Religion Snapshots: On the Uses of “Atheism”


Religion Snapshots is a new feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For a previous post in the series, see here.

Question: What are your thoughts on the classification of “atheist” as a marker of identity in surveys and in the public realm more generally? What are the main associations involved and underlying assumptions that go along with this category?

Steven Ramey: Perhaps better than the Nones, whose construction I have critiqued on the Bulletin blog and elsewhere, the classification “atheist”, as outlined in the Pew Forum Fact Tank blog, is an excellent example of the difficulty with labels and surveys. Each respondent’s selection of a label for him/herself depends on the individual understanding of the label and its various connotations at that moment, as well as issues of response bias in surveys. With narratives of the US as a Christian nation, the association of atheism with communism during the Cold War, with legal challenges to prayer in schools and the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and with more recent strident arguments from “New Atheists,” negative connotations of the label for many people or further entrenched, apparently including Oprah.

The negative connotations combined with the shifting understandings of the term that the Pew Forum references suggests that a .8% increase in those self-identifying as atheist in a survey over a five year span, even if statistically significant, is virtually meaningless. If surveying the label atheist is meaningless, aren’t surveys of other self-identifications also meaningless? How many different understandings of the identifiers operate among those who label themselves as Jew or Buddhist, Lutheran or Shii, Alabama fan or Whovian, feminist or libertarian? While we can never escape the limits of language when we teach, write, and comment on Facebook, we need to use care in our application and analysis of identifying labels that have no stable meaning, acknowledging who is applying the label, whether for themselves or others, and the interests that such applications serve.

Matt Sheedy: According to the On-line Etymology Dictionary the term “atheist” comes from the Greek atheos, meaning “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly.” Modern uses of the term seem to me to be inflected with this binary logic of belief/unbelief in some supernatural agency, along with the still-common association of unbelief with a-morality. This can be seen, for example, in John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” (1689) where he argues that while different religions should be tolerated, “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon atheists.”

In the contemporary social field within the Euro-West we still find “conservative” narratives that maintain a “non-tolerant” position, often stressing that only one God is correct (i.e., Christian), while more “liberal” narratives, though “tolerant” of atheists, will often imply that embracing some notion of “spirituality” is an important corollary to “unbelief.” (e.g., see the link to Oprah’s comments above)

Among other things, this suggests that those who identify as “atheist”—either as individuals or as part of a group-formation (e.g., secular humanists, the “Nones”)—are implicitly required to define their “spiritual” bona fides lest they be labeled a-moral. A recent Pew survey, for example, noted that, “Among atheists [in the US], 82% say they either often (52%) or sometimes (30%) feel a deep connection with nature and the earth.” Putting aside the ambiguous connotations of what it means to feel a “deep connection with nature” (e.g., is it viewed as “metaphysical” or pantheistic or perhaps neuro-biological?), it would seem that more recent constructs of “atheist” and “atheism” are largely re-presented and re-defined in response to the long-held assumption that such “beliefs” are somehow dangerous to society and in this way are still largely shaped by those dominant social forces (e.g., “conservative” and “liberal”) that seek to either contest or mould their identities in their own image.

Donovan Schaefer: I’m interested not so much in dissecting the classification of atheism but in pushing the conversation around atheism forward, which to me means developing new ideas, practices, and, perhaps most importantly, styles of atheism.  When Derrida writes in Circumfession, “I quite rightly pass for an atheist” he’s expressing the disdain that many who would call themselves atheist feel toward that label.

To understand this, scholars need to recognize that the classificatory problem surrounding atheism comes not from the top down, with scholars or pollsters or judicial institutions deciding what atheists can or cannot do, but from the network of organic interactions between bodies trafficking the label “atheist”–interactions infused with different affective valences.  This has two dimensions:

1) The word “atheist” in the US–by virtue of historical associations with communism but also through the operation of what Bill Connolly calls the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine”–places bodies termed atheist in the category of the foreign, immoral, and contemptible.  This is a category suffused with anger, a product of self-indulgent paranoid fantasies, especially on the part of religious conservatives.

2) The word “atheist” in the US is used by self-described atheists as a platform for aggressively attacking religion.  This emerges in part as a response to the currents of anger directed at atheists in the US, but also out of the repertoire of grievances–some of them overblown, using the “on balance religion has been bad for humanity” fallacy–aired by atheists against “religion.”  Atheists in the US have a tendency (not universal, but general) to take on anger as their politics.

These circumstances set the stage for certain political effects around atheism, shaping the attraction that atheism has for some and the repulsion it has for others.  But with the waning of the New Atheists, atheism is branching out, devising new styles that focus not so much on a litany of propositional truths or critiques but on new ways of feeling atheism and situating atheist politics.  Scholars who want to understand atheism would do well to typologize it less according to its belief/nonbelief parameters and more on its practices and affects.

Tenzan Eaghll: Atheism is a myth of the absence of myth. We have passed beyond myth, cries the non-believer, we now touch the world and have abandoned the cloak of superstition. No more fable, no more fiction, no more stories of gods and souls to delude us from the historical task at hand. For now the world presents itself in its real appearance, and we—as subjects who face the world fully present to ourselves—can quantify the thing itself in all its glory. As Dawkins argues in his latest book, this appearance is the true magic of reality, not the ancient stories of Zeus, Baal, or Isis.

Atheism is certainly a great myth, for it presents itself as the overcoming of all myth. It is a myth that obscures the ineluctable fiction that is intertwined with all presentation, and announces a clear view of truth independent of language or context. However, as Steven Ramey notes, we scholars of religion are also not free from blame, for in our very cutting and tracing of our data we all to often ignore the meaninglessness of our own arbitrary incisions. By classifying all the “Nones” or the “New Atheists,” do we not merely re-engender the myth of the universality of religion? 

It should be remembered that the earliest theorists of religion created this myth of universality. Early Modern theorists such as Jean Bodin (1530-1596) and Herbert of Cherbery (1583-1648) were interested in developing a definition of religion that could embrace all the different forms of Christianity under a single universal category. Our discipline was founded on this myth of religion as real appearance, and it was once believed that if we could get past cultural difference and magical superstition then true religion (vera religio) would be uncovered.

What needs to be questioned, as I think Ramey is suggesting, is how this myth of myth often goes unnoticed in claims made by religious studies scholars. What needs to be challenged is the idea that fiction is a foundation. For this assumption is not only the guiding thread for thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, who ignore the literary elements that infuse aspects of all truth claims, but for scholars of religion who acknowledge that myth is a myth, but then simultaneously assume that their arbitrary scholarly incisions have a mythic status (i.e. offer a pure presentation of reality). What needs to be emphasized, therefore, is that fiction is not foundation.

This entry was posted in Donovan Schaefer, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Steven Ramey, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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