Existing in both the atheist world and in the Pagan, Atheopagans have the unique “good fortune” of fielding criticism from extreme elements of both.
I’ve written before about Pagan fundamentalists who dismiss our religion as “not real Paganism. ” Today, we take a look at the atheist community’s counterpart: the so-called “anti-theists”.
A vocal subset of atheists, the anti-theists start with the position that there are no literal gods. So far, so good.
From there, many of them overreach, arguing not only that theism is destructive and irrational, but that all religion and spirituality are fraudulent, pointless and harmful behaviors that humanity would be better off without.
Anti-theists can be found throughout the Internet, where they gleefully set to arguing with theists, and also include authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.
They contend that faith-based belief is inherently dangerous and destructive: that it supplants critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, and therefore makes people malleable, controllable, and susceptible to rationalization of selfish, destructive and cruel acts in the name of their beliefs.
Honestly, I don’t disagree with them about any of that, either. Credulity in unlikely phenomena such as gods and spirits apropos of nothing more than “faith” or personal experiences is strong lubricant on the slippery slope to a fantasied worldview at best…and fanaticism in relation to that worldview at worst.
But in their broad-brush declarations, anti-theists also posit that all religions are inherently destructive. No matter what they do or do not demand of one in the way of belief.
And that simply isn’t true.
In my experience, anti-theists more often than not present as angry people. Sometimes they are angry about abusive behavior they experienced in religions they have left behind; sometimes they are angry that reason and science are not the primary drivers of decision making in this world, and at the many negatives, past and present, which can be laid at the feet of the major organized religions, particularly in the West.
Those are reasonable grounds to be angry.
But the problem with anger is that it tends to encourage black-and-white thinking. It leads to communication styles that inevitably result in polarization. And it tends not to consider special cases in the sweeping assessment it makes of the target of its anger.
I don’t think any student of history can deny that the major Abrahamic religions have caused a lot of negative impacts.
I’m certainly not going to dispute it. The “religions of the Book” encourage subscription to cruel ideas such as “original sin”, the threat of an afterlife of everlasting torment, hatred of LGBTQ people, subjugation of women and the idea that only believers can be “chosen” or “saved”.
But does that mean that Zen Buddhism is pernicious? Or Jainism? Taoism? Wicca?
My concern with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins et al is that in their broad-brush demonization of religion, they make two fundamental errors:
They ignore that there are religious traditions which do not have the negative impacts caused by the Abrahamic monotheisms; and
They do not in any way address religious paths the beliefs of which are consistent with our scientific understanding of the Universe.
These are circular and mutually reinforcing. “What about religions that are peaceful, or which aren’t filled with expectation of faith in highly improbable events and realities?”, one might ask.
Well, those aren’t religions according to my definition, replies the anti-theist.
It’s a straw man argument: All religions involve faith in the supernatural, goes the claim, and are therefore irrational and harmful. A religious tradition that doesn’t require such faith?
That’s not really a religion, so my argument still holds, says the anti-theist. Who will often then go on to atheist-splain that such religions are philosophies, or cultural traditions…anything but religions.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
So as I see it, the fundamental problems with the anti-theist argument are that:
There is no universally accepted definition for what constitutes a religion in the first place, so the narrow definition asserted by the anti-theists is simply an opinion. It is not a fact;
There are demonstrably religious traditions which require no supernatural belief, including our own; and
There are religious traditions which do not have violent, bigoted or xenophobic values and are without history of the kinds of destructive impacts that can so easily be ascribed to the Abrahamic religions.
Among those equality-and-peace-valued religions, there happens to be the bulk of modern Neo-Paganism.
So…how do you talk to an anti-theist?
Well, it’s hard. In my experience, when confronted with anything labeled “religion” or “spirituality”, a significant portion of anti-theists simply leap into insults or sweeping characterizations. There’s not much one can do with that.
But if someone is willing to have an actual conversation, start by granting the places where you agree.
We can agree that science is the best system we have for determining what is likely to be true, and that, therefore, we don’t have persuasive grounds for believing in gods, spirits or souls.
We can agree that the decline of faith and the rise of the “Nones” is a good thing.
We can agree that the big monotheisms have been disastrous for the planet and for millions of people throughout the world.
We can agree that extremists of every stripe are a serious problem and that faith-based belief makes it easier for people to follow ideas which would fall to pieces if addressed with reason.
This establishes a common value basis for the discussion. The most vigorous arguments of anti-theists are things we can mostly agree with.
And then, ask them where the social harm has been from religions like Zen Buddhism or Quakerism. Emphasize that a single example is proof that the problem isn’t “religion”: it’s certain kinds of religion. Religions which dictate that one must believe in things for which there is little or no evidence. Religions which require following rules the implementation of which lead to cruelty or violence or bigotry. Religions that identify outsiders as objects of hatred, or fear, or pity, or contempt, or which demand that they must be converted in order to be “saved”. Religions which define gender roles that assert dominance of men over women, and hatred for gay people. Religions that are humorless and can’t laugh at themselves.
Those are the problem, and on that we can agree.
But where, we can ask, is the harm in someone following a religious path that hews to the cosmology of science, and encourages kindness and happiness? That celebrates the wonder of life as a precious gift? That builds community around those values and that perspective?
That’s the key question: where is the harm in religious practices that aren’t rooted in faith-based belief and lousy values?
If you can get to that question, I think you can start to move an anti-theist away from their absolutist thinking. You can help them to become open to the possibility that something like Atheopaganism can exist and have value for its practitioners.
And that, really, is all we can ask for.
*Further, is anti-theists’ analysis of the problem of violent and repressive religious extremism—from which the most egregious of negative impacts of problematic religions stem—accurate at all? Is that problem really about religion, or is it about toxic masculinity…given that the overwhelming majority of such extremists are men? (As, interestingly enough, are the bulk of vocal anti-theists online and in print.)
If not for religious frames, would not such angry, fanatical men settle on others, such as political philosophies?
The Khmer Rouge weren’t religious, after all. They were atheists.