As a teenager I spent countless hours on YouTube and in Google Hangouts arguing about religion. Atheist YouTube (pre-Gamergate) was dedicated primarily to addressing Christian fundamentalist propaganda. Figures like the deliciously named Ken Ham and the less tasty Kent Hovind produced endless shitty videos promoting creationism. Addressing the arguments made in these videos was the activity which bound together disparate atheists and agnostics. The arguments ranged from ripping off Ibn Sina’s natural theology to bizarre pseudo paleontology that claimed to establish the existence of Velociraptor riding humans.
These arguments therefore took two forms: obviously and laughably pseudo-scientific arguments which preyed on the scientific illiteracy of evangelicals and sophisticated philosophical arguments that were mostly borrowed (via Thomas Aquinas) from Islamic philosophy. I started to actively participate in hangouts because as a burgeoning philosophy nerd and atheist, I felt that most of the arguments made by YouTube atheists against the later were rather weak. While the atheist community skewed towards people with at least a passing interest in scientific knowledge they mostly disdained philosophy as the fail cousin of science which spent most of its time masturbating on the couch.
My desire was to show atheists that philosophy was worthwhile by presenting (more) philosophically informed arguments that were undeniably stronger. I started to join the post-recording Google Hangouts of my favorite atheist podcast (Fundamentally Flawed). These Hangouts were just live broadcasts that continued as people on the show slowly trickled out and were replaced by random fans (and sometimes antagonists). I would politely point out the flaws in my fellow atheist’s arguments and help them to develop stronger versions.
After a while, I was invited to co-host a podcast which came to be known as Sophia Ex Nihilo where we did deep dives into philosophical and theological texts with a mixed panel of atheists and theists who were all interested in deeply understanding rather than just refuting the texts at hand. This podcast achieved my goal of encouraging atheists to be more philosophically thoughtful: I still receive the occasional comment or private message about these videos the better part of a decade later.
In my years of active involvement in the online atheist community I noticed a strange tendency towards textual literal-ism that provided a fun house mirror of religious fundamentalism. A particular virulent strain of atheist thought, known as “new atheism,” promoted the idea that not only was belief in god incorrect, but religion itself is inherently bad. This ideology is also sometimes referred to as “anti-theism.”
Broadly speaking there were two main arguments made by anti-theists. The first was that incorrect beliefs are inherently harmful, and so religion is morally wrong simply by virtue of promoting false belief. This argument has several problems, the most obvious of which was addressed by the insistence by many new atheists that they rejected all “ideologies,” of a political or philosophical nature. Not only is this profoundly arrogant, it is incredibly naive. At the same time that these “skeptics” declared their rejection of all ideology, they embraced the War On Terror as a legitimate war against Islam and the “Medieval” irrationality it embodied. Three of the four “horsemen of new atheism” were promoters of Islamaphobia and US intervention as the cure for religious extremism.
The other argument made against religion was the immoral content of religious beliefs. It is undeniable that texts such as the Torah, Bible, and Quran contain some awful claims and horrifying stories. The claim by atheists was that if theists actually took their religion seriously, they would believe horrible things and behave immorally.
I would like to suggest that the error made here is that atheists fundamentally do not understand the nature of religion. None of the major mainstream religions are, on a logical level, compatible with literal-ism. If they were, then so called “fundamentalists” would all agree. But the reality is that such people are constantly in conflict over points both minor and major. Atheists who point to the incoherence of religious doctrine as a reason for unbelief are half correct: they are correct that it is incoherent and that for some that may be the grounds for unbelief, but for many others that actually has great utility.
If religions are understood not as coherent bodies of dogma but rather as symbolic systems where many, often contradictory, claims can be justified, then this problem of contradiction falls away. Furthermore, the lines between religion and secular society are blurred. The symbolic language of Christianity still holds a great deal of sway over the de-converted and people such as myself who were merely raised in the culture with no religious beliefs.
To take one example, climate change is often framed in explicitly apocalyptic terms. Humans, having sinned against nature through un-inhibited industrial activity and growth, are now facing our judgement day. If we accept the prescriptions of environmentalism, then maybe we can still be redeemed. Much like the Biblical apocalypse, our judgement is both impending, urgent, and indefinite. We must act now because we don’t know when it will be too late to act.
To be clear, I think that equating climate change with the Biblical apocalypse is reasonable. My point here is not to argue that people are bad for using this implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) religious framing but rather to point out how powerful the symbolic language of religion is.
Neoliberalism presents another case of a secular but unmistakably Christian ideology. As individuals we have been given the free will to act within the market economy. If we choose to be lazy and unproductive, then the market will punish us. But if we are industrious and entrepreneurial, we will be rewarded. Just as in Christianity where the onus is on the individual to have faith, we must have faith in the market and act accordingly.
The Status of Secularism
So if you accept my argument that religion ought to be understood as an ultimately inescapable symbolic system, where does this leave secularism? I want to suggest an approach to secularism that approaches religion critically rather than attempting, without any hope of success, to eliminate it from the world and our institutions at large. The vast majority of the people in the world claim some religious affiliation. That religious affiliation manifests in the world in forms ranging from having a holiday meal once a year to weekly church attendance to flying to Syria to join ISIL.
These forms are clearly not the same, and it is foolish to ignore their differences. Furthermore, it does no-one any favors to side with fundamentalists who claim that only their reactionary interpretation is valid. It is precisely the incoherence of religions as dogmatic systems that makes them malleable and contestable symbolic systems. The favored interpretation in a given time and place is profoundly effected by the social, political, and economic organizations of that place. The major religions of the world all contain both the symbolic language to advocate for hierarchy and for liberation. In this respect, they are no different from “secular” symbolism.
Rather than being primarily concerned with whether or not someone claims to be religious, we would be better off concerning ourselves with the specific content of their beliefs. Do they believe in and act to affirm hierarchical power? Do they support systemic violence?
The same atheists who were criticizing Muslims for their treatment of women and sectarianism were not only supporting violent foreign intervention that intensified both of those problems but would go on to be key actors within Gamergate. ThunderF00t, an atheist well known for his detailed take downs of creationist propaganda, turned his attention fully to attacking Anita Sarkeesian and feminism. It is precisely their rejection of all “ideology,” including religion, that made this transition so natural. “Ideology” was understood by the new atheists to be anything counter to, or unverifiable by the scientific method.
When applied to politics this naive positivism is inherently reactionary. Anyone speaking against the status quo must be doing so from a place of ideology, except for brave contrarians who affirm hierarchy through appeals to “human nature.” New atheism, like every project which seeks to reject “ideology” in favor of pure objectivity, is deeply ideological. Many new atheists have turned to neo-fascism in the GamerGate.
My goals with this essay have been twofold: 1) to challenge the tendency among atheists to consider legitimate only the most reactionary and “literal” interpretation of religious beliefs, and 2) to suggest that the distinction between religious expression and secular expression is problematic. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that religious symbolism is benign. Rather, I would like us to reject the notion of a benign symbolic system. Resurgent fascism, much like it’s early 20th century version, is capable of speaking both the language of faith and that of secularism.
On a pragmatic level, most of the world’s population is religious. Rather than considering them all suspect until they renounce all faith, I suggest we try to engage with people* on the basis of our mutual interest in defeating fascism, dismantling capitalism, and managing our environment collectively. None of these goals are incompatible with religious belief, and many atheists are directly opposed to that agenda.
Try as we might, we can never truly escape religious symbolism. Let us be critical of these symbols on the basis of their form and use, not just their origins.
*I want to be clear here that I do not expect those who have experienced religious trauma to do this work. All symbolic systems can be used to justify and perpetuate abuse and violence and no one should be forced to deploy a system that has been used to inflict suffering on them. At this time in the US, strong religious belief is strongly correlated with reactionary politics. I am suggesting that we ought to hold the individuals who engage in the violent use of religious symbolism accountable. We should not accept that this is natural or inevitable. To put the blame on religion is to both depoliticize and depersonalize violence carried out in the name of faith.
We must also recognize that horrible violence has been carried out in the name of secularism against religious people (see: the invasion of Iraq as a project to establish a secular, liberal democracy; the oppression of Uighurs in China; the “secular” sectarianism of Assad’s government). The elimination of religious belief is neither a realistic goal nor would it eliminate the hierarchies that religion is used to support. Finally, arguing that such a thing would be desirable (with all the violence it would entail) is part of how new atheists ended up aligned with neo-fascists.