The Faith that Does Not Know It is Faith: On Atheism, Imperialism and the Other

Muqarnas of Fatima Masumeh Shrine, Qom, Iran. Many features of Islamic architecture are built on the harmonic series, underscoring the mathematical unity between sound and space

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, 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

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

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.

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).

Gates of Miletus

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 conquest of the Americas

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. The first Christian Emperor Constantine is said to have experienced a vision of the cross accompanied by the words "In hoc signo vinces," "In this sign you will conquer."

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.

European Christians kicking Muslim ass during the Crusades

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 religiosusHuman 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)

Excavation site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, possibly the oldest known temple in the world (c. 10,000 BCE)

~ by emilypothast on October 24, 2015.

5 Responses to “The Faith that Does Not Know It is Faith: On Atheism, Imperialism and the Other”

  1. Very interesting read. Love that you started with Ignosticism, as that is the starting point for every conversation I ever have about the nature of god. Personally I call myself a pantheist when asked as it’s pretty easy to explain (god = the universe), doesn’t carry the negative connotations of “atheist”, isn’t immediately dismissive of thousands of years of spiritual traditions, nor is it incompatible with a purely scientific worldview.

    However I disagree that pointing out the specific tenets of a religion like Islam and making comparative value judgments is tantamount to racism or western cultural bias. All religions have good and bad teachings, and some bad teachings are worse than others and some good ones are better than others. How does one make these comparisons without being labeled an Islamaphobe or a racist?

    How does the label racist even apply to religion? Has a genetic basis for religion been discovered?

    Religions are systems of beliefs and as such those beliefs are subject to scrutiny. Is it possible to compare the outcomes of one belief or set of beliefs to another? Or is it necessary for this to be taboo in the name of multicultural harmony?

    If you can’t compare and contrast religious beliefs, what recourse do you have to express your objections without being racist, other than to either say that “all religion is bullshit” or “all religion is equally valid”? Both statements are absurd.

    The fact that people get all riled up about it when you criticize Islam is the main reason it continues to be the focus of so much conversation among new atheists. Any press is good press, including this article.

    I think that the hardcore atheist position is not a persuasive one and therefore not the most useful tool in the long run for the advancement of reason-based worldviews. I also agree that it is inherently divisive in many of the same ways that religion is, and this divisiveness is what makes it unpersuasive. There are a million perspectives on and ways to elucidate any set of beliefs that are all equally true. The key is to find the one that explains the universal truths with the most universal appeal.

  2. It is this bit that I take issue with:

    “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.”

    “Faith” is not the best word to use here. There are too many religious connotations embedded in that word and I think it plays into the arguments of those who hold those religious beliefs that there really isn’t any difference between confidence in the scientific method and faith in religious teachings. There is considerable difference. On the one hand, science comes at the questions of reality with a healthy dose of doubt, while religion’s “confidence” is that each has the “Truth” with a capital “T.” Questioning that truth is not part of the equation for faith, whereas questioning is always in the mix for the scientific approach.

    I would not be comfortable saying unequivocally that there is NO “god,” but I would be comfortable stating that there is no evidence for any of the gods described in the various religious texts. Once those gods are defined, it becomes rather easy to have confidence that the evidence does not support their existence.

    Do I have “faith” that they don’t exist? No, but I’m fairly confident until proven wrong.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments

    @Aaron Tyrell, you say,

    “However I disagree that pointing out the specific tenets of a religion like Islam and making comparative value judgments is tantamount to racism or western cultural bias. All religions have good and bad teachings, and some bad teachings are worse than others and some good ones are better than others. How does one make these comparisons without being labeled an Islamaphobe or a racist?”

    The short answer is, you don’t, or at least you remain silent as an ally until you’ve done a whole lot of work unpacking the impact and implications of colonialism. It’s impossible for a Western person to have an opinion about what another culture should or should not do without introducing western cultural bias. In the case of a religion as rich, diverse, and complex as Islam specifically, I think it’s also necessary for any Westerner to study Islam and the history of the Middle East for many years before even remotely having the authority to pontificate about what is or is not a “good” or “bad” teaching.

    I’ve been reading history and religious commentary, visiting Mosques and traveling to Muslim parts of the world whenever I can for a few years now, but I personally feel in no way qualified to comment on those cultural practices I find confusing or anti-modern. What I can do is relate my understanding of Euro-American imperialism’s role in the political context that had a role in shaping those ideologies, and that’s what I’m doing here.

    I will also note that learning not to insert myself into conversations over what people from another culture should or should not do is something I have had to practice as a white person in the pro-intersectional feminist communities I participate in. There is a mantra, “stay in your own lane.” Comment on what you know to be true from first person experience and make space for other voices to do the same.

    @Aleta Ledendecker, I use the word “faith” because it is Ijeoma Oluo’s original word choice, but I agree with her. The definition of “faith” I’m using is faith in the philosophical, epistemological sense. Faith comes from the Latin fides, “trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief” etc.

    If the evidence is incomplete, there’s faith. That faith might be reasonable, but it’s faith nonetheless. This is why the title of Richard Dawkins’s famous essay is “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” emphasis mine.

  4. Very nice essay and it is clear that you have discovered some useful truths. I am with you up until all of the politics of religion. When it comes to politics and war and human selfishness, it is clear that neither religion nor atheism have any kind of special role for all of the wrongs that need righting. People seem to do bad things to each other in the name of religion just as often as for any other selfish rationalization, like atheism or ignosticism.

    Being different or not fitting into some norm is often a justification for such selfishness. You should also bring the roles of compassion and selfishness into your spiritual journey. Since that is what religion is all about, it seems odd not to mention compassion for others as part of other beliefs as well, like atheism or ignosticism.

    Some people want to discover a deeper meaning for existence beyond just that for survival, but survival is a lot better than the alternative in any event. For that deeper meaning, people must learn how to deal with the unknowable and inexplicable things about reality. Science is just now learning how to deal with things that are unknowable while this has always been the bread and butter of religion.

    In order for atheism or ignosticism to be truly useful for promoting compassion, these beliefs must help people deal with the unknowable and inexplicable. While there are many things that we do not yet know and could know, there are also things that are beyond knowing or explanation and the pleasure of discovery is one of them.

  5. @Steve Agnew, thanks for reading & for the kind words.

    Perhaps neither “religion” or “irreligion” has a special role to play in violence, but imperialism does, and in general it has been the imperialism that has brought the irreligion in the West, historically speaking.

    Going forward, it’s impossible to pretend away centuries of conquest and the various fundamentalisms that have arisen in response. It would be wonderful if there was a clear way to deal with the devastation we’ve incurred, but we’re not even to the point of people agreeing that imperialism/colonialism is an inherently oppressive dynamic.

    My intention with writing this is to begin to unpack the layers of embedded racism and Othering that often goes unnoticed in our discussions of anti-religiosity. On one comments thread on Facebook, a guy wrote in response to this,

    “I just don’t see how thinking rationalism is superior to voodoo sacrifice is racist.”

    The assumption that Voodoo involves “sacrifice,” as well as the idea that rationalism must somehow be compared to voodoo as though the two things are aimed at the same goal, betray a rather colonialist mindset, as does the choice of Voodoo as an example.

    Voodoo is an interesting example to choose because of course, it is based on ancient rituals from West Africa as remembered by people who were by then a few generations removed from people who had been forcibly brought to the Americas as slaves.

    The impulse to compare and contrast “rationalism” and “Voodoo” is precisely the dynamic I’m concerned with here.

    Compassion can be an important role for religion to play, it’s just sort of outside the purvey of what I’ve broken off to chew here. But you’re right, I have yet to see a “compassionate atheism.”

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