Peter Lupu e-mails:
Your post provoked these thoughts:
I agree with you that most religions include as indispensable certain core metaphysical tenets about some kind of transcendental existence that is vital for the understanding of the nature and identity of our own self and that these core tenets distinguish religious ideologies from secular ideologies such as atheism and Marxism. However, it is worth noting that secular ideologies also include certain indispensable core metaphysical tenets: e.g., atheism denies the existence of a transcendental being such as God or denies that the existence of such a God is relevant to understand our nature and identity and Marxism is committed to the existence of deterministic historical laws which will inevitably lead to a certain socio-economic-political arrangement (i.e., communism).
In fact, both religious as well as secular ideologies can be identified in terms of their respective metaphysical core tenets in the sense that giving them up is giving up on the ideology itself. Hence, those who adhere to each ideology must hold on to their defining tenets come what may, for giving up these tenets is giving up the ideology itself. So we can define a religious attitude (in contradistinction to a religion) as a certain epistemic attitude whereby someone holds on to the metaphysical tenets that define their ideology come what may and regardless of the cogency of counterarguments or counter-evidence. Of course, we already have a word for this sort of attitude and it is "dogmatism." So it is not clear to me that we need another word for it, although I think that this is what people mean when they say that secular ideologies such as atheism or Marxism are or can be for some people a "religion."
Peter, I take your point to be that when we say that militant atheism or Marxism are religions, we are speaking loosely: all we mean is that the commitment of their staunchest adherents is dogmatic and unshakeable. Thus I take you to be agreeing with me me that militant atheism and Marxism are not, strictly speaking, religions.
Joseph Antolick e-mails:
I think there's a problem when you worry - not without merit, since it's common in these discussions - that considering militant atheism a religion itself is a debating trick. You go on to say that there's a problem of defining religion (you even entertain the possibility that there's no way to "specify necessary and sufficient conditions") and also that these atheists are anti-religionist. Well, if it's not clear what a religion is, then how is it clear that atheists are anti-religion? I'll grant you that Richard Dawkins hates Catholicism. But so do a number of Muslims.
But I did suggest a criterion for distinguishing religious from non-religious ideologies: "all and only religions make reference to a transcendent reality, whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose of human existence. For the Abrahamic faiths, Yahweh, God, Allah is the transcendent reality. For Taoism, the Tao. For Hinduism, Brahman. For Buddhism, the transcendent state of nirvana." This criterion makes it tolerably clear what counts as a religion and also what it is to be anti-religion. I can't see what good purpose is served by lumping militant atheism in with the religions, unless one is talking loosely -- see Lupu's comment above. In a serious discussion one should avoid loose talk.
My claim here is that A) There is reason . . . to at least suspect that the New Atheists are themselves religious and B) That if this is in fact the case, then the New Atheists are no more "anti-religion" than fanatical muslims for whom there is no room in the world for any religion but Islam.
And what reason would that be? The fact that one's commitment to one's ideology is is total, dogmatic, and unshakeable by counter-argument is not a good reason to think that the object of one's commitment is a religion. Countless Communists were committed heart, soul, and mind to their ideology. Some, like Trotsky, sacrificed everything for the cause. But that didn't make Communism a religion. An ersatz religion perhaps, something that substitutes for religion in the lives of its staunch adherents, but not a religion strictly speaking. Faith and hope were major players in Trotsky's life, but they weren't religious faith and hope, though I will grant you that they were quasi-religious. See my post, Trotsky's Faith.
Obviously, Muslims are not anti-religion because their ideology is a religion by my criterion, albeit a political religion if you will, one that denies church/mosque-state separation. (Whether Islam is a religion that deserves First Amendment protection is a further question, and a pressing one given the bit after 'albeit.')
To give an analogous example, Stephen Hawking in his new book claims that "philosophy is dead" - but then, as reviewers have noted, goes on to engage in metaphysics and take explicitly philosophical positions. If that's a fair description of his views, is it right to say Hawking is "anti-philosophy"? Or is it just that he's anti- any philosophy that differs from his? I think the difference between those two descriptions is important.
I'm glad you brought that up. There is a big difference between being anti-religion and being anti-philosophy. To oppose philosophy is to do philosophy. Any attack on philosophy is a philosophical attack. Anti-philosophy is just more philosophy. And so I agree with you about Hawking. He is anti-any philosophy other than his own. But anti-religion is not just more religion, but precisely the rejection of all religion. To oppose philosophy is to do philosophy; but to oppose religion is not to do religion, but to do philosophy.
The right way to combat militant atheists is not by arguing that they are serving up religion, but by exposing what they do as bad philosophy, as based on the dubious philosophical doctrine of scientism, for example. Atheism is a philosophical position with all the rights, privileges, and debilities pertaining thereunto. Dawkins, Grayling and the boys may be dogmatic pricks but that does not make them religionists. It makes them -- dogmatic pricks. Once you have exposed atheism as just another philosophical position you have already done quite a bit to undermine it: it is just another contender in the arena of Big Ideas; just another contender that cannot establish hegemony -- except in the minds of its dogmatic adherents.
That said, I don't claim to have the ultimate answer on this. But I do worry that there's a recognition that defining "religion" is difficult, and then a move is made to try and define religion in such a way that purposefully excludes militant atheists from the outset. I'm reminded of when Paul Davies wrote an op-ed, pointing out that even scientists have faith - and there was a fierce reaction from a number of scientists.
But why would you want to lump militant atheists in with religionists? That makes little sense unless you are engaged in some sort of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Surely the burden is on you to show that they are religionists when it is plain to most of us that they are not.
And you also have to be careful not to equivocate on 'faith' as between religious and non-religious faith. Above I mentioned the faith of Trotsky. Surely he was a man of faith in a secular, non-religious sense: as a professional revolutionary he believed with all his heart in the coming world-wide proletarian revolution that would usher in a classless society, a worker's paradise, etc. etc. One could even in his case speak of a secular soteriology and eschatology, of the final salvation from alienation at the eschaton. But again, a substitute for religion, something that merely resembles religion in certain ways, something the commitment to which is like a religious commitment, is not a religion strictly speaking.
Are men of science men of faith? Of course. They have faith in the intelligibility of nature and in the uniformity of nature, and they hold this faith beyond what they have actually verified. They have faith that the future will be like the past. But no good purpose is served by conflating this sort of faith with specifically religious faith. You cannot effectively defend religion against the attacks of scientistic scientists and their literary (Hitchens) and philosophical (Dennett) fellow travelers by saying that the attackers themselves have various faith commitments.