How global are atheisms?

An atheist sticker in Madrid, Spain.
An atheist sticker in Madrid, Spain.

In the past two weeks, The Religion Factor has published a series of posts on the topic of diversity within contemporary atheist movements, leading up to a seminar on ‘Atheisms around the globe’ organized by the CRCPD. In today’s post, Jeroen Weggen reflects back on the seminar and the series, offering some thoughts on which directions future research on atheisms might take.

On Tuesday the 17th of November 2015 the seminar ‘Atheisms around the globe’ took place at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies,University of Groningen. Prof Terrell Carver and I presented preliminary findings from the research on atheist movements and organizations that we have been working on since February of 2015. In many respects, however, the findings raise more questions than they answer.

The blog post series as well as the seminar, we suggest, contributed to progress in mapping and understanding the variety of global atheisms in theory and practice. Stephen LeDrew’s post about American atheism showed that although the ideas of New Atheism are dominant, atheism in the USA actually has many different faces. Even though a lot of research into atheist organizations and movements has focused on atheism in the USA, its diversity hasn’t been thoroughly documented yet. Take for example the phenomenon of prominent atheists such as Michael Shermer who connect their atheism and the theory of evolution with political libertarianism. It appears that LeDrew’s recently published book is the first one that notes this coalescence of atheism and libertarianism.[1]

Similarly, Teemu Taira’s blog post tackled earlier research done by Phil Zuckerman on atheism in Scandinavian countries. Taira argued that a lot more can be said about Zuckerman’s case study, and more importantly that cross-cultural comparisons of atheisms (such as Zuckerman did with atheism in the USA and in Scandinavia, respectively) need to be made very carefully. This is also one of the main points made by Johannes Quack in his methodological reflections inspired by his fieldwork among rationalist organizations in India.[2] In his view ‘atheism’ might not be a fruitful term to use in research; instead he argued that nonreligion is a better category for making cross-cultural comparisons (although by no means problem-free).

The idea that ‘atheism’ might not be a good category for global research is a point that occurred during the seminar as well. A few participants pointed out that it is questionable how ‘global’ the phenomenon of atheist movements and atheist organizations really is. Can such organizations be found in, for example, Africa or eastern Asia? Even with the example Terrell and I used of the Philippine organization PATAS (Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society[3]), it was argued by someone in the audience who knew some of PATAS’ members personally that it is mainly a middle-class organization, and that atheism simply doesn’t appear on the radar of the average Filipino citizen. To what extent PATAS is a middle-class organization is unclear, but for example it does seem a very internet-focused organization, whereas only 33% of Filipinos have access to internet.[4] Thus, even though the Philippines has an atheist organization, it seems to have difficulty rooting itself in Filipino culture (but this is something that has to be studied carefully).

Another problem with focusing on atheism as a category is that in many national-cultural contexts around the globe religion does not refer to ‘belief in the supernatural’ as it tends to be narrowly defined in New Atheist circles. In fact, in many cultures and countries the dominant form of religion is some form of animism, and God simply refers to nature.[5] In these contexts atheism doesn’t make much sense as a concept, because how would you be able to disbelieve in your direct environment? Of course, opposition to religion when religion takes a nontheistic form is still possible and happens all the time, but in that case it should not be understood as being a type of atheism. Prof. Quack’s point in his blog post, namely that ‘nonreligion’ is a better category than ‘atheism’ for cross-cultural analysis and comparison, is salient here.

It thus appears that atheist organizations tend to be a mostly Western phenomenon, with most of the organizations appearing in countries in Europe and in countries that had close ties (and still have close ties) to European countries in a colonial context: the USA, India, Australia and so on. Still, this does not detract from the point that atheist organizations are now appearing in (what at first appear to be) unlikely places such as Ireland and the Philippines. Atheisms have become significantly more international, as mentioned in the introductory post, with many new organizations being founded in the past ten years in lots of different countries, and it might very well be that atheist organizations or movements will emerge in unlikely places in Africa, South America or Asia, or even that they already have emerged but have operated ‘under the radar’ until now. Again, this is something that has hardly been researched, if at all.

And even with regard to ‘Western’ atheisms there are still many questions waiting to be answered. Take for example the first question that was raised during the discussion that took place during the seminar. One participant wondered, with regard to the example of PATAS that was explored during the presentation, why it is that atheists and agnostics are grouped together – don’t they have very different viewpoints? I don’t know if this applies to the case of PATAS, but in New Atheist circles and among American atheists it is very common for someone to claim that they are an ‘agnostic atheist’, thus conflating the two terms. From their perspective, atheism simply refers to whether they think God exists or not, whereas agnosticism addresses a different (although related) question: do they claim to know the answer to the question of God’s existence with 100% certainty or not?

This understanding of atheism and agnosticism, which is widely accepted among American atheists and in internet atheist culture, is unusual from a historical as well as a philosophical perspective. In the philosophy of religion and in sociological studies, atheists and agnostics are usually seen as two distinct groups: atheists are people who do not believe in God, whereas agnostics are people who think God’s existence is unknowable.[6] Why the self-understanding of contemporary (agnostic) atheists differs so much from this one, how their self-understanding has come about, how agnosticism historically has related to atheism, from 1869 when Thomas Huxley coined the term ‘agnosticism’ onwards – all of these are very interesting and relevant questions that have yet to receive a thorough answer.

Atheism infographicAn infographic (of which dozens similar ones can be found on atheist websites) that details how contemporary atheists often use the term agnosticism.

And this holds true for other aspects of the New Atheist ideology as well. The strategy of conflation that was discussed in the introductory blog post often leads New Atheists and atheists in general to a very crude binary understanding of science versus religion, or (secular) atheism versus religion, or secularism versus religion. Political issues such as LGBT-rights, abortion laws and the teaching of creationism or Intelligent Design in public schools become framed in a binary opposition, such that you only hear the two extremes – atheists who are in favour of the ‘secular’ view, and religious fundamentalists who are opposing them. The result is that all the groups that are in between these two extremes are removed from the picture, or if they do get publicity, they are described as inconsistent in their worldview and as being dishonest. For example, Richard Dawkins describes Christians who are against teaching creationism or Intelligent Design in public schools, as well as atheists who work together with Christian groups on this issue, as the ‘Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists’ (Neville Chamberlain was the prime minister of Great Britain who oversaw the appeasement strategy towards Hitler’s Germany).[7] In this way, various groups are the victim of the conflations being made by New Atheists. This happens not only with the agnostics that were mentioned earlier, but also to the Religious Left who are politically aligned with atheist organizations on these topics while subscribing to a totally different worldview.

It is not enough to merely note the presence of these groups, but to analyze in depth how they relate to both the New Atheism as to the Religious Right and other groups. The risk is that the Religious Left is identified, but it is still posited somewhere between the New Atheism and the Religious Right, which would re-affirm the binary opposition that the New Atheism has introduced. The binary should be questioned because it is contingent on a crude understanding of how atheism, secularism and religion (and specifically Christianity in the USA) relate to each other – it is part of the New Atheist ideology, of which various conflations are often taken for granted while they ought to be questioned and taken apart.

These are just a few of the many aspects of New Atheist ideology that I suggest have not been sufficiently deconstructed and analyzed yet, even though ‘New Atheism’ as a topic has received significant attention from researchers focusing on nonreligion.[8] This shows just how important it is that more researchers address the topic of atheisms. Another under-explored element of New Atheism is the celebrity culture that seems to exist among atheists. Why is there a big focus on the ‘Four Horsemen’ (the name given to Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett, the four atheist authors who originally were identified as the ‘New Atheists’) and later on how did this group get expanded to include people such as Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, Steven Pinker, and so on? Why are there the same notable speakers at atheist conventions (of which dozens happen in America every year) again and again? Or why are David Hume and Charles Darwin commemorated as heroes by contemporary atheists, as Teemu Taira has documented?[9] Is this simply an extension of American culture, or perhaps American evangelical culture which has its own collection of celebrities? Does this focus on celebrities exist because there is a lack of religious identity markers (the Bible, the Saints in Catholicism, and so on) for atheists?

And that is only with regard to the phenomenon of ‘New Atheism’, which is relatively well-documented. As Prof. Carver and I have argued in the introductory post of this blog series, the focus on New Atheism and American atheism has made atheisms and atheist movements seem more unified and uniform than they actually are. Even within one national context (America) there is significant diversity, as Stephen LeDrew noted in his blog post on American atheisms in this series, and when you expand the focus to the international level this will become more evident.

Consequently, research needs to be very sensitive to the meaning that is given to atheism (and religion and God, and how these terms relate to each other) in the cultural context in which these organizations operate. Even with regard to American atheisms and the New Atheism, which is what social scientists until now have focused on when they have tackled the topic of atheism, there are many questions remaining to be answered, and there is much work to be done. Hopefully research on these topics will continue to pick up steam in the years to come.

Jeroen Weggen is a Research Master student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. He can be reached at jvweggen@gmail.com.

[1] Stephen LeDrew, The evolution of atheism: The politics of a modern movement (Oxford 2016), 188-192.

[2] https://religionfactor.net/2015/11/16/atheism-and-nonreligion-theory-and-comparison-beyond-the-north-atlantic-world/

[3] http://www.patas.co

[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/59832352/Nielsen-Study-1-in-3-Filipinos-Accessing-the-Internet, last accessed 20 November 2015.

[5] Graham Harvey ed., The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (Durham 2013).

[6] See, for example Ariela Keysar, “3. Who Are America s Atheists and Agnostics?”, Secularism & secularity: Contemporary international perspectives (2007), 33; and Alan Brinton, “Agnosticism and atheism”, Sophia 28.3 (1989), 2-6.

[7]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London 2006), 90-94.

[8] Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse, “Introduction: the Study of Atheism”, in: Stephen Bullivant & Michael Ruse eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford 2013), 1-6.

[9] Teemu Taira, “New Atheism as Identity Politics”, in: Elisabeth Arweck & Mathew Guest eds., Religion and Knowledge: Sociological Perspectives (Ashgate 2012), 97-113.

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