he prayed for guidance is both natural for a man of faith, and from the Prime Minister of a country where 70 per cent of the population identify themselves as Christians. As a Christian leading a nominally Christian country, it is perfectly right for him to seek guidance from the Almighty. The Bible states clearly that kings and rulers govern through the divine wisdom, so from a Christian perspective Blair was doing no more than going to the very source of that wisdom for guidance. Also, it’s axiomatic that human intelligence is limited, and praying to the Lord for wisdom means recognising that one’s intelligence is limited and that one needs outside help to make the right decision. And as God is the author of moral values and justice, one should turn and ask for guidance from God when making such a momentous decision as sending thousands of troops to fight and die. Turning to God in moments like this isn’t irrational, but a rational recognition of human limitation and that morality depends on a higher source that individual judgement. What is moral goes far beyond what is moral for a single person, as some forms of postmodernism would suggest. Especially when that decision affects the lives of millions.

Blair’s Christianity was also suspect for some in the ranks of the Labour Party because of their own perception that holding religious views somehow makes one a bigot. During an interview with a journalist, Blair mentioned his deep Christian faith, but stopped himself. He didn’t want to say anymore, because there were some in his party who would see this as being unfair to Muslims. ‘You know what the Labour Party is like’, he added. Again this is very much a product of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s. Before then there were secular elements in the Labour Party, but there was also a very strong Christian element. As the backbone of the Liberal Party under Gladstone had been the Nonconformist Conscience, so the Labour Party included a large number of Dissenting and Anglican Christians, who like their counterparts in the Conservative Party saw a firm faith expressed in moral integrity and action as having a proper place in politics.

Moreover, Blair himself could hardly be described as sectarian, nor hostile towards Islam. He gained the respect of many Muslims when he stated that he regularly read the Qu’ran. After the terrorist attack on London and Glasgow he attempted to tackle the disaffection within British Islam that was leading some into terrorism through negotiations with moderate Muslims. Here, if anything, the criticism is that rather than being too hard in his attitude to the Islamic community, Blair was too accepting and conciliatory. Former Jihadists have since come forward to describe how many of the ‘moderate’ Muslims Blair attempted to recruit were nothing of the sort, but were intolerant militants who wished to exploit the situation and their new-found political role to further their brand of Islamic radicalism, rather than reconcile disaffected Muslim youth to democracy and British civil values.

At the heart of this opposition to the inclusion of faith in politics is a conception of the individual who is radically sovereign, and for whom the relationship between the state and any other entity is a radical infringement of liberty. Yet the attempts to create the secular religion of the Greek polis in the name of the individual during the French Revolution resulted in a totalitarian society. Other scholars, such as the British philosopher, Roger Trigg, and the French American philosopher, Jacques Maritaine, have strongly argued for the necessity of a co-operation between religion and the state in order to preserve and strength democracy and civil politics. Trigg, basing his argument on the conception of Christian tolerance and democracy articulated by John Locke, that democracy has its basis in Christian assumptions and axioms, and that by attempting to remove Christianity from public discourse, the conceptual foundations of democracy and civil society are damaged as a result.

Contemporary Roman Catholic philosophy is critical of the secularising utilitarianism in Locke’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Roman Catholic scholars like Maritaine have similarly argued on rational, Aristotelian principles, that the foundations of civil society depend on a transcendental conception of humanity not reducible to simple rationalism, and which can only be nurtured through religion. Thus, for Trigg and Maritaine, humanity as a democratic politikon zoon – a political animal, as Aristotle described it – can only be supported through a conception of it as homo religiosus, where a plurality of faith is respected, but which in turn supports the transcendental notions of human equality, immortality, friendship and freedom on which democracy depends. Rather than infringing on the sovereign liberties of the individual, recognition of the role of religion in shaping morality and communities of belief supports the notion, fundamental to any society, that civil society depends on a shared morality and faith communities separate from, but supporting, the civil values of the state.

Whatever his failings as a politician, Blair did indeed express strong religious views, despite the admonition of his advisers that ‘we don’t do religion’. Rather than being irrational or divisive, Blair’s religious opinions, like those of his opposition counterparts, such as Anne Widecombe, reflect an attempt to reconcile a sincere faith and recognition of the transcendent source of wisdom and morality with democracy and party politics. I leave it to the readers of this blog to decide for themselves whether he succeeded.

Fall of the House of Meme

December 29, 2007

One of the most popular theories to enter popular consciousness in recent years has been Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. First suggested in the concluding chapter of his book The Selfish Gene, and then elaborated in the succeeding book, The Extended Phenotype, memes have been defined as ‘a unit of cultural transmission … comparable to the physical unit (i.e. the gene).’ 1 Dawkins took the term ‘meme’ from the Greek word for imitation, mimesis, ‘because of the way in which a meme is transmitted from one person or group to another is by imitation.’ 2 Dawkins viewed genes as being like genes ‘in being able to replicate themselves, and in doing so for their own advantage rather than for the advantage of the individual carrying the meme.’ 3 Yet however popular memes have proven to be outside the scientific community, scientists themselves are extremely sceptical of them. It has been noted that ‘the idea of memes is unacceptable to many geneticists and other scientists’. 4 Many philosophers are also extremely sceptical of memes. The British philosopher Keith Ansell Pearson has commented that in his theory of memes, Dawkins

‘simply fails to appreciate the immense complications which the notion of ‘memes’ raises for human ‘evolution’. To replace ‘genes’ with ‘memes’ as a basis for understanding ‘culture’ is to remain on the level of naturalism (as opposed to artificiality). Memetics completely reifies the processes of cultural evolution since it has no insight into how such processes involve technical and social mediation. The idea that culture develops in terms of a process of self-replication analogous to genetic evolution is an assertion at best and completely unfounded.’ 5 Meme theory has also been extensively critiqued by Mary Midgeley, Alister McGrath and David Hull. McGrath, a microbiologist and Christian theologian, has pointed out the differences between the replication of viruses and ideas in his book, Finding Dawkins’ God, while David Hull critiqued meme theory through the practice of science in his 1988 book, Science as a Process. As it stands today, meme theory is effectively dead. A projected journal of memetics folded after only four issues because of the lack of suitable, scientifically respectable papers submitted to it. Dawkins himself has retreated somewhat from some of the claims made about memes, and many, perhaps most of the atheists on his forum are extremely critical of the idea.

Meme theory does, however, seem to live on in the radical views of the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and the British psychologist Sue Blackmore. It also remains popular amongst a certain type of atheist, among other groups, such as Brian Sapient, who last week accused his detractors of spreading ‘bad memes’. In part this is because of the virulent hatred of religion behind the application of the theory to religion. ‘God’ is described as being a virus of the mind, which has infected believers but from which atheists are immune. This explains meme theories continuing popularity in parts of the atheist community. However, while atheists may enjoy having religion defined as an irrational belief, and approve of the supposed scientific nature of the definition through the analogy with genes and viruses, this does not make meme theory true. And memes pose a wider danger for atheists and secularists as well as people of faith, as meme theory itself undercuts fundamental notions of human rationality, consciousness, free will and even the science that atheists prize so highly. So despite the discredited nature of memes, the continuing persistence of meme theory needs to be extensively critiqued because of the theory’s speciousness and irrationality.

Definition of Memes

For Dawkins, memes could be any cultural trait or motif, from music, literature to fashion:

‘Examples of memes are turns, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.’ 6 These ideas were replicated by passing from brain to brain in the same way that genes were spread from body to body during reproduction. ‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.’ 7 Even scientific ideas are memes: ‘if a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.’ 8

Even strategies by secularists for avoiding religious observance may be described as memes. Keith Henson, an AI researcher, has described in detail how he was responsible for the spread of such a meme that underwent diffusion, mutation, and ultimate extinction apparently similar to the pattern of biological replication. When he first went to the University of Arizona at Tucson, Henson had found amongst his registration material a punch card for religion. Henson wasn’t religious, and was offended by this and feared that it would be used to coerce him into going to church. ‘I figured that they would sort this card out and send it to the ‘church of your choice’ so the church could send around press gangs on Sunday mornings.’ 9 In order to avoid this, Henson put ‘Druid’ on the form, and after giving a speech to the checker explaining that Druids were around long before Christians, he was waved through that part of the registration process. Henson’s strategy was then picked up by other, non-religious students, so that at one point 20 per cent of students at the university was officially classified as Druids. 10 The strategy also mutated, so that there were also Reformed Druids, Zen Druids and Latter-Day Druids. 11 While evangelical atheists like Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore commonly assert that God is a cultural virus, Henson himself admits that this secularist strategy was also a virus of the mind. ‘This memetic infection was faithfully passed down from year to year infecting the incoming students’. 12

Problem of Memes for God, Human Dignity and Morality

The leading meme theorists, Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore, are implacably hostile to any kind of religion and see the ‘God’ meme explicitly as a kind of parasite infecting human minds. Speaking of the spread of the meme for the belief in life after death, Nicholas Humphries wrote to Dawkins stating ‘When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.’ 13 Yet the idea has also proven popular amongst those who wish to use it to exorcise human consciousness, and make ideas communal property, rather than original to specific individuals. Dennett himself states that ‘human consciousness is itself a huge collection of memes (or more exactly meme-effects in brains). 14 Sue Blackmore likes the concept of memes because they apparently tell her students that they don’t own or originate their own ideas. 15

Now this reductive view of consciousness, in which the human mind is an illusion arising out of the interactions of selfish memes, contrasts strongly with the traditional Humanist insistence of the existence of free will. Corliss Lamont, in his Humanism as Philosophy stated that

‘Humanism believes, in opposition to all theories of universal pre-destination, determinism or fatalism, that human beings possess true freedom of creative action and are, within reasonable limits, the masters of their own destiny.’ 16

The second of the ten postulates of Humanism drawn up J.P. van Praag declares that ‘men spring from a world of which they are natural part; they are a unity of body and consciousness and intentionally shape the world.’ 17 While Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore clearly accept the Humanist postulate that consciousness and body are inseparable, the idea that people are mere vehicles for memes, whose consciousness is shaped by them, strongly contradicts the notion that people can act intentionally. As well as attacking religion, memes also attack human consciousness, rationality and free will. It’s part of the radical ‘abolition of man’ that aimed to explain man as a kind of automaton, as the French philosophe LaMettrie did in his L’Homme Machine – ‘Man a Machine’ – in the 18th century.

Memes also attack the concept of morality. For Dawkins, Dennett and co, morals have arisen through the pressures of natural selection on the human brain, and the infection of these brains by socially produced memes for particular moral views. The problem here is that as morals are nothing but self-replicating memes interested in their own survival, there is no way to distinguish between better or worse memes. The decision that one meme is better than another is determined by the overall meme package itself. So however much Dawkins and Dennett may rail against the perceived evils of religion, their position actually undercuts objective moral values and makes all systems of morality equally valid or rather invalid. 18 Thus as well as attacking belief in God and human freedom, meme theory also radically destroys any notion of objective morality. It is therefore extremely problematic why an atheist or Humanist who is seriously concerned about issues like human freedom and morality should support the theory either.

In fact the use of the terminology of parasitism by Dawkins and his allies does have grave implications for the suppression of freedom of conscience and belief. Dawkins and co only describe as parasites those ideas of which they disapprove, such as religion. This opens the door to the radical suppression of freedom of thought because what is being attacked is not a human being, but a parasite preying on a person. Thus Nicholas Humphreys demanded in 1997 that the state should outlaw religious upbringing of children as a form of child abuse. 19 As the science journalist Andrew Brown has observed of this demand by Humphreys, ‘something has gone very badly wrong when the pieties of atheism are so stifling that no one notices anything odd in the proposal to take into care children who are allowed to read an astrology column (or perhaps merely to jail or fine their parents) simply because this modest proposal is justified by appeals to scientific knowledge and human rights … If nothing else, this shows that the attitude which made the Inquisition obnoxious are able to survive and flourish in an atmosphere untainted by Christian orthodoxy and that the problematic consequences of religion cannot be abolished merely by abolishing religious belief.’ 20

Genes Dissimilar to Memes

In actual fact, scientists and philosophers like McGrath and Hull have noted that rather than being mental objects similar to biological objects like genes, ideas behave very differently. While Dawkins may define the gene as a unit of biological information, other scientists prefer a more concrete definition. For example, a gene may be described as a unit of heredity, with its own place on the chromosome, coding for specific proteins or for the RNA molecules responsible for protein synthesis and for the recognition markers for the polymerase enzymes involved in gene regulation. 21 In other words, they have a concrete material existence and may be recognised through the performance of some particular function.

None of this applies to ideas. They don’t exist as physical objects, although they may have physical expression, such as the particular biochemical coding in a section of the brain or a passage in a book. However, these expressions are separate from the ideas themselves.

And there is also no such thing as a single, basic meme. As soon as memes are examined, it appears they are composed of smaller memes that in turn are composed of yet more basic memes in an infinite regress. Thus, for David Hull, there are no basic blocks of understanding. ‘There are no atomic sentences, no atomic facts, and no one-to-one correspondence between the two. Our understanding of the world cannot be subdivided into units of equal size and treated in isolation from other conceptual units.’ 22

Memes also don’t compete with each other in the same way that genes do. Genes occupy specific locations on the chromosome, and when a gene spreads through a population, it does so at the expense of a less adapted variant. However, memes very rarely replace each other in the same way that genes do. Thus ‘almost everything suggested as a meme-candidate is much more like a phenotype or interactor, than a gene or a replicator …Ideas or memes fit together much more like animals in a complex ecology, than they do like genes competing for slots on a chromosome.’ 23

Even the process of reproduction and replication of ‘meme’ and gene are very different. Dan Sperber, a materialist anthropologist with an interest in the epidemiology of ideas, has suggested that it is the nature of ideas to be changed every time they’re copied, while genes usually remain stable. Although stories may take predictable forms as they are passed on through the human community, nevertheless there is in general only a resemblance between the communicator’s and the audience’s thoughts. Rather than the strict replication of genes in chromosomes, the strict replication of ideas, ‘if it exists at all, should be viewed as just a limiting case of maximal resemblance, rather than as the norm of communication.’ 24

Hull in his analysis of the practise of science amongst zoologists, although considering ideas as replicators, similar to Dawkins’ ideas of memes, also termed people their interactors, rather than vehicles. For Hull it was the scientists who held, discussed and promoted these ideas as conscious beings who were the driving force behind the evolution of culture, rather than being their passive vehicles as required by meme theory. 25

Problem of Model of Brain Function in Meme Theory

There is also the problem that the human brain simply doesn’t function the way the memeticists consider it should. For Dawkins, the key to ideas and their replication and transmission is brain structure. Now scientists have made bold strides in creating machines that read changes in the brain state, so that, for example, a paralysed person may move an artificial arm or type messages on a screen. However, the precise relationship between brain state and idea is extremely problematic to the point where meaning cannot be linked to a particular brain state. For example, a scanner measuring changes in brain state would identify the changes taking place in a human brain writing a sentence in English. But that scanner would register slightly different changes in brain state when that same sentence, with the same meaning, was written in a different language like Swedish. 26 Thus there is no straightforward correlation between brain state and meaning or consciousness, and so the simplistic idea of the replication of ideas from brain to brain falls apart.

Also, Dennett and Blackmore have extremely mechanistic ideas of the brain. Dennett is essentially a functionalist, who believes that as mind is simply what brains do, computers will similarly achieve some kind of consciousness. Hence his description of the brain is strongly informed by contemporary developments in computer science, such as parallel processing. Blackmore also endorses such a ruthlessly mechanistic view, entitling her book on memes and the brain as The Meme Machine. Yet such functionalist views of the mind have come in for severe criticism. The brain is not a computer, and if it can be seen as a machine for processing information, it can also be viewed as a gland that secretes behaviour. Some of the fascination of memes has undoubtedly come from Transhumanists who look forward to the development of Artificial Intelligence and the downloading of their personalities into machines. Yet the atheist philosopher John Searle has argued strongly against this possibility, describing it as the last bastion of dualism. It is ironic in this sense that Searle notes he got more abuse from offended followers of Dennett than from Christians or other people of faith. Clearly, whatever Dawkins may feel about religion, here its adherents are less violent and offensive than those who follow the views of an avowed and militant secularist.

Even the comments about memes parasitising brains are wrong. Brains naturally process ideas, so that they cannot be parasitised. If brains can be said to be parasitised by ideas, then by the same logic the earth is parasitised by plants. And if ideas are mental parasites, then so must be all memes, including the meme for atheism, propounded by Dawkins, Dennett and Humpheys. 27

Another problem for the theory of ideas as ‘viruses of the mind’ is that it fails to answer the benefits religions can confer on the bearers, benefits that may explain why one belief is held while another is rejected. While Dawkins is prepared to accept that religions bring comfort, he regards religion itself as some kind of maladaptation that is best eliminated. In the case of religion, the underlying assumption is that the meme is selfish, and so propagates according to a kind of internal logic that increases human credulity and intolerance. However, religions do interact with the world, and all religions consider themselves rational and will use reason to support their arguments and doctrines. In the Middle Ages the underlying principles informing theological debate and discussion was the same Aristotelian logic that informed the exploration of nature by the natural philosophers. In Islam, the kalam project similarly defended the doctrines of the faith by supporting them with rational arguments based on logic. The result of this is that practises sanctioned by religions, which may seem strange or irrational to outsiders, can have perfectly logical defences and provide real benefits. At the moment BBC 2 in Britain is showing a series, Arrange Me a Marriage, in which a British Asian lady attempts to arrange the marriages of four of her friends, most of whom are indigenous White Brits. While this would strike many as a surrender of personal autonomy, defenders of arranged marriages naturally consider it the best way of selecting a marriage partner. A conscious choice by informed friends and relatives is seen as producing a better match than chance romantic encounters, as several of the individuals interviewed in the programme claimed. This is problematic, but nevertheless it demonstrates that rational explanations are used to support religiously sanctioned cultural practices, and that they are taken up because they are felt to produce real, this-worldly benefits. It is not simply a case of gullible people doing something because they fear going to hell.

Conclusion: Fall of the Meme

Thus, rather than being a scientific discipline that explains the propagation of ideas, and which clearly distinguishes between truth and specious nonsense, memes are the complete opposite. While attacking belief in God, they also attack notions of human autonomy, dignity, freedom and morality, and can be used to justify the suppression of freedom of conscience. They depend on a highly questionable philosophy of mind. The mechanisms by which ideas replicate and spread, and those of genes are markedly different. Memes themselves don’t exist, as there is no such thing as an irreducible, atomistic meme. Furthermore, ideas and beliefs are not separate objects like some kind of parasite, but intimate parts of the human creature that may bring real world benefits, regardless of the metaphysical nature of the belief. As the British philosopher Mary Midgeley observes:

‘Prominent ideas cannot die until the problems that arise within them have been resolved. They are not just a kind of external parasite. They are not alien organisms, viruses: ‘memes’ that happen to have infested us and can be cleared away with the right insecticide … They are organic parts of our lives, cognitive and emotional habits, structures that shape our thinking. So they follow conservation laws within it. Instead of dying, they transform themselves gradually into something different, something that is often hard to recognise and to understand. The Marxist pattern of complete final revolution is not at all appropriate here. We do better to talk organically of our thought as an ecosystem trying painfully to adapt itself painfully to changes in the world around it.’ 28

As a scientific project, memes have failed. Human consciousness and belief cannot be so reduced to such a simplistic, reductionistic model. And in this irreducibility lies much of human freedom, dignity and morality, regardless of whether one is theist or atheist.


  1. ‘Meme’, in Anna Hodson, Essential Genetics: Genetics Clearly Explained (London, Bloomsbury 1992), p. 174.
  2. ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 174-5.
  3. ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 175.
  4. ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 175.
  5. Keith Ansell Pearson, Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition (London, Routledge 1997), n.3, pp. 12-13.
  6. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon and Schuster 1999), p. 160.
  7. Dawkins, Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 160.
  8. Dawkins, Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 160.
  9. Ed Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over the Edge (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1992), p. 188.
  10. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 188.
  11. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 189.
  12. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 189.
  13. Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 171-2.
  14. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 210, cited in Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch Books 1999), p. 76.
  15. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 162.
  16. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 17.
  17. J.D. van Praag, ‘What is Humanism?’, in Paul Kurtz, ed., The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, p. 44, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 31.
  18. Forster and Marston, Reason, Science and Faith, p. 51.
  19. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 172.
  20. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 173.
  21. ‘Gene’ in Hodson, Genetics, p. 121.
  22. Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 210-211, citing David Hull, Science as a Process, pp. 442-3.
  23. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 161.
  24. Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture, pp. 82-3, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 164.
  25. Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 204-5.
  26. Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 165-6.
  27. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 172.
  28. Mary Midgeley, ‘How Myths Work’, in Mary Kathleen Cunningham, ed., God and Evolution: A Reader (London, Routledge 2007), p. 32.

Atheism as Religion 3

December 27, 2007

As the first two pieces I’ve written on religion have caused such wide controversy and intense debate, I thought I’d better write a third piece to explain and clarify some of the issues. It’s fair to say a lot of people have questioned and intensely resented the suggestion that certain forms of atheism will fulfil the same sociological and ideological functions as religion. The two are supposed to be antithetical, and for those who look to secular philosophies and ideologies for meaning and value, against what they perceive as the evils and irrationality of religion, clearly the statement that atheism can act as a kind of religion itself is intensely repugnant. However, the difficulty of defining ‘religion’, and the varied sociological and ideological roles it can fulfil, as a well as the intensely varied forms it may take, means that the category of ‘religion’ itself may be so nebulous and difficult to define that many definitions of religion will fit certain forms of organised atheism.

Definition of Secular Alternatives to Religion

Scholars of religion consider that

‘Secular alternatives are not themselves religions but must share enough in common with religions to present themselves as options that exclude religious adherence. Someone who adopted a theoretical standpoint which, for him, excluded religious belief need not accept any alternative to religion. There need not be anything which plays an analogous role in his life to that of religion in the life of a believer. But there are those whose theoretical standpoint is secular but for whom certain commitments perform the same function as does adherence to a religion.’ 1

Thus, for secular, atheist ideologies to compete with religion, they must share certain features with religion, which can make the distinction between an atheist ideology and a religion difficult. Karl Marx and the American sociologist, Peter Berger, consider religion to be ideology. 2 Processual archaeologists like Lewis Binford have similarly regarded religion as a form of ideology, referring to ‘ideological sub-systems’ and ‘ideotechnic artefacts’. 3 Some atheists may regard other atheistic systems of belief as religions. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued that Marxism was a religion through the parallels he perceived with Christianity. God in Marxism, according to Russell, corresponded to Dialectical Materialism, Marx was the Messiah, the proletariat were the elect, the church was the Communist Party, the Second Coming was the Revolution, Hell the punishment of the capitalists and the Millenium the Communist Commonwealth. 4 Russell undoubtedly meant this as an unflattering criticism of Communism. Nevertheless, there was an element of truth in that Communism did indeed possess a strongly religious aspect that saw Stalin structure his funeral oration for Lenin on the Orthodox liturgy, complete with a response ‘We shall be faithful to thy precepts, O Lenin’ and the establishment of Lenin’s mausoleum as a Marxist shrine.

Furthermore, certain atheist ideologies themselves have styled themselves as religions. Auguste Comte declared the gaol of his ‘Positive Philosophy’ to be the worship of humanity, rather than a supernatural personal deity. 5 The founder of the theory that God was merely an alienated projection of humanity’s own nature, Ludwig Feuerbach, demanded a new ‘religion of humanity’. Moreover, certain forms of atheist Humanism describe themselves as religious. For example, Herbert W. Schneider, one of the contributors to Paul Kurtz’s The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism recognised that there were religious forms of Humanism which were ‘an effort to free religious faith and devotion from the dogmas of theistic theologies and supernaturalist psychologies.’ 6 Dewey, one of the founders of modern rationalism, defined and defended what he saw as ‘the religious in experience which stands over and against both ‘religion’ and the religions’. 7 However counterintuitive it appears, it is not hypocritical to state that there are forms of organised atheism that have seen themselves either as a religion, or the due successor to religion. And if all talk about God is considered to be about humanity’s own alienated nature, then those forms of Humanism that assert and affirm human dignity and values may be rightly considered religious.

Problems of Defining Religion

Furthermore, philosophers and scholars of religion have recognised the difficulty in forming an adequate definition of what indeed constitutes religion. Philosophers of religion have attempted

‘to bring out just what it is that distinguishes religion properly so called from other beliefs and activities- from moral codes, for example, or customs, attempts at magic, and the beginnings of science or philosophy. Such analyses have yielded some brave attempts at a comprehensive definition, usually in terms of belief in, together with the worship and service of, some supreme or absolute Being. They have also yielded some valuable, even if partial, insights, like those expressed in Schleiermacher’s dictum, “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence”, or Whitehead’s “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” It seems likely, however, that there is in fact no single feature or set of features belonging to all those, and only those, things which we should ordinarily call religions, but rather that they form what Wittgenstein called a “family”, with a complex network of resemblances and interrelations – so that a satisfactory answer to the question “What is religion?” would be more like an encyclopedia than a one-sentence definition.’ 8

Commonsense definitions of what constitutes religion, such as a belief in gods and the supernatural, are also problematic. ‘Dictionary definitions [of religion] (e.g. ‘human recognition of superhuman power’, ‘belief in God’, ‘any system of faith and worship’) are often circular, prejudiced, or so general as to be useless.’ 9 As a result, some scholars attempting to define religion have suggested that religion in general may be defined as

‘(a) the class of all religions; (b) the supposed common essence of all genuinely religious phenomena; (c) that ideal of which all actual religions are taken to be imperfect manifestations; (d) human religiousness, expressed not only in systems and traditions (explicit religion) but also in ways of life where it is hidden (implicit)…The sciences of religion often employ a functional definition. For example, J.M. Yinger defined religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life.’ 10

Scholars of religion further observe that ‘definers of religion are prone to the error of reification (misplaced concreteness). It is well to remember that to be religious pertains to persons, but not necessarily only those who profess religious beliefs or engage in religious practices.’ 11

Mary Midgeley, in her exploration of the religious nature of some of the metaphysical claims made about evolution, Evolution as a Religion, has stated that the presence of gods within a system of belief is not necessarily a defining feature of religion.

‘It is certainly not enough to say that they do not involve belief in God. Taoism does not do this either, nor does Buddhism in its original form. And the question whether the Buddha is now ‘a god’ is not a simple one at all. He is, after all, to be sought and found within us. Moreover, where there are ‘gods’, their nature varies enormously. They certainly need not be creators. The world is often held to be timeless, or to have some other origin.’ 12

Other scholars have also noted the difficulty in effectively defining religion. One archaeology textbook, for example, recommends the definition of religion provided by the sociologist Anthony Giddens: ‘a set of symbols, invoking feelings of reverence or awe … linked to rituals or ceremonials practised by a community of believers.’ 13 It further considers that ‘these symbols may be of gods and goddesses, ancestral or nature spirits, or impersonal powers… People often use them [rituals] to try to influence supernatural powers and beings to their advantage and to deal with problems that cannot be solved through the application of technology. However, there are some religions without objects of worship. In Confucianism and Taoism, for example, the individual attempts to attain a higher level through correctly following specified principles.’ 14 As a result of this, archaeologists, for example, try to avoid using the term religion except when referring to a particular known religion. ‘Outside of these contexts archaeologists have tended to use the term ‘ritual’ to describe material that might often be better described as religious. ‘Ritual’ is again a problematical term and one also subject to debate as to its definition. Ritual can be both sacred and secular in intent, but this distinction is often blurred and the term is used to describe anything which is not fully understood.’ 15 Thus there is the problem that in archaeology the problem of defining religion have resulted in merely one aspect of religion being used as a descriptor for the whole of it. 16

Additionally, it has to be admitted that Buddhism and Taoism both have a number of gods, spirits and other supernatural entities, whose existence may come as a shock to westerners who know of Taoism only from a reading of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. There is a tendency amongst westerners attracted to Buddhism to see it very much in terms of an atheist faith. Indeed, during the controversy over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain, the Western Buddhist Order in the city of Bristol responded to calls for the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover Islam by the Muslim community by declaring that, as an atheist faith, Buddhists wished to see the blasphemy laws scrapped altogether. Yet the Dalai Lama recently admonished Western Buddhists not to see Buddhism as simply another form of atheism.

Problems of Defining ‘God’

There is, however, a real problem regarding the definition of a ‘god’. Elsewhere in her book Midgeley notes that Chinese has no word for ‘god’, despite the existence of an elaborate pantheon of deities. Many African languages don’t have a special term for ‘god’ either, referring to such supernatural entities as ‘spirits’. A similar problem occurs in Shintoism. The kami, the deities worshipped in Shintoism, are immensely varied in their character and may include ‘sacred objects, divine beings, natural phenomena or venerated images.’ 17 Indeed, the kami are so varied, that some western scholars prefer to describe them as a soul, rather than a god, to express their essentially animistic nature. ‘The idea that everything, animate or inanimate, has a kami or soul is of Shinto origin’. 18 Their nature is indeed so diverse that one of the earliest definitions of them, that of Motoori Norinaga in the 18th century, was that they were extraordinary, endowed with high virtuousity and inspired awe. 19 The Quechua word huaca similarly has a plurality of meanings. It means simply ‘holy place or thing’, and the huacas so venerated may include anything out of the ordinary. 20 ‘The Incas regarded with awe, and even worshiped, everything out of the ordinary – a hunchback, twinned ears of corn, a curiously shaped rock, the brilliant planet Venus.’ 21 The ambiguity regarding the definitive traits of divinity also affects the great figures of Celtic legend and mythology. It has been stated that ‘there is no pantheon in Celtic mythology. The very use of the English words ‘god’ or ‘goddess’, denoting a superhuman, immortal entity who is venerated and propitiated and who has power over human affairs, misrepresents surviving records. … Escaping death is not sufficient to be considered divine; the Tuatha De Danann of the pseudo-history Lebor Gabal [Book of Invasions] are usually seen as immortals but not as gods.’ 22

Problems of ‘Supernatural’ as Conceptual Category

Even the nature of the supernatural as a category is questionable. It has been observed that tribal religions regard themselves and their gods as part of nature, not above or outside it. 23 Similarly the gods of ancient Greece, although worshipped as superior beings endowed with power over the elements and humanity, were not necessarily supernatural. They were considered to be like humans, except that they were more rarified and celestial in nature than mortals. Instead of blood, for example, they had ichor. A similar, materialistic conception of God informed Stoic pantheism. ‘The Stoics were materialists, denying fully existence to anything without a body. They believed that the world is a living intelligent Being.’ 24 God, the rational, active cause in the universe, acted on matter through ‘artistic fire’ or intelligent pneuma, a mixture of air and fire. The presence of this fire in certain ratios caused the presence of growth in plants, and soul in humans. The term used for this ratio, phusis, means ‘growth’ and is the root of the English word ‘physics’. The Romans translated the term ‘natura’, hence the English word ‘nature’. 25 Thus Stoic pantheism conceived God as quintessential natural. In the 9th century, the Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena similarly defined God as ‘nature uncreated and creating’. 26 Thus God was considered to be natural, even perhaps superlatively natural, as the author of the rest of nature, rather than supernatural.

Problem of ‘Magic’ as Concept

On the other side of the supposed dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, even magic – often cited as an obvious paradigm of the supernatural – is ambiguous as a category. Although it is now used almost synonymously with the supernatural, it has historically included a variety of concepts and definitions that don’t fit that definition, and paradoxically align it with science. Medieval philosophers and theologians distinguished two types of magic – demonic and natural. Demonic magic clearly worked through the agency of demons. Natural magic, however, referred to occult powers in nature that operated independently of demons. Natural magic referred to powers or properties of objects or herbs that derived not from their own structure, but from emanations from the stars or planets.

‘These latter powers were technically known as occult, and natural magic was the science of such powers. The properties in question were strictly within the realm of nature, but the natural world that could account for them was a broad one: instead of examining the inner structure of a plant to determine its effects, one had to posit influences that flowed from the distant reaches of the cosmos.’ 27

My point here is not that magic itself is scientific, though clearly the technical sense in which ‘natural magic’ was used made it part of the nascent medieval scientific enterprise, even if by today’s level of scientific knowledge it is utterly wrong. It is merely that the modern conception of a radical dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ is the product of post-Enlightenment, Western culture and does not conform to the models of the cosmos in pre-Enlightenment Europe nor in other, non-Western cultures today.

Scientific’ Mysticism: The Surrealists

The collapse of a distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘mystical’ can be seen in contemporary cultural movements. In art, the Surrealists strongly viewed themselves as scientific atheists. They were ardent Marxists, who based their views of art on Freud’s theory of the unconscious. They referred to the somnambulistic séances during which they composed their literary works through automatic writing ‘experiments’. And they were vehemently anti-religious and anti-Christian. In 1949, for example, a group of young Parisians caused a scandal by storming Notre Dame Cathedral, proclaiming that the church was ‘diverting man’s vital energy to the service of a corpse’. Their leader, Michel Mourre, wearing a Dominican cassock, began reading ‘God is dead’. In the ensuing storm of controversy, the leader of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, declared in a letter to the newspaper Combat that ‘a thoroughly wholesome act has been accomplished at Notre Dame’, and the movement as a whole considered it particularly apt ‘that the blow should have been struck there, at the very heart of the octopus that is still strangling the universe’. 28 Indeed, the Surrealists saw themselves as firmly and defiantly acting against religion through their espousal of the irrational:

‘In its running confrontation with religion, for example, surrealism refuses to confine itself to the arena of rational criticism; it adopts the more vigorous methods of humour and eroticism, unleashing defiant and irresistible mages of concrete irrationality which penetrate the surface of false consciousness, so that the dehumanising notions of God, prayer, afterlife, etc., are replaced by liberating images of desire. Such an effort does not contradict but rather complements other revolutionary antireligious efforts.’ 29

Yet Surrealism clearly owed much to the supernatural. The sessions of automatic writing were modelled on Spiritualist séances, and leading surrealists like Breton, Mary Ann Atwood and Ethan Allen Hitchcock were fascinated by Hermeticism and alchemy. 30 In their attempts to penetrate to the core of irrational states, and use this to create a new, and in their eyes more moral, order, it is difficult not to agree with Surrealism’s Stalinist critics who denounced it as a form of mysticism. 31 If religion is defined as about ‘ultimate concerns’, a totalising worldview into which other, subordinate beliefs are fitted, and in which sacrifices are considered entirely appropriate, then despite their loud protestations on this matter, Surrealism by its own definition is strongly religious:

‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly: Surrealism, a unitary project of total revolution, is above all a method of knowledge and a way of life; it is lived far more than it is written, or written about, or drawn. Surrealism is the most exhilarating adventure of the mind, an unparalleled means of pursuing the fervent quest for freedom and true life beyond the veil of ideological appearances.’32

Thus Surrealism is both a way of life, a method of knowledge, and a path to truth and value beyond the rational. Clearly this is religious, even if, as an atheist ideology, it is quite distinct from supernatural religion. Thus it is fair to say that Surrealism was a form of occultism, because ‘the very name of the movement – surrealism – shows that the artists involved were seeking a ‘super-reality, a ‘different’ reality, an invisible reality. They wanted to explore this reality, and to succeed where their predecessors had failed; they wanted to ‘change life’ by writing it into their revolutionary agenda.’ 33 Surrealism thus also includes social reform as well as personal conversion. This religious theme within Surrealism expressed itself in the creation of personal mythologies, such as that of Victor Brauner, or the strange ‘epiphanies’ painted by Leonora Carrington.

Adoption of Religious Functions by Secular Activities

This points to another problem in defining ‘religion’ apart from ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’. In traditional societies, religion may inform and provide social cohesion and a sense of moral community through every activity, from art to sport. As traditional religious faith in the West has declined, these functions have been dispersed from religion elsewhere in society, so that those scholars who adopt a functionalist definition of religion ‘have then argued that whatever supplied these functions was, by virtue of that fact, religion. Hence the idea is aired that religion is the celebration of the civic society, or even of the state.’ 34

J.M. Yinger, the great scholar of secular alternatives to religion, considered that the deep human needs that religion sought to answer still existed, and as religion declined, so the secular alternatives to religion became invested with religious meaning for those who pursued them.

‘Almost every need that we have mentioned in connection with religion finds expression in a wide variety of secular movements. This is particularly true in modern society, in which traditional religious symbols and forms have lost force and appeal. The needs with which religion is connected are still with us. If we are not trained to look to a religious system in our attempts to satisfy them, we will tend to infuse secular patterns with a religious quality. We may seek to overcome a sense of aloneness by joining a lodge, rather than (or in addition to) joining a church congregation. We may struggle with a feeling of powerlessness by imbuing our nation with an absolute quality, rather than identifying with an all-powerful God. We may attempt to rid ourselves of guilt by projecting our weakness onto a minority group, instead of going to confession. We may try to reduce a sense of confusion and doubt by adopting rigid ‘all-knowing’ secular formulas to explain the world’s ills, holding to them with a desperation born more of uncertainty than of conviction. We may attempt to reduce our sense of meaninglessness in life, of boredom in our job, by avid pursuit of entertainment or by alcohol, trying to capture on a weekend what is denied us in the course of our work.’ 35

Gods as UFOs and in SETI

In this sense, there may be considerable overlap between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, and the distinction become extremely nebulous. If gods or spirits are defined as ‘celestial non-human intelligences’, then the aliens reported by those who have experienced UFO encounters are effectively gods or spirits. This is relatively uncontroversial, as there are UFO religions, like the UNARIUS religion of Ruth ‘Spaceship Ruthie’ Norman, the Aetherius Society, and the Raelians. It may also, more controversially, include SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Now fans of Carl Sagan, a firm believer in the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations and an ardent and articulate advocate of the scientific search for them, may be shocked by this, as well as the other scientists and laymen interested in their discovery. Yet the benefits expected from such contact by the scientists involved in the search closely conform to traditional concepts of revelation. Carl Sagan considered that it ‘illuminates the approach to central questions of our being: the search for who we are. Are we the most intelligent beings in the universe or are we just a cosmic commonplace?’ 36 These benefits will include information ‘on curing diseases in carbon-based lifeforms, new sources of energy, how to transmute waste products into any desired element, popular spaceship designs.’ 37 This is remarkably like the theme in various mythologies around the world of humanity being taught scientific, medical and social discoveries by gods, spirits or angels. Sagan himself stated that alien contact would make humans ‘more religious, as well as more scientific’, noting that ‘the word ‘religion means ‘to relate yourself to something,’ that’s all the word means. It’s based on the old Latin term religio, to bind together, the binding of sticks, of taking separate facts and binding them together with a theory or a law, and the bundle of sticks that represented ancient Rome was exactly that.’ 38 Thus, in the view of one of the great leaders of SETI, the search for alien life is itself a kind of religious quest. It is therefore probably not an accident that the aliens in Sagan’s book, Contact, give the heroine information that suggests that the universe itself is designed from a message contained in pi. Within the context of the narrative, one can see the aliens here performing the function as science fictional angels pointing the way to a transcendent God.

Sport and Music as Religion Secular and Theistic

One can also note the way other, secular pursuits are informed by religious terminology and discourse, from music to sport. Great popular musicians are called ‘Rock gods’, and while I disagree with Rich’s suggestion that football can be considered a religion in the same way as certain forms of organised atheism may be so considered, it is true that sport can take on an intensely religious mood amongst some of its supporters. A few years ago in Britain the posters for either the soccer or rugby championship matches carried the slogan ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, taken from the Gospels. Now it might suggest the elite nature of the sportsmen involved, but it also points to the projection onto them of superhuman, even divine qualities as extraordinary athletes conveying transcendental values.

This quasi-deification of musicians, sportsmen and other celebrities is part of a general pattern in which societies have invested music and sport with religious and mythopoeic qualities. Orpheus was the great musician hero in Greek mythology, and the object of a mystery cult. In German and Scandinavian folklore, the music of the trolls had the power to cause even objects to dance. Elvis for many in the West has become the epitome of rock stardom, and the intense devotion to him, manifesting in post-mortem sightings, shrines set up by his fans and pilgrimages made to his home, all partake of religious sensibility, even if the Church of Elvis itself is a self-conscious parody of religion along the lines of the Church of the Subgenius. Elvis, as one of the greatest exponents of popular music, becomes a personification of the transcendental power of music itself and partakes of something of the character of Orpheus and the other musician gods of ancient mythology.

One can see the same mythopoeic projection in sport. Many societies included sport as a part of their religion. The Meso-American Indian societies of the Aztecs, Maya and other peoples played ball games as a formal part of the worship of their gods, which culminated in the sacrifice of the winner. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece were held in honour of the gods, and similar games were held at the funerals of the Roman emperors. The gladiatorial contests of the Roman arena had their origin in Etruscan funeral rituals, before they were secularised as a mass human blood sport. Now clearly there are very few, if any people, in the West who regard their sportsmen as being in anyway literally divine, and a very much doubt that the next Superbowl, baseball world series or soccer world cup will end in the ritual sacrifice of the winners. Yet there is an element of truth in the statement that some sportsmen and women are literally idolised by their fans because of the intense devotion they give to these athletes as superhuman individuals possessed of personal awe and charisma.

Religious Character in Popular Science

The adoption of religious terminology and metaphysical concerns have even affected and informed contemporary science publishing. The atheist journalist Andrew Brown has remarked that

‘the extraordinary thing about the pop-science-book market is that it is not driven by scientific curiosity at all. What people want is science which appears to answer religious questions. This means physics, cosmology and biology. There are no works of popular chemistry. Successful science publishers know this perfectly well: a noticeable theme in science books is that they should take religious titles, though these had better not be too explicit. The God Particle bombed. Does God Play Dice and God and the New Physics did better; Dawkins is unable to resist titles that give a religious reverberation to his pronouncements: River out of Eden, Immortal Coils’. 39

This statement isn’t quite as true as it was nine years ago. There have been popular science books published on chemistry. There is one currently on the shelf of the local bookshop here in my hometown on the science of strong materials. Nevertheless, there is a crisis in chemistry in Britain with falling numbers of students enrolling for degrees, threatening the closure of chemistry departments at university. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including general changes in the attractiveness of certain professions and the perceived difficulty of the hard sciences. However, chemistry does suffer in that it doesn’t have the cachet of offering cosmic insight that physics, cosmology or biology offer.

Now part of the function of religion is to provide an account of humanity’s place in the universe and an ethical system in which to guide their actions and ground their society. While academic scientific textbooks may talk disinterestedly about scientific fact without discussing the wider, metaphysical dimensions, it is the metaphysical dimensions that occupy popular science, shaping the way science itself has become almost a religious faith. ‘For science to spread as an explanation through society, it must become tanged with, perhaps animated by an ethical theory and an account of our place in the universe. Pure science may know about facts quite free of values, but pop science is a matter of facts and values all tangled together until the make some kind of common sense.’ 40

Atheism, Religion and Atheist Religiosity

So, what is the difference between atheism and religion, and is it possible for atheism to be considered a religion? The distinction between religion and ideology is therefore by no means simple, and the subject of much debate. Commonsense states that it should involve the worship of gods or other supernatural entities, and although this clearly fits much that may be considered religious, scholars have also find it inadequate because of the extremely diverse nature of the gods conceived and worshipped across time in human cultures. Indeed, the concept of the supernatural itself is problematic, and is the product of medieval Western culture and may not adequately describe the worldviews of ancient Western culture and contemporary non-Western religions. The best approach is indeed to see it as a system of symbols approached with reverence or awe and linked to rituals by a community of believers. These symbols provide the function of answering deep, metaphysical questions of the nature of existence and its meaning. They are ‘ultimate concerns’ in the phrase of Paul Tillich, which marshal and organise subordinate beliefs.

Now it has to be admitted that while atheism per se may not do this, and there are atheists who clearly are not religious, there are forms of organised atheist ideology that do act in a manner analogous to conventional religion. The person who regularly attends meetings of their Ethical Church, or Humanist or Brights group, in order to hear more about the scientific explanation for their place in nature, and affirm the existence of value and morality through inspirational readings and song, is doing something deeply religious, even if, as Dewey observed, this stands apart from religion and religions. The same is also true of the Surrealists, whose exploration of irrational states of consciousness, occultism and creation of fictional mythologies links them powerfully with mysticism, even if this is a mysticism of the human subconscious rather than a separate, transcendent Otherworld. The members of these secular groups may vehemently deny that they are religious, like the Surrealists and certain Humanists, but this does not mean that they are not acting in a religious manner. Some atheists groups, such as the religious Humanists, members of the Ethical Church and the Positivists, may indeed consider their ideologies to be religious in a broad, non-theistic sense.

This situation may be complicated further by the adoption of quasi-religious attitudes and terminology by secular activities that confer a numinous awe and superhuman status on their practitioners, such as popular music and sport. Yet however much of a personal cult particular pop stars or sportsmen and women may acquire, this remains mostly on the level of metaphor. The British TV chef, Nigella Lawson, may be described as a ‘domestic goddess’, but this is clearly a metaphor to describe her status as a celebrity exponent of feminine domestic skills, rather than a literal deity of hearth and home like Hera or the Norse goddess Sif.

Sport, and the cult of celebrities may provide an alternative to religion, but the closest secular parallels are those ideologies of ‘ultimate concern’ such as Humanism, Positivism, Surrealism and the Brights movement that see themselves as competing with religion and share certain metaphysical concerns and organisational and ritual features with it. These secular ideologies may develop other, quasi-religious features as part of their campaign against religion, such as rituals modelled on religion, as in the Positivists, or the composition of ideological material after religious models, like the catechisms written by the Baron de Grimm in the 18th century.

Conclusion: Atheism as a Religion

As a result, while atheism is not a religion, some ideologies can be described as atheism as religion, because certain forms of organised atheism do indeed partake of a strongly religiously character. This is a cause of concern to some atheists. Sam Harris caused a furore earlier this year when he stated during the atheist conference in Washington, D.C., that atheists should not be a self-identified group with a distinct corporate identity, preferring instead that atheism should be seen as a sub-group of rationalism or science. The Canadian SF author, Robert J. Sawyer, also made a similar point in the pages of a Canadian Humanist magazine, criticising contemporary atheism for adopting many of the features of a religion – such as a distinct symbol for their beliefs in the shape of the scarlet letter – and so conforming, despite their denials, to the image of atheism as a religion by people of faith.

Thus, while atheism, as a complete absence of transcendental belief and practice, clearly does not equal religion, there are ideological forms of self-confessed atheism that share certain features of religion, may consider themselves to be religions and may thus rightly be described, albeit paradoxically, as atheist religions. Hence my original point that the nursery school opened by a group of American Humanists, rather than being a remarkable indication of the innately religious nature of atheism, really was part of a long tradition of religious-like organised atheism.


  1. ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in John R. Hinnells, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London, Penguin Books 1984), p.290.
  2. ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 290.
  3. Timothy Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, eds., Archaeology: The Key Concepts (London, Routledge 2005), p. 47.
  4. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 12.
  5. ‘Positivism’ in Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. J40-41.
  6. Herbert W. Schneider, ‘Religious Humanism’, in Paul Kurtz, The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, p. 65, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 33.
  7. James E. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 24.
  8. ‘Religion, philosophy of’, in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 304.
  9. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, ed., Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  10. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  11. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  12. Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 16.
  13. Jim Grant, Sam Gorin and Neil Fleming, The Archaeology Coursebook – Second Edition: An Introduction to Study Skills, Topics and Methods (Abingdon, Routledge 2005), p. 155.
  14. Grant, Gorin and Fleming, Archaeology Coursebook, p. 155.
  15. Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology Key Concepts, p. 46.
  16. Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology Key concepts, p. 46.
  17. ‘Kami’, in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 179.
  18. Juliet Piggott, Japanese Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1982), p. 115.
  19. ‘Kami’, in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 179.
  20. Loren McIntyre, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman, The Incredible Incas and Their Timeless Land (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society 1984), p. 16.
  21. McIntyre and Glanzman, Incredible Incas, p. 43.
  22. ‘God, goddess’ in James Mackillop, Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 256.
  23. Grant, Gorin and Fleming, Archaeology Coursebook, p. 154..
  24. ‘Stoicism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 339.
  25. Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God, (London, T&T Clark 2004), p. 37; Jonathan Barnes, ‘Introduction, in Jonathan Barnes, ed., Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 19.
  26. Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy (Oxford, Clarendon 2005), p. 32.
  27. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1990), p. 13.
  28. Franklin Rosemont, Andre Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism (London, Pluto Press 1978), pp. 102-3.
  29. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 75.
  30. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 45; ‘The Surrealists’ in Andre Nataf, The Occult (Edinburgh, W&R Chambers 1991, p. 222.
  31. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 6.
  32. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 5.
  33. ‘The Surrealists’ in Nataf, The Occult, p. 222.
  34. Bryan Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford, OUP 1982), pp. 41-2.
  35. J.M. Yinger, ‘Alternatives to Religion’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, The Open University 1978), p. 540.
  36. Thomas R. McDonough, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Listening for Life in the Cosmos (New York, John Wiley and Sons 1987), pp. 221-2.
  37. McDonough, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, p. 228.
  38. McDonough, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, p. 223.
  39. Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: how Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon & Schuster 1999), p. 196.
  40. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 196.

Christmas Greetings

December 25, 2007

Hi guys! Well, it’s Christmas Day, so I’m wishing everyone who visits this blog a very happy Christmas if you’re a Christian, or other seasonal festival if you have a different faith or none. I hope you got the presents you wanted, even if after a certain age they tend to be ties, aftershave and socks if you’re a bloke. May you enjoy peace and goodwill with your families and friends this Christmas, and look forward to a peaceful, prosperous and successful New Year.

Take care and best wishes for the New Year.

Atheism as Religion: Part 2

December 22, 2007

Rich, commenting on my original blogpost discussing the similarities between organised atheism and religion, poses the question

Don’t religions have
Origins stories
Places of Worship
Morality Codes
Afterlife Stories?

Now those are clearly features of religion as it is conventionally understood, and if atheism is considered to be merely the denial of the supernatural, without any attempt to produce supporting arguments and conceptions of the world and morality in opposition to theistic views, atheism clearly is very different from religion. In practice the situation is rather different. Atheism is not simply a mere fideistic denial, but is based on certain arguments and a distinct worldview. In that sense, atheism can be seen as a system of cultural symbols, as in Geertz’s definition of religion, and as a quasi-religion after John E. Smith, as organised atheism attempts to fulfill many of the same ideological and societal functions of religion. Incidentally, when Smith coined the term ‘quasi-religion’ he did not mean it any kind of disparaging sense. He was attempting to steer a middle course between those religious scholars who saw these secular ideologies as religions, and the proponents of these secular ideologies who strongly objected to such an idea. They were quasi-religions because they fulfilled some of the functions of religion, while departing from it in their this-worldly, anti-transcendentalist nature.

My own feeling is that there is no clear distinction between what a religion and a secular ideology, and that avowedly secular philosophies can take on forms or functions profoundly similar to those of theistic religions. The ancient Greek philosophies can be seen as a case in point. Platonism was explicitly theistic, and late Roman Neoplatonism has been described as ‘the mind’s road to God’. Similarly, Aristotelianism was also theistic, and while denying individual life after death, except in the sense of the active intellect which was general to all humans, and did not die with the body, it was concerned with establishing proper ethical conduct, like Platonism. The Stoics too were pantheist materialists. God existed, there was a little sense of a personal deity. Humans were material entities, and there was no life after death except in the sense of the ‘eternal return’ in which matter, after endless ages, would return to it and repeat its original patterns, so that people would be reconstituted and live out their lives, exactly as they had done billions of ages before. And this would be repeated throughout eternity. They also developed a consistent theory of ethics in which the goal was to limit one’s desires to what was achievable and accept pain and distress in order to minimise suffering. Going further, the Epicureans denied the omniscience and creative activity of the Olympian gods in the universe. They had a profoundly Naturalistic view of the creation and functioning of the universe. They also denied the existence of life after death. Nevertheless, they did not deny that the gods existed, had particular conceptions of the goal of life and ethics, and established a series of centres for pastoral care and the development and promotion of their views that has been compared with that of the later Christian church.

Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism were all secular philosophies, yet they also showed some connections to theism, such as a belief in a deity, even if these deities were rendered ineffective. They also possessed distinct moral views, established institutions for the moral care of their adherents’ psyches, like religious institutions, and had a distinct view of the origins and fate of the cosmos, although these differed profoundly from that of traditional Graeco-Roman religion. Plato in the Timaeus suggested that the world was created from pre-existing matter by a Demiurge, a deity, observing the pre-existent, eternal Ideas and fashioning copies of them from matter. Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism both considered that the world was eternal, though for Neoplatonism it still had a origin in divine creation through emanation from the One. The Stoics believed that the universe had originally been a single mass, and then had separated out into the distinct objects of the contemporary cosmos. The Epicureans also had a distinct theory of the origins of the cosmos in that they saw it as originating in the chance patterns created through the fall of eternal atoms in the cosmic void. In this sense, the ancient philosophies have a profoundly religious, or quasi-religious character, and can be considered as philosophical religions, rather than what we would consider as pure philosophies.

However, they also point out the way in which some secular, atheistic philosophies can also take on some of the characteristics of religion, including those outlined above as supposedly indicative of religion. Let’s go through them.

Origin Stories

Now most religions do indeed have origin stories. And contemporary atheism also has its secular origins narrative. For the contemporary West, this is a rigidly atheist Neo-Darwinism, strictly understood as removing God from any kind of creative activity. While evolution itself may not be atheistic, evolutionary has formed the basis for much atheistic polemic. A particularly strong example of this is the atheist views propounded by Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett. Dawkins has always been very clear about the atheistic implications of evolution, telling Peter Medawar that ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist’. Daniel C. Dennett in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea described Neo-Darwinism as a ‘universal acid’ which would corrode religion. Despite the conception of evolution as a secular, non-religious theory, so much metaphysical ideas have been invested in it that the British philosopher, Mary Midgeley, considered it to have become something of a religion itself for some, and so wrote an entire book, Evolution as a Religion, examining atheist evolutionism as a form of religion.

Midgeley, who is herself an opponent of Creationism and Intelligent Design, considered the essential nature of religion to be

‘the sense of having one’s place within a whole greater than oneself, one whose larger aims so enclose one’s own and give them point that sacrifice for it may be entirely proper. This sense need not involve any extra factual beliefs at all. Marxism does not, nor does Taoism. Both call centrally for changes in attitude to the facts one already accepts – changes in connection, in emphasis, in attention, in selection, in the meaning and importance atacched to particulars -in short, a changed world-picture’. 1

Midgeley explicitly considered Marxism and evolutionism to be ‘the two great secular faiths of our day’, and noted that within there were ‘many elements which we think of as characteristically religious. We begin, for instance, to find priesthoods, prophecies, devotion, bigotry, exaltation, heresy-hunting and sectarianism, ritual, sacrifice, fanaticism, notions of sin, absolution and salvation, and the confident promise of a heaven in the future.’ 2

For Midgeley, Marxism and evolutionism, the two classic secular religions, have ‘like the great religions and unlike more casual local faiths, large-scale, ambitious systems of thought, designed to articulate, defend and justify their ideas – in short, ideologies’. 3 As such, it was extremely difficult to establish a simple way of establishing their non-religious character. Their lack of belief in God was no answer.

‘It is certainly not enough to say that they do not involve belief in God. Taoism does not do this either, nor does Buddhism in its original form. And the question whether the Buddha is now ‘a god’ is not a simple one at all. He is, after all, to be sought and found within us. Moreover, where there are ‘gods’ their nature varies enormously. They certainly need not be creators. The world is often held to be timeless, or to have some other origin. Neither, on the other hand, does religion necessarily involve the immortality of the soul. Judaism in its early form does not seem to have involved human survival after death. Even for Buddhism, the soul will eventually be dispersed into its elements. And so on.’ 4

Thus Midgeley considers that there is no dividing line between a secular ideology and a religion, and Marxism and evolutionism deserve to be considered as religions because ‘they are, not accidentally but by their very nature, dominant creeds, explicit faiths by which they live and to which they try to convert others. They tend to alter the world.’ 5 Her book, Evolution as a Religion, is an attempt to demonstrate how a scientific theory whose factuality she accepts – evolution – has become in effect a religion. Thus it is entirely justifiable to view evolution as in some forms both a secular religion in itself, and the origins narrative of contemporary atheism. This perception is strengthened by the location of the headquarters of the National Centre for Science Education, the leading campaign group against Creationism and Intelligent Design, in the same building, and sharing much the same membership, as the Committee for Secular Humanism. At a personal level you can see it also in the reaction of leading atheist evolutionists like Richard Dawkins to the challenge of Intelligent Design. Unlike the reviews of many other atheist evolutionists, Dawkins’ review of Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution was personally vitriolic, perhaps because it represented a challenge to his own, deeply held personal beliefs.

Morality Codes

As atheists themselves have repeatedly pointed out, atheism does not mean a lack or rejection of morality, and atheists have been actively trying to produce rational, secular justifications for morality and moral codes. Nietzsche in the 19th century explored the implications of atheism for morality and human behaviour, and come up with his own, idiosyncratic moral conceptions. Instead of Christian slave morality, he posited egoism. In contrast to Judaeo-Christianity’s complete rejection of the negative parts of the human character, he recommended instead that they should be carefully cultivated, as if in a garden, as a way of promoting self-improvement. For example, an actor’s envy of another actor could, if properly cultivated by the aspiring superman, lead to the envious actor becoming a better actor. This radical negation of traditional Judaeo-Christian views of morality has failed to be accepted. Nevertheless, other atheists have continued the project of creating a godless morality.

Sartrean Existentialism, for example, which Sartre saw as a kind of Humanism, sees the goal of life as living authentically, rejecting the bad faith of living in false beliefs and ideologies, and failing to live up to the curse of radical freedom given to humans in the world. Corliss Lamont, in his Humanism as Philosophy, attempted to promote a Humanist morality based on ‘ethical self-restraint’. He viewed actions as neither good nor bad in themselves, but only through their effects, though he did not reject the importance of motives either as he wished to preserve the distinction between murder and manslaughter. 6 Similarly, contemporary Humanists have a set of values to which they believe humans owe unconditional allegiance, such as freedom, autonomy, creativity, reason and science, aesthetic appreciation and democracy. 7 None of these are unique to Humanism, or even to atheism, but they receive particular emphasis in Secular Humanism, and are contrasted with the ignorance, tyranny and superstition that supernatural religion is supposed to bring. Thus organised atheism has its particular conceptions of morality and moral codes.

Places of Worship

This would seem to be the greatest difference between atheism and religions. Religions do indeed commonly have places of worship – temples, synagogues, mosques and churches. Atheism considers that there is nothing to be worshipped, and so has none. Nevertheless, there are certain similarities even here.

Firstly, atheism does fulfill some of the functions of religious worship in that it has meeting halls and buildings in which events are held intended to connect the adherents of that particular brand of atheism with a deeper reality. The adherents of the Ethical Church, for example, had their meetings in Conway Hall in Red Lion Square in London, in which they sang inspiring songs, heard inspiring prose and listened to what was effectively a sermon on an ethical or scientific issues. 8 Auguste Comte’s Postive Church was founded very much as a church, with rituals and a kind of liturgy, and Corliss Lamont wrote Humanist services. 9 In the early 20th century, Marxist intellectuals such as Maksim Gorky and Anatoly Lunacharsky founded ‘god-building’ or bogostroitel’stvo, whose doctrines were expounded between 1908 and 1911 in Lunacharsky’s two-volume work Religiia i Sotzialism (Religion and Socialism). Marxism was conceived as worship of a god who was human. Therefore, in order for civilisation to be spiritually renewed, cult sites were to be established dedicated to an atheistic genius of socialism to which people would make pilgrimages. These sites would reinforce people’s faiths in the promise of a better future through socialism through reminding them of the immortal achievements of atheist, socialist intellectuals. 10 Although Lenin was sharply opposed to the movement, this did not prevent Stalin from establishing Lenin as a kind of founding Communist prophet, complete with a mausoleum that acted as a shrine, a pattern that was followed in China with the establishment of a dedicated tomb to their great revolutionary, Chairman Mao.

Away from such official Marxist cults, ordinary people can experience in purely secular contexts the overpowering feelings religious people may experience during pilgrimages when they journey to a place associated with a secular intellectual. A few years ago a friend of mine with very strong Secularist beliefs told me of the overpowering emotion he felt visiting Darwin’s house, which had been converted into a museum. Finding himself in Darwin’s house, amongst his personal possessions and writings, the man had been overcome with emotion to the point where he found himself crying. Now it seems to me – and I don’t mean this as any kind of disparagement to either the man or his beliefs – he had experienced something akin to feeling of mysterium tremendum fascinans et augustem – the feeling of ‘awefulness’ Rudolf Otto put at the heart of religious experience. He felt personally connected to a higher realm through an experience of the personal possession – and it would be entirely justifiable here to refer to them as relics in the religious sense – of Darwin, whose idea of Natural Selection was personally important, perhaps particularly so to this man due to his own deeply felt atheism.

Thus atheism shares with religions sites which may have particular importance as places where individuals assemble to reinforce the moral teachings of their ideology, and experience a higher reality, which may be revealed by the discovery of a particularly respected scientist or intellectual.

Incidentally, not all religions have dedicated places of worship. In Genesis, for example, Abraham and the other patriarchs don’t have dedicated shrines, but build cairns upon which they make appropriate sacrifices when they feel the presence of God in a particular location. Archaeologist studying pre-Roman Britain have noted the lack of dedicated religious sites, and consider this to be due to a prevailing religious ideology at the time which did not separate off religion from other cultural activities. There were no special religious sites, as all of life was imbued with religious significance and ritual. In Christianity, certain Christian denominations may radically reject ritual and ceremony as pagan, and while having dedicated buildings to their religious use are very careful to avoid any term for them which denotes pagan religion. The Quakers, for example, rejected ceremonies as pagan corruptions of the original Christianity, preferring the direct experience of the ‘inner light’ of the Holy Spirit. Rather than being called churches, their places of assembly are called simply ‘meeting houses’. Thus their Christian experience of God is, in some respects, less like that of the ritualistic forms of assembly devised by certain forms of organised atheism, like the Ethical Churches and Positivists.

Afterlife Stories

This is another subject that at first sight does indeed distinguish atheism from theism. Atheism, with its basis in materialism and Naturalism, denies a belief in life after death, while religion commonly supports the continuation of the personality in some form. However, even here the difference between atheism and religion may be far less, or even entirely absent, than is apparent. The philosopher J.D. McTaggart indeed considered that reality consisted of a community of independent spirits, and was eager to establish a metaphysics that would justify a ‘religious attitude’, defined as ‘a conviction of harmony between ourselves and the universe at large’. He was, however, an atheist who did not believe in God and was critical of Christianity as a theology and an ethical system in his Some Dogmas of Religion. 11 In the 1930s the Cambridge philosopher C.D. Broad was also an atheist who advocated a kind of ’emergent materialism’, yet believed very much in the survival of the personality after death and took seriously psychical research in his book Mind and its Place in Nature. 12

There are also atheist ideologies which look forward to the technological achievement of human survival after death, their resurrection and immortality. These take the form of Western Transhumanism, and Russian Cosmism. Cosmism is an intellectual movement that ‘is based on a holistic and anthropocentric view of the universe which presupposed a teleologically determined – and thus meaningful – evolution; its adherents strive to redefine the role of humankind in a universe that lacks a divine plan for salvation, thus acknowledging the threat of self-destruction. As rational beings who are evolving out of the living matter (zhivoe veshcestvo) of the earth, human beings appear destined to become a decisive factor in cosmic evolution – a collective self-consciousness, active agent, and potential benefactor.’ 13 This evolution is considered to have as its gaol the reorganisation of humanity into a single organism with a ‘higher planetarian consciousness’, which will change and perfect the universe, overcome disease and death and eventually create an immortal humanity. 14 This belief was particularly strong in the 1920s, when scientists and intellectuals like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Andrei Platonov and the historian Nikolai Rozhkov. Platonov stated that ‘thought’ would ‘easily and quickly destroy death by its systematic work, science’, while Rozhkov also preached the resurrection of the dead using science and technology. 15

In the contemporary West, Transhumanists such as Hans Moravec have looked forward to a post-human future in which humans download their personalities into immortal machines since the publication of Moravec’s book, Mind Children. Some Transhumanists do indeed recognise the similarity between their project and traditional theism. One of the leaders of the movement is married to a Methodist minister, and has stated that he and his religious wife have the same gaols, only they’re going about it in different ways. Other Transhumanists are vehemently anti-religious, such as Marshall Brain.

Thus, atheists may also have a belief in the afterlife, or look forward to the accomplishment of traditionally religious goals such as the resurrection of the dead or preservation of the human personality after death through high technology. Indeed, the philosopher John Searle described the Functionalist view of mind espoused by Daniel C. Dennett, in which minds could in theory be replicated in computers, as the last gasp of Cartesian dualism.

Just as atheism may include a belief in life after death, it is also true that some religions don’t have any conception of such a post-mortem existence, or give it little emphasis. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, while there was indeed a life after death, this was a shadowy existence, like the shades in Sheol in the Old Testament. Indeed, ancient Israel looked for fulfilment in this life, rather than a reward in the hereafter. Corliss Lamont himself recognises this aspect of ancient Jewish religion in his approval of the supposedly this-worldly advocacy of worldly enjoyment in The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes in the Bible. 16 In some tribal religions, while there may be a belief that the world is profuse with spirits in every object and organism, there may be no concept of an afterlife at all. Some pagan Finno-Ugrian peoples indeed believe that the soul was indissoluble linked with the body to the point where it also decayed after death.

‘The soul is, however, indissolubly linked to the body with which it forms an indivisible whole. Having no independent existence it dies with the body. That is why the Ingrians went to weep over the grave of the deceased and placed offerings there during a period roughly equivalent to the time of the body’s decomposition. Afterwards the grave was no longer visited for, they said, ‘there is no longer anything left of the soul’.’ 17 Thus even here there is no sharp distinction between religion and atheism. Certain atheist ideologies and philosophies looking forward to human survival after death and humans’ eventual resurrection, either in a psychic, disembodied state or through high technology and computer science. Some religions, on the other hand, may consider the afterlife to be merely a shadowy existence, while others have no conception of an afterlife.

No Clear Distinction between Atheism and Religion

Thus, regarding the list of features considered definitive of religion suggested by Rich

Origins Stories

Places of worship

Moral Codes

After-life stories

two, origins stories and moral codes, are shared by atheism in atheistic views of Neo-Darwinian evolution and the moral codes of personal autonomy, democracy, dignity and reason adopted by Humanism. Attitudes to the afterlife in religion and some forms of atheism may overlap, with some religions denying personal continuity after death, while some atheist ideologies look forward to post mortem human survival, either as a traditionally conceived spirit, or preserved as a computer programme. There is indeed a difference between organised atheism and traditional religion regarding places of worship. Atheism does not worship anything, unlike religion. However, it does share with people of faith buildings dedicated to the assembly of its adherents for ritual or ceremonial purposes, in which the worldview is expounded and a morality consistent with that worldview preached, and individuals encounter a deeper reality and its true nature. In the case of atheism, this may consistent of an awe felt at scientific discovery and the cosmos itself. Carl Sagan had a series of lectures published in which he expounded his anti-religious and scientific beliefs entitled, The Varieties of Scientific Experience. He deliberately chose the title to contrast with William James’ exploring of religious experience, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Nevertheless, both Sagan and Richard Dawkins strongly espouse a sense of cosmic wonder, which Dawkins has described in The God Delusion as mystical, even if he strongly rejects any similarity between this and religion.

Thus neither of those features in the list serves to distinguish atheism from religion. Rather than atheism and religion being completely separate, they may form part of a continuum of belief and even overlap in particular spheres of concern. Thus organised atheism does indeed participate in many of the activities and concerns of conventional religion, even if it strongly attacks it.


1. Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 14.

2. Midgeley, Evolution as Religion, p. 15.

3. Midgeley, Evolution as Religion, p. 15.

4. Midgeley, Evolution as Religion, p. 15-16.

5. Midgeley, Evolution as Religion, p. 16.

6. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 25.

7. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 42.

8. ‘Ethical Church’ in Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. J18.

9. ‘Positivism’ in Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. J40-1; Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 26.

10. Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, FontanaPress 1996), pp. 54-5.

11. John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1957), pp. 75-6.

12. Passmore, Hundred Years of Philosophy, p. 349.

13. Michael Hagemeister, ‘Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today’ in Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1997), pp. 185-6.

14. Hagemeister, ‘Russian Cosmism’ in Rosenthal, ed., The Occult, p. 186.

15. Hagemeister, ‘Russian Cosmism’ in Rosenthal, ed., The Occult, p. 188.

16. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 39.

17. F. Guirand, ‘Finno-Ugric Mythology’ in F. Guirand, ed., Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, trans., New LaRousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1959), p. 307.

Atheism as Religion

December 20, 2007

There was considerable comment on the Christian blogs last week about the opening of a Humanist pre-school in America. Contrary to the vehement denials that atheism is a religion, this appeared to demonstrate the very opposite: that atheism is a religion, or at the very least it tries to do some of the things conventional religion does.

This should actually come as no surprise. For centuries those hostile to religion, and particularly Christianity, have founded organisations and published materials strongly following religious models. In the 18th century the vehemently antichristian Baron de Grimm and J.F. de Saint-Lambert both published secularist catechism. Like Dawkins today, Grimm considered it an outrage against commonsense to teach small children the elements of Christianity. It was because of this that dangerous and absurd ideas had such a powerful influence on people’s minds and characters, and whole nations had been corrupted by its folly. His solution to the problem was to recommend that children be taught two catechisms. The first was to be a catechism of humanity, in which children would be instructed in their rights and duties as members of the human race. This was to be succeeded by a second catechism, which would teach them their rights and duties as members of society and the laws and government of their particular nation. Grimm attempted such a catechism himself in his Essai d’un catechisme pour les enfants of 1755. 1 This was succeeded by Saint-Lambert’s Catechisme universel for children of 12-13, which set out in question and answer format the author’s conception of humanity and morality. The morality expounded in the catechism was very much hedonistic. Humanity should pursue pleasure and avoid pain in order to achieve happiness.This happiness could only be attained through reason and correct self-love, which meant seeking to know others and not separating their happiness from one’s own. 2 When Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, invented his own atheistic philosophy of Positivism in the 19th century, he specifically conceived it as a ‘religion of humanity’. He thus assumed leadership of his new religion as its priest, writing a Positive Catechism, drawing up a list of notable historical characters who were to act like saints within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and even invented rituals for his new church. 3 Similarly, the Ethical Church founded by Moncure Conway, who preached at the Unitarian Chapel in Finsbury in London from 1864 to 1897 used the form of a religious service while following a strongly atheist philosophical stance. There were no prayers, and instead of hymns, edifying compositions were sung, while readings consisted of suitable poems and other pieces by appropriate writers. Instead of a sermon, the service concluded with a talk on an ethical or scientific subject. 4

When Secular Humanism first emerged in the early 20th century, it too adopted some of the trappings of conventional religion. The Humanist ideologue, Corliss Lamont, in his 1949 Humanism as a Philosophy advocated that Humanist artists and writers should construct rituals and ceremonies that would ‘appeal to the emotions as well as the minds of people, capturing their imagination and giving an outlet to their delight in pomp and pageantry’. 5 One way this was to be achieved was through the appropriation and remodelling of existing religious festivals. Christmas was to become a secular celebration of the joy of existence, the feeling of human brotherhood and the ideal of democratic sharing. Easter was to be ‘humanistically utilised’ to celebrate the renewal of the vital forces of nature and humanity.’ 6 He also wished to create Humanist wedding and funeral services from which all supernatural elements had been removed. As part of this project, he himself wrote A Humanist Funeral Service. 7 Despite the vehement insistence by Humanists such as Paul Kurtz that Secular Humanism is a form of atheism or agnosticism, sociologically Humanism has many elements in common with theistic religions. 8 Thus, despite the protests of Kurtz and others that Humanism is no such thing, it can indeed be considered a form of religion.

The diverse nature of religion, and religious experience itself, means that it is not possible to define it solely terms of a belief in the supernatural, which Humanists like Kurtz consider to be the distinguishing feature of religion as against their philosophy. For anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, religion is a cultural system consisting of

‘1. a system of symbols which acts to

2. establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by

3. formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and

4. clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that

5. the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.’ 9

Thus, Geertz suggested that ‘the religious perspective … is … not the theory that beyond the visible world there lies an invisible one (though most religious men have indeed held, with differing degrees of sophistication, to some such theory); not the doctrine that a divine presence broods over the world (though, in an extraordinary variety of forms, from animism to monotheism, that too has been a rather popular idea); not even the more difficult opinion that there are things in heaven and earth undreamt of in our philosophies. Rather, it is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the world’s construction and a programme for human conduct that are mere reflections of one another.’ 10 Now contemporary organised atheism clearly has a disinct worldview, which it regards as uniquely real, and which supplies the rationale for action and conduct. Its conception of the world as purely Naturalistic clearly leads to a vehement denial of the value of metaphysics, the privileging of science as the only legitimate form of enquiry, and varying degrees of hostility towards religion. In the case of Humanism, this was expressed by the establishment by the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism in the 1980s of two subcommittees, one dedicated to attacking the truth of the Bible, the other to disproving faith healing, under the control of a Committee for the Scientific Exploration of Religion, along with campaigns against public or state celebration of religious festivals and publications critical of religion.

Indeed, neither respect for science nor a vehement opposition to supernatural religion necessarily mean that organised atheism or Humanism is not a religion itself. The American sociologist, J.M. Yinger, in his examination of secular alternatives to religion noted that for some rationalist, secularist and humanist groups the faith in science was actually part of a gradual development from liberal and radical forms of traditional theistic religion. In his view, July Huxley’s Religion Without Revelation and John Dewey’s A Common Faith were extensions, not departures, from ‘left-wing’ Christianity. 11 Something of this process can be seen in the 18th century, when the country doctor and Unitarian minister, Joseph Priestley, combined a thoroughly materialist view of humanity with a rationalistic Christianity in which he fully supported the historicity of the miracles reported in the Bible. Indeed, he considered that Christianity would not have spread if it were not true and the miracles had not proved it to be so beyond dispute. 12 The British biologist, Sir Alister Hardy, similarly wished to found an experimental faith that combined a scientific methodology with elements of Christian theology. 13 Noting St. John’s statement that ‘God is love’, Hardy observed that ‘brotherly love – the agape of the New Testament – is certainly at the heart of Christianity. Comradeship in striving for a common purpose may cvonvert a secular movement into a fervour that is almost religious. I am far from being a Communist, yet I must admit that those so-called ‘Anti-God’ posters that came out of Russia in the 1930s struck me as being the most passionately religious pictures that have appeared in the present century.’ 14 Arthur Koestler also described the profoundly religious meaning Communism held for him, viewing it very much in terms of a religious conversion.

‘By the time I had finished with Feuerbach and State and Revolution, something had clicked in my brain which shook me like a mental explosion. To say that one had ‘seen the light’ is a poor description of the mental rapture which only the convert knows (regardless of what faith he has been converted to). The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question, doubt and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past – a past already remote, when one had lived in dismal ignorance in the tasteless, colorless world of those who don’t know.’ 15

Other religious scholars have also noted the profound similarity of secular alternatives to religion. Mindful of the differences between traditional transcendental religions and the modern, secular alternatives, and the strong opposition by Secularists to what they see as the ‘terminological aggression’ that categorises their movements as ‘religious’, these scholars instead view them as quasi-religions. The Christian philosopher and theologian John E. Smith considers that amongst the reasons for classifying them as such is ‘the strong sense present among the followers of these secular movements that they are meant to provide a source of significance and purpose in human life and a general pattern for behaviour as a whole.’ 16 Smith bases his conception of religion on the definition of religion as ‘ultimate concern’ developed by the Christian theologian, Paul Tillich. Tillich viewed religion as ‘the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life. Therefore this concern is unconditionally serious and shows a willgness to sacrifice any finite concern which is in conflict with it.’ 17 Clearly, to those atheists and secularists who join anti-religious organisations to attack religion and develop a secular, atheist morality and way of life, atheism in indeed an ‘ultimate concern’ to which all other finite concerns have been sacrificed.

In Smith’s analysis, the defining feature of recognised, transcendental religions is that of a diagnosis of what is wrong with the human condition, leading to a quest for the solution and finally to a deliverer in the form of that religion’s particular doctrine of salvation, redemption or enlightement:

‘Though differing in crucial respects from each other, they exhibit a common pattern that makes it possible to compare tehm with each other. That pattern, briefly stated, is threefold, starting with a diagnosis of the human predicament based on the nature of the religious ultimate aimed at locating what is wrong with our natural existence and what separates us from an ideal fulfillment in God, or Nirvana or the One. The apprehension of this separated or ‘fallen’ state of humanity leads naturally to a quest for the reality which has the power to overcome the flaw in our being disclosed in the diagnosis. The quest is for a deliverer which overcomes the flaw and restores the wholeness of our being. The deliverer is whatever form it may take – the Torah of Jahweh, the Enlightenment of the Buddha, the atoning work of Christ, the insight concerning Brahman and Atman in the Vedanta – is always the central focus of religious devotion because of its power to bring release, salvation or deliverance from the flaw in human existence revealed in the diagnosis.’ 18

There are, of course, important differences between quasi-religions like Humanism and the established world religions. Firstly, Humanism does not recognise a transcendent, supernatural reality and so confines itself to this-worldly endeavours. 19 It also strongly rejects the religious idea of a single, degrading flaw in nature and humanity, such as the doctrine of the Fall in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. H.J. Blackham, in his article ‘A Definition of Humanism’ states that in Humanism there is no difference between what humanity is and what it should be. According to Blackham, there is ‘no entelechy, no built-in pattern of perfection. Man is his own rule and his own end.’ 20 However, Humanists clearly do have a conception of an ideal human condition, in which people are autonomous, free, creative, applying science and reason to human problems, enjoying the beauties of nature and culture, free of superstition and religion, supporting democracy, peace, and opposing tyranny. Against this Humanism condemns ignorance, prejudice, supersitition, injustice, violence, tyranny and supernatural religion. 21Humanism, as a quasi-religion, also shares with traditional religion the function of providing a source of significance and purpose in human life, and providing a general model of behaviour. 22 Moreover, despite their vehement opposition to being labelled a religion, Humanists do recognise the continuity between traditional religion and their philosophy. Corliss Lamont stated of traditional religion that ‘at its best it has given to [people] the opportunity of losing themselves in something greater than any individual and of finding themselves thereby in consecration to an ideal. This historic function of religion any present philosophy worthy of the name must fulfill.’ 23 In the view of scholars such as Smith, this admission justifies the designation of Humanism, even when considering itself a philosophy, as a quasi-religion. 24

Of course, Secular Humanism is only one form of atheism. One can also cover as forms of atheism Nihilism, atheist Existentialism, Marxism and Randian Objectivism. Nevertheless, the criticisms of Secular Humanism and religious fervour that informed Marxist anti-religion can be applied to many forms of contemporary organised atheism. Like religion, it acts as a cultural system of symbols providing its adherents with a distinct conception of the fundamental reality of the world, an ‘ultimate concern’ which grounds subsequent conceptions of ethics and moral behaviour. It shares with religion a conception of what constitutes an ideal of human existence, and a diagnosis of what prevents the fulfillment of this ideal. As part of its programme to supersede religion, it has a history of appropriating and remodelling religious forms, such as composing appropriate rituals and catechisms intended to support and inculcate its worldview and a common sense of fellowship and purpose amongst its members. Thus the opening of the atheist or Humanist pre-school last week really wasn’t anything unusual, but part of a long tradition in which organised atheism functioned as a form of religion.

In fact there is also one other important difference between quasi-religions, such as organised atheism, and the conventional religions. Although conventional religion has all too often promoted tyranny and ignorance against knowledge, democracy and human dignity, in Christianity at least it also possessed what Paul Tillich called ‘the Protestant principle’. If religions have sanctioned oppression, they have also condemned and attacked it. Indeed, the great Lutheran theologian Reinhold Neibuhr also attacked the ‘ideological taint’ which masked human corruption and self-interest in religion, politics and society throughout history. Yet traditionally quasi-religions have found self-criticism very difficult, especially those with the aim of attacking religion. The belief of these anti-religions that their self-perceived basis in science and reason is no guarantee against corruption, hypocrisy and oppression. 25 The persistent failure of organised atheism to address the evil committed in its name can be seen very clearly in the repeated denial of atheist ideologues like Richard Dawkins that such oppression has ever been done by atheists in the name of atheism. While members of the established religions are all too aware of the dangers of religious intolerance, the failure of organised atheism to recognise the oppression and intolerance committed in its name marks it off very distinctly from mainstream religion in this respect.


1. Paul Hazard, trans. J. Lewis May, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Pelican Books 1954), pp. 185-6.

2. Hazard, European Thought, p. 186.

3. ‘Positivism’ in Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), pp. J40-41.

4. ‘Ethical Church’, in Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia, p. J18.

5. Corliss Lamont, Humanism as Philosophy (1949), p. 306, cited in John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 26.

6. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 26.

7. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 26.

8. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 39.

9. Clinton Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London, Cassell 1996), p. 102.

10. Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (Chicago, The University Press, 1968), p. 97, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, pp. 102-3.

11. J.M. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), p. 546.

12. Basil Wiley, The Eighteenth Century Background (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1940), p. 184.

13. See the chapters ‘Towards a New Natural Theology’ and ‘An Experimental Faith’ in his book The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of Man the Religious Animal (London, Jonathan Cape, 1975), pp. 196-233.

14. Hardy, The Biology of God, p. 175.

15. Arthur Koestler, The God that Failed (London, 1950), p. 23, cited in Foy, The Religious Quest, p. 548.

16. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 13.

17. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 2.

18. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 3.

19. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 7.

20. H.J. Blackham, ‘A Definition of Humanism’, in Paul Kurtz, ed., The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 29.

21. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 42.

22. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 13.

23. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 13.

24. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 13.

25. Smith, Quasi-Religions, pp. 13-14.

Hitchens on the War on Terror: Still Thinking Like A Marxist?

December 16, 2007

A little while ago I read something which suggested that there was a tactical element to Christopher Hitchens’ support of the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. Hitchens has made it abundantly plain that he loathed Saddam Hussein as a vicious dictator, and broke with the Left over their refusal to support Hussein’s overthrow. However, I’ve also seen it suggested that Hitchens has a rather more cynical, tactical reason for supporting the war. Hitchens is now known for his vehement hatred of religion, expressed in his book God is not Great. It’s been alleged that he supported the War on Terror from a belief that military action against militant, intolerant Islam would also lead to a wider groundswell of public opinion against religion in general, and so would usher in the age of atheist rationalism to which Hitchens is committed. There are quotes from Hitchens circulating to this effect.

Now I have to say that I don’t know whether this is actually true, but if it is, then it shows that Hitchens’ past as a member of the far Left is still influencing his thinking. Marx stated that ‘war is the forcing house of democracy’, and historically it has been the case that the experience of war has forged societal bonds that have led to a rise in radical politics. For example, in the aftermath of the two World Wars in the 20th Century various left-wing parties took power for the first time as they seemed to offer a genuine alternative to the more right-wing parties who had traditionally held power. Furthermore, the bonds of comradeship forged across class boundaries in Europe during the two Wars did much to undermine the European class system. Part of the reason the Fascist organisations after World War I adopted such a stridently military character was because the bonds of comradeship forged between the demobilised servicemen, who formed the backbone of European Fascism, had produced a populist spirit and powerful feeling of unity. These Fascist organisations sought to preserve social hierarchies – what Mussolini called ‘the eternal, beneficial and fruitful inequality of classes’ – while imbuing them with a quasi-democratic character their members found liberating.

On the Left, Marxist and other radical groups also had high expectations of the radicalising effects of the War. Instead of the democratic spirit created by communities under fire bolstering European hierarchical politics, some Marxists instead considered that the First World War would further alienate the European working classes. Rather than back their class oppressors, they would unite to overthrow them, taking the first step towards the global, classless Communism Marx had envisaged. In the wake of the First World War, central and eastern Europe did indeed suffer Marxist revolutions – in Russia, Germany, Hungary and also in Italy. The result was a wave of political unrest and counter-revolutionary violence, culminating in the rise of Fascist and Right-wing anti-democratic regimes in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere as these organisations gained popularity by promising to protect their nations from the threat of Communism. In this instance, the Marxist hopes of the radicalising effects of the First World War upon the working class was profoundly misguided. Rather than leading to support for Communism, it led to an extreme conservatism instead as the ordinary people of these nations looked for protection and safety from the economic and political chaos that erupted in the wake of the War.

If Hitchens does believe that the War on Terror will lead to a general discrediting of religion and a rise in atheism, then it appears that he has taken up the attitude of the early 20th century Marxists towards the radicalising effects of global war. In Hitchens’ case, these hopes have been scaled down. He doesn’t expect the workers to unite against capitalism, only against religion. This seems part of a general trend amongst some radical intellectuals after the Fall of Communism. With the Marxist system a catastrophic failure and capitalism resurgent across the world, some seem to have scaled their attack down to religion, which is held to be a globally enslaving force.

Now it’s fair to say that many individuals who would otherwise have remained indifferent to religion, rather than actively hostile to it, have become radically opposed to it because of the Jihadist attacks of 9/11 and view Bush’s invasion of Iraq as motivated primarily by religion, rather than a genuine commitment to spread democracy or the product of secular geo-politics and economics. Despite the fact that religions and their adherents can differ profoundly in their attitudes towards violence – the Quakers, for example, like the Amish have always rejected war and violence – New Atheists like Dawkins have attempted to play on the common prejudice amongst non-religious individuals that they are all the same, and that simply by being religious means that a woolly, liberal Episcopalian can become a militant mujahiddin baying for the blood of the unbeliever.

Apart from the gross misrepresentation of religion as a whole, the tactic is based on a very dubious interpretation of history. The Marxists believed that the European working class would unite in an international class war against their oppressors, because their materialist conception of history told them that this was inevitable. In Marxism, people are free to make their own history, but it’s profoundly constrained by material economics. These economic forces define society, and the tensions between them give rise to historical progress. There are historical laws which demand that society, at least in Europe, go from feudalism, through capitalism, socialism before finally arriving at classless, stateless, religionless global communism. Fascism was held to be the highest stage of capitalism by some Marxist ideologues in the 1930s. In one East German museum dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Third Reich, Hitler himself was absent. This was due to the Marxist belief that if Hitler had not existed – if he had been killed by a bullet during the Beer Hall Putsch – someone else would have taken his place, and the horror of the Third Reich would still have come about.

The problem with this is that, as history has shown, this hasn’t actually been the case, and the whole historicist view of societal development is open to severe doubt. The British Idealist philosopher, R.G. Collingwood, for example, argued strongly that there were no historical laws, and that men and women really did make their own destinies. He viewed history as a science of the human mind and behaviour, but, in contrast to psychology, a non-reductive science as human history is unpredictable.

This is in stark contrast to the quasi-Behaviourist denial of human consciousness and freedom now in vogue amongst Brights like Daniel C. Dennett. For the Behaviourists, the soul did not exist, and people could be conditioned and controlled like Pavlov’s dogs. Yet for some philosophers and political scientists, this view of humans as merely reactive machines is profoundly inadequate as an account of humanity, and dooms any military or political action based on it to failure.

In his interview with the great contemporary Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig in his book, The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel quotes Craig as stating that part of the reason America lost the Vietnam War was because American military thinking was strongly permeated by Behaviourism. Humans had no innate free will of their own, according to Behaviourism, and so could be conditioned by suitable stimuli. In the case of the Vietnam War, the suitable stimuli were the bombing missions and other combat operations with which the American military hoped to break the Viet Cong both militarily and deny them support from the wider civilian Vietnamese population. However, as William Lane Craig says, people do have free will, and can’t be so conditioned. Instead of breaking the spirit of the Vietnamese opposition, it encouraged them to fight all the more against America. In so doing they actually provided disproof of a purely materialist conception of humans as programmable biological machines.

Which is ironic for Communist system.

The same possibility is there with Hitchens’ hope that the War on Terror will lead to people being further alienated from religion. Not only are people of different faiths acting against that misconception, whatever their views about the War on Terror or the Invasion of Iraq, but paradoxically history itself provides strong evidence that there are no laws governing it. Hitler’s rise to power wasn’t inevitable. When he was imprisoned in the Landsberg for a year, writing Mein Kampf, the Nazi party fell apart. Yes, there are wider, societal forces which can radically constrain how people act and the direction in which that society can develop, but individuals are able to change their destiny. And if this is the case, not only will Hitchens hopes for a rise in atheism fail to materialise, but the entire materialist, determinist conception of human psychology and history on which it is based collapse as well.

Hitchens’ view of the War on Terror becoming a War on Religion is a form of Marxist-style reductionist historicism. It would be no bad thing indeed if this form of reductionism were to fall.

Dawkins: I’m a Cultural Christian

December 16, 2007

Last week Richard Dawkins announced that he was ‘a cultural Christian’ who liked singing carols as much as anybody else. He denied wishing to ban Christmas, and stated that he had no intention of removing Britain’s Christian heritage. The danger of that, according to Dawkins, comes from other religions, not from atheists. Frank’s already blogged about this at Atheism Sucks, and I’ve left a few comments there. However, considering what an apparent volte face this appears to be, I thought I’d go into it on here as well, especially as Mattghg has particularly asked what I make of it all.

 I have to say I’m not impressed. For the first part of the statement – that Dawkins is ‘a cultural Christian’ who likes singing carols, this appears to me to be mostly true. The religious scholars and philosophers who have investigated Humanism have pointed out that for the most part its morality is based very definitely on Christianity. It diverges from Christianity in its sexual morality – premarital sex and abortion are regarded as acceptable, but broadly it conforms to Christian moral principles. As for Dawkins’ comment that he likes singing Christmas carols as much as anyone else, well, I’ve no doubt he does. Daniel C. Dennett also, apparently, has his atheist friends gather for a ‘Christmas sing-song’.

At another level, Dawkins’ description of himself as such is false, and there seems to be an element of deception in it, of what Rabbinical Law describes as ‘stealing the mind’. This ‘stealing the mind’ or genebath daath has been defined as ‘misrepresentation of the truth, such as is practisd by the confidence trickster who seeks to influence his victim to think or to act against his own interest or what would ahve been his better judgement.’ 1 Dawkins’ tactic towards Christianity and religion in general is to try to keep its adherents culturally secure by not excluding from society while doing his level best to undermine their faith. He has stated that he likes the British system of a state church and the bishops of the Anglican Church sitting in the House of Lords, as with it British Christians don’t feel excluded from government as has occurred in America with the separation of Church and State. My guess is that this attitude is merely a cultural sop to keep believers happy. His real attitude to religion is shown in his unrelenting hostility to it, demands for the closure of faith schools and denunciation of a religious upbringing for children as a form of child abuse.

Now organised atheism in Britain and America has attempted to remove these nations’ Christian heritage. There have been several cases in America where atheists have campaigned against the public celebrations of Christian festivals, like Christmas, by the state authorities or in schools. Similar cases have been brought in Britain, such as by the elderly lady I’ve already mentioned who tried having Christmas banned a few years ago because it infringed her human rights as an atheist. There was also the campaign by a Humanist group to have a cross removed from a crematorium under the pretext that this would be offensive to other faiths. Now the crematorium in that instance was secular, but it had been a church, and the crucifix was a legacy from the period when it had served the Christian community. The council that received the complaint from the irate atheists noted that no non-Christian group using the crematorium had complained about the crucifix. It had only been the Humanists that had complained.

Now this says something about the process of secularisation in general. Various councils in Britain have attempted to secularise Christmas in the past on the pretext that Britain is a multicultural society, and some non-Christian religious groups would find Christmas offensive. Birmingham did this a few years ago when they replaced Christmas with a ‘Winterfest’. Again, one of the comments about this process is that very few non-Christians had complained. Quite often when this occurs the local paper will do a straw poll and interview people in the street. The Muslims and Hindus canvassed have no objection to the celebration of Christmas at all. In the case of Islam, although Muslims don’t view Jesus as the Son of God, they do revere Him as ‘the purest of the prophets’, believe in the Virgin birth, and, at least in Shia Islam, see Him as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Given this high, but not divine, conception of our Lord, the celebration of Christmas is certainly not an affront to Islam. Yet whenever objections to Christmas, or any other Christian festival or celebration, is raised, it is always under the pretext that this will be offensive to other faiths. My own attitude here is that this attitude is partly from a genuine fear of giving offence amongst some governmental groups, and partly a tactical attitude by secular groups or individuals who would like to have religion removed completely from the public sphere, and the possibility of offending non-Christian individuals is merely a pretext for doing so.

Dawkins’ comment also touches on some quite deep issues of cultural ownership. Unlike the other, non-Christian faiths, Christianity seems to be a target for ridicule in the West because, while these other religions are still perceived as marginal and not part of the general British cultural heritage, because Christianity has been part of British and Western culture for so long it is still perceived as being part of the heritage of those who no longer believe, and have no qualms about sneering at it or wishing to undermine it. Dawkins clearly believes he has the right to sing Christmas carols because of his membership in the culture which produced them, whereas, I suspect, he would be far more hesitant to sing some of the classic Hebrew hymns to the Lord, such as the piyyutim in the Jewish prayer book, or recite the Qu’ran. These aren’t part of general Western culture, and so people outside those faith communities – Judaism and Islam – rightly feel they have no claim over them. But this attitude is becoming increasingly uncomfortable as society becomes more secularised. Christians in Britain and elsewhere do feel themselves to be a minority that isn’t given the same respect as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism, for example. From this perspective, Dawkins’ designation of himself as a ‘cultural Christian’ is false, as he has repudiated Christianity and so has no claim on its cultural products.

I’d also strongly argue that his conception of ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ is itself deficient. He seems to view culture largely from the standpoint of aesthetics, as a system of literary, pictorial and musical signs and motifs. So he will say, as he did when promoting his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, that Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion will move him to tears.  I’m sure that’s true, but culture and heritage go beyond simple aesthetics. From the anthropological perspective, culture is the defining characteristic of society as a whole, affecting how its members view the world and each other, the way they dress and behave. Clearly Dawkins is not a cultural Christian in this sense, as he is trying to attack the cultural role of Christianity in this broader, societal sense. If he was sincere about preserving the Christian heritage, I doubt he would have made such sneering comments about the British Airways staff member who sued for religious discrimination because she had been banned from wearing her crucifix outside her uniform. After all, if people’s heritage is inviolable, then from a purely secular, multicultural standpoint the lady had every right to wear something that was culturally significant to her. 

This attitude also extends to Christian-based school assemblies. Under British law, schools are required to hold assemblies in the morning which have a basis in Christianity. Now I know some militant atheists who are vehemently opposed to this. However, if Christianity is seen merely as a system of literary and aesthetic signs with a moralising message, there can be no possible objection to this. After all, the Christians of the Middle Ages took over the ancient Pagan literature and read and enjoyed them as literature. Durign the Renaissance, Classical pagan myths were incorporated into European art, literature and music, frequently with a moralising purpose. These pagan myths were seen as part of the general cultural heritage of Europe, and were so taken over and used, even though the members of that Christian society did not believe they existed and would have severely disapproved of attempts to revive their worship.

Thus Dawkins’ claim to be a ‘cultural Christian’ who is no threat to the country’s Christian heritage is confused, deceptive and contradictory. One could argue that if he’s serious about preserving Christian cultural heritage, then he should actually support the faith schools he so vehemently hates, as in it are being brought up the next generation of the real custodians of that culture and heritage.

As for the general principles of cultural ownership, my own view is that there are degrees of ownership here, comparable to ownership and usufruct in law. Usufruct is the right to use someone else’s property. For example, in the Middle Ages a peasant cultivator may have had the right to pasture his animals and gather wood and mast for his pigs on his lord’s land. He didn’t own the land, but nevertheless had certain rights to use it. At the level of cultural property, one could argue that through membership of the general European culture whose Christian members produced the great religious works of art and literature that atheists like Dawkins admire, such as St. Matthew’s Passion, the general population certainly has some rights to use it. However, true ownership and guardianship of that culture lies with that faith group. In this case, it’s Christianity. And however much Dawkins might admire some of its cultural products, he’s repudiated Christianity and so has relinquished any deep claim to it or participation in it as a cultural force.

So Dawkins’ claim to be a ‘cultural Christian’ really is actually quite shallow, and deliberately intended to present his bitter opposition to Christianity as far less threatening than it is. Well, there’s a passage in Proverbs which tells you to beware when your enemy puts his arm around you. It’s what Dawkins has been metaphorically trying to do with this comment. The best course of action in this instance is not to be deceived and push him away. 


1. Isidore Epstein, Judaism (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1959), p. 148.

How the Secularists Changed their Anti-Christmas Tactics

December 11, 2007

One of the books reviewed in this month’s Fortean Times is a pamphlet from the British National Secular Society entitled How the Christians Stole Christmas. The Fortean Times covered it with the brief comment ‘for Grinches everywhere’ before moving on to the next book about the weird, wonderful and academically disreputable. Not having read the pamphlet, I can’t say for sure, but it looks like the National Secular Society are recycling the old arguments that Christmas was really an ancient Pagan feast that the Christians took over and rebranded. The arguments have been tackled and refuted before, but unfortunately they still reappear.

Now this pamphlet seems to mark a slight change of tactic amongst militant secularists towards Christmas. A few years ago they tried to have Christmas banned or secularised using a far more direct approach by arguing that it unfairly privileged Christianity and was offensive to people from non-Christian backgrounds. The kind of tactics used by militant American secularists and atheists in their campaigns against the festival and other kinds of public religious observance or symbolism. Possibly having realised that attacking the holiday itself makes them look like complete killjoys, they’ve changed their tactic to alleging that Christmas really isn’t a Christian festival at all, with the implication that they’re going to be the good guys for reclaiming it from Christianity.

Well the old tactic – of a direct attack on Christmas – did leave some of them looking rather foolish in public indeed. 10 years ago Howard Jacobson in his column in the British newspaper, The Independent, commented on the campaign by an elderly lady to have the public celebration of Christmas banned because, as an active member of one of the country’s main atheist or secularist societies, she considered that the state celebration of Christmas deprived her and others like her of her human rights. From what I remember of Jacobson’s article, she also had a sideline in blasphemous anti-Christmas cards. So despite viewing her action as a blow for tolerance, it’s very moot whether she was actually very tolerant herself.

Jacobson wasn’t impressed, and argued in his column that action by the state to outlaw the public celebration of religious festivals was an infringement of the freedom of conscience of those who did want to celebrate their faith publicly. This provoked an angry response from the lady in question. She naturally wasn’t amused by the way he presented her and her campaign, and accused him of the same intolerance she felt was being exhibited towards her and her fellow atheists by the British state. Indeed, she even went as far as to call him a Nazi.

Not a good idea: Jacobson is very, very far from being a Nazi. Indeed, he’s the very type of person they did their best to wipe out.

Although Jacobson didn’t mention it in his next column replying to the lady’s angry rebuttal of his first piece, Jacobson himself is Jewish. Indeed, I got the impression that the contemporary Jewish experience was a strong feature of his novels, though the other impression I had of them is that they were largely about sexual angst and the kind of pre- and extra-marital shenanigans that would definitely have headmasters around the world taking a dim view of them should one of their pupils be caught reading one. It’s also a good question how religious Jacobson actually is. Back in 1992 he published a novel, The Very Model of a Man, about Cain taking up residence in Babel to build the notorious tower. It was hardly a faithful retelling of the Biblical story, parodying the Biblical narrative and including some incidents which would shock some Jews and Christians, such as the Lord becoming infatuated with Eve and attempted angelic rape. As this was the time when the campaigns against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was at highest, Private Eye ended its review of The Very Model of a Man by hoping that, if Orthodox Judaism reacted towards the book like Islam had towards Rushdie, Jacobson had booked his place at the same remote hotel with a couple of bodyguards from Special Branch. It actually says something about British Judaism and Christianity that Jews and Christians didn’t react with outrage. I don’t know what kind of letters Jacobson got about the book, but if there were massed crowds marching up and down demanding his execution and burning copies of the book, I must have missed them. Perhaps it all happened during a commercial break, or had to be called off because the football was on instead.

So, Jacobson isn’t a Christian, and may not even be religious. He certainly wasn’t averse to parodying religion. It does seem very much that when he wrote defending the public celebration of Christmas, he was sincerely acting from his stated belief that by trying to ban it, the secularists were infringing other people’s human rights by forcing their antipathy to religious festivals on others. His article made this last point very clear. He was suspicious of such people who insisted on their human rights in these instances, as they took no notice of other people’s.

Britain’s Race Equality Chief Supports Keeping Christmas in Schools

December 10, 2007

Well, Christmas is upon us and already there are the seasonal arguments over the public celebration of Christmas in a multicultural society. Now it seems that Trevor Philips, the chief of the Council for Racial Equality, a British governmental body responsible for tackling racism, has expressed his opinion. According to an article I read in today’s <i> Metro </i>, a free paper stocked on British buses, Philips has expressed his own approval of schools performing traditional Christmas plays.

Unlike America, Britain has no constitutional separation of Church and State, and religious education is a mandatory part of the school curriculum. It’s traditional for British primary schools to put on Nativity plays at Christmas, where adoring parents can come to see their children acting out the Christmas story. According to the paper, some schools have stopped staging such places in case they offend some minorities. Philips, however, has stated that he does not support this policy, and was quoted as saying that Christ is the reason we have Christmas, and that it’s okay to put the Nativity plays on.

Now this should be simple commonsense. I’ve atheist friends who have told me about the joy they’ve had watching their children appear on stage in the school Nativity play, despite their lack of faith. While I can understand that some schools may not feel that a Nativity play is appropriate when they have significant numbers of pupils of other, non-Christian backgrounds, it’s largely the case that very few people from non-Christian minorities object to the public celebration of Christmas.

I therefore hope that schools take on board Trevor Philip’s comments, and that parents can enjoy their kids on stage this year being Joseph, Mary, innkeepers, and assorted shepherds and angels without interference from authorities fearing offending someone with a traditional, Christian play.