Throughout history religion has played a defining role within human society and culture. The profound effect these systems of perception have had on our species can be seen in every
field of study. Science in particular is effected by not only the opposition that religion often provides, but also as a pool of inspiration from which many hypotheses are conceived and derived. Indeed “where did we come from” and “where are we going” are two questions explored by both religion and science.
While the ultimate reason the human race has devised religious systems is not universally agreed upon, it is generally accepted among anthropologists that it may be a combination of four specific psychological and sociological factors.
These conditions of invention are:
- A need to understand intellectually
- A reversion back to childhood feelings
- Anxiety and uncertainty
- A need for community
The first three conditions are theorized to have been perpetuated to fill psychological needs while the final condition, the need for community, is thought in contrast to fulfill sociological needs (Ember, Melvin, 2007).
The details of each religion are of course different. The details of belief itself is what defines each system and effects culture, practices and morals. While this paper will not get into the seemingly infinite differences and similarities in the religions of the world it is important to point out that this particular content is not the focus of thought here. Rather, that despite these differences and similarities all religious systems fulfill the four basic “needs” for which religion meets : understanding, reversion to childhood, anxiety, and need for community.
It can be argued that scientific systems of study also is a full filling mechanism for the four factors for religion. Through systematized observation and deduction using the scientific method we strive to understand. The reversion to childhood aspect could be argued in that through exploration we discover laws of nature and reality which give us a sense of stability. The religious counterpart of “why things work” might be God’s law or word. Both offer an explanation of why things are they way they are and how we can expect things to function. The anxiety or uncertainty principal would again be served by observable and documented laws and findings; giving a basis of expectation. The need for community is fulfilled through the actual collaborative work and experiments as well as communicating ideas and findings in papers and journals to both peers and the general public.
While science is indeed in pursuit of data and answers as a practice, it is no wonder that it had an influence on the question of deity. There are some religions that vehemently oppose scientific findings if they conflict with their religious beliefs, texts or doctrines. There are others who take this information and incorporate it into a system that includes a God, such as seen with “Intelligent Design” supporters. Intelligent design is the theory that science works through God and not opposed to him and that creation is according to God’s conscious design. There is also Atheism, in which science has played an important role, especially in recent years.
Atheism is can be difficult to understand as there are many different philosophies and schools of thought at play. Each individual has their own ideas and idiosyncratic belief system, the only combining factor according to American Atheists is “A lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings” (athiests.org, 2012). This vastly differentiated population requires us to be very specific when identifying the subject of conversation as part of a collective. While there are atheist movements and groups that one might belong to, this is hardly a requirement or defining characteristic.
Taking this into consideration I would like to examine the subset of people identified in modern times as “The New Atheists” (Thomas-Howe, 2012) Over the past ten years there has been a surge of advocacy for atheism as well as social pressure to put an end to the validity of religion as truth. This is mostly seen in the United States and Great Britain. This movement has been labeled“New Atheism” and primarily focuses on the writings of scientists. Most notable and influential of these being Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. (Howe, 2012)
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York, claims that this New Atheist movement very much fits the requirements of a religion. The only difference between it and traditional religions is that there is a lack of supernatural involvement. Wilson considers the supernatural element to be a detail rather than a defining characteristic. He considers New Atheism to be a “stealth” religion or “any belief system that distorts the facts of the real world for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors,” (Talmont-Kaminski, 2009)
Defending Wilson’s categorization of the New Atheists as a stealth religion is based not on traditional definitions of religion, such as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,. which unite into one single moral community called a Church, and all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 1912). Instead of the community created by such, it is the community created by self identifying with any particular group and its doctrines. Because of anti-religious activism and dialog this group effectively practices based on its belief system. For David Wilson it is the practical application of a belief system that motivates behavior of those in the group that identifies “New Atheism” as a religious system (Talmont-Kaminski, 2009).
Wilson describes a religious group as one in which because of ideals and shared beliefs transfer conflict from within the group itself to between different groups with opposing ideas (Talmont-Kaminski, 2009). This is especially illustrated by the anti religious propaganda and message that are the product of the unofficial New Atheist group. With a heavy emphasis put on scientific truths as valid over religious ones we can see the information set that influences the groups ideals. Science held as a “truth” is counter intuitive and ultimately counter productive. Science itself is on a constant quest to find new and better explanations for things and to expand human knowledge. Science does not refute information that may disprove a previously accepted theory or law. Heralding scientific findings as an “absolute truth” is dangerous because it immediately locks you into whatever science has proven up to that point. It sets a platform of arguments and defense of a belief system which may later contradict itself in light of new scientific findings. Factoring in logical deduction and adaptive skills, this would still set the stage for cognitive dissonance in the individual who has self-identified with the New Atheist movement.
There is a tone of cultural superiority in the memetic information spread by this ambiguously defined movement. The internet has been an invaluable catalyst for this cultural phenomenon. If you do a Google search for “Atheism” the number two search result is a board on Reddit.com. Reddit is a social network for news and entertainment. Users can post text and links to share and discuss content. At the time of writing this the atheist board on Reddit has 1,798,124 users that call themselves “Godless Redditors” (Reddit.com, 2013) This large online community shares everything from scientific news and publications, engaging topic driven conversation, support and insight to the curious to almost militant messages for an anti religious agenda and self superior derogatory jokes and images aimed at religions and their followers. Reddit is but an example of this communal effect of the Dawkins influenced atheism; we can see similar groups all over the internet. The information is spread between social networks and online communities, engaging more people to adopt a similar mode of thinking.
There tends to be a great deal of focus of escaping religious indoctrination in the messages of the New Atheist movement. Throughout human history religion has spurred wars, murder, genocide, and separation. There has also been a lot opposition to scientific advances due to religious ideals, some advances that could potentially save lives. Social status of groups such as women have been dictated through archaic religious assignment, essentially making these people lesser or subservient to others. These are some of the primary issues that are addressed by New Atheists; and they are addressed with passion by individuals who want to better our world. Based on their belief system coupled with historical fact religion is targeted in this movement the same as godlessness is targeted by evangelical Christians, for example. Both groups supporting a functional agenda for betterment based on belief systems.
Atheism naturally has a lot of opponents to its ideals. A common misconception is that atheism in itself is a belief system; it is not. Nor is it the opposition or disbelief in deity or supernatural forces. Rather it signifies lack of belief. This is an important distinction to make between the general title of atheist and the New Atheist movement that strongly denies the existence of gods. This subtle shift from lack of belief to holding a position of non-belief is the action which creates the belief system. Nathan Crawford discusses two religious authors on New Atheism and their approaches to discussing topics. In doing so he makes a very valid point when he says “The problem that occurs with both texts is that the argument is against the new atheism instead of for something, like belief in God.” (Crawford, 2012). Very often instead of presenting information supporting their particular point of view, those defending systems will instead aim to attack an opponent by attempting to invalidate it.
While attacking other belief systems may seem unnecessary it is at the same time almost understandable for humans. We satisfy our four needs with our belief systems. What we choose depends on a number of factors including upbringing, community, personal experiences and personal preference. It is only by creating these systems of belief that we can begin to evaluate the world around us in accordance to them. There are many aspects of the New Atheism movement that are moving and powerful. For example one of the movements revered personalities, Richard Dawkins and his take on death. Instead of the fear some might have of a godless existence, Dawkins purports that it only increases the value of human life in the world here and now (Thomas-Howe, 2012).
Despite all differences to what we think of as religion in this culture, atheism acts as a functional belief system and the New Atheist’s have become a cultural insurrection spurred by a growing and evolving religious schema of scientific gods. This shift from classical definitions of religion allows us to further dissect the functioning aspects of this human phenomenon, and through that learn more about ourselves and each other. Defining a cultural movement can be difficult in the midst of it, but this particular movement will undoubtedly have a fractal effect on our society in the future; it is definitely something to pay attention to.
- American Atheists (2012) What is Atheism? atheists.org. Retrieved from: http://atheists.org/content/about-atheism
- Crawford, N. (2012). God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Anglican Theological Review, 94(1), 136-139
- Durkheim, E. (1912). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Ember, C., & Ember, M. (2007). Cultural Anthropology. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.. 263-265
- Reddit.com, (2013) General Information. Retrieved from: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/
- Talmont-Kaminski, K. (2009). The New Atheism and the New Anti-Atheism. Skeptic, 15(1), 68-71.
- Thomas Howe, J.J. (2012) Affirmation After God: Friedrich Neitzsche and Richard Dawkins on Atheism. Zygon: Journal Of Religion & Science, 47(1), 140-155.