Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

I run across arguments on Twitter frequently on the subject of whether atheism is a religion.


People claiming that it is often have a desire to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools on the grounds that such instruction constitutes establishment of religion–taking a valid argument about separation of religion and state and twisting it to its opposite–or at least to insert the teaching of creationism. But let’s test the claim here.

First, we must consider what religion means. This is a difficult subject to define, since the beliefs in question deal with things that are often outside the logical or factual, but here’s my attempt:

Religion: a set of beliefs and practices dealing with questions of ultimate meaning, often including the supernatural, that approaches said questions through narrative means.

Notice that I didn’t say “necessarily including the supernatural.” Some branches of Taoism and Buddhism, for example, see no need to deal in matters beyond the natural world. But the essential characteristic is using narrative means to answer questions.

Now let’s address the question of whether an atheist is a religious person. There are three possible positions to hold regarding divine beings: atheism, agnosticism, or theism. A theist asserts the existence of one or more gods, regardless of the particular variations in belief about those gods. Atheism, by contrast, asserts the positive statement that no god exists. The third category, agnostic, states that there isn’t sufficient evidence to give a certain answer to the question of the existence of any god, whether yes or no.

Two of those categories, then, are beliefs–atheism and theism–while agnosticism is a lack of belief. So is atheism a religion?

Curiously, not even all theists are religious, at least according to my definition. A theist may believe that some divine being exists without finding meaning in stories of the gods and without engaging in any relevant practices. But do atheists engage in religious belief or activity?

Some do, though they may be doing it as a parody or a social event. But essentially, atheism, while a belief, is a rejection of religious methodology. Its arguments aren’t based on narratives, and it makes no specific rituals obligatory. Thus atheism is a philosophy or a political ideology, but it is not fundamentally a religion.

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Lots of people call out “Amen!” in church when they agree with what the minister has said. Amen is from Hebrew and means, it is so. But my whole life, I’ve wondered what is the word to shout when a person disagrees? It’s instructive to note that this question rarely comes up.

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The two bombing suspects in Boston have been identified, and we see that they are Chechens who over the course of their lives here in the United States became radicals. Once again, the ugly specter of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is brought to our nation. And once again, the equally ugly specter of hatred toward an entire religion and its believers arises from within.

We are told competing messages. Islam is alternatively a religion of peace and a cult of terror. The majority of Muslims oppose the heinous acts of a few, or they remain silent in the face of dangerous people among them. In all of this, a great many outsiders take it upon themselves to characterize beliefs that they know little about and cultures that they have not studied.

I am not a Muslim, and therefore, what I am about to say here is also the voice of an outsider, but in my defense, I have read the Qur’an and teach portions of it every semester to my World Literature students. Consider the following two passages:

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives.


O mankind! reverence your Guardian Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered like seeds countless men and women–reverence God, through Whom ye demand your mutual rights, and reverence the wombs that bore you, for God ever watches over you.

Or how about this pair:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.


This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God, who believe in the unseen and are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them, and who believe in the revelation sent to you, and sent before your time, and in their hearts have the assurance of the hereafter. They are on true guidance from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper. As to those who reject faith, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.


Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?


You certainly know already the first form of creation: Why then do you not celebrate His praises? See you the seed that you sow in the ground? Is it you that cause it to grow, or are We the cause? Were it our will, we could crumble it to dry powder, and you would be left in wonderment.

Call this an intellectual parlor game. Of each pair, which comes from the Bible and which from the Qur’an? The passages are from Numbers 31:17-19, Job 38:4-7, James 1:5-8, and Suras 2:1-6, 4:1, and 56:62-65, if you want to look them up.

What’s the point? The language of the two books is so much alike as to be hard to distinguish. In fact, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are much like Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian in how closely related they are. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all come from the same place and share the same cultural heritage. The Hebrew word for God, El, is the same as the Arabic word, Allah.

Have atrocities been committed in the name of Islam? Certainly. The same, though, must be said for acts done from supposedly Christian motives. Conflict between these two daughter faiths of Judaism has gone on for centuries, and both sides have bad actors within their midst. Religion, like any human endeavor, has a mixture of good and evil. The three monotheistic faiths that arose out of the Middle East have been the source for much that is the best of our creations and have shown the worst in us.

Rather than dismiss one as having nothing worthy in it while believing another without introspection, it is better to study all three, to see how they are three members of the same squabbling family, a family that for better or worse has shaped much of our world. To hate one is to hate all, for they share the same spiritual DNA.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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I’ve seen a measure of advice on the subject of whether an author should express opinions about politics, religion, and other such topics as a part of his own blog. The consensus, both from people that I respect and from some that I don’t, is that it’s best for said wordsmith to remain mum about things controversial. We don’t want to alienate potential buyers, now do we?

The trouble is that I have lots of opinions, and I’ve never learned to keep my mouth shut. I blunder or charge right on in to the thick of whatever “discussion” is going on. I love to argue. I love to stir up controversy. But more than that, I’m right (or so I think), and you should be made aware of that (or so I think).

What’s an author to do?

For you, I cannot speak. My own choice is to be myself. I set up this weblog to focus on the writing and reading life, among other related topics, but if you’re interested in my various and numerous opinions on politics, religion, and all those other things that may offend, you can find my articles here.

If you want to read what I write–and more than that, if you want to buy what I write–I hope that it’s because the text is interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, or whatever other good term you care to use. Who I am as a person really shouldn’t be relevant to the text. Yes, I follow the New Criticism school. The author’s intention is none of the reader’s concern or business. The text must speak for itself.

But if you’re curious about the author, do you want to learn about a bland, milquetoast, and soulless person whose one goal in writing and in life is to be inoffensive?

I didn’t think so. Or, at least, I hope not. To quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. Controversy is one of the things that makes life a pleasure for me. In a related vein, part of the writer’s job is to take on a point of view when writing fiction. When I inhabit a character, I have to be that person, so far as I am able. When I write nonfiction, I have to be myself. Even if you, Dear Reader, dislike one persona, there are others to get to know.

In seeking controversy, I not only have fun. I also learn things that I would never have known otherwise. I learn what others think and feel. That’s good for creating characters, and it’s good for functioning in a democracy. I learn about different ways of seeing a subject. That means that I may end up changing my mind. Therein, alas, lies the reason that some people won’t look at anything that isn’t in support of their own positions. But such people aren’t likely to read what I write, anyway.

You, Dear Reader, of course, are open and willing to explore. You’re curious about the universe. You’re also good looking and wise. (Enough flattery yet?) You are my audience.

I can’t write for anyone else.

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