Tag Archive | Humanism

The Good, the Bad, and the Non-Religion

Another one of my videos, built off a couple of conference papers, in which I present and analyze the problematic rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion in the academic study of ‘non-/religion’… and why this matters. I also couldn’t resist getting some Bad Religion in there…

The conference in October was ‘Research in Religion’ in Edinburgh, 20 October 2018, https://researchinreligion2018.wordpress.com/

The original conference in Bonn was “Hijacked! A Critical Treatment of the Public Rhetoric of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Religion” from 7-11 June 2017, https://www.fiw.uni-bonn.de/religionsforschung/forschungsprojekte/konferenz-hijacked 

The abstract from October reads as follows:

The Good, The Bad, and the Non-Religion: The Public Rhetoric of Good/Bad ‘Religion’ in Academic ‘Non-/Religious’ Studies

The first decades of the twenty-first century have seen a rise in what Aaron Hughes has dubbed the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’ in public discourse about religion, whereby ‘good religion’ which is ‘egalitarian, progressive, pluralistic, democratic, and so on’ is constructed as ‘the real or authentic version’ and set against its dichotomous opposite, ‘bad religion’ (2015, xiv–xv). This dubious rhetoric – particularly popularized in the political sphere by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – constructs ‘good religion’ as something that ‘conforms to, and does not challenge, liberal secular principles. Good religion stays out of “politics.” Bad religion takes a critical stand against liberal categories and is, therefore, fanatical.’ (Fitzgerald 2015, 206) Deciding what counts as ‘good’/bad’ (or ‘moderate’/’radical’) is a question of power and, in current UK discourse, involves a reification of tolerance as a ‘British value’ in official and media discourse (cf. UK Government’s Prevent strategy), a fantasized Islamic world of pure intolerance’ (Brown 2015, 161).

The same decades have seen a marked rise in the number of individuals choosing to not identify as religious across the globe, a related rise in academic studies of what it might mean to be other than religious, and a burgeoning body of substantive studies mapping and theorizing the beliefs, practices, identifications, values and social contexts of ‘non-religious’ populations. In this paper, I place this area of research into conversation with a body of work which critiques much of the academic study of ‘religion’ for perpetuating the ‘rhetoric of authenticity’, and I demonstrate that in many cases, the rhetoric is the same in studies of ‘non-religion’, despite the added ‘non-‘. Thus, the academic study of non-religion also ‘inadvertently maintains a host of Christian assumptions that reflect the all too Christian heritage of the term “religion”’ (Hughes 2015, 120).

Shelley Segal

One of the things I do for research purposes (and sometimes for personal enjoyment) is listen to a few skeptical or irreligious podcasts so that I can keep abreast of what is happening in the field. One that I do not listen to for pleasure is the Humanist Hour produced by the American Humanist Association. I think it just grates on me because it might as well be called the “Atheist Hour” or even the “Anti-Theist Hour” and there is only so much of that I can take in a day… but at least it is only published once a month, and it sometimes has some interesting material.

This month’s podcast was about music… basically music for atheists… however, it did inspire me to look up one of their guests – a young singer-songwriter from Melbourne named Shelley Segal. She has an album coming out shortly entitled “An Atheist Album” and the tracks I have heard are really good… funny, intelligent, inspiring and with a cool kinda reggae feel in places. So… check her out on MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and her own website… and hey, why not even listen to the latest edition of the Humanist Hour. It’s just not really my cup of tea, but still worth a listen.

Here’s one of Shelley’s songs, “Saved”, from YouTube:

Atheist Aesthetics

A blog post from Ken Chitwood, featuring my friend Katie from the NSRN. I would add my own comments but I don’t have time right now… a couple of academics and I were talking in the pub yesterday about how atheism is largely responsible for the apparent resurgence of religion these days, and how humanism is basically religion devoid of the belief but attempting to maintain the ritual. I am sure I could construct that into a response… but I’ll leave that to you.

Enjoy. You can read the original post here.

Atheists Trade in Traditional Christian Symbols, Create Meaningful Icons of their Own

It’s that time of year again. The Holiday season is upon us, and with it comes classic Yuletide traditions such as eggnog, carols, the lighting of menorahs and decorating a Christmas tree. Ah yes, the Christmas tree, bedecked in lights, garnished with care and topped with…a flying spaghetti monster?

Instead of a star or an angel on top of ye ole Christmas tree this year, many atheists might surprise their family and friends with a proudly placed personified representation of a mound of spaghetti and meatballs atop their tree.

Why you might ask?

Katie Aston, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University in London researching atheist aesthetics and material cultures, suggests that such non-religious symbols, taken at face value as a joke, may serve similar purposes to explicitly religious images.

“The visual in a non-religious worldview, is of great importance,” Aston said, “it forms a vehicle for a number of ideas which either express or support the practice of a non-religious life and on occasion outwardly reject the religious images offered.”

The latter might very well be the case with the Flying Spaghetti Monster tree decoration or a number of other well-known atheist symbols and visual aids.

Take for example the “Darwin Fish.” Often found on the back of cars in mock comparison to the ICTHYS fish found on the bumpers of Christians, the Darwinian alternative is intended to promote evolution and to show unequivocally that the owner of the vehicle is not Christian, not a creationist and most definitely does not believe in a deity.

It might be said that the symbol’s strength is found in its resemblance to a common Christian sign.

Similarly, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parodic deity meant to challenge Christian beliefs in God, is placed on top of the tree instead of an angel or a “Bethlehem star” pointing to Jesus’ nativity.

These atheist symbols use Christian images or icons and replace them with their own to establish a contra-identity. At times this re-branding, as it were, can prove provocative.

The annual American Atheist “Christ-myth” billboard campaign plays on commonly known Christian symbols and challenges their veracity. Furthermore, the billboard campaign itself is overtly evangelistic and along with its British counterpart, the atheist bus ad campaign, are taken straight from the page of proselytizing believers.

So why do atheists convert otherwise religious icons into secular symbols? Often times for impact.

“The use of a simple symbol in a film, a book or an advertisement says far more than any wordy explanation ever could” wrote Adele Nozedar in The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols, “Signs and symbols, our invention of them and understanding of them, transcend the barriers of written language and are the very heart of our existence as human beings.”

And so, these secular symbols and icons of the non-religious communicate what it means to be an atheist or agnostic. They are defiant and often juxtaposed to classic religious symbols. But this only tells half the story, it only establishes what atheists and agnostics do not believe or who they are not.

“While atheism is the absence of religion, it is not only a negative category” said Aston, “the atheist identity culture generates images which reference both the negative worldview and the positive/existent worldview of rationalism, scientific empiricism and humanism.”

These positive symbols, rather than drawing on established religious images, are creative instead of ironic, meaningful on their own instead of mocking. They tell us what atheists are, in lieu of only what they are not.

Some of these symbols include the American Atheist’s atom, symbolizing the idea that science is the source of true knowledge and human advancement. Nazadar suggests the open ended loop at the bottom “represents the idea that there are questions yet to be asked and yet to be answered.”

Aston proposed that Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” image and accompanying text might be another example of a “positive” atheist icon.

Whether the symbols tell us what atheists think or what they don’t believe, whether they be “negative” or “positive,” they provide a window into a non-religious identity culture that is continuously emerging in modern Western society.

On the back of vehicles, tee shirts, billboards or even atop Christmas trees these images are intimations of what it means to be atheist in a world full of religious signs and symbols. They provide identity, meaning and comfort to the world’s non-religious.

As Aston concluded, “images used in ‘non-religious’ realms, can produce a similar sense of awe, a sense of the enormity of which we cannot know and a material, shared reference point for members of a community with similar world views.”

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

It is six weeks until  submit my 25,000 word MSc by Research thesis. Thank goodness I now have a title and an abstract…

Here it is, for your enjoyment:

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

This thesis details the outcomes of a small-scale research project into a relatively new and under-researched field. The aim was qualitatively to map out the different types of nonreligiosity articulated by some nonreligious students at the University of Edinburgh. Beginning by demarcating the concept of ‘nonreligion’ around which the study revolves, the author outlines: first, why such a study is necessary and worthwhile; second, the specific theoretical questions to which the study is directed; and third, the specific relevance of studying nonreligion within Religious Studies. In approaching the subject in this way, this study calls into question the reified dichotomy between religion and nonreligion, expands what the author calls the ‘nonreligious monolith’ and questions ideas of religious universality. The specifics of this study are detailed at length. Particular focus is given to the suitability of a Scottish university student population as a subject-group, and to the methodology employed, which uses electronic questionnaires and in-depth interviews to elicit unscripted narratives from selected participants. The author demonstrates that current typologies based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels, tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. Nonreligious students are shown to be highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key identity terms, and in many cases they maintain multiple identities simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. These identities also vary in terms of concreteness and salience, and are informed by a wide variety of relationship- and education-based subjective experiences. A more nuanced approach is then proposed, based on the questionnaire and interview evidence, categorising individuals according to the overarching narrative through which they claim to interact with (non)religion. The thesis concludes by returning to the initial motivating questions – particularly concerning the reified status given to (non)religion  in traditional representations – and calling for future research investment in order to continue fleshing-out the nonreligious field, and for a continued movement away from attempts to explain nonreligion from a perspective of normative religiosity.

Movement Humanism and Deconversion from Christianity

I just wanted to draw attention to two interesting articles that I have read this morning, although I do not have time to respond.

Firstly, R Joseph Hoffman’s piece on “Movement Humanism“. A few choice quotations would be:

George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.


Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.

It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.

At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.

The other is a freely accessible, academic article from the Journal of Religion and Society, entitled “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity” by Bradley R. E. Wright, Dina Giovanelli, Emily G. Dolan, and Mark Evan Edwards. The passages which particularly struck me were:

It is not clear how well these intellectual and moral concerns map on to a rational choice perspective on religion. One could argue that they are implicitly linked to costs and benefits; for example, the forced acceptance of non-scientific ideas might pose a psychological cost. Likewise, the perceived injustice of hell might cause emotional distress. Nonetheless, in discussing these concerns, the [deconverts] focused on issues of moral right and wrong rather than cost and benefits. They write as “truth-seekers” more than “benefit-optimizers,” taking perhaps more of a philosophical approach, rather than economic, to religion.


Christians are not usually drawn to other belief systems; rather they are put off by the Christian God. They are not lured away by non-believers; rather they are frustrated with believers. Deconversion, therefore, usually represents more of a desire to leave Christianity than an attraction to its alternatives.

I hope you take the time to read the full articles if you seem at all interested.

The Secular Beatification of Stephen Fry

I have just read the following email from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and I thought they wouldn’t mind me sharing it with you…

I think Stephen Fry is great, and why not give him an award, eh? I wonder what the motivations are though? Is it a sort of ‘middle-finger to religion’ publicity stunt? Is it some form of secular beatification? Or is it just about giving a nice guy an award?

I LOVE that previous winners have been Greg Graffin, Salman Rushdie and Joss Whedon, though… I’d consider myself a fan of all of them, though I had never thought about their ‘humanistic’ credentials really.


The Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism is presented at Harvard University each year by the Harvard Secular Society on behalf of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the American Humanist Association. Selected by a committee of 20-30 Harvard students each year, this award is given to a figure greatly admired by our students and community for both artistic and humanitarian reasons.

Now in its fifth year, we’re excited to announce that the HSS Cultural Humanism committee has chosen Stephen Fry based on what they feel is an outstanding contribution to Humanism in popular culture. (Buy your tickets now!)

Actor, author, comedian, Fry has worked for three decades in film and theater. Well known for his exploration of the US in “Fry in America,” Fry has also starred alongside Hugh Laurie (“A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Jeeves and Wooster”) and in a variety of award-winning films including V for Vendetta, Wilde, Alice in Wonderland, and his own documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Fry has more than two million followers on Twitter. He’s known to European audiences as not only a cultural icon, but a passionate and compassionate voice for Humanism. Now we’re honored to bring his unique Humanist message to an American audience.

The award ceremony will take place Tuesday, February 22 at 8 pm and will feature a performance by Fry.

Previous winners of the Cultural Humanism Award are, in 2007, novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, in 2008, punk rock star Greg Graffin (of the band Bad Religion and the UCLA Faculty of Biology), in 2009, writer/ director/producer Joss Whedon (“Buffy,” “Angel,” Firefly,” “Dollhouse”) and in 2010 Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the hosts of The MythBusters.

The Lifetime Achievement Award sells out every year, so get your tickets at the Harvard Box Office now! And to see the Facebook event, click here.


A Humanistic Perspective in an Ancient Classic

From the Confucian Analects:

“Tzu-Lu (one disciple of Confucius) asked about serving the spirits [of the dead], the Master said, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve [their] dead spirits?” [Tzu-Lu added], “I venture to ask about death?” He was answered, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”

From James Legge, 1870. The Chinese Classics: A Translation by James Legge. New York: Hurd and Houghton, pp. 57-58.

The (Un)naturalness of Religion and Atheism

This post has been motivated by a fascinating article by Armin W Geertz and Guðmundur Ingi Markússon “Religion is natural, atheism is not: On why everybody is both right and wrong”. It shall mostly be a summary of the main points for those of you who don’t have the time to plough through such things, but I shall also be throwing in some of my own ideas and thoughts based upon my research and personal experience.

A major stumbling block which has reared its head at numerous points throughout my study is that, dependent upon the context, both the “religion as a natural phenomenon hypothesis” and the “religion as an unnatural/parasitic phenomenon hypothesis”, seem perfectly reasonable and valid. Thus. I was instantly rapt when I read the introduction to this article, where the authors claim that one of their aims is to:

“… consider the differences between the naturalness hypothesis and Dawkins’ memetic or unnaturalness hypothesis of religion and argue that, ultimately, both approaches must be combined if we are to achieve a comprehensive account of religious and cultural systems.”

However, even more important is the fact that this argument is applied throughout the article to both religion and atheism… with great success in my opinion.

Their snapshot of current opinion on atheist numbers in the USA and Worldwide:

I am always somewhat bemused and amused at the vast differences in figures that are presented when one asks the questions “How many atheists are there in X?” or “How many people do not believe in God in Y”. The simple fact is that many of the results presented rely on such figures as church attendance, or even merely church affiliation/membership and use these as indicators of religious belief, and that the way in which questions are asked in surveys, and the population being surveyed, and the source of the statistics, impacts hugely upon the ways in which the figures can be skewed.

Geertz and Markússon write:

A consistent discourse is promoted claiming that the vast majority of American citizens believe in God (a Newsweek poll claimed 91% in 2007) and ignoring or denigrating atheists as an insignificant minority (Aronson, 2007). Other polls seem to indicate that more than 29 million American adults, or one in seven, declare themselves to be without religion (American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 gave a result of 14%) [see also here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll of 2006 gave a result of 18% [see here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll also indicated that 73% in the U.S. claimed to believe in any form of God or any type of supreme being.Figures are quite different in that poll for European countries […]. The poll suggests that in Great Britain, France and Germany, the majority are either agnostics or atheists. In Spain, agnostics and atheists are almost as numerous as believers in any form of God or any type of supreme being. In Italy, believers form a substantial majority, but still not to the extent seen in the U.S. These figures, if reliable, could indicate why Europeans generally are not as upset by the New Atheist literature as Americans are.

They also point to a rough estimate provided by Phil Zuckerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism of some 500-750 million people in the world who do not believe in God… making unbelief statistically the fourth largest “belief”, “persuasion”, “stance” or whatever you wish to call it, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (c. 2 billion, 1.2 billion and 900 million respectively). However, the key thing that I wish to stress here is that these statistics are for non-belief. No comment is being made here as to whether these people have intentionally chosen this stance, or even give religious belief  a second thought… and it is most important to emphasise that these individuals are most definitely not all atheists. Unfortunately I do not have the precise citation to hand, but I remember when reading Victor Stenger’s fair abysmal The New Atheism, a moment where he effectively took the entire population of China and added them to the unbelieving choir (if not the atheist choir… damn I wish I had that citation with me). However, whether he said “unbeleivers” or “atheists” is not my central point. My point is that far too many people involved in the debate on numbers of religious or nonreligious affiliates  simply make sweeping generalisations to suit their own agendas. Be very careful which figures you trust. I can”t say more than that… but just always make sure you ask where they are coming from…

The New Atheist Movement

The authors seem to agree with my conclusions that the “Four Horsemen” (whether this appellation is suitable or not) are seen from both within atheism itself (by those labelling themselves as New Atheists, and those who eschew this more contemporary form of atheism, such as Julian Baggini), and from without atheism in both scholarly and religious circles, as the main spokesmen for this “movement”. The fact that the best article they can point to as “a summary of some of the characters in the New Atheism movement” is Gary Wolf’s The Church of the Nonbelievers fills me with despair… it is no criticism of their scholarship, which seems to be of a very high standard, but simply a criticism of the Wolf article and the severe dearth of scholarly analysis that there is “out there”. If anyone is particularly interested in an overview of this nature I can supply you with my undergraduate dissertation, and I would also encourage to check out the research project “The “Return of Religion” and the Return of the Criticism of religion – The “New Atheism” in recent German and American culture” being carried out by Thomas Zenk et al in Berlin. Or indeed my previous blog post “The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats”.

Another interesting phenomea that these authors draw attention to is the emergence of atheist summer camps, starting in 1996 with Camp Quest: “Today there are six Camp Quests across North America (Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, California in the U.S. and Ontario in Canada) and one is currently being organized in the United Kingdom”. What exactly is the need for a specifically atheistic summer camp? Couldn’t it just be a summer camp for the sake of a summer camp? What do they “teach” at an atheistic summer camp? I suppose it is just a backlash against the scores of religiously themed and motivated summer camps prevalent in the US and other countries… but it still seems a bit unnecessary to me!

And finally, although in danger of extreme reductionism. the authors cite the work of Paul and Zuckerman, who propose that the reason why religiosity may still be so prevalent in the USA as compared to other first world democracies is that it is the only one without a stable, socio-economic security. Paul and Zuckerman write:

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the U.S.

G. Paul and P. Zuckerman, Why the gods are not winning, Edge. The Third Culture (2007).

A very stimulating thesis!

The Naturalness and Unnaturalness of Religion and Atheism

What is the Naturalness of Religion Hypothesis? Phil Zuckerman is used as a caricature of an erroneous stance on this issue. He believes that the central tenet of this hypothesis is that “belief in God is biologically determined, neurologically based, or genetically inborn, growing out of the “natural” processes of the human brain”. Thus construed, he ‘naturally’ assumes that the statistics, intimated above, on the numbers of nonreligious people in the world, are essentially damning to this version of the naturalness of religion hypothesis.

The authors then discuss numerous alternative formulations of the thesis:

  • They state: “The naturalness hypothesis as widely understood by cognitive scientists of religion refers to the fact that religious ideas and behaviors thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes.”
  • They refer to two types of “naturalness” proposed by Pascal Boyer: a) the subjective feeling amongst believers that their beliefs are self-evident or “natural”; b) “those aspects of religion which depend upon noncultural constraints” – these constraints being evolutionary or “cognitive”… “universal features of the human mind–brain, which have a direct effect on the likelihood that certain ideas will be acquired, memorized, and transmitted”.
  • And they point to Justin Barrett’s characterisation of the naturalness of religion hypothesis as “much of what is typically called “religion” may be understood as the natural product of aggregated ordinary cognitive processes”.
  • But they do acknowledge that Zuckerman raises a valid question which must be dealt with by any proponent of the naturalness of religion thesis: If religion is natural, whence the spread of non-belief?

Zuckerman’s stance is then related to the prevalent stance amongst many prominent New Atheists, who are ‘naturally’ (or should I say, understandably) averse to prescribing any type of “naturalness” to religion. The preferred stance here is the “unnaturalness hypothesis”, based upon the meme concept coined by Richard Dawkins and detailed extensively in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. At its most simply, according to this thesis, religion does not depend on normal human cognitive and psychological processes but on an external “mind virus”. But at its most simple, this thesis falls foul of the immediate, common sense objection… if religion is dependent upon something external to the human species, how has this same mind virus developed, in different variations, in vastly different and unconnected cultures worldwide?

This being said, Dawkins does make a great deal of sense when he writes in The God Delusion:

“Propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature [come to a child from the respected and indeed unquestionable authorities known as parents, relatives, elders etc.]. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner”

The authors continue:

“One can understand why atheistic activists feel more at ease with the unnaturalness hypothesis than its natural alternative. The notion of religion as a transmitted, mental illness fits hand-in-glove with the ideological aspects of the New Atheist movement. Not only is religion unnatural (and by association atheism natural), it is also a condition that is treatable, at least in principle.”

However, this risks equating two very different concepts. Just because something is “natural”… whether this specifically means genetically, evolutionary, or occurring by second-nature across the globe… this is not the equivalent to saying it is correct, good or indeed necessary. There are many things which have in the past seemed normal and “natural” but which have been left behind. And similarly there are things which have even been biologically engrained which have been outgrown. If it were to be shown that religion were natural and atheism were unnatural, this does not mean that one is a better state of affairs than the other… it would simply be a comment based on observable phenomena. Any of these statements that I have made could be true or false, but the simple point is that nature does not inherently have to provide the definitive state of affairs.

The authors eloquently sum up the merits of each explanation as follows:

“The naturalness hypothesis accounts for a range of recurrent issues quite economically. For example: a) why religion is a human universal, being present in all known human groups (the human mind-brain is more or less the same everywhere); b) why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems (they activate entrenched cognitive mechanisms such as our hyperactive agency detection and are easy to process and memorize); and c) why rituals take the form that they do (due to action representation and effects on memory). The unnaturalness hypothesis, on the other hand, explains at best surface variation (say, why an important agent is called “Jesus” here but “Visnu” there) and the propagation of superstitious beliefs.”

But are careful to clarify that “we still maintain that Dawkins’ unnaturalness hypothesis identifies important aspects of cultural transmission and that a full account of religion will have to combine both approaches.”

The authors propose a simple thought experiment whereby a group of infants find themselves on an uninhabited island and grow to form a society without the aid of parental influence. Will they become religious? The authors contend that the unnatural, virus-of-the-mind hypothesis would answer “no!” and that the naturalness hypothesis would give at best a “most likely”. This is because, in this hypothetical situation, the development of religion…

“does not depend on religious concepts being genetically hardwired, independent of environmental factors. The only inborn aspects at play are normal, cognitive mechanisms of the mind–brain which we use to navigate in our mundane, day-to-day environment – such as our ability to detect agency in the environment (in other living organisms and fellow humans), our capacity to infer the intentions of other people and automatic or intuitive expectations about things in the environment (such as solid objects cannot be in more than one place at a time, that living beings have agency and that people have intentions). In this [hypothetical situation], religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) is an emergent property arising from the interplay of normal cognitive mechanisms and the immediate natural and social environment (opaque causal processes → ideas → talking → spread of supernatural concepts). Only by removing cognition from its environmental and social niche do we arrive at Zuckerman’s caricature of the cognitive science of religion.”

Here comes what I see as one of the key points of their thesis: naturalness is a question of probability, with religion being likely but not necessary – atheism, whilst being less likely, is “certainly possible, given the right environmental and cultural niche.”

“In urban conditions, the environment is to a large extent man-made, and thus there is much less incentive to interpret causal relations in terms of non-human, supernatural agency. Further, there is a difference in the modern epidemiology of ideas in the sense that naturalistic explanatory frameworks will be more readily available due to higher levels of education.”

The authors then present Justin Barrett’s thesis, that there are certain cognitive capacities when theism has no problem dealing with, that atheism will struggle to cope with, making it a much less likely outcome. At first these sound reasonable… but Geertz and Markússon manage to provide compelling counter arguments at each turn. I shall present each of Barrett’s cognitive capacities in turn, combined with Geertz and Markússon’s rebuttal:

  • The Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (HADD) – “Repeated, demonstrated false alarms from HADD should equally reinforce beliefs in non-theistic, natural explanations. Wouldn’t the reasoning mind that concludes, ‘No, it’s not a tiger that brushed the branch, it’s only the wind’ also be able to conclude, ‘No, it’s not my ancestor who pushed the rock from the ledge above, it’s only a startled goat’?”
  • Moral Realism – Barrett is not concerned with whether or not we can be moral without religion. What he claims is that religion gives a certain moral certitude which atheism cannot. However, “We argue that atheists also find moral certitude in the ideologies of a just society or in human compassion or simply in enlightened altruism.”
  • Dealing with Death… specifically guilt: “We don’t know how atheists deal with such situations. We do agree with Barrett, however, that guilt for instance is a natural mechanism and can be felt without any apparent reason for it. But this problem must be dealt with by both atheists and theists regardless of their particular persuasions.”

Another argument that the authors use to refute the argument that atheists do not cope as well as theists in the world is quite simply that atheism is both ancient and complex… it is not a recent phenomenon. They spend a long time discussing this point, however I do not feel that it needs as much explanation as they provide. Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and James Thrower’s Western Atheism: A Short History provide an ample introduction to atheism throughout history, as of course does Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. However, the do draw attention to some work by an early historian of religions, Guiseppe Tucci, who identified a heterodox movement in India approximately 300-150BCE known as the Cārvāka school, who held the following main tenets:

1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
2. There is no deity or supernatural.

3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.

4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.

5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.

6. Material elements have an immanent force.

7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.

8. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (Thrower, 1980 and Tucci, 1924)

This bears a remarkable similarity to the views of some contemporary New Atheists…

Now what about more recent “adaptationist” or “religion by natural selection” approaches?

According to this type of approach, “instead of maintaining that it is a by-product of adaptations for mundane survival, it claims that religiosity is a functional adaptation in its own right, crafted by natural selection.”

I’m not going to do much more than throw out what Geertz and Markússon have to say on this approach. They point to the theory of Jesse Bering who “theorizes that belief in ambient, unseen agents, such as ancestors, was selected due to its beneficial effects on cooperation in our ancestral past.” He writes that the psychological foundations of some religious behaviours

“may be side effects of other design features that, quite by chance, had salutary effects of their own on the organism’s ability to pass on its genes and, over time, were independently subjected to natural selection.”

And continues: “God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.”

The authors cogently observe that “The interesting paradox here is that even staunch atheists, such as Bering himself, may continue to “hear” the “voice of God” emanating from the recesses of their mind, no matter their agility with Occam’s razor and other thinking aids of the scientific method.”

So how does this all fit with the New Atheism?

The authors tip their hat to the common (and to some extent common sense thesis) that the New Atheism “was ignited by the shattering events of September 11, 2001”, however they are quite rightly insistent that whilst 9/11 may have been a motivation to put pen to paper in some specific instances, in most cases (specifically in the case of Richard Dawkins) outspoken writing “is also the culmination of [a] long-standing opposition to religion and religion’s place in society, a career of critique antedating 9/11 by decades. Furthermore, 9/11 tells us very little about the continued strength and propagation of New Atheism.”

However, I think it is fairly obvious to you and me that, for better or worse, 9/11 has acted as a kind of “cultural primer’, enabling the message of atheism to strike a chord with others to whom it may not have reached.

The also draw attention to a Guardian piece written by Dawkins 4 days after 9/11 that I had not come across until now  – “Religion’s misguided missiles: promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster”.

They point to three features of New Atheism that they believe help it spread and maintain itself:

  • “A rich ecology of signs increases adaptability as it makes it possible to employ different “segments” of signs (texts, and so on) in response to different circumstances (an analogy to cells applying different segments of DNA in different contexts). Externalization techniques like signs/mnemonics further enable the “offloading” of complex concepts into the environment, thus securing their spread and transmission. Within a relatively brief number of years, variously linked concepts such as memes, genes, rationality, secularism, science, naturalism, democracy, religion-as-a-delusion, religion-as-a-virus-of-the-mind, religion-as-abuse and so on became determining hallmarks of New Atheist semiotic ecology.”
  • A “reactionary semiosis” – “In order to secure the transmission of atheist thought, New Atheists have been engaged in systematic and aggressive criticism and deconstruction of theist claims.”
  • Arguments from authority give credit to certain trends of semiosis – whether these be from contemporary authorities, or from a carefully chosen and cited list of older – even ancient – authorities. I stumbled upon a striking instance of this phenomenon just a few days ago when Hemant Mehta – The Friendly Atheist – asked on his popular blog “What should atheists memorise?”… the greater than 100 responses so far should prove instructive. Why on earth should atheists feel compelled to memorise particularly notable passages? And do these passages perform the same evangelical and personal commitment functions as they would within, say, Christianity? Something interesting to look into I reckon!

For the authors, then,

“In this perspective, the New Atheist movement is a complex system of signs/external mnemonics and distributed cognition, well adapted to the uneasy world of popular media and social activism. These formal, semiotic aspects, we suggest, are key factors in the movement’s spread and maintenance. To restrict New Atheism to the individual brains of New Atheists is insufficient grounds for any claims on the cognitive naturalness or unnaturalness of atheism. Modern, Western cultural, political and social contexts function as the supportive framework for atheist cognition—just as they do for religious cognition.”

And at this point they conclude their paper:

“In the course of this paper, after considering irreligion and the New Atheism, we have refuted Zuckerman’s claim that statistics on atheism pose a problem for cognitive accounts of religion. Neither the by-product nor the adaptationist hypotheses of the naturalness approach make religiosity a necessity for humans. Such would only be the case if we were to remove cognition from its socio-cultural habitat. However, cognitive accounts often proceed as if the wider cultural ecology can be ignored. To amend this, the naturalness and unnaturalness (or memetic) hypotheses must be combined, bringing cognition and culture back together again. In redirecting attention to the fact that human cognition is always situated within a natural habitat of cultural systems, we find that atheism is no less natural than religiosity is. We are therefore critical of the cognitive science of religion accounts of atheism and their unsupported assumptions about atheists.

In the end, religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive–cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.”

To my mind, this is an excellent paper. It may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it nicely frames how things aren’t always as simple as they seem, and how in the field of Religious Studies – whether we are looking at religion or irreligion, belief or nonbelief – the ultimate pitfall is to fall into the reductionistic trap of accepting on theory as definitive, to the detriment of other useful and worthwhile explanations.

I hope some of the citations, quotations, summaries and personal insights I have provided have been useful. Please do use this as a basis for further research and discussion.


The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats

This blog post is largely based upon the final chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, which was entitled “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism”. If anything needs further clarification, it is likely that it was discussed in earlier chapters, however I have attempted to augment this post (the final and, I think, most interesting chapter) with extra discussion from the previous chapters.

The subject matter for my dissertation was the writings of a particularly modern form of atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. Whether this label is justified or not is another issue, and I prefer to refer to “contemporary atheism” throughout this post, taking the work of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as representative of a particularly recent form Anglophone atheism. This is based both upon external observations such as Google searches, and the numerous critiques of contemporary atheism which group these authors together, as well as internal observations and displays of mutual support.

I discerned that there was a three-fold criticism of religion running throughout the writings of these four authors. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. I also discerned a loosely four-fold positive agenda running throughout their writings: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; an ambivalent, but largely negative stance on the continued existence of religion; and an emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature. This criticism and agenda was analysed in relation to a question raised by Tina Beattie – are the New Atheists promoting a New Enlightenment – and I concluded that their  criticism does indeed follow the pattern established by Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity

Thus, in the previous chapters of my dissertation, I demonstrated that there is an agenda at work within the contemporary trend of Anglophone atheism, frequently referred to as the “New Atheism”. However, the question remains as to why this agenda is so general, and why these atheists seemingly avoid explicitly articulating it. These authors give the impression that they speak for a large, readily mobilised, organised group of atheists. According to Dawkins, this “non-believing choir” is “a lot bigger than many people think” and includes (citing Bertrand Russell) “the immense majority of intellectually eminent men” (2007b:18,123). Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (2006) incessantly utilise the word “we” throughout their work, creating the sense of a large, global community that is rallying to their cause (cf. Hitchens, 2008:283). The large number of public conversations, lectures and conferences at which these authors have spread their message makes it unsurprising that Dawkins should conclude: “you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side” (2007f). If the milieu is as active as these rhetorical observations suggest, this makes the central question of this post all the more pertinent. Discussion on this issue occurs along five key themes – criticism of the Enlightenment, internal disharmony, atheist individuality, potential target audiences, and societal sympathy – before concluding that contemporary atheism rhetorically constitutes the very audience it seeks.

I previously demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic position is greatly influenced by the Enlightenment. Thus the degree to which these atheists make their agenda explicit is influenced by common perception of the Enlightenment. This perception is, however, far from complimentary, since the Enlightenment has been variously blamed for the inability of modern man to form “non-utilitarian ties to other human beings“ (Outram, 2005:112), for supporting despotism (Gay, 1964:274), and was casually castigated in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition” (ibid:263). Whilst these attacks are “misleading” and “fallacious” (Berlin, 1979:29 cf. Gay, 1964:262), it is unsurprising that they would discourage explicit calls to return to Enlightenment values. It is also significant that the Enlightenment philosophes themselves “never developed a coherent political program” (Gay, 1964:119); if contemporary atheism models itself on these pioneers, it is perhaps naive to expect a fully articulated agenda.

Secondly, There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12)  – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism. In addition to tensions surrounding the continuing existence of religion, these atheists are far from united “in their attitudes to war” (Beattie, 2007:75), and The Four Horsemen dialogue indicates that there are distinct and sometimes opposing opinions on the finer points of their overall thrust. Dennett identifies “slightly different but defensible strategies”, in their writings, however all are seen as “necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached” (Baggini, 2010:61; Dennett, 2008c:24). Given these differences, it is natural to be cautious regarding articulating agendas if the intention is to present a united front, rather than risk initiating eponymous forms of atheism, or losing the audience’s interest through the impression of discord and competition.

Thirdly, there is the “problem” of atheist individuality and its effects on how contemporary atheists might feasibly articulate courses of action. Atheists are typically categorised as “a small, hard to identify, and disorganised category of persons” (Edgell, 2006:211-212) who “do not tend, even nominally, to join specifically atheistic organisations” (Bullivant, 2008:364). In an interesting play on Grace Davie’s “believing without belonging” thesis (1994), a norm of “disbelieving without belonging” is discerned (Bullivant, 2008:365). This is humorously explained by A.J.  Jacobs, who states: “an atheist club fe[els] oxymoronic, like an apathy parade” (2009:96). A more scholarly explanation is that individuals lacking strong social bonds and dependants, are by inference less likely to tend towards ‘groupishness’ and “more free to espouse atheism” (Bainbridge, 2005:7). Dawkins himself acknowledges that organising atheists is like “herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority” (2007b:27). Despite these assertions, Gary Wolf speaks of “scores” of atheist groups, populated by members who, having “no church to buoy them, cling to one another” (2006).  It is true that there are many atheistic organisations (e.g. The British Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International), but even within these groups the scholarly perception is that “values tend to be wholly relativistic and goals are rarely stipulated at all” (Demerath and Thiessen, 1966:684). Significantly, Colin Campbell posited the idea that it is a sociological assumption that atheism is an individual phenomenon (1971:39). This assumption is rooted in perceiving atheistic organisations as “pale shadows of effective social forces when compared with traditional religious bodies” (ibid:42) which is an unfair and biased comparison. That being the case, it is cogent that Bullivant and Bainbridge are aware of Campbell raising this issue, yet continue to demarcate an individualistic atheism. This emphasis on the individual bears remarkable resemblance to Steve Bruce’s critique of the “precariousness of diffuse beliefs” within the New Age movement (2002:90-103). As a consequence of the New Age’s “individualistic epistemology” it does not instil “obedience to a central authority”, it “elicits only slight commitment and little agreement about detail”, is vulnerable to dilution and trivialisation, and thus has “little social impact […]even on its own adherents” (ibid:90-91). Through contemporary atheism’s focus on the individual, it may provide the perfect example of the precariousness of diffuse unbelief.

This precariousness could affect contemporary atheism’s ability to make explicit calls to group action in two key ways. Firstly, individualism may be at work within the writings of the authors themselves, thereby affecting their ability to articulate plans for group action. Their evident awareness of the individualism of their fellows – both as a closed group of four, and across the globe – may also lessen the desire to make such explicit calls. And secondly, since grouping together appears problematic for atheists, this explains why the internal conversation is dominated by the size and organisation of the “movement”, rather than on what this movement should “do” – perhaps the cats must be rhetorically herded before they “can make a lot of noise” (Dawkins, 2007b:27).

Discussion now turns to the issue of who the target audience of contemporary atheism is, and how this affects the articulation of an agenda. As alluded to previously, Dennett sees each author’s book as targeting a slightly different audience (Baggini, 2010:61). Dennett’s own intention was not to “give [his readers] an excuse to throw [Breaking the Spell] across the room” (ibid). This intention, combined with frequent appeals to the “religious person”, the “reasonable adherents” and “the moderates” (Dennett, 2007:301,298,291) indicate that his book is aimed towards getting religious moderates on side – an intention similarly evinced throughout Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Conversely, there are many aspects to Dawkins (2007b), Hitchens (2008) and Harris (2006) which would cause these moderate believers to throw the book across the room and not return to retrieve it (Dennett in Baggini, 2010:62). These books work well as a “shot across the bows”, and also provide ammunition for avowed ‘positive’ atheists (ibid). However, it is also clear that these books are designed to fuel a “positive” atheistic fire in those for whom it already “negatively” burns (see Martin, 2007b:1). This is the “non-believing choir”, the wavering unbelievers who “desperately need[…] encouragement to come out” (Dawkins, 2007b:18 cf. Wolf, 2006). All three of these groups are targeted through the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these four authors, and the “encouragement” they provide (Dawkins, 2007b:18,23).

Each of these target groups present problems for articulating a positive agenda. Firstly, if the target audience is moderate religious believers, the major battle is getting them onside before attempting to rally them into action. However, Wolf suggests that these atheists are naive because they simply focus on right belief and don’t “propose any realistic solutions to the problems religions can cause” (2006). This lack of credible solutions is combined with a critique of fundamentalist, non-moderate religion, which fails to scan in the face of the fact that there have been no fatwas, no prison cells, no gallows, and no crosses to greet these atheists (Wolf, 2006). Secondly, if their audience is wavering non-believers, these can typically be divided into two groups. There are the “thoroughly secularised”, the “negative atheists”, who find religion so irrelevant that they are not even conscious of having rejected it (Campbell, 1971:39 cf. Martin, 2007b:1; Bruce, 2002). And there are those who “are believers of some sort, and many are quite conventional” (Hout and Fischer, 2002:175). Whether accepting the “believing without belonging” or the “disbelieving without belonging” thesis, the best measures to convince this non-committal group to accept a “positive” atheistic identity are unlikely to begin with the enunciation of an agenda. Finally, if the target audience is committed, positive atheists, the simple fact remains that there are relatively few atheists of this type in the world (Davie, 1994:69 cf. figures in Weller, 2008:51; Zuckerman, 2007:49; Edgell, 2006:214). In light of the available figures, and the protestations to the contrary supplied by the authors (see p.34), it seems plausible that they are aware that their audience of ‘die-hard’ positive atheists is much smaller than they would care to admit (cf. McGrath and McGrath, 2007:63), and therefore that the audience most receptive to an active articulated agenda is not, in fact, their main target audience. In addition, an awareness that this audience may share ambivalent feelings towards Christianity would understandably present a barrier to fully articulated decisive action.

This discussion has identified three potential target audiences who, for various reasons, are unlikely to be receptive to the explicit articulation of an agenda. However, after an initial lag period following the “consciousness raising” phase, it is possible that more publications from these authors will follow, tackling solutions to the problems enumerated previously. With the forthcoming publication of Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (October 2010), it may not be long before this can be assessed.

Finally, in many respects, the world that contemporary atheism would like to create is reflective of a similar desire throughout society. This observation contradicts Demerath and Thiessen’s assertion that “irreligion has […no] set of values which are in any way consistent with the normative mainstream” (1966:675) and Colin Campbell’s observations about irreligion’s relationship to protest, reform, hostility and propaganda (1971:40). However, the contemporary atheistic promotion of awe and respect for nature, of life affirming values and fully democratised knowledge, and the criticism of actions that cause suffering, or limit individual freedom and intellectual inquiry, seem to strike a chord with the current atmosphere in the UK and USA.

As with the notion of “diffuse unbelief”, scholarship on New Age provides a useful comparison. Steve Bruce acknowledges the notable contemporary popularity and proliferation of New Age publications and ideas, and although denying that this proliferation demonstrates any significant number of “enthusiastic adherents” (2002:80), it does indicate that typical New Age concerns address the concerns of a significant portion of the population. Some themes particularly resonant with contemporary atheism are a relativism that “allows a thoroughly democratic attitude to knowledge” (ibid:86), an emphasis on individual authority (ibid:83), and a more holistic concern for the environment (ibid:85; Partridge, 2007:234-5). Whilst there are many dissimilarities between the New Age ‘movement’ and contemporary atheism, most notably concerning rationality (ibid; Bruce, 2002:84), the significant point is that the noted commonalities are “particularly well suited to the dominant ideas and assumptions of their society” (ibid:87). If contemporary atheists are aware that many of their concerns are “diffused” throughout society, this explains why these are not made more explicit in their texts – the purpose of the text becomes convincing the audience, through “consciousness raising”, that religion opposes this worldview, and not extolling the virtues of this worldview itself. A fascinating question raised for future research is to what extent these concerns are “emblematic of religion in our culture” (ibid:82)? If the concerns of contemporary atheists reflect the internal debate within religious bodies, this could lead to very interesting conclusions about the commonalities between human religiosity and irreligiosity. However, it is likely that contemporary atheism would explain these commonalities as the church following society, rather than suggesting there was a more mutual relationship between the two (cf. Fergusson, 2009:127).

This discussion has demonstrated that there are many conceivable and justifiable reasons why contemporary atheists have failed, thus far, to make more than a minimal statement regarding their programme for rectifying the religiously fuelled ills identified in their books. Their target audiences are not ideal targets for explicit agendas, either because they have inherent negative perceptions of contemporary atheism, or because of the diffusion of the broader, more positive goals of contemporary atheism throughout society. In addition, the inherent individuality of atheists necessitates a process of gathering together, or “consciousness raising”, into a more defined ‘movement’ before explicit programmes of action can be articulated.

I am well aware that many of the issues involved here are far more complex than I have had space to testify to. I am also aware that there are many key terms here that I have not delineated properly, either because they were clarified at other points in my dissertation, or because I am working with established conventions within Religious Studies, or because I have simply missed something. I am more than willing to enter into discussion on this fascinating issue, and to receive any advice or direction anyone may have on this matter.


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