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

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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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As a non-Christian who was raised by fundamentalist parents and sent to religious schools–creationist, among other things–I look at the debate among Christians over evolution with nostalgic amusement. David Michael McFarlane, a student at Union Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article in The Huffington Post, asking whether Christians could give up creationism. He says that his faith doesn’t need a literal creation event some 6,000 years ago.

But fundamentalists insist that such an event is necessary. First, the text describes it, so it must have happened. But more importantly, without a Fall, there’s no need for a redeeming Christ. I’m sitting off on the sidelines nodding my head and saying, you finally figured it out, under my breath (not always), but there it is.

So let’s work with the premise that Christ is necessary. Let’s say that humans exist in a fallen state and have to be extracted from that.

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Let’s even say that until the life and death of Christ some 2,000 years ago, there was no way to elevate humans. Can’t we allow for the possibility that human beings were insufficiently developed before that point? Does it matter how they became that way–either by dropping down or simply by never having risen up? Christians preach that human beings aren’t worthy on their own. Nothing about accepting the science of evolution has to challenge that.

Of course, this would mean understanding that the Biblical stories are just that–stories. That is not meant to reduce the Bible in value. In fact, I regard stories as our most basic way of understanding the world. As I said, on this matter, I’m an outsider looking in, so it’s just a suggestion.

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Tuesday evening (14 May 2013), I attended a forum on faith and science. The panel and discussion leader were all creationists, and I won’t go into the debates that we had on scientific questions. What interests me for the moment was the question of whether the events described in the Bible (or in any other religious text) have to be historically true to make a claim on our belief. Now I am a philosophical pagan, so the doctrines of Christianity are to me a matter of abstract speculation, but if the fundamentalist version of that religion is true, I ignore it at my peril. (I’ll discuss Pascal’s wager later.)

To summarize, the literalist claim of Christianity is that human beings fell into sin–call it an ontological transformation, one category into another–and require a savior to be restored. The demand of this doctrine is that the two events were real not just in the narrative of the book, but also in history.

This strikes me as an unfortunate choice in its limitation of perspective. Consider the following from Aristotle’s Poetics:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered.

Let’s look at the Bible in these terms. Are human beings sinful? That depends on the definition of sin, but certainly, we can say that all of us have moral failings. Are we able to correct our condition on our own? I say yes, but it’s a valid interpretation of human nature to say no. Can belief in a story change our nature? Yes. The evidence of that is abundant.

Now there is a problem here in that our knowledge of the human condition is based on what we have observed, and history is one kind of observation. This takes us back to the debate over the necessity to assert that the events of the Fall and of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection are events that occurred outside of the books describing them.

The “sinful” nature of human beings can be observed continually. But the claim that one being became human and was sacrificed for us is an assertion about an event that if true, if unique. It is precisely a miracle, something that stands outside of the chain of cause and effect. Thus it does not qualify as data. Data is the plural of datum, one observation. Multiple observations are necessary to draw an inference. History is the accounting of events. We derive bigger ideas by looking at how one event makes another occur. The claim about Jesus is that his life is one event that affects everything.

Thus we are left with the question of whether one event is sufficient to change the way we are. My answer is yes, but in the sense that any story is sufficient. People who convert to Christianity and change their lives do so because they hear the story. But the same is true about many stories. Americans tell each other the stories of our Founders or of the Civil War, and these stories shape the way we understand our country today. The Tea Party in particular looks back to an idealized version of those Founders. (Note that I’m not saying anything is wrong about something being idealized.)

We have historical documents that demonstrate the existence of those people. But how many people review those documents and use the methods of history to verify the story? In fact, the typical reaction is to hear the narrative and to be absorbed (or not) into its world.

My point here is that the power of the story is what matters in narrative theology. Questions of the scientific or historical validity of a belief are of a different kind. It is necessary to keep clear which field of enquiry we’re operating in.

I started this with a mention of Pascal’s wager. The idea there is that a person has the choice to be a Christian or not. Pascal claimed that someone choosing to be a Christian loses nothing if he is wrong in that belief, while an atheist loses everything if he is wrong. The problem here is that Islam was known to Europeans at the time Pascal made his wager. That religion makes the same exclusive claim. My answer is that the wager itself is invalid. We have many choices about the nature of our lives. Will we be good or evil? Will we find fulfillment or not? Will we succeed at a purpose or not? To say that there is only one answer to all those questions–especially since so many stories provide meaning, stories that can contradict each other–is limiting to possibility. And possibility and the stories that we tell about it is the essence of life.

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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.

And

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.

And

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.

Finally,

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?

And

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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About twenty years ago, a pastor that I knew recommended a book to me–The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. (Michael Deming, if you’re reading this, you were right.) It’s taken me all that time to get around to it–graduate school, relationships, jobs, many other books, and life occupied my attention–but now having read it, I give it my wholehearted endorsement.

This book was the rare kind that I couldn’t underline standout passages because I’d have to underline the entire text. Others in this category have been Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, books that give a comprehensive explanation of life.

Hoffer analyzes mass movements. His claim is that they all are essentially identical. Since the book was written in 1951, his main examples are Nazism, Communism, and Zionism as contemporary cases, and he spends a good deal of time discussing the American and French revolutions as well. He gives the rise of both Christianity and Islam for a perspective from long ago.

For a mass movement to succeed, there must be a body of frustrated people who see no way to fulfill themselves. As a result, they seek a movement that will erase their individuality, thereby relieving their disgust with self. In support of this, he observes that a true believer can easily convert from one belief to another, but does not shed fanaticism in the process. This is because the doctrines of movements are not fundamental to the psychological comfort provided by belonging. Instead, they shut down the independent voice in the believer’s mind.

I have long been suspicious of any large group of human beings. Individuals can accomplish extraordinary things. Groups of individuals who know themselves to be capable of achievement can occasionally perform great feats–see NASA for its first several decades. But mass movements just shift the rabble around.

The True Believer will show you how that happens. It will then be up to you to find fulfillment on your own.

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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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Writer and student of myths, Joseph Campbell, has had the kind of influence that no colleague of a fabulously successful scholar can tolerate. Public television viewers may know him from the Bill Moyers series, The Power of Myth, but his largest influence was indirect. His book, The Hero with a Thouand Faces, shaped the thinking of generations of writers and filmmakers in the years since the work first appeared in 1949. Included in Campbell’s spell has been a director of whom a few have heard, namely George Lucas. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the Jedi religion, for example, now you know. The book is an effort in syncretism in myths, the belief that all myths can be explained by a single story, the monomyth or the hero’s journey. (Note that myth includes the religion that you believe, not just those that other people believe.)

To my way of thinking, the book suffers from three fundamental flaws:

1. The idea of a monomyth itself

The social sciences in the twentieth century decided that all cultures are of equal value. Whether or not that’s true, the idea is difficult to accept. Is a culture that hates Jews or enslaves Africans the moral equal of one that insists on basic rights for all human beings? I don’t think so. But an anthropologist does, at a minimum, have to set aside judgements about the worth of a culture to study it. So be it. The problem comes when cultures and their products are compared. If they are all equal, then their works–their paintings, their stories, their music, etc.–must also be equally worthy. This by implication creates the thinking that all such art must be reflections of one central truth. There is the claim, for example, that all religions are merely different paths to the same God, something like the various climbing routes up Mt. Everest.

There is some sense in this. We are all human beings whose brains have the same architecture and functions. It is reasonable to suppose that the stories that would appeal to one person are likely to appeal to others. It’s also easy to show that the plot structure of all stories comes down to a handful of types. In that way, the statement that all stories participate in a monomyth is true.

But it’s trivially true. When we delve into stories, we find that their purposes, themes, and conclusions are often quite different. Consider one point of contention that is relevant to another major flaw in Campbell’s book: individualism. We can speak at length about the divide in ways of thinking between the East and the West, and we can come up with numerous counterexamples, but one fundamental difference in the two systems of thought is that in the West, the individual is the important unit, while in the East, the individual is merely an expression, and often an illusory one, of the One. The borders of this thinking shift with politics, so don’t take these terms in a rigorous geographical sense. Islam is a case of Western thinking that penetrated deep into the land of the East, and Buddhism has become quite popular in some circles here in America.

The point here is that thematically, the stories of different cultures arrive at different ends. Campbell works his way a little bit at a time through a long list of stories, and by weaving them together without giving each one its separate due, he attempts to demonstrate the truth of the idea that they all tell the same basic story. For the sake of variety and personal and cultural autonomy, it is fortunate that he was unable to succeed in that effort.

2. The dependence on Freud

Michael Crichton called Sigmund Freud the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Certainly, the Austrian doctor was a poor psychologist. His work has little scientific merit. Sadly, his influence on the humanities has been long and pernicious. Someone once said that the films of Woody Allen would be much better had Freud never lived, and in the same vein, Campbell’s analysis of myths may also have achieved much more. Campbell accepts Freud’s psychoanalytic notions without question, and this leads him to shoehorn the stories that he discusses into narrow channels. He is particularly enamored with the idea of the mother and father images. To him, every hero deals with those two throughout the heroic journey. The hero finds the mother and father within himself and must resolve the conflicts therein. And on and on. Even when those two images are actual elements of the story, Campbell’s obsession with them is exhausting. He becomes the boy who cried Oedipus.

3. The acceptance of Buddhism

Campbell extends the Freudian notion of the ego into the world of Buddhist thinking in which the ego is an illusion. As I said above, Western stories don’t often support this kind of belief, but The Hero with a Thousand Faces goes to great lengths to make us think otherwise. I must acknowledge here that I am not a Buddhist. I don’t follow Campbell in his acceptance of that religion’s teachings. The flaw, though, is in his argument that all myths ultimately aim at a Buddhist message.

To Campbell, the hero’s journey ends in the annihilation of the self. The hero, having fought the father, married the mother, and understood himself to be the father, finally is absorbed into the All or the One or the Brahma or Nirvana. Nirvana, in particular, appeals to Campbell. He reminds us that the word means the extinguishing, the point at which all desires have ceased.

If such a thing is the goal of my readers, so be it, but I cannot go along. That, however, is a religious question. Surely we can agree that such a state is not the end of all myths. Perhaps you also agree that the Star Wars films would have been better stories had Lucas never read The Hero with a Thouand Faces. In any case, should you journey through the book yourself, you are now forewarned.

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