Muqarnas of Fatima Masumeh Shrine, Qom, Iran. Many features of Islamic architecture are subdivided according to geometric systems that underscore the unity between sound, space, and the sacredness of science and mathematics in Islamic thought.
Over the weekend, esteemed Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo published an interesting piece in The Guardian about her own atheism, in which she observed that atheism is not immune to the kind of groupthink and faith in one’s own moral superiority that plagues other believers. With a humility often lacking in online discussions around atheism, Oluo writes,
I keep this fact in mind – that my atheism is a leap of faith – because otherwise it’s easy to get cocky. It’s easy to look at acts of terror committed in the names of different gods, debates about the role of women in various churches, unfamiliar and elaborate religious rules and rituals and think, look at these foolish religious folk. It’s easy to view religion as the root of society’s ills.
But atheism as a faith is quickly catching up in its embrace of divisive and oppressive attitudes. We have websites dedicated to insulting Islam and Christianity. We have famous atheist thought-leaders spouting misogyny and calling for the profiling of Muslims. As a black atheist, I encounter just as much racism amongst other atheists as anywhere else. We have hundreds of thousands of atheists blindly following atheist leaders like Richard Dawkins, hurling insults and even threats at those who dare question them.
I follow Oluo on Facebook and Twitter – we’ve never met but have many friends in common – and in the hours since her article went live, I’ve watched a veritable deluge of self-proclaimed atheists come out in droves to attempt to “debate” her, many of them taking issue with the assertion that atheism is, or could be, construed as a “leap of faith.” One Atheist Avenger accused her of posing as an atheist as an act of “intellectual terrorism,” ostensibly attempting to discredit atheists via subterfuge. It’s an ugly spectacle, rather ironically illustrating some of the negative stereotypes about atheists that Oluo addresses in her article.
When I began this blog back in 2008, my motivation for writing posts like “Richard Dawkins Proves Poem False” (I’m still super proud of that title, lol) was to grapple with precisely this facet of “New Atheism,” then on the rise and not examined nearly as critically in the media as it is now.
“New Atheists” of the Richard Dawkins ilk – i.e. #NotAllAtheists, but those who believe themselves to be in possession of some infallible, universal truth – regularly invoke “science” as the philosophical underpinning of their atheism. These atheists, who in all fairness do count some credible scientists among their ranks, seem to imagine that there is a hard wall between “science” and “faith,” let alone religious belief.
Atheist meme regarding the percieved “science/religion” dichotomy as it pertains to the rights of women
Of course there are also scientists who shy away from such black-and-white assertions, among them cosmic hottie Neil Degrasse Tyson and physicist Chet Raymo (whose book When God is Gone, Everything is Holy is among the most beautiful, nuanced treatises on scientific knowledge and faith since Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Phénomène Humain).
The reason science is able to explain the cosmos as well as it can is because it contains a self-revising mechanism. Faced with better information, one must be prepared to shed one’s dogma. And in an an era where physicists have revealed the quantum universe to be “spooky” and take for granted that certain statements may be simultaneously true and untrue, an open-minded, non-attached approach to one’s own beliefs is of paramount importance to good science.
To put it another way, good science and humility go hand in hand.
With science, we are able to greatly shrink the gap between what we believe we know and what reality is “really like,” but the gap is never fully closed. It is nonetheless reasonable to believe what science has to teach us at any given moment because we have faith in the efficacy of the scientific method.
This is our leap of faith. It’s a reasonable leap, but a leap nonetheless.
Rembrandt Van Rijn. “A Scholar in his Study,” etching and drypoint, c. 1650s
When we turn our attention from “faith” to “god,” the conversation becomes a bit stickier. Many New Atheist disciples will loudly proclaim that science has disproven God (Dawkins’ own view is a bit more nuanced, if just barely) but what exactly does that mean? What does it look like attempt to “disprove” the existence of God, scientifically speaking?
If we were to design an experiment to test whether “god” exists, our first challenge would be to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon working definition of “god.” Thousands of pages of ink have been spilled by philosophers over this step alone, which is why the I might prefer to identify myself an “ignostic” than an “agnostic” or “atheist” if I absolutely had to pick a team.
Ignosticism is the idea that the question of the existence of God is meaningless, because the term “god” has no unambiguous definition. Ignosticism requires a good, non-controversial definition of god before arguing on its existence.
One reason I’m drawn to ignosticism as a concept is because I have noticed that much “atheism” seems to begin with the tacit assumption that the god we’re all talking about when we question whether “god” exists is the monotheistic, Judeo-Christian God (though there are atheists who certainly extend their scrutiny to indigenous religions as well, a rather chauvinistic and imperialistic tendency that I’ll come back to shortly).
William Blake. “Newton,” pen, ink and watercolor, 1795
Atheism as a concept has surfaced in different cultures around the world at different times, however the New Atheism espoused by 21st century Westerners has most of its roots in the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an exciting time for the history of knowledge, in that scientists and freethinkers began widely challenging many assumptions that had been enforced by the Catholic Church and developing new ways to conceptualize that knowledge. What we have still failed to do on a meaningful scale, however, is challenge many of the imperialistic dynamics that made the Church so problematic in the first place.
When the Roman Empire adopted (or more accurately, appropriated) Christianity as its state religion in the 4th century CE, the Romans, and before them the Greeks, had already been conquering neighboring nations and tribes for centuries. In her book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton professor and scholar Elaine Pagels notes that when the Romans conquered a new territory, one of their signature moves was to remove whatever altar might exist in their local temple – often that of a goddess – and replace it with a statue of a Roman soldier enslaving or even raping an indigenous woman. The message is as unambiguous as it is brutal. Once you have noticed this art historical phenomenon, examples may be found everywhere (and continue into Renaissance depictions of historical Roman subjects such as the Rape of the Sabine Women).
Roman soldier with female slave. Detail of Market Gate of Miletus, Roman, 2nd Century. Miletus was a Greek (later Roman) city in Asia Minor. The relief sculptures on the Market Gate also originally included Roman soldiers battling “barbarians.”
The characterization of military conquest as a violently sexualized act underscores the rather sinister “othering” that drives empire building. As new territories are annexed, the cultural practices and beliefs indigenous to those regions are marginalized by the dominant culture demanding assimilation. Words like “heathen,” “pagan” and “barbarian” have this imperialist dynamic built into their etymology, and the racist characterization of outsiders as “savages” with “primitive beliefs” continues to underlie much colonialist activity, from the white saviorism of Christian missionaries to the Native American genocide and the mythos of Manifest Destiny.
It is important to note that in the West, this dynamic of conquest and ongoing cultural marginalization of the conquered predates Christianity, and even monotheism. But it is also accurate to say that along with capitalism, monotheism is quite possibly the most crucial adaptation in the success of what has become Western civilization.
Spanish soldiers brutalizing indigenous people during their conquest of the Americas
Before the advent of monotheism (and persisting to this day in places which have evaded colonization), what we call “religions” (Latin: re+ligare, “to tie or bind back”) were and continue to be highly individualized systems of codified cultural, artistic, and social information rooted in the geographic demands and idiosyncrasies of a specific region. Different places have different demands, and so the spirits and deities, when they are present, tend to reflect this localized relationship with their particular environment (the spirit of this animal, the god who dwells in this plant, etc.)
What monotheism does – and why it proved itself to be such a boon for colonialism – is imagine itself to be in possession of the One True God™. While it might not make sense to impose the god of this volcano or that river on people living on the other side of the planet, The One True God™ of monotheism is not indigenous to any particular geographic locale; rather he can be everywhere at once. With the One True God™, it is possible to ride into battle under the mantle of a one-size-fits-all deity which may be readily imposed on whomever happens to be living wherever you decide to point your sword next. Monotheism thus became an invaluable tool to unify [read: conquer] people on all corners of the earth under God, and then monetize that relationship accordingly.
Assistants of Raphael, “Vision of the Cross” (detail), 1520-1524. Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, is said to have experienced a vision of the cross accompanied by the words “In hoc signo vinces,” “In this sign you will conquer.”
Christianity has been such a useful tool of oppression not because it is a religion, but because it has historically been a mechanism to colonize and/or eradicate indigenous religion and replace it with a corporate facsimile, complete with its own imperialist self-superiority myth.
Today’s New Atheists have correctly identified many of the problems inherent with the institutional history of Christianity, however they have all too often neglected to shed the other Eurocentric assumptions they have inherited from its colonialist, imperialist history, particularly its myth of self-superiority. By failing to see that monotheism is the tool of imperialism and not the other way around, they have cut the head of “god” off the deity only to replace it with the head of white male European Rationalism.
(For this reason, I often joke that New Atheism is a denomination or offshoot of Judeo-Christian monotheism, a claim which reliably pisses off atheists but is not entirely inaccurate. From a distance at least, and particularly from the perspective of the people on the receiving end of Western imperialist violence, these two aging white heads are virtually indistinguishable.)
Christianity has been such a useful tool of oppression not because it is a religion, but because it has historically been a mechanism to colonize and eradicate indigenous religion and replace it with a corporate facsimile, complete with its own imperialist self-superiority myth.
This replacing-of-the-deity with a cult of atheism does essentially nothing to address the history of racism and Othering that got us to this point, and in some cases obscures the work that needs to be done by assuming that religion-in-itself is the root of the problem.
Take for instance the militaristic rhetoric of New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have continued to serve the history and trajectory of Western monotheism as much as any fire and brimstone preacher could by painting Islam with a chillingly racist brush and depicting our ongoing imperialistic wars against Muslim nations as “humane, civilizing missions.”
Or take for instance the way that many of these same atheists constantly refer to themselves as an “oppressed minority,” appropriating the language of social justice and thereby trivializing and erasing the racialized and sexualized violence experienced by those who endure real oppression in our society. (Sorry atheists. You’re not the indigenous female slave in the Roman sculpture. If anything, you’re the white guy holding her chains.)
In both cases, New Atheism is guilty of a hubris that reeks of religious fundamentalism, made more noxious by its pretense of irreligiosity.
Crusaders chopping the heads off brown-skinned Muslims (manuscript painting, c. 1330s)
In the 21st century, it is not uncommon to hear atheists make statements like “All religion is bullshit.” While it’s true that there is literally no end to the examples of religious people committing abominations in the name of religion, a blanket dismissal of the entire category of religion is willfully ignorant of the diversity and purposes of indigenous religions, and the evolutionary, geographic and social factors that produced those systems in the first place. It is in practice no different than the Othering of “pagans,” “heathens” and “barbarians” that allows us to continually colonize and marginalize those people we have always Othered with impunity.
One might as well declare another culture’s art, music, or language “bullshit.” It’s racist, colonialist self-exceptionalism, and it’s time to knock it off.
Can we ethically call ourselves atheists, then? Sure we can, with a caveat, and Ijeoma Oluo has done a nice job of elucidating the caveat. (The attacks she has incurred for offering the mere suggestion that humility might be a flattering look for atheists only serves to illustrate her point.)
But the moment we are tempted to imagine ourselves to be superior to the heathens, we are guilty of the same self-superior audacity we despise in religious fundamentalists. And as soon as we claim to have eradicated every trace of our deeply ancient, ancestral religious history from ourselves, well, we’re laughably lost.
As Karen Armstrong notes in A History of God, religious behavior is so ubiquitous among humans that our species might as well be known as Homo religiosus. Human beings have been “religious” for longer than we’ve been fully human. There’s evidence that our paleolithic ancestors practiced burial rituals long before we even had evolved the linguistic apparatus necessary to form speech, and there is essentially no history of “art” which may be conceived of as separate from “religion” until the rise of capitalism as a religion.
This doesn’t mean that we need to believe in “god,” per se, only that those of us who believe that we have completely eradicated every trace of our deeply ancient religious tendencies from within ourselves might be well advised to discover just what the nature of that history entails in the first place, or else we are at risk of adhering to the most noxious religion of all; the faith that is completely blind to the fact that it is indeed faith.
Excavation site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, possibly the oldest known temple in the world (c. 10,000 BCE)