On Comparing Atheism and Religion: A Brief Conversation
I’m usually not inclined to make comparisons between atheism and religion for a variety of reasons. As Michael J. Atman points out in the twitter exchange linked below, such comparisons often obscure our understandings of both religion and atheism more than they clarify them. But there is more to it than that. In the endless “culture war” between vocal “secularists” and “religious fundamentalists,” comparisons between religion and atheism have become a politicized trope. At times it is argued that “secularism” should be treated as a religion in order to claim that separating Christian ideas and practices from the public sphere (schools, city council meetings, etc.) is to privilege one religion over another. Hence we’ve heard for decades about the so called “religion of secular humanism” during various establishment clause cases in front of the Supreme Court. And at other times I’m convinced that labeling atheism, or some of its expressions, as just another religion is meant simply to enrage atheists. Either way, it’s usually political.
So why then am I linking to an exchange on Twitter in which Michael J. Altman and I play around with comparisons between contemporary atheist communities and contemporary religious communities? Because to compare is not always to equate, and perhaps more importantly to compare, or even to equate, similar aspects of two phenomena is not to agree that the two phenomena are identical or even of the same general kind. I do not believe that atheism is a form of religion, but I do believe that it can be beneficial to think about atheist social movements in terms of religious social movements. Understanding the similarities and differences between such social movements can be helpful in addressing more general issues of social behavior, as Micheal Altman suggested in the twitter exchange. It can in fact also help us get a better grasp of the politics of comparison mentioned above, that enrage atheists in the first place. So there it is. I’m OK with some level of comparison after all, and with that in mind I give you Michael J. Altman’s blog post, in which he links a storify rendering of our twitter conversation:
The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.
The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?
What do yall think?
After you check out the storify thread make sure to look at Altman’s blog because he’s a great writer and a keen observer of American religious history.