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Atheist Religions?

Is Atheism a Religion
 
Jimmy Akin recently wrote a post here at Strange Notions asking "Is Atheism a Religion?". The following doesn't engage with Jimmy's post directly—that's what the combox is for—but it does offer a rather different (and fairly blunt) answer to the question. It then tackles what I think is a more helpful question: is there, or could there be, a modern western atheistic religion?

Is atheism a religion?

 
Let us deal with the question quickly: atheism is not and could not be a 'religion'. Religions are complex, three-dimensional things, typically involving—among much else—beliefs, moral codes, authoritative texts or people, rituals, customs, etc. Atheism, meanwhile, is simply an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods.

(I'll argue the precise ins and outs of this definition in a later post. For now, suffice it to say this is the one favored in both The Cambridge Companion to Atheism and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Pretty much every other mainstream, scholarly definition would make the point just as well.)

For the very same reason, theism is not and could not be a religion either. Theism is a major component of many of the world’s religions. But simple 'belief in the existence of a God or gods' alone is not enough to constitute a religion—and nor is an absence of such belief. To suppose otherwise would be to commit a category mistake.

But if theism, while not itself capable of being a religion, can be a component of religions, might the same be true of atheism? Could there be a genuinely atheistic religion? It is traditional here to appeal to one of the eastern religions, usually Theravada Buddhism or Jainism. However, while I don't know that much about either of them, I do know several scholars of these religions who dispute (sometimes with great irritation, as I have discovered) these kinds of claims. Much hangs, I understand, on whether or not the powerful, supernatural beings (i.e. devas), affirmed in both classic Theravada and classic Jainism, are counted as being actual 'gods' or not. This is an interesting question, but one that won't detain us here. Let's be honest: most discussions about whether atheism itself, or else a particular atheistic worldview/movement, is a religion or not are not really concerned with the ancient East. What they're really concerned with is the modern West. So let us instead ask the question: is there, or could there be, a modern western atheistic religion? And to answer that, we first must briefly ponder the meaning of religion.

What is a 'religion'?

 
We've already alluded to the difficulties of defining 'atheism', but they're nothing compared to the difficulties of defining 'religion'.

Some sociologists argue for functional definitions: defining religions by what they actually 'do', such as binding groups or societies together, or fulfilling certain (alleged) psychological needs. At their broadest, these kinds of approaches end up discovering religion in all kinds of unlikely places—e.g., in the ‘secular liturgies’ enacted at football stadiums, or in the contemporary ‘cult of brand-names [which is] a form of icon veneration’, as I once read in a (very sincere) German article. Without denying the worth of exploring the genuine parallels such things might well have with religious practices (and vice versa), there is certainly a danger here of our definition of 'religion' becoming so broad as to be practically useless.

At the other extreme, lies an opposite danger: the elevation of a particular, substantive feature of some religion-contenders to the status of a necessary (or even sufficient) condition for 'religion' itself, thereby excluding a number of, otherwise apparently exemplary, examples. Belief in a God or gods would be a prime example. Even if Jainism turns out not to be theistic after all, it possesses pretty much a full complement of other religion-type indicators—why arbitrarily privilege this one, over all the others? Or suppose we decided that all true religions include some kind of hierarchical ministerial structure: that would exclude a number of Protestant congregations, among others.

For this and other reasons, other scholars of religion prefer a kind of Wittgensteinian 'family-resemblance' model (see, especially, Clarke and Byrne's Religion Defined and Explained). This recognizes that there are certain 'clear-cut' religions that pretty much everyone agrees are religions (i.e., most mainstream forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc.). There are lots of similarities and overlaps between them, even if there is no single feature (or group of features) that all of them hold in common. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, of course, made the same point about 'games'. Chess, baseball, hopscotch, I Have Never, and Divinity: The Catholic Catechism Learning System are all considered to be games. However, it is probably impossible to produce a single, essentialist definition that is broad enough to fit them all, but narrow enough not to include lots of other things we don't regard as games.) On this model, membership of the genus 'religion' is not necessarily black and white (e.g., is Scientology a full religion, or a religion-like business; is Falun Gong a close niece or nephew of the family, or a black-sheep fifth cousin, three times removed?). While it also has its problems, my own view is that the positives of Wittgensteinian's approach far outweigh its negatives. (If anyone really cares about my reasons on this, then by all means ask below!)

With that in mind, let's get back to the question at hand: is there, or could there be, a modern western member of the 'religion' family?

The Religion of Humanity

 
Actually, like our very first question ('is atheism a religion?'), I think that this one admits of a fairly short, clear answer too: Yes.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was a French positivist philosopher, and is widely regarded—along with Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Freud et al.—as one of the founding fathers of the social sciences. For the atheist Comte: "While the Protestants and deists have always attacked religion in the name of God, we must discard God, once and for all, in the name of religion." In God’s place, Comte sought to install Humanity, ‘the Great Being’, as the object of worship for "the only real and complete religion." Nor did he intend this in any figurative or poetic sense. This was indeed to be a religion of humanity, including: scriptures and dogmas (from Comte’s own writings); liturgies, sacraments (nine of 'em!); private devotions; churches and cathedrals (Notre Dame was to become ‘the great Temple of the West’); saints and icons; missionaries and priests (Comte’s Catéchisme positive specified 100,000 worldwide); and even a Paris-based pontificate (with Comte himself as its first incumbent).

Though not as successful as 'Pope Auguste I' had hoped, la religion de l’Humanité was not without its followers. Largely-defunct chapels 'to humanity' can still be visited in France. In Brazil, where the Church still lives on, it even found its way onto the national flag (and is still there today). Regardless, I think a clear case can be made for counting the Religion of Humanity as a bona-fide member of the family Religion—not least because it consciously imitates Catholic Christianity in (almost) all respects.

St Vladimir Ilyich and Humanist Hymns

 
While Comte's bizarre experiment may be the most obvious example, it is not the only one. More controversially, it can certainly be argued that some manifestations of both Marxist-Leninism and Humanism come close to being at least distant family members of religion (the kind you only see at weddings and funerals). At various times, for instance, the Russian authorities tried explicitly to replace Orthodox customs with Soviet substitutes: 'Red Baptisms', a 'Great Winter Festival' (complete with red stars atop erstwhile Christmas trees), and—most obviously—the preservation of Lenin's corpse in the manner of an Orthodox saint, in a tomb bearing the inscription 'The Savior of the World', as an object of pilgrimage and veneration. (Some Russian scientists even looked forward to a time when Soviet science had advanced so far that he could actually be resurrected.) Humanists, meanwhile, may avail themselves of a range of liturgical celebrations (Baby Namings, Weddings, Funerals), and the ministrations of dedicated chaplains in colleges, hospitals, and the armed forces. They can even, should they so choose, literally all sing from the same (humanist) hymnbook: on my bookshelf I have a copy of Social Worship, published in 1913.

Does that also make Marxism-Leninism or Humanism modern western atheistic religions? I'm not sure—some minority strands of them perhaps. (At the very least, it would be easy to make a fairly full-blooded religion out of them, even though the vast majority of Marxist-Leninists and Humanists don't and wouldn't.) Like I say, the family-resemblance model isn't black and white—but then neither are religions or 'religion-ish' groups. There are other possible examples here, not least the self-identifying 'atheist churches' which have recently sprung up—apparently independently—in Britain and the USA.

Atheist religions?

 
Even though atheism itself is not, and cannot be, a religion, it does not follow that 'atheism' and 'religion' are necessarily mutually exclusive categories. This does not mean that all, or many, or any more than an unrepresentative handful, of modern western atheists are in fact members of modern western atheistic religions. But the above does, I hope, help us to think more clearly about both 'atheism' and 'religion', and the kinds of things they actually are (and aren't).
 
 
(Editor's Note: A much fuller (and properly referenced) version of the basic argument here can be found in Stephen's The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012).
 
 
(Image credit: Worship Matters)

Stephen Bullivant

Written by

Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the "LaCugna Award for New Scholars" from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He recent books include Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and (co-edited with Michael Ruse) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). His latest book is called The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).

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  • clod

    Thank you. At last, an interesting article sans a sub-text of snark directed at atheists. Most refreshing.

  • Vicq_Ruiz

    Concise, interesting, and without a hint of condescension. This atheist looks forward to your future articles, Stephen.

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Thanks Vicq-Ruiz (and everyone else); genuinely much appreciated.

    • I agree with Vicq_Ruiz and others. Bullivant seems to reflect the most reasonable way to approach the "atheism = religion" issue.

      I think atheists are just so sick and tired of repeating points like those above, so I'm grateful that a believer has come to the same conclusion as many of us.

  • Michael Murray

    Interesting article and I agree with the other comments on the tone.

    Do any of the atheists here feel any interest in these ideas of atheist religion ? Do you want to go to weekly humanist meetings and sing humanist hymns ?

    • Sample1

      As you know, former pastor, a Clergy Project "graduate" Jerry Dewitt has a movie in the works about his Christian deconversion and trying experience coming out as an atheist in the Bible Belt.

      While he describes himself as very much still a preacher (albeit a naturalistic one now), I don't have an interest in attending his weekly gatherings. But I do very much support his efforts to give it a go.

      I'm more on the side with Steve Zara when it comes to secularism. I think it's a necessary stepping stone for now, but eventually all bad ideas should be abandoned by our species, not merely tolerated.

      Mike

    • clod

      No, I don't personally. Religion and politics have not found a way to get round their imposition of authority from alienating young and old alike. Better if atheism steers clear of all that, otherwise you end up with A+ nonsense.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I'll out myself as a UU Humanist. The hymns are not my thing, but a community of practice and critical moral discussion is.

      • clod

        Absolutely. Though I enjoy a variety of virtual outlets that serve that purpose, I regret the paucity of meat-space opportunities to engage in critical thinking in a focussed way. Lots of woo woo people round here :-(

      • Michael Murray

        So does that mean like

        http://huumanists.org

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Yes.

    • Rationalist1

      I enjoy going to public talks at the local library or university but see no need personally of a formal weekly meeting. I may change, but that's how I am now.

    • severalspeciesof

      Do you want to go to weekly humanist meetings and sing humanist hymns ?

      Only if they are Pink Floyd hymns... ;-)

  • Sample1

    What exactly is so dangerous and how is it dangerous? Is the use of the word danger here related to the way bishops are calling the redefining of marriage dangerous? I'd like people's thoughts on why the author chose the word danger in these two quotes below.

    ...there is certainly a danger here of our definition of 'religion' becoming so broad as to be practically useless.

    At the other extreme, lies an opposite danger: the elevation of a particular, substantive feature of some religion-contenders to the status of a necessary (or even sufficient) condition for 'religion' itself, thereby excluding a number of, otherwise apparently exemplary, examples.

    Mike

    • Is this a real thing? It's a danger to the productivity of the discussion, in either direction there is a danger of the conversation going nowhere.

      • Sample1

        I see your point. I just see it differently. There's no reason parameters can't be agreed upon to carry on a conversation, but if it turns out that the definition of religion expands into say, the nebulous answers given when trying to define art then that's just the way it is, isn't it?

        I think the use of the word danger is hyperbolic here. Perhaps I'm overthinking this, but there it is.

        Mike

        • I don't think he meant "dangerous" to religion, or atheism though. Just to finding an answer to the question "Can there be a western atheist religion" that we could actually use.

          • Sample1

            Fair enough.
            Mike

          • Stephen Bulivant

            Hi guys - yes sorry, 'dangerous' in the extremely watered-down sense of 'makes the job of us scholars of religion that little bit more awkward'. We like to make our tedious professional lives sound that bit more risky. :)

    • clod

      I don't read much into that: he could have used possibility. If he meant danger = bad consequences, maybe he'll spell it out.

  • 42Oolon

    Thank you for a this intelligent and well-written piece.

  • Rationalist1

    There's an old atheist joke. What do you call an atheist with a wife and two kids? Answer : A Unitarian.

    Perhaps one of the large reason that keeps people in church is the sense of community that one encounters in a church. A one level, I miss that. I do charitable volunteer work with a charity located in a local church and although many (but not all) of the leaders go to that church, one can see the connection the church members have and it is a positive thing for them. One wants a sense of connection but not the overwhelming structure of a religion.

    I find my "religion" connections then in community. In charities, community groups, neighbours, local concerts, plays and events, coffee shops, schools, and of course friends and families. I don't need formality, dogma, rules and regulation and religious politics. I need people. And fortunately there are many other was to get that rather than a "religion"

  • I'm a modern western atheist member of a Unitarian Universalist church, which has a congregationalist structure and in which many, perhaps a majority, of the members are modern western atheists. So there's a meaningful bottom-up sense in which you might call it a modern western atheist religion. But other members are monotheists of various traditions, non-realist theists, pantheists, neopagans, and people who don't care or haven't decided, so I think the sociologists' functional understanding of religion is most appropriate in our case. We use ritual to band together as a values-based community, not a faith-based community.

    • Rationalist1

      I'm just curious. Did your atheism come before your Unitarianism, or afterwards?

      • fundie Evangelical -> Catholic -> atheist -> UU and still an atheist

        If my congregation veers into woo-woo, I'll leave.

        • Rationalist1

          Interesting. Did you ever read Martin Gardner's book "The Flight of Peter Fromm". It follows a somewhat similar path. Bizarre ending but up to that point rather interesting.

          • I haven't read it. The Amazon reviewers seem to love it. I'll take a look at the library.

      • BenS

        I'm curious of this too. If the former, why did you join a church? That's a genuine question, btw, I'm interested.

        • I joined for a community that shares my values. There's an active atheist community in my town, too. Both are good resources for those, like me, who enjoy such things.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      A friend from Boston, the home of Unitarianism, used to quip that Unitarians gave up God but not religion.

      I guess it takes all kinds to make a world. Some people even like ritual in and of itself

      • Unitarian form of address to Deity:

        "To Whom It May Concern:"

      • Octavo

        I don't even like the ritual. I do, however, appreciate their commitments to ethics, community, and justice.

    • So you have faith in values, but not in faith.

      Hmmmmm.......

      • I don't bother with faith.

        • But you nonetheless employ it.

          In values.

          You have faith in values.

          But you affirm you do don't bother with faith.

          Needless to say the appeal of your religion is not based on its logical consistency.

          • The appeal of your writing is not based on its grammatical consistency. :)

            In any case, no, I don't have faith in values. I'll say it in the words which the first Vatican council used to distinguish the "two orders" of knowledge: I make use of natural reason, not Divine revelation.

          • But the First Vatican Council affirms two orders of knowledge, and to deny one seems to leave us in exactly the same situation we started:

            you have faith in values.

            You have faith in natural reason.

            Yet you deny faith.

            Just sayin'.......

          • Less "just sayin'", more thinkin', please.

            You can mindlessly repeat your barely literate balderdash infinitely many times, but it's not going to change the mind of anyone who can think. For that you'll need actual evidence.

          • But....I thought that was just what I gave you.

            You introduced evidence: the First Vatican Council.

            I pointed out the strange fact that you reject half of your own evidence.

            Just sayin'........

          • Uh, that doesn't make any sense, Rick. In pointing out that I use reason rather than faith, I used the same words by which the Council distinguished faith from reason. That's because I'm talking to Catholics, and Council's way of distinguishing those things is something Catholics should agree with. But using the same words as the Council isn't evidence that the Council agrees with you about my values, and even if it did agree with you that wouldn't be evidence that it was correct.

          • " In pointing out that I use reason rather than faith, I used the same words by which the Council distinguished faith from reason."

            >> But the Council states:

            "And not only can faith and reason never be opposed to one another, but they are of mutual aid one to the other. For right reason demonstrates the foundations of faith, and enlightened by its light, cultivates the science of Divine things; while faith frees and guards reason from errors, and furnishes it with manifold knowledge. Therefore, so far is the Church from opposing the cultivation of human arts and sciences, that it in many ways helps and promotes them. For the Church neither ignores nor despises the benefits of human life which result from the arts and sciences, but confesses that, as they came from God, the Lord of all science, so, if they be used rightly, they lead to God by the help of His grace. Nor does the Church forbid that each of these sciences, in its sphere, should make use of its own principles and its own methods. But, while recognizing this just liberty, it stands watchfully on guard, lest sciences, setting themselves against Divine teaching or transgressing their own limits, should invade and disturb the domain of faith."

            So it is not your values the Council disagrees with, but your understanding of reason itself.

            Which was my initial point.

  • clod

    I'm gonna go to a big, dark, cool church with 6ft thick walls. Only way to escape the relentless heat. Praise the Lord. ;-)

    • Rationalist1

      Growing up in the summer it would get hot and our church, of course had no AC. The priest, a rather large man, would be suffering from the heat with all his vestments on. When it came time for the homily, we walked up to the mike and mopping his brow said "It's hot here, but it will be a lot hotter where some of you might end up" and then went on with the mass.

      • clod

        Do many catholics believe in that literal sort of hell any more? I imagined most saw separation from G being hellish enough. I don't know what they actually teach these days. In my day it was full on fire and brimstone stuff.

        • Rationalist1

          In my day it was as well (witness above). I had sermons that I swear were cribbed from Joyce's Fr. Arnall in Chapter 3 of Portrait of the Artist (or maybe Joyce cribbed from his priests). Now it's very much downplayed according to posters here and elsewhere, although Pope Benedict seemed to want to bring it back.

          • It can never go away, and hence it need never be brought back.

            Of course it is not taught today.

            Irrelevant.

            It has been infallibly defined so many times that it is not necessary.

            Any time a Catholic gets curious about the matter he picks up the Catechism.

            Any time he gets interested he starts looking up the footnotes.

            When he starts looking up the footnotes he arrives at the dogmatic definitions.

            These are irreformable and will stand to the end of the world.

            Hell is horrifying beyond our capacity to imagine, for the hardened and unrepentant sinner.

            Hell is perhaps a lot like the Garden of Eden, for the little babies who died without baptism.

          • Hell is perhaps a lot like the Garden of Eden, for the little babies who died without baptism.

            But does the Church actually teach that babies who die without baptism go to hell? It seems to me it teaches that it doesn't actually know the fate of babies who die without baptism, but that it is reasonable to hope that they may be saved. If the Church teaches that unbaptized babies go to hell, why would it also teach that one may hope they don't?

            Was the Limbo of Infants regarded as part of hell? (I don't know. I am just asking.)

            I suspect from the Amazon.com description of Stephen Bullivant's book The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology, I suspect you and he would not be in agreement. In that grand old tradition of Internet discussions, I say, "Let's you and him fight." :-)

          • "But does the Church actually teach that babies who die

            "without baptism go to hell?"

            >> Yes. The teaching is a dogmatic definition:

            Second Council of Lyons:

            “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, to be punished however with disparate punishments.”

            "It seems to me it teaches that it doesn't actually know the fate of babies who die without baptism"

            >> Wrong. See above.

            "but that it is reasonable to hope that they may be saved."

            >> It is always reasonable to hope for the salvation of every human creature.

            " If the Church teaches that unbaptized babies go to hell, why would it also teach that one may hope they don't?"

            >> For the same reason we may hope for the salvation of Percy Bysse Shelley; that is, that God might recognize in the final repentance of Shelley, or the miraculous infusion of reason into the soul of an unbaptized child, or the prayer of the Church, a means of effectuating desire for baptism.

            This does not say the hope is well grounded.

            It isn't well grounded.

            But it is reasonable.

            It might happen in some case unknowable to us.

            "Was the Limbo of Infants regarded as part of hell? (I don't know. I am just asking.)"

            >> Yes, and still is.

            I have a healthy distrust of all modernist theology, so I will stick to the magisterium and let the modernist theologians bomfog whomever they wish.

            The remedy to all modernist bomfoggery is found in the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church, protected against all error until the end of the world by the immutable decree of God Himself.

          • Linda

            I was told the Church has done away with Limbo and according to my Catechism of the Catholic Church (1261) Jesus says : "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them." We are called to hope (and I firmly believe) that those sweet souls go right back to Heaven. To believe they are in Hell, for me, would be to doubt the love and mercy of God, and to be uncharitable, which would have *me* in mortal sin myself.

          • " was told the Church has done away with Limbo"

            >> Not by the Church.

            "and according to my Catechism of the Catholic Church (1261) Jesus says : "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them."

            >> Nothing in this passage either contradicts limbo, or establishes a contradiction to the dogmatic definition of the Second Council of Lyons:

            “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, to be punished however with disparate punishments.”

            "We are called to hope"

            >> Indeed. Hope is not ever to be understood in such a way as to reverse defined dogmas of the Faith. These latter are irreformable, and stand until the end of the world by the immutable decree of God Himself.

            ("and I firmly believe) that those sweet souls go right back to Heaven."

            >> Then you deny a dogma of the Faith.

            "To believe they are in Hell, for me, would be to doubt the love and mercy of God, and to be uncharitable, which would have *me* in mortal sin myself."

            >> To the contrary. To assert such a "dogmatic" formulation renders you in explicit opposition to the dogmas of the Catholic Faith.

          • Linda

            I'm glad that the Church has such staunch defenders and it is obvious your knowledge of the Catechism exceeds mine. I am sure you are quoting correctly as well. However in my copy of the Catechism, 1035 mentions only mortal sin, not original. According to Catholic teaching Baptism brings the grace of the Holy Spirit. I can find nothing in the Catechism that limits the Holy Spirit's ability to intercede on behalf of all those babies. Also, there is nothing in in 1261 precludes me from believing in addition to hoping so I think I'm still good with the Church. But if not, I'll find out soon enough. And frankly, I fail so often in so many other areas that I doubt my belief on this point is what has me in the most trouble with God.

          • "I'm glad that the Church has such staunch defenders and it is obvious your knowledge of the Catechism exceeds mine."

            >> I am grateful to you for your kindness, and am preparing for the other shoe to drop :-)

            "I am sure you are quoting correctly as well."

            >> I do try to be accurate in citations. The matters are of much more than merely life and death importance.

            "However in my copy of the Catechism, 1035 mentions only mortal sin, not original."

            >> It is completely irrelevant, of course. The relevant question is whether the Catholic Church has defined on the question. A catechism is not dogmatic. A definition is.
            No catechism can reverse, set aside, derogate, or alter a definition of dogma. See Lumen Gentium #25.

            "According to Catholic teaching Baptism brings the grace of the Holy Spirit."

            >> There are many things that bring the grace of the Holy Spirit, including all of the sacraments. What baptism brings, first and foremost, is regeneration; that is, the remission of sins, including original sin.

            "I can find nothing in the Catechism that limits the Holy Spirit's ability to intercede on behalf of all those babies."

            >> Prayers of intercession on behalf of the unborn are holy, righteous, and just.

            " Also, there is nothing in in 1261 precludes me from believing in addition to hoping"

            >> The word "believe", involves divine and Catholic Faith; that is, we believe those things which are of the Faith.

            Our personal opinions are sometimes referred to us as "beliefs", but these proceed not from the Faith, but from our intellects.

            Your belief in this matter does not proceed from the faith, since there is absolutely nothing in Revelation that tells us your opinion in this matter constitutes something Catholics must believe with divine and Catholic Faith.

            "so I think I'm still good with the Church."

            >> That is not for me to say.

            "But if not, I'll find out soon enough."

            >> May God give you the grace of Holy wisdom and Faith.

            "And frankly, I fail so often in so many other areas that I doubt my belief on this point is what has me in the most trouble with God."

            >> May God shower you with extra graces for repentance, may God grant you full absolution of all your sins, may God call you to the sacraments and restore you fully in hope.

          • Linda

            Thank you for your kind response. You are marvelously straight forward in your arguments and presentation, frank to the point, almost, of bluntness. But you, my friend, will never be accused of inconsistency or of being a Cafeteria Catholic.

            I am sure that you are correct and I see that you are trying to guide me to the right path regarding the catechism, but if it is supposed to represent Catholic teaching then I don't see how it can be in conflict with dogma. It would seem to me that that should be its principal purpose. For the in baptized babies to be denied Heaven seems in conflict with the idea that people of other religions or of no religion, who have no proper knowledge of God and Catholic teaching are allowed access to Heavensince it not their fault that they don't know Christ.

            Thank you also for your final blessings. I have been planning for sometime to make a full and honest confession next week. Reconciliation is one of my favorite sacraments and I have been generously blessed to receive compassionate and quality penance nearly every time I go.

          • I will tell you right now that if you go to confession this week then you have made every syllable I have typed here worthwhile and brought God's mercy upon my unworthy self for everything I have typed that was not right, or not right enough.

            I will simply say this as to your concerns regarding the catechism.

            There is absolutely nothing in the catechism that contradicts any dogma of the faith.

            But there is also a great deal of ambiguity in the catechism- as you noted, reference to original sin, which is *explicitly in the cited footnote*, is not in the text of the catechism.

            At the end of the day God will make no mistakes.

            But neither will He allow His Church to err in dogmatic teaching.

            It is a terrible, terrible time for the Church, because we have been disoriented in many ways.

            My advice to you is to believe every dogma of the Faith as if God had appeared to you in Person and recited it to you syllable by syllable.

            Whatever your intellect has difficulty with, that is fine.

            As St. Augustine says:

            A thousand difficulties do not make a single doubt.

            My prayer for you is to make a good confession and be blessed beyond your dreams this week.

          • Is the existence of Limbo a defined doctrine or an infallible dogma of the Catholic Church?

          • No. It is a permitted theological deduction, which enjoys the theological status Sententia Communis: We may not be very sure about it but everyone says so, not in sense of democracy but in sense of historical accordance. Most of saints, theologians, Popes throughout centuries agreed on it.

          • Rationalist1
          • False.

            Never retracted.

            The daily telegraph is not the magisterium of the catholic Church.

          • Rationalist1
          • The International Theological Commission is not the magisterium of the Catholic Church either- it has precisely zero authority.

          • The International Theological Commission is not the magisterium of the Catholic Church either- it has precisely zero authority.

            You would not say, would you, that a document published by the International Theological Commission, with the permission of the pope, is no more authoritative when it comes to Catholic teaching than, say, an article by the religion editor of the New York Times? Does the work of the International Theological Commission and their publications have no value or significance for Catholics?

          • Rationalist1

            I guess they don't when you don't agree with the Vatican's pronouncement.

          • Why should I not agree with the Vatican's pronouncement?

            They have pronounced that a theological commission has reported back on its deliberations.

            That is a true pronouncement.

            With what is there to disagree concerning this truthful pronouncement?

          • Zero magisterial authority.

            None.

            Zip.

            Zilch.

            Nada.

            Clear?

          • Clear?

            Not quite clear. Is a publication by the International Theological Commission basically worthless as Catholic teaching, even though approved by the pope and published by the Vatican? Has it no purpose?

            When the pope offers an opinion on an issue—say, the declaration of a particular war—do Catholics have no obligation whatsoever to take into consideration what he has to say? Certainly he would not be speaking infallibly, and his words would not be binding, but is a pope who is not speaking with the full authority of his office no more representative of Catholic thought than the man in the street?

          • "Not quite clear. Is a publication by the International Theological Commission basically worthless as Catholic teaching, even though approved by the pope and published by the Vatican? Has it no purpose?"

            >> Asked and answered here:

            "Zero magisterial authority.

            None.

            Zip.

            Zilch.

            Nada.

            Clear?"

            "When the pope offers an opinion on an issue—say, the declaration of a particular war—do Catholics have no obligation whatsoever to take into consideration what he has to say?"

            >> That is quite a different matter. The Pope's opinions are to be given the utmost respect and consideration by Catholics, even when those opinions do not involve the exercise of the magisterium, and hence allow for the Catholic to hold a differing opinion without incurring any sin.

            "Certainly he would not be speaking infallibly, and his words would not be binding,"

            >> Exactly.

            "but is a pope who is not speaking with the full authority of his office no more representative of Catholic thought than the man in the street?"

            >> Of course He is more worthy of serious consideration on the question than the man in the street.

            But the expression of an opinion is of course not relevant in comparison to the expression of a dogma.

          • >> Of course He is more worthy of serious consideration on the question than the man in the street.

            So when the pope approves a document by the International Theological Commission for publication, is it not more worthy of consideration than if it had not been approved by the pope? The pope's approval certainly must count for something.

          • “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, to be punished however with disparate punishments.”

            So limbo is a part of hell, and when you say unbaptized babies (including about a million aborted babies a year in the United States) you are saying that unbaptized babies go to hell. They just go to a part of hell where they are not eternally tortured. But presumably it would be correct to say that they are not saved, or alternatively, they are damned.

            Here's what I don't quite understand. You seem to say that the Church teaches unbaptized babies go to hell, unless there is some way God intervenes to make it not so—which he may or may not do. But can't you then say that of every Catholic teaching? That is, can't you say every Catholic teaching is true unless God somehow makes a special intervention? For example, baptism is not valid if administered in the name of the "Creator, Redeemer, and the Sanctifier," and a person allegedly baptized with that formula is not baptized at all, and must be properly and validly baptized. But in spite of that, God might find a way for a person baptized with an illicit formula to receive the effects of baptism.

          • "Here's what I don't quite understand. You seem to say that the Church teaches unbaptized babies go to hell, unlessthere is some way God intervenes to make it not so—which he may or may not do."

            >> That is almost correct. The truth is that unbaptized babies *certainly* go to hell- that is, they have not been regenerated, and hence have not been translated from the condition of child of Adam- *unless* they have received or desired baptism. We can always hope God might intervene in some way unknowable to us in order to effectuate that justification.

            "But can't you then say that of every Catholic teaching? That is, can't you say every Catholic teaching is true unless God somehow makes a special intervention?"

            >> One can say that every Catholic dogma is true *even if*
            God makes a special intervention. That intervention will simply consist in some way of joining a soul to the Catholic Church before death; that is, that soul will receive or desire baptism through a supernatural intervention unknowable to us.

            "For example, baptism is not valid if administered in the name of the "Creator, Redeemer, and the Sanctifier,"

            >> Correct.

            "and a person allegedly baptized with that formula is not baptized at all,"

            >> Correct.

            "and must be properly and validly baptized."

            >> Correct.

            "But in spite of that, God might find a way for a person baptized with an illicit formula to receive the effects of baptism."

            >> Incorrect. God might, possibly, impute the desire for baptism to the person, even if the heretics invalidated the sacrament itself.

            In such a case the victim of the heretics is justified, but must continue in Faith Hope and Charity in order to be saved.

          • God might, possibly, impute the desire for baptism to the person, even if the heretics invalidated the sacrament itself.

            But then again, God might not. Correct? So an infant a few days old may very well pay a heavy price for being baptized invalidly by "heretics"—something that infant had no control over whatsoever.

          • "But then again, God might not. Correct?"

            >> Almost correct. The truth is that God will, correctly, discern whether the desire for baptism is present. If it is, the person will be justified.

            That is dogmatic and certain.

            "So an infant a few days old may very well pay a heavy price for being baptized invalidly by "heretics"—something that infant had no control over whatsoever."

            >> No. In such an instance the infant had a bath. Nothing more.

          • —something that infant had no control over whatsoever.

            Well an embryo without a neural system would have no control, or any "desire for baptism" either.

          • Max Driffill

            RIck,
            If it is true that babies without baptism go to hell, then your god is a complete monster, and I would want nothing to do with said monster.

          • If it is true that babies without baptism go to hell, then your god is a complete monster, and I would want nothing to do with said monster.

            While I don't agree with Rick DeLano, it does need to be pointed out that the hell (or place in hell) babies go to (according to RD), is not a place of suffering and torment, but a place of complete natural (just not supernatural) happiness. As I recall, he likened it to the Garden of Eden. I take it that people in such a "hell" would be as happy as it is possible for people to be—with no pain, no suffering, no frustration, no unfilled wants and needs—and for all eternity. It sounds a lot like most people's idea of heaven.

          • —with no pain, no suffering, no frustration, no unfilled wants and needs—

            Well, at least that is consistent with never having had a conscious brain to experience any of those. However, it also seems hard to differentiate from non-existence, which would fill the bill just as well.

          • However, it also seems hard to differentiate from non-existence, which would fill the bill just as well.

            There's just no pleasing you atheists! You complain about eternal suffering, and when you are told it's eternal happiness instead, you complain about that, too! :P

            The bit you quoted was my elaboration based on the concept of perfect natural happiness. I don't believe it has ever really been defined or elaborated. If, to be perfectly (or maximally) happy, you need occasional pain, or frustration, or whatever, then presumably you would have it. (That is, presuming what Rick DeLano says that the Church teaches is true, which I believe I have already said I disagree with.)

          • clod

            "There's just no pleasing you atheists!"

            Just don't mention the weather. Speshully not to the British ones.

          • Max Driffill

            David,
            Still, one has to marvel at the legalistic nonsense such a creator imposes on his creation. Why ever should said god impose such a punishment on the children? Why create a system in which the young are created too vile for the creator that created them? Even if limbo is a pretty passive place it is still a place of exile and for crimes in which the babies had no part. So monster still I say.

          • Even if limbo is a pretty passive place it is still a place of exile and for crimes in which the babies had no part. So monster still I say.

            While I will defend to the death (actually, I wouldn't go that far!) your right to disagree with, and disbelieve in, this alleged Catholic teaching, as poorly explained by me, it seems to me that no matter what God is said to have done or to do, you are prejudiced against him!

            I agree to a large extent with what I think you are saying. Actually, Mark Twain said it about science, but it is very apt for religion: "There is something fascinating about science.
            One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." There is something that strikes me as bizarre about taking a few lines of Scripture and concocting an elaborate system based on them about what "must be" the case. But as I said to QQ, there's no pleasing you atheists! You will find some way to condemn God no matter what version of him theists invent. If God wants the people who did nothing at all, ever, to be "naturally" happy for all eternity, and those who got baptized and obeyed all the rules to be "supernaturally" happy for all eternity, who are you to say the former should be able to join the latter? I'd be thrilled with the idea of "natural" happiness for all eternity. Anybody should be.

            I think some of this stuff is like a Rorschach test. It doesn't really matter what the content is, if there's any content at all. It just elicits reaction from people based on their own personalities and perhaps their unconscious mind. If we don't all watch out here, someone really clever will be able to psychoanalyze us.

          • Max Driffill

            Simply not true.
            If there were a god that was invested in the betterment of humanity, that didn't cajole or threaten with eternal punishment, that was vastly more just, etc I would be quite happy with such a deity. If evidence demonstrated such a being existed, so much the better.

            I quite like Odin because, if he were real, he would be content to leave me the hell alone. The aggregate of my actions in this life would consign me to his glorious corpse hall, or to hel. The latter not being anything so awful as an eternity of torture like the Christian hell. In any event either locale would be a brief reprieve until the end of all things in Ragnarok. Fine. Dandy. I think I am bound for the corpse hall if that religion is correct. And will enjoy the fighting all day, and boozing and whoring all night. And the great thing, is that it isn't eternal! Glorious.

            A god that said slavery was bad, that child abuse awful, that placed the labours of men and women on more equal footing, that nixed the sacrifice of animals and acknowledged that they too can suffer and should not be callously dealt with, well who could argue with that?

          • It is all very simple.

            We are born with original sin.

            This is the foundational, the fundamental reason for the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ.

            This dogma is now undergoing intense attack by the devil, since he knows that the Church is more disoriented than She has been in many centuries- possible ever before in Her History.

            Even Catholics suppose themselves wise enough to know better than the Scriptures, better than the Apostles, better than the Fathers, better than the Saints, better than the supreme magisterium of God' Catholic Church, what the Faith ought to be so as to conform to their own best thinking.

            This is also foretold in Scripture, that such times would come.

            But the truth is that every human being who dies with original sin is damned, this truth is not subject to the approval of atheists *or* Catholics.

            It is a fact, an awful and immovable fact.

          • Max, I don't worry about it. If there were souls, and if those somehow were created and attached at conception, and if those souls end up in hell if the embryo does not implant or is not carried (i.e. dies unbaptized), then by now there would be tens of billions of them in Hell. No theodicy can fix that, it is simply a hideous conclusion that I find so preposterous that no effort worrying about it need follow.

          • Max Driffill

            QQ,
            Too right. I was just noting that if it were so then even if I were convinced of the case for this particular god, I could not bring myself to respect or love said being.
            You are quite right though, preposterous.

          • Max:

            It is true that every human being who dies without justification- that is, without the translation from the original sin of Adam, goes to Hell.

            Whether you find this monstrous or not is really of not the slightest relevance.

            I personally find it monstrous that you find it monstrous.

            After all, God had no obligation to rescue us from our sins.

            That He did so, Himself, and yet you call Him monstrous, is an indication of how difficult we are to save, and how justly God will judge on that Day.

          • Max Driffill

            If it were true, which it clearly isn't, I would find it monstrous.
            If your god is truly just then good people really don't have much to worry about.

          • We would do well, regarding the limbo of the infants, to be clear that it is one acceptable theological opinion among others. A Catholic may still accept this theological opinion, but no Catholic is bound to believe in limbo. This is why the Catechism invites us to entrust such souls to the mercy of God.
            The Church does teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation, but in this context: while we are bound by God's Sacraments (in particular bound by this "necessity" for Baptism), *God* is not bound by them. We are permitted to hope for salvation for the unbaptized innocents such as infants.

          • Since I have already affirmed all of these points at least several dozen times, I of course entirely agree.

          • Hi Rick,
            I agree with what you have said, but I would stress that the only person we know with definite knowledge to be in hell is Judas by way of scripture. We can't see the state of other peoples souls. When Jeremiah, John the baptist, Mary, etc were born, nobody had any idea that they were already sanctified. Parents of lost little children can still pray in hope as God's love is greater than our fears. God will have mercy on whom he shall have mercy and while what you said is true, it is only meant for us to understand and walk the Holy Way, not for us to particularly know who is, and who is not saved.

          • Every syllable you have typed above is perfectly Catholic, Irenaeus (and your namesake is one of the Saints who brought me to our Holy Faith).

          • I gave it to my son as a middle name:)

          • And thus an important nuance to offer regarding the Second Council of Lyons statement: that statement says, correctly that if one dies "with original sin" one would go to hell. But this is not the same as saying that an infant who dies "without baptism" goes to hell. A Catholic can understand that, if God permits an unbaptized infant to die *without* original sin (in whatever mysterious way God might), then we can hope for salvation for the unbaptized infant...(this is an approach offered by the International Theological Commission's statement of a few years ago on this subject...)

          • "if God permits an unbaptized infant to die *without* original sin (in whatever mysterious way God might)"

            What we do know, is that God could similarly have acted in some unannounced way to save the many human beings who, through no fault of their own, failed to know of Noah's Ark, or the necessity of being aboard it when the Deluge came.

            He did not do so.

            As for the fate of the unbaptized infant, we have no evidence of any kind from Revelation, whether Scripture, or Tradition- we have no evidence of any kind from the Fathers, from the Doctors, from the Councils, from the Popes, that they are granted a remission of original sin apart from baptism.

            It simply doesn't exist.

            Perhaps God will act in some way unknown to us.

            But it is absolutely certain that no human being who dies with original sin goes anywhere else but to Hell, although there are unequal punishments.

          • Vicq_Ruiz

            "Only a few years ago a man had to believe in the total depravity of the human heart in order to be respectable.

            Only a few years ago, people who thought God too good to punish in eternal flames an unbaptized child were considered infamous."

            -R.G. Ingersoll

          • "Only a few years ago a man had to believe in the total depravity of the human heart in order to be respectable."

            >> Only in lands, such as this one, where the Protestants determined what was respectable.

            The notion is an heresy, always has been, always will be.

            "Only a few years ago, people who thought God too good to punish in eternal flames an unbaptized child were considered infamous."

            >> Only a few years ago? It has been established by the Catholic Church that the penalties of those who die with only original sin do not include the torments of the damned, but rather the deprivation of the beatific vision (Pius IX).

        • Linda

          I was taught that Hell exists but because God is merciful, it may be empty. I'm a big believer in Purgatory and will probably spend a fair bit of time there myself one day. I heard a priest describe it like this: you know that feeling you had the first time you realized you had done something really wrong and had to tell your mom or dad about it? How terrible you felt? He said he thinks when we die and are met with that beautiful, overwhelming limitless love that is Gid, that we see how much we failed ourselves and others in this world, and that regret and remorse is purgatory. We kind of punish ourselves. But, he added, even if we were sad and remorseful for tens if thousands of years, we're with God who is eternal, so how long could it really be. I'm hoping that all the guilt and remorse I feel *now* about things will count as "time served" when I finally get there. :)

          • clod

            That 'Gid' gets you three more weeks ;-(

          • Linda

            Damn!

            Argh! I mean "rats"! (Heavy sigh). Just tack on another thousand years. :(

      • Wow.

      • "It's hot here, but it will be a lot hotter where some of you might end up" and then went on with the mass.

        I have a feeling any number of priests have used a variant of this. The one I heard about was a priest on a very hot day preaching a sermon that consisted only of the following:

        Some people are saying it's hotter than hell today.

        It isn't.

        Not that it is exactly relevant, but my sister went to an all-girls Catholic high school run by the Sisters of Mercy, and she came home one day rather amused and rather startled. They had mass in an auditorium, and they had floodlights trained on the priest, who was somewhat of a crotchety old man. Right in the middle of mass he turned around—this was in the days when the priest faced away from the congregation—and said, "Somebody turn off those damn lights! It's hotter than hell up here!"

        • Rationalist1

          We also had fun when they installed a wireless microphone system (a very early one) for the priest in our parish. The trouble is when a taxi went by using its radio it was picked up on the PA. It was hilarious and it was replaced the next week.

          • Dcn Harbey Santiago

            Here is another one. We have a Church in our Archdiocese which uses rather powerful wireless mics. One Sunday morning, while the congregation was prayerful waiting for the mass to start Father decided to answer the call of nature in the sacristy bathroom...with the mic open. Needless to say It was quite a revealing experience for the congregation. True story.

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
            DHS

          • Linda

            Jesus was in all ways human. Jesus answered the call of nature too. Good reminder! (And I laughed out loud at your story -- thanks!)

    • The cathedral of St. Matt's here in DC is exceptionally cool right now. It's glorious.

  • Linda

    I liked this article much better. its interesting that the need to gather in like-minded groups is so strong, particularly religious ones. The idea that people gather to worship and/or perform rituals to honor/placate their god or gods, from ancient times to present, makes a certain amount of sense. As a tribe or community you would be working together in whatever ways natural (hunting and gathering) and supernatural (ceremonies or rituals that call for a good hunt or to end a drought). It's interesting that as we become less tribe dependent we still seek them out, and even create our own. I wonder what kind of tribe we who read this site regularly would make. I suspect we'd still be having some fun discussions. "God didn't provide the mammoth! That saber-toothed tiger did! Thank *him* and let's eat!"

    • Rationalist1

      Or we might all die of starvation arguing over whether to final cause of the mammoth is to provide food and clothing or not. :->

      • Linda

        "No one is making you eat the mammoth, Ock. We're all fine that you're living on berries. But it was a but disappointing when you moved into a new cave just because Oog drew that picture of the lightning god on the wall to protect us."

        • Rationalist1

          Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

          • No, guys, really.

            Humans don;t think like atheists trying to think like Catholics.

            We should have long been extinct otherwise.

          • Linda

            I'm a Catholic trying to think like a pagan encountering an atheist.

          • Linda

            This says "the more things change , the more they stay same"? I'm afraid my French (please excuse the spelling) is limited to "Bon jour, j'suis Monsier Fromage" which I've been told is "Hello, I'm Mr. Cheese." Some day this will come in handy and when it does I will will fall over laughing.

  • severalspeciesof

    This OP is good. It didn't seem to be full of 'hidden' preconceived ideas for or against any one particular view point.

    I really like that Stephen seems to acknowledge that terms and words can be very slippery and sometimes obstructive when trying to get to a core idea...

    As to the question "Could there be a modern Western atheist religion?" My short answer is 'Yes', but then I have another question, "Could it last if 'atheism' is its central tenant?" I'm not even sure that that would be possible. One can't build very well on an 'absence of' idea, can one?

    Glen

    • primenumbers

      Even among the religious, church attendance is very low, so I wonder exactly how appealing (in general) the sermon/singing format is? Perhaps online forums are the new Church?

      • severalspeciesof

        Yes, the internet has supplanted much of our social interaction. While I don't think that in the long run it will be a bad thing, as a social construct, it has many kinks to work out. An internet church could work out I suppose. Another generation on the intertubes will tell...

        Glen

        • But that can't be enough. George Carlin observed that people need religion so that once a week they can get together to compare clothing.

    • I think that's why the first and most prominent example he gives is of a humanist religion. It has atheism as an underlying principle, but supplies a positive alignment towards Humanity.

      • severalspeciesof

        Yes, but IMO, it seemed to bury it deep (the alignment towards Humanity), smothering it with all the religious frosting on the cake that Auguste could get his hands on (Dogmas anyone? Get your Dogmas here!!!)... no wonder it didn't last...

        Glen

    • Octavo

      As a non-theist, I would not want to be part of any religion that condemned people for being theistic. I prefer the Unitarian Universalists. It's a place that my theistic spouse and I can attend without being on the receiving end of any sneering - theistic or non-theistic.

  • josh

    I have a bone to pick, but it comes from the various uses of the term atheism in the real world, not a strict flaw with the article in its limited scope. Atheism as used in the article means absence of belief in god, which is fine when used as the negation of theism. However, out in the real world, when I say I am an atheist I mean also that I have no religion. Contra the OP, I would say that having no religion entails not believing in god.

    It's a confusion of language, since some Buddhists and others, as noted, can make the distinction from theists that they have no gods, although to say they have no religion would be a much stronger statement that doesn't seem to apply. But we don't have a widely used word other than atheist to imply 'no religion period.' 'Nones', which appear as a category in some surveys, seem to include a lot of people I would classify as religious but not identifying with a particular formal religious group.

    This also comes into play since 'atheist' isn't for me an identity, it's just a description, and it doesn't hinge on formally defining religion. What I seek to be is a rationalist, someone who doesn't hold unreasonable beliefs and atheism follows from that, but so do a lot of other things. Irrational nationalism, tribal identification, certain communist doctrine, etc. may not be religions, but I reject them for the same reasons.

    • Rationalist1

      It is confusing. And many people with no religion, believe in a God or higher spirit or something. And then although I would describe myself as an atheist I'm technically agnostic about God (as about astrology and homeopathy too).

      My moniker is Rationalist1 and I'm fine with that but it's not entirely me. I would preferred Secular Humanist along the line of Protagoras' "Man is the measure of all things" but your get what's available.

      I'm wondering weith the growth of the "none" (encompassing many points of view) and the dramatic drop in church attendance will we still be arguing about God why more and more people are voting with their sleep on Sunday morning.

      • josh

        I've said before that if people want to get rid of atheists all they have to do is get rid of religion. If at some future time no one is really a believer then no one will bother to identify as an atheist. The same way no one bothers to specify that they are an anti-Atenist these days.

        • For the poor you have always with you: and whensoever you will, you may do them good

        • Stephen Bulivant

          Marx says something similar somewhere I think, Josh. Though I'd say that there's a different between being atheists and identifying as atheists. In a world with no theism (not *necessarily* no 'religion', for the reasons given above!) it may be that no one bothers to identify as an atheist, but it wouldn't mean that there aren't any, but that everyone is one.

          • josh

            I don't really disagree. I'm just allowing for the distinction that one can make between an atheist who is consciously aware of a claim and rejects it and one for whom the claim simply isn't even an option to consider.

  • Isaac Clarke

    This is totally off topic but,

    Here's the best way I've ever seen to counter religious protesters:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CE5dPL9o0A&feature=youtu.be

  • Octavo

    Bravo! This article was very well written. Definitely glad to have visited Strange Notions this morning.

  • Corylus

    Thank you Stephen, a clear and well-written piece. I agree with you about the use of Wittengenstein and family resemblance terms.

    [Whisper's behind hand so as not to take off thread: I actually think you can make a case for 'marriage' being a family resemblance term also. I'd say this idea being taken on board might prevent some silly and nasty statements being made. I won't go into more details: you are smart enough to realise where I am heading].

    The possibility of an atheist religion? As defined above, certainly, however I would have a worry about the motivation in joining. If it were just to keep the neighbours off one's back (you know, those who assume that there is something wrong with you if you are not somewhere public on a certain time of the week) then that would be unfortunate. Although, an organisation that provides 'hatching, matching and dispatching' assistance all under one roof, with no accompanying superstition, would be handy.

    However, anyone providing this might be well advised to listen to The Little Vagabond so that common 'turn offs' are avoided. Po-faced morality can creep unaware.

  • reader_gl

    If Lenin Mausoleum has been mentioned, I would like to add about the sarcophaghi (glass coffins).
    44 years before Lenin's death, another great Russian, Nikolay Pirogov, father of surgical pain killers (of anaesthesia), military surgeon, scientist and believer, was embalmed by his wife and put into glass coffin, in 1881 in Vynnitsa, Ukraine. His tomb is carefully kept and preserved.

    And a question to Stephen: how it is possible to "convert" from atheism to Christianity? Just was baptized, ye(s)? [Some of the classics said that the religion is asking questions :) ]

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Thanks reader_g - I wasn't previsouly aware of Pirgov. And yes, I was baptized (and confirmed, and first communion-ed, of course) in 2008 - it was the culmination of a long and gradual process. I might write about it some time on here.

      • Vicq_Ruiz

        Stephen, the shelves of apologetic literature (Catholic and Protestant alike) are well stocked with works by those who claim to be former atheists.

        But in most cases, these authors, when they present the questions that atheists ask, do so in such an unconvincing way that it leads me to question that claim.

        You do not appear to be among that company, and I would be interested in learning how your view of the world as an atheist differs from your view today, what has changed and what has not.

        • Stephen Bulivant

          Thanks V_R for asking (and for the compliment in doing so). As to your first point, I can assure you that I - and plenty of folks from school, college, and university can testify - certainly was an atheist... of the Bertrand Russell/ AJ Ayer-reading, Che Guevara-T shirt wearing variety. (There's a photo of me, aged 17 or so, wearing said T Shirt with a Chinese communist army jacket). This is a 'view on the world' (and on fashion, for that matter!) which, I have to say, I still have a huge amount of respect, affection, and intellectual sympathy for.

          As to how my 'view of the world' has changed, I think that there's a very long (and no doubt extremely boring, self-indulgent answer) I could give to that - but it's late here (I'm in the Philippines, at the moment), so I won't.

          What I will say, though, is that I've always been struck by the continuity between where I am now, and where I was even six or seven or eight years ago (I was only baptized five years ago) - at least, it's never *felt* that I've been making any radical shift, any point along the way. (Though a direct 'before and after' comparison would probably look quite dramatic)

          At university, I ended up studying theology by accident (I switched form ancient history early into my undergrad, and you couldn't do philosophy on its own, etc.), and ended up doing a research masters - which became a doctorate... - on a topic that piqued my interest : the Catholic engagement with atheism. Somewhere along the way, I gradually came to realize that Christianity wasn't all (literal) nonsense: I was impressed by the intellectual depth of certain Christian writers - mainly Catholics (Congar, Rahner, de Lubac, von Balthasar), though not all (*Dostoevsky*), and had started to see worth in some of the theoretical arguments for the existence of God (esp. fine-tuning and the cosmological argument). Against that background, I was struck by the 'strange notion' of a God who gets himself executed.(I later came across Terry Eagleton's phrase that 'The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal', which is now one I quote a lot.)

          Now I've read (and written, for that matter) enough sociology to know that these 'purely intellectual narratives' are never the whole story in conversions - that there's a significant amount of socialization that goes on, etc. And that's true here too (I had a Dominican friend I used to go drinking with, etc. - though I don't recall we ever spoke that much about religion),

          Anyway, very long story short, I got to a point when I was thinking and writing (as a PhD student) Catholic theology, and believing it too.. and assuming that, at some point, some time, I might end up a Catholic. Which, with a fair bit of prodding from a Benedictine I met a party, I ended up doing in Rome in 2008.

          And once a Catholic - having got the basics in place (that if the historical successor to the community founded by the executed political criminal is to be found anywhere, it's the Catholic Church [though I admit the Orthodox could also make a plausible claim]) - much of the rest of the Church's teaching (including pretty much everything my former self would been aghast and incredulous at - pro-Life, anti- artificial contraception, etc.) ended up following. [Living it all out, of course, is something I'm still working on.]

          For some reason - I told you it was late; it's much later now, of course - Richard Dawkins' comment about people being incredulous that human beings could have come from single-celled organisms ('You did it yourself in 9 months!') has just leapt to mind. I guess what I'm trying to say is that while it has been, on one level, a dramatic leap, it's all felt very natural and easy: 'continuity', rather than 'rupture' (a weak joke, some of the Catholics here might groan at).

          • Stephen Bulivant

            PS - Just think... that's the *non* boring and self-indulgent version!

          • Vicq_Ruiz

            I'd very much like to see you expand on this a bit in a future article. Particularly the inference I draw that you associate leftism ~ atheism and conservatism ~ faith, since I consider myself an atheist but a political and social conservative (with libertarian leanings) and have been so for five decades.

            My wish for you to expand is of course no criticism of your responding here in the thread!! Only a handful of other article authors on this site are willing to do so.

          • Stephen Bulivant

            I certainly didn't intend to associate leftism with atheism, or conservatism with faith (though I see where you're coming from): finding the truth of human history in a 'tortured political criminal' isn't a classic social conservative position, at least not where I come from. I sometimes like to say that I'm as right-wing as Dorothy Day (another very great influence, though one I only properly discovered just after I'd converted).

  • Aaron Michael Matthias Selinge

    This is a very good article, yet there is a flaw in that it considers beliefs to be a definitive characteristic of religion. This is how religion is considered post-reformation and reflects how deeply ingrained Protestant thought is within our culture. For Aquinas, religion is a moral virtue and beliefs do not have any primary importance. Religion according to Aquinas is defined by a pondering over, or a reading again, of the things pertaining to the worship of God, so that we can seek God again whom we lost by neglect, and ultimately be bound to God. The reason for this is that, according to Aquinas, God is our last end in that He is our ultimate happiness and we ought to be bound to Him as an unfailing principle.

    This is similar to how the Romans treated the issue. Remember, they didn't care that the Christians didn't believe the Emperor was a God, they just wanted the Christians to offer him incense. As far as they were concerned the Christians could believe whatever the heck they wanted.

    .

    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3081.htm#article1

  • Godfrey Buillon

    Would Dawkin's worship of Darwinist materialism count as a religion?

    • Stephen Bulivant

      He discusses this (sort of) topic in, I think, the first chapter of The God Delusion: 'A Deeply Religious Nonbeliever'. Not wanting to speak for him, but I think he would dispute your characterization of his 'worship of Darwinist materialism'.

  • Just a few days ago an article went up at CNN titled, "Behold, the six types of atheists" that gives the results of an academic study done in the southern U.S. The authors list these six categories:

    1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic
    2) Activist
    3) Seeker-agnostic
    4) Anti-theist
    5) Non-theist
    6) Ritual atheist

    That last category comprises people who are atheists while participating in religion, and IMHO would most fit those expected to join an atheistic religion as described by Dr Bullivant, if such were available.

    • Michael Murray

      Interesting. Nowhere on that list is the kind of person who just gets on with their life without a god playing any great part in it. Maybe they don't call themselves atheists. They might even put down Christian on the census but they are functionally atheists in their day to day lives. They seem like the most common non-theist in a lot of western countries outside the US.

      New category: functional atheists.

      • I am sure the list will grow.

        • The list is already shrinking. Notice the inability of Q to elicit from within himself the apathy toward religion which, he says, is the mark of atheism.

          I understand ;-)

          It is possible to become apathetic about religion.

          But it is impossible to become vehemently apathetic about anything.

          Q, are you really an atheist?

      • Sample1

        That would be anyone with a pulse.

        In reply to:

        Nowhere on that list is the kind of person who just gets on with their life without a god playing any great part in it.

        Mike

      • epeeist

        Nowhere on that list is the kind of person who just gets on with their life without a god playing any great part in it.

        Apatheists would seem to cover it. It probably applies to the majority of the people in the UK.

        • But to none of our atheist friends here at SN :-)

        • Michael Murray

          Apathiest. That's great. I withdraw "functional atheist". It's a standard joke amongst atheists in Australia that if you say you are an atheist people will ask why you want to talk about religion.

      • The researchers seem to have that as Non-Theists:

        ... However, a few terms may best capture the sentiments of the Non-Theist. One is apathetic, while another may be disinterested. The Non-Theist is non-active in terms of involving themselves in social or intellectual pursuits having to do with religion or anti-religion. A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion.

        • Clearly Q is a theist, under his own source's constraints :-)

        • Michael Murray

          OK thanks. I guess non-theist covers it although many are going to be people who "hold no beliefs in gods".

    • epeeist

      The authors list these six categories:

      But none of the categories are entailed by atheism. It still remains simply the lack of belief in the existence of gods.

      • It does not seem the study was looking to define atheism, just to interview atheists. The researchers write:

        Previous research and studies focusing on the diverse landscape of Belief in America have continually placed those who profess no belief in a God or gods into one unified category infamously known as the “religious nones”. This catch-all category presented anyone who identified as having “no religion” as a homogeneous group in America today, lumping people who may believe in God with the many who don’t. Moreover, it also assumed that all Non-believers were the same.

  • clod

    I think atheism is all the stronger for resisting any temptation to don any cloak of religiosity. There are some moves in this direction, regrettably.

    It's taken quite long enough to pull the teeth of such silly notions as heresy and blasphemy and to expose them as part of the bundle off dangerous and manipulative power and control strategies they represent.

    Last thing we need is for another orthodoxy to rear its ugly head.

  • Martin Snigg
    • Michael Murray

      "atheism is a lack of belief in gods" is the simplest definition. God tends to imply the Abrahamic God. "gods" is a reminder there are lots of them being worshipped somewhere.

      I always find the "atheism is a religion" attack kind of weird. It's like "you know what's bad about you guys -- you're just like us !"

      • Martin Snigg

        Michael I don't think you read Prof. Vallicella's (in the link) devastating critique of that position.

        • Michael Murray

          I have now. I'm not devastated. If he wants to he can adopt some more refined definitions such as

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_atheism

          I don't understand his confusion between a proposition and those who do and don't hold it ? This guy taught philosophy?

          Attacking the weak definition of atheism is a standard theist manoeuvre followed by something like "well you must believe in God as otherwise how can you say He doesn't exist". I'm also not devastated by the disingenuous attempt to say that gods must be God the Abrahamic god and thus slip in the idea that there is really only one god worth talking about.

    • Martin Snigg

      I don't want to pre-empt our generous author's explication but if I can speculate, I wonder if "atheism as religion" means what Remi Brague argues in his "Are Non-Theocratic Regime's Possible?" the internal link here http://ethikapolitika.org/2012/03/21/sacred-ambivalence-reflection-remi-bragues-are-non-theocratic-regimes-possible/ or CS Lewis' quote that the religion of the self is the main rival to Christianity. Another helpful essay might be Stanley Fish's "Why We Can't All Get Along".

      I think it would be a great advance if we could get liberals to acknowledge the powerful force of their own first principles, how these are non-neutral powerfully promoted by the state and very vigorously promulgated by the defacto controllers of central governments - the owners of global capital.

      It's very easy to forget how nature and nature's God is a bulwark against the intrusion of powerful wills from remaking humans stripped of their creator and nature, now made 'atoms', into their own image. If there are sources of independence and authority outside the liberal state - the plutocracy - then $/liberalism experiences this as a threat. Liberal government legislation precedes the intrusion of global money. E.g. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, explained the state can’t unduly
      interfere with a woman’s right to choose an abortion because women have
      the right not be treated as biological women under the law. So, that first society, that first government - the natural family - is no longer protected and sex and the women that are its gatekeepers can be exploited financially. A hideous regime we live under today, which stands on the corpses of millions of babies killed in the womb.

      Who can dispute that this regime of human sacrifice has such a powerful religious quality that it overwhelms the maternal instinct and the self preservation instinct such that whole civilisations are now choosing demographic elimination? 'Christ and Nothing' http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/12/christ-and-nothing-28

      • Michael Murray

        So, that first society, that first government - the natural family - is no longer protected and sex and the women that are its gatekeepers can be exploited financially.

        Seriously ? Women are the gatekeepers of sex. Men need to keep it in their pants more like.

        A hideous regime we live under today, which stands on the corpses of millions of babies killed in the womb.

        Define baby.

        While we are on the topic of foetuses what do you think of this comet

        https://strangenotions.com/atheists-love/#comment-968986364

        • Martin Snigg

          Yes they are the gatekeepers. The price paid for them is higher. Thought experiment - a man walks into a bar and a woman walks into a bar, each wanting sex, each of similar attractiveness . . . . . .

          A baby is a v.young human being.

          re: spontaneous miscarriage and abortion. I don't share Mr Nickol's conclusions at all, but if he wanted help thinking through the issue he couldn't go past Alexander Pruss.

          • Michael Murray

            So a baby is not a foetus. Well we agree on something.

          • Martin Snigg

            I'm not a nominalist, the child is 3 weeks old, 3 months old, or 3 years old. "I'm having a foetus" is terminological mischief again, it is what we do to human beings that we want to do away with, dehumanise them. I don't want to repeat C20th performances thank you.

          • Michael Murray

            it is what we do to human beings that we want to do away with, dehumanise them.

            You mean like call them witches and heretics ? No it's not that. It's just recognition that there is a continuum from a conceptus to a newborn. Rational people recognise this complexity. We don't expect the world to be black and white because our God made it that that. So we can deal with the grey.

          • Martin Snigg

            It is this kind of prejudice that 'Strange Notions' is trying to remedy. Anyone can read their history backwards; you ought to have no doubt that future historians will see a continuum between witch paranoia and race 'zimmerman' paranoia. They will see a continuum between heresy trials and the kinds still carried out at Harvard if IQ and race are seriously investigated, or when PC is threatened generally.
            Yes the Church no longer burns heretics anymore than the state draws and quarters for treason.

            As 'rational people' future generations will recognise the complexity of social life, the relative fixity of human nature and decry the simplistic Enlightenment mythologies used to buttress political power today. The kind that sees black and white, contemptuously judging our ancestors as superstitious while perpetuating that narrative most delighting Power - that our rulers are on the pinnacle of great human progress, their various self serving projects have already been judged righteous by that glorious idol - the progress of history. Black and white indeed.

            Your 'continuum' in human development assumes a vary recent and very disputed metaphysics - in what sense are you the same yesterday as you are today? Only traditional Aristotelian/Catholic preserved metaphysics grounds our common sense understanding of identity, justice, morality, and science. It is pure superstition that humans bearing rights magically come into existence when feminists say they do, and when most convenient to plutocrats. Abortion supporters no longer deny they're killing humans, they argue now that they simply ought to be able to kill because that is what human autonomy is about!

            This is so clearly in a continuum with the modern political systems that have made killing milliions with industrial efficiency. For this reason most exposed to the arguments reject abortion completely. Basic demographics (proportion of children surviving the womb live in families that reject child killing) can't explain why most young people are pro human child.

          • Michael Murray

            It is this kind of prejudice that 'Strange Notions' is trying to remedy.

            Is it ? I thought it was trying to bring the true message of Catholicism to the great unwashed atheistic masses. At least that was the message on the blogs. I was in need of a good wash so I arrived promptly.

            that our rulers are on the pinnacle of great human progress,

            Not sure who you are talking to here. I don't recall ever suggesting anything like that. Not sure where Harvard comes into this ? We aren't all living in the US you know.

            For this reason most exposed to the arguments reject abortion completely.

            Strange then the general acceptance of abortion law or the desire for more liberal versions in so many countries

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Societal_attitudes_towards_abortion

          • Max Driffill

            Wow, its like a game, "In a single post, trot out as many straw men as you can: ready, set, go!"

          • Michael Murray

            Package for Mr Driffill

          • Max Driffill

            Excellent! MM!

          • epeeist

            Package for Mr Driffill

            Nice, I tend to use the phrase "Enough straw to contain an infinite number of Edward Woodwards".

      • epeeist

        I wonder if "atheism as religion" means what Remi Brague argues in his
        "Are Non-Theocratic Regime's Possible?" the internal link here http://ethikapolitika.org/2012... or CS Lewis' quote that the religion of the self is the main rival to Christianity.

        A paragraph containing "theocracy" and C.S. Lewis. It is interesting to read what he thought of the prospect of theocracy:

        I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant, a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us
        infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

        And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme -- whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence -- the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind
        of intoxication.

        • Michael Murray

          Nice thanks. What is that from ?

          • epeeist

            Nice thanks. What is that from ?

            An essay entitled A Reply to Professor Haldane.

          • Mikegalanx

            And of course here Lewis is referring to Haldane's Marxism and his admiration for the Soviet Union ( only partially repudiated in the 1950s)

          • epeeist

            And of course here Lewis is referring to Haldane's Marxism and his admiration for the Soviet Union

            Yes, like Weinberg's statement

            Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

            It is too restrictive, in Lewis' essay and Weinberg's aphorism one should really use the word "ideology".

        • Martin Snigg

          I know this quote well, but CS Lewis is arguing against something that Christianity in its essence prevents, as Remi Brague explains. What I think CS Lewis is doing is showing how a committed Christian belief cannot assimilate political power in the way Islam demands or the way late stage secular liberalism must. The Cross forever prevents this. CS Lewis is talking to an ignorant audience who more often than not give stupid objections to Christianity. In our context the quote is of pressing practical importance because of the prospect of our regression to a kind of atheocracy - rule of secularist priests - taxpayer funded court sophists. In other words the opposite of diversity is University.

          "It is also hard to argue that we enjoy separation of Harvard and state.Harvard is conventionally described as a "private" university. This term is strictly nominal. Vast streams of cash flow from the taxpayer's pocket into Harvard's - as they do not flow to, say, the Vatican.

          Except for a few unimportant institutions of non-mainstream religious affiliation, we simply do not see multiple, divergent, competing schools of thought within the American university system. The whole vast archipelago, though evenly speckled with a salting of contrarians, displays no factional structure whatsoever. It seems almost perfectly synchronized.

          There is a strange self-organizing quality about this design. Does the American university system's maintenance of broad unanimity, despite the clear absence of anything like a coordinating executive authority, make it seem less creepy to you? Or more?

          What, exactly, is the "mainstream media?" If we accept the
          ecclesiastical metaphor, the newspaper is a perfect analogue of the church proper. It is simply the latest transmission technology for your worm's daily or weekly security update. And here again, a coordinated message - without any central agency.

          The triangle of professors, bureaucrats, and public opinion is stable, because the professors teach as well as advise.The system experiences some strain. But it will stay together, so long as the polarity does not randomly reverse.

          Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left. Isn't that interesting?"

          Moldbug 'Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations'”

          • Michael Murray

            Vast streams of cash flow from the taxpayer's pocket into Harvard's - as they do not flow to, say, the Vatican.

            I'm not sure what the point of this quote is but the RCC obtains an enormous financial benefit from governments all around the world by way of tax exemptions. I don't know the various components of Harvard's income but it has an enormous endowment fund.

  • John Terpack

    I recently came across an old definition for religion that I think really does solve the riddle;
    a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

    It isn't the most concise definition I've ever read. But I think it does cover the range of what we consider religion. Importantly, I think it also allows a range of things that could be religions to certain people. For example, the article asked whether Marxism might be considered a religion. I think it is a religion. But not to everybody who follows it. There's the theism/religion distinction to consider. You can believe in Marxism just as you can believe in a god. But neither of those beliefs is sufficient to make you religious. It isn't until your belief starts to guide your moods and motivations, to regulate your life, that you become religious. As such, I think religion is indeed a very, very broad category. The woman who spends all summer planning and preparing for the winter ski season is practicing a religion of skiing. I think we instinctively recognize this broad definition when we say people do things "religiously". There's a certain fervor to a religious behavior that doesn't manifest in a similar non-religious behavior. It is certainly possible to go skiing without being religious about it. It is even wise to plan ahead for the trip. But for some people such a trip, skiing or otherwise, takes on the import of a pilgrimage to Mecca. Another example would be the distinction between going to a ballgame or being one of the guys with the painted faces who show up three hours early to begin the sacramental pre-game feast and chanting.

    My view is that religion is a universal human trait. It's just that we each have our own unique idea of what is sacred and how best to honor that sanctity.

  • Adam Butler

    Atheism is the same thing Theism is: Neither is a religion in and of itself, but a class of religions.

    As for the definition of religion, a religion is an attempt to explain the origin and/or purpose of the universe, or the lack thereof.