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Saturday, September 25, 2010


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I've recently encountered a number of atheists who claim that communism was/is a religion. Indeed, when they make such a claim, they are appealing to the referenced dogmatism or "indispensable core metaphysical tenets". Is it a rhetorical trick? Perhaps. It certainly appears to defuse one of the better arguments from The Rage Against God!

But surely if an atheist can make such a claim stick to communism, there really is nothing at all keeping the same claim from sticking to his own faith?

Hi Bill -
While I agree that we should not conflate religious faith with scientistic faith, it is quite common for unself-conscious oponents of religion to attack religion simply because it self-consiously acknolwedges the role of faith. These benighted souls actually deny that faith plays any role in science. Of course their "arguments" that belief in the intelligibility and uniformity of nature are supported by empirical evidence can be refuted by any competent student of philosophy. Philosphers at least know they are ignorant.


I certainly agree with Bill that strictly speaking the term 'religion' does not apply to secular ideologies such as atheism and Marxism. I also agree that doing so confuses matters rather than helps even if it turns out that an analysis of all properly called religious ideologies feature only a family resemblance rather than necessary and sufficient conditions.

Nevertheless it is sometimes useful to uncover the motivation for such usage, even if it is strictly speaking incorrect. I have suggested above the following analysis. Both religious and secular ideologies feature certain core metaphysical tenets. We can distinguish between three properties of the core metaphysical tenets: (a) the *content* of the tenets; (b) the *role* or *function* of the tenets within the respective ideologies; (c) the *epistemic attitude* engendered by these tenets. Now, clearly, Bill is right to insist that since the *content* of the respective tenets of religious and secular ideologies are in direct opposition, it is highly misleading to call both a ‘religion’. Therefore, if our focus is on (a), then calling secular ideologies by the term ‘religion’ is highly misleading and literally incorrect. However, such uses may be appealing to the other properties of the core tenets. Thus, a completely different picture emerges if we view matters from the perspective of (b) and (c). For instance, the function or role of the respective core tenets in both religious as well as in secular ideologies is to *define* the ideology in question in the sense that expunging the core tenet from any of these ideologies results in emptying the ideology from its distinctive content. Therefore, adherents to any of these ideologies define their commitment to it by reference to the core tenets and so they must cling to them come what may: i.e., their epistemic attitude must be one where they hold on to the core tenets regardless of evidence or argument against them, for giving up these tenets is tantamount to giving up the ideology. So I suspect that when people refer to atheism and Marxism as a religion they mean (b) and (c) and not (a).

Some might think that since the above analysis applies to every system of beliefs, it is ultimately uninteresting. For instance, what about science and its core metaphysical tenet that nature is uniform and hence intelligible to us? First, let me note the obvious that the current state of physics is far from instantiating the uniformity tenet (Quantum Mechanics and Relativity involve radically different laws). Second, I think that if there are any core tenets in physics at all, they do not *define* the field in the manner that the core tenets of ideologies do. Rather they play the role of very general working hypotheses which are subject to be overturned under unfavorable empirical conditions. The only constant in science is its methodology. Roughly the same considerations apply to mathematics. So I do not think that the above analysis applies to all belief systems equally.


I have omitted from the above post a distinction that may be useful to make between the *epistemic attitude* which adherents to an ideology have towards core metaphysical tenets of their ideology (i.e., (c) above)and a psychological need some people have towards a total commitment (or a total subservience) to some ideology, movement, or even a person. The later is a very complicated psychological phenomenon that is not easy to analyze, although more often than not it is fairly easy to detect.

One ingredient of this psychological subservience may be the need some people have to identify their own identity (and perhaps even meaning and purpose) with something external to themselves. By so doing the psychologically subservient person abandons their own self-reflective moral judgment and consciousness and substitutes for it some external source of judgment and moral scrutiny.

In my opinion, abandoning our self-reflective moral consciousness and replacing it with *any* external source of moral judgment; whether it is God, Church, Humanity, History, Country, Family, or whatever, is equivalent to giving up that which is most important and distinctive to being a human moral agent. It is therefore abandoning our essence, meaning, and purpose.

It is important to note that we can find psychological subservience among the adherents of most if not all ideologies regardless of their content, although in the case of some ideologies the demand for complete psychological subservience seems to be required by their very content, while in others cases it is encouraged or is allowed by the institutions that manage and promote the ideology. I find those who demand it as well as those who allow or encourage it equally damaging to the human “soul”.


"But I did suggest a criterion for distinguishing religious from non-religious ideologies:"

And that would suffice for me, if I were only asking what you thought was the best way to define religion. But we've both been talking about not only how "religion" is defined, but what New Atheists have in mind when they define themselves as anti-religion - and as I've pointed out in both of my emails, we have at least Dennett (once upon a time, pretty prominent as a New Atheist) arguing that communism is a kind of proto-religion. Apparently Doug Peters has come across atheists making these connections as well. Again, I'm putting aside Dennett labeling Stalin as a theist for now.

Let me put it to you this way. If even some New Atheists claim they are anti-religion, and they also include communism as a religion, then - going by their criterion - would you agree this opens them up to the charge that they themselves adhere to a religion? Yes, you can say their criterion is bad, or flawed. I'd be tempted to agree with you. But I wouldn't try to correct them by saying "Well, no, you can't REALLY think communism is a religion or proto-religion. That would be silly. No, you are anti-religion, which can reasonably be described as..."

"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."

It does serve a good purpose if it's brought up in response to the claim that religion and only religion involves faith, or that only religious faith involves belief in claims or ideas that go beyond what has been actually verified, or what is empirically demonstrable, or.. etc. And this is accomplished without equating the faith present in science with the faith present in religion.

I'll add, when I say "It does serve a good purpose", I don't mean the conflation of religious faith with scientific faith. Only the examination of the presence and role of faith in science.

Peter writes, "So I suspect that when people refer to atheism and Marxism as a religion they mean (b) and (c) and not (a)."

I think you are right. But the question is whether, with respect to (b) or (c), it is a correct use of language to use 'religion.' As for (b), the function of the core tenets in say Catholicism and Communism are the same. But why call that function 'religious'? You could just as easily call it 'fanatical' or whatever. Same with (c)

The question before us is a normative one. Not how people actually use 'religion' and cognates, but how we philosophers wwho aim to think as clearly and rigorously and systematically as we can about these questions OUGHT to use words like 'religion' and cognates.

I am saying that, with respect to secular ideolgies, there is nothing specifically and literally religious about them whether with respect to content or function or attitude.

I have no objection to someone saying that Communism is an ersatz religion for its staunch adherents. What I object to is saying that Communism is their religion. It is no such thing. (For a true blue (red?) Commie, religion is the opiate of the masses.) Note that I do not object to loose talk; I object to loose talk in serious contexts.


We are at cross purposes. My question is solely whether atheism is correctly describable as a religion. I say no for the reasons given. How some atheists use 'religion' is not my concern. As I said above in response to Lupu, my question is a normative one.


I agree with your fundamental point that in the name of clarity we should avoid such usage. Moreover, I think I detect a deeper concern your objection highlights, particularly when you say the following:

"with respect to secular ideologies, there is nothing specifically and literally religious about them whether with respect to content or function or attitude."

Here is how I would put your concern. The term 'religion' strictly speaking refers to ideologies which have a certain content (stated previously) and to a way of life associated with such content. Hence, the proper use of the term needs to be guided by something like (a). Decoupling the use of the term 'religion' from (a) so as to use it in the context of secular ideologies in order to highlight only (b) and (c) gradually changes the meaning of the term to become synonymous with "fanatical', 'dogmatic', etc. This "new" connotation then is imported into discourse about religion in general, including (a), thereby creating the incorrect impression that the core tenets of religious ideologies must function as dogmas and that holding them inevitably leads their adherents to a fanatical and dogmatic attitude.

Is this it?


Yes, that is what I am saying, though you add an interesting twist at the end.

I think we need to clearly demarcate all of the following: philosophy, science, religion, mysticism, art, morality. And I would urge that each of these 'enterprises' (for want of a better term) is legitimate and cannot be impugned by any of the others. But this is a large topic!

Part of the difficulty might stem from the "Error of Behaviorism"... perhaps a little context: science has made its mark on history due to its ability to observe and model natural processes. In an attempt to rid the world of any magic, many moderns have confidently turned the enterprise toward human concerns (not "themselves", mind you -- they don't appreciate the dynamic at work in the "Abolition of Man"). Behaviorism, now out of favor in psychology due to its pathetic inadequacies, is still very much in vogue in what they now call "Cognitive Sciences". That is, all human "things" are reduced to their observations and (indeed!) their assumed models. (Of course, things like "intelligence", "language", "insight", "talent", "empathy", "love", "compassion" are certainly not phenomenological, but since science takes everything to be phenomenological -- and since these things have phenomenological expressions -- ergo the obvious is discarded for the ideologically correct).

The trouble with the term "religion" is similar. Do we adopt the historical, integrative, all-too-human "I know it when I see it" usage (which certainly involves Peter's (b) and (c)). Or do we opt for the inadequate projection of "religion" onto our observations (i.e., as if (a) is sufficient)? Granted, we would like "religion" to mean something. And we would also like it to mean something other than "dogmatism" or "philosophy" or "fanatacism". But it is equally imperative that its meaning does not require us to continually attach a footnote whenever we use the word. We do need to care how others use the word, and we need to be willing to call out the logical implications of their usage.

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