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Bronze-level articleSecular religions

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Secular religion is a term referring to ideologies or philosophies that have no spiritual, supernatural, or religious components but which the speaker claims mimic the forms of religious institutions.


[edit] Atheism as a religion

This is one of the most commonly encountered examples of this trend. Critics of atheism, usually conservative Christians, assert that atheism itself is a religious belief. It is somewhat bizarre that people who cherish so strongly the sanctity of their own beliefs should characterize something so alien to them as being a religion. One possibility is that they are so entrenched in their own religious mindset that they are unable to comprehend the idea of a non-religious belief. More likely, though, is that they believe they are pointing out some deep hypocrisy, in that atheists claim to reject religion while actually practicing it.

For atheism to be considered a religion involves stretching the definition of religion to its loosest possible meaning - something like "a belief based on faith", in this case faith that there is no God. Even this is tenuous, for while some atheists have a strong conviction (arguably equivalent to religious faith) that God does not exist, an atheistic (or at least agnostic) viewpoint can also be achieved from taking the scientific (and therefore irreligious) attitude of only accepting as real things that are observable based on evidence. The argument can be further refuted by analogy. If disbelief in God is a religion, then so is disbelief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, unicorns and leprechauns.[1] The comparisons "Atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color" and "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby" are also commonly used.

In fact, of the secular philosophies which are inaccurately described as religions, atheism is the least like a religion of all, since it does not dictate a specific worldview. Contrary to the assumptions of many creationists, atheism does not necessarily require an acceptance of the big bang theory or the evolution of the species; it predated both of these. All atheism requires is a single belief, that God does not exist, or, to view it another way, a lack of any belief that God does exist. Unlike religions, atheism does not require any specific activities or observances. Assessed against the criteria which make up most definitions of religion (belief in supernatural beings, worship, ritual, etc.), viewing atheism as a religion just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.[2]

Do any atheists believe themselves to be practicing a religion? It seems unlikely. The only times they tend to take this position are in very rare cases over civil rights issues or to exploit a legal loophole. For example, in 2005 a federal court of appeals ruled in favor of a prison inmate's right to start a 'religious' study group for atheists. Ironically but unsurprisingly, when atheism is labeled as a religion the loudest objections come from conservative Christians, in this case the American Family Association.[3]

This criticism may not be totally off in every case, as in Alain de Botton's call to build "atheist temples",[4] though in many ways that example represents a form of architectural oneupmanship with religion, which heretofore had a near-monopoly on impressive and awe-inspiring buildings.[5]

While atheism is not a religion per se, one characteristic of the so-called "new atheism" is the fact that its proponents sometimes evangelize or proselytize in a manner reminiscent of some religious believers. For these "new atheists," it's not enough for them to not believe in God, they actively work to discourage other people from believing in God, too.

[edit] Christian-originated secular religions

Unitarian Universalism is probably the closest thing to an organized religion that deliberately makes room for secularism. Unitarian Universalists are free to (in fact they must) create their own approach to religious belief and practice; for many of them, that means a religion with no concept of God/gods or the supernatural.

The Quakers have a non-negligible proportion of atheists.[6]

Many consider the Church of England to be asymptotically approaching being a secular religion, though it still looks like fire-breathing fundamentalism compared to those two.

[edit] Evolution as a religion

This is a favourite argument of creationists, who like to claim that the issue of evolution (or, as they call it, "evolutionism" or "Darwinism") versus creationism "is not science versus religion, but religion versus religion (the science of one religion versus the science of another religion)". An example comes from The Lie: Evolution by Ken Ham,[7] but betrays a profound misunderstanding of both religion, which it defines only as a "cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith" (quotemined from Webster's Dictionary), and evolution. Ham's ridiculous argument seems to be that nothing can be scientifically concluded from fossils/evidence since we can study them only in the present and have no direct access to their role in the past, unlike "the irrefutable evidence of the Scriptures", which were clearly written in the time of Ken Ham.

From a more rational perspective, it is clear that the evolution of species is a scientific theory, predicated on scientific foundations and with scientific applications. Even if its acceptance is considered to be a matter of personal faith, it does not meet any of the defining criteria to be considered a religion.

Philosophies drawn from "evolutionism" vary from social Darwinism to modern humanism. Some have more of a resemblance to religion, even if not meeting the full definition, but these are not part of the theory itself. Types of "evolutionism" that mimic religion often include notions that are decidedly anti-evolutionary or non-Darwinian. The notion of evolution as "progress," for example, heavily influenced thinkers such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Herbert Spencer.[8] Eugenics has often been characterized as a quasi-religious movement based on pseudo-evolutionary ideas. In fact, Charles Davenport, the grandaddy of eugenics in the US, produced a pamphlet titled "Eugenics as a Religion" that laid out a eugenic "creed." The movement became religious in the more literal sense as some Christian churches supported eugenics and held sermon contests for its promotion.[9] In modern times, E.O. Wilson has advocated using evolution as the basis of a quasi-religious mythos he calls the "epic of evolution."[10]

[edit] Environmentalism as a religion

Although this argument has been proposed many times, one of the most popular examples is an article from 2003 by novelist Michael Crichton.[11] Crichton suggests that environmentalists look back to a fabled paradise state of Eden in which man lived in unity with nature, before deconstructing this idyllic view of nature which, in fact, few if any environmentalists have ever professed. Crichton points to a few similarities with religion, such as environmentalists' fear of 'apocalyptic' doom if humankind doesn't redress its 'sins' of pollution and destruction, before telling us that DDT and second-hand smoke are harmless. His argument that sustainability is put forward as a form of religious salvation makes little sense, since sustainability is a system for managing resources, having more in common with economics than with religion.

To its most devoted adherents, environmentalism may present a coherent, almost religious, worldview which is espoused with zealotry, but its core beliefs rest on scientific observations and theories (such as global warming, espoused by the "warmist cult") rather than the supernatural deities which characterise a religion. Conservatives often counter this by attempting to associate mainstream environmentalism with pagan worship of the goddess Gaia or Mother Earth.[12] The point is to conflate the groups of hard greens and neopagans that subscribe to a sort of religious version of environmentalism with all environmentalism. These types often engage in magical thinking about the environment, such as subscribing to hard forms of the Gaia hypothesis. It may also include a form of "back to the land" romanticism or anarcho-primitivism such as that found in the works of John Zerzan. These brands of hard green environmentalism are more commonly found among hard-line Malthusians.

[edit] Marxism as a religion

Like creationists, strong believers of Marxism reject all scholarly criticism of Marxism. In former Communist countries, Marx was given a personality cult and was viewed as immune to criticism. Critics of Marxism were labelled as "counter-revolutionary criminals" and were jailed or even executed, which is analogous to execution of critics of state religion on charges of blasphemy in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia etc. This tradition is held by Marxist parties all over the world. According to "Empire" by Richard Kapuściński, in the Soviet Union the idea of creating a religion without a god was considered. However, during Stalin's rule his cult of personality effectively led to a religion in which Stalin played the role of a god. In God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens speaks of his loss of belief in Marxism as closely analogous to loss of religious belief. However, while it displays similarities in such practices, Marxism lacks the supernatural beliefs (although the "force of history" is close) rituals and other common aspects of religions. However, in the North Korean offshoot of Marxism, according to official ideology there are miraculous beliefs related to the ruling family. For example the birth of Kim Jong-il was accompanied by winter changing into spring, a star illuminating the sky and a double rainbow spontaneously appearing.

Marxism as a memeplex adheres quite strictly to the model of a religion, even including something of the transcendent (in its eventual goal of "class consciousness") and a mantra by which to dismiss or insult any doubter or unbeliever ("false consciousness").

[edit] Liberalism as a religion

The most famous example of equating liberalism with religion is Ann Coulter's book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (2006), in which she argued that liberalism has become America's "official state religion", complete with its own creation stories, gods, martyrs, clergy, doctrines and sacraments. The argument basically boils down to a familiar attack on the curricula and values taught in public schools, whose teachers Coulter regards as "clergy" baptising children into the cult of liberalism, and the alleged liberal bias of the media. It also involves lumping together many beliefs and stances, such as evolutionary theory and the pro-choice movement, which, although held by many liberals, are not part of a strict set of political or religious tenets. Furthermore, it takes a really warped stretch of the imagination to see abortions as religiously motivated "virgin sacrifices", as Coulter apparently does.[13]

[edit] The market as a religion

Extreme forms of "neoliberalism" have been characterized as "market-worship," or "market fundamentalism" (as possibly coined by Jeremy Seabrooke, and popularized by the nefarious George Soros).[14] Ernest Partridge identifies the sacred text as Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, which explicates the all-powerful force of "The Invisible Hand" (even though Smith himself would disagree with this interpretation). He further identifies conservative and libertarian think tanks as "seminaries," pundits as the "priesthood," and the government as "the devil."[15] The concept of the invisible hand has also been compared to intelligent design creationism.[16]

[edit] Transhumanism as a religion

Transhumanism has been characterized as a techno-utopian political ideology and a secular religion. The Singularity in particular has been derided as a "nerd rapture." Other quasi-religious concepts infest the philosophy, such as the Cartesian dualism implied by mind uploading and the quest for immortality in cryonics. Transhumanists themselves dismiss this as mere "pattern-matching".[citation needed]

[edit] Personality cults

Personality cults that lack supernatural elements are often characterized as secular religions. See, e.g., Objectivism. Synanon, a drug treatment center with an authoritarian leader, even recognized its de facto status as a religion despite being a secular movement, and attempted in the mid-1970s to legally reorganize as the Church of Synanon.

[edit] Does secular religion exist?

Among the more persuasive variants of the 'secular religion' theory is an anthropological explanation proposed by Michael Crichton, in his critique of environmentalism.

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.[11]

In some senses, Crichton may be right about this. Arguably, every person holds (and perhaps needs) a set of values and morals and makes their judgments about actions and people based on this. A strong belief system, whether religious or secular, can define our view of the world, our value system and how we feel about things. For example, an environmentalist may feel the same kind of guilt about using too much fuel or too many plastic bags, as a Christian would feel about committing a minor sin.

However, this is not what defines a religion. Religions invariably include a belief in some form of supernatural beings, a force or deity at work in the world, and usually involve specific activities including worship and ritual ceremonies. Additionally they demand beliefs about certain ideas based on faith instead of (or possibly in spite of) evidence. While some secular philosophies such as Marxism and Nazism, come close to being religious in nature since they encompass a specific worldview and dictate an ethos based on this, they lack the kind of beliefs and practices which define religion.

Those who decry "secular religions" may in fact be decrying the quasi-religious attributes that secular ideologies, especially those aimed at improving the condition of humanity, sometimes acquire. For example, there is little controversy about the messianic (in the larger sense) qualities of Marxism (Marxist materialism is about as secular as you can get), or the fact that these qualities have expressed themselves in state communism in the form of witchhunts, murderous mass purges and similar wacky hijinks. Most, if not all, ideologies may acquire the same sense of purpose, duty, unswerving belief, dogmatism, and fervor that are usually associated with religious ideologies; these may be emergent effects of any sufficiently complex ideology, rather than specifically of religious belief systems.

The concept of 'secular religion' is an oxymoron since anything secular is by definition not religious, and if it becomes religious it ceases to be secular. Even if secular belief systems are replacing religious ones, this does not make them equivalent to religions. However, those using a functional rather than a substantive definition of religion would argue that whether the nature of the belief is supernatural or theistic is irrelevant, so a secular religion is possible.

[edit] Atheistic Religions

Although atheism alone is not a religion, it is possible for an atheist to hold religious beliefs, and some religious sects or groups are largely nontheistic.[17]

  • Nontheist Friends are Quakers who do not believe in the personal God of the Bible.[18]
  • Many Theravada Buddhists lack belief in any deities in the traditional Western sense (the Buddha was not a god, although stories of his life often have supernatural aspects).
  • Some traditional schools of Hinduism, such as Mimamsa and Samkhya, are generally compatible with atheism.
  • LaVeyan Satanists almost exclusively deny the existence of God, but it's a very tongue-in-cheek "religion."
  • Unitarian Universalists have diverse views of theology, but atheists outnumber Christians within the church.
  • There are various types of nontheistic Judaism. Beliefs usually range from strict adherence to the laws of the Torah without a belief in the Jewish god to those who simply were born into or participate in elements of Jewish culture, making it more of an ethnic than religious identity. This usually goes by the name of "secular Judaism," "cultural Judaism," or "Jewish atheism."
  • Dudeism is a non-theistic religion based on Taoism, using the film The Big Lebowski to spread its message of chilling out with a joint and going bowling.[19]
  • Raelism
  • Carvaka

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. See "Religion of Atheism" for another example of this counterargument.
  2. See "Atheism & Religion" and "Is Atheism a Religion? Defining Atheism and Religion", for a full analysis of why atheism does not fit common definitions of religion.
  3. "Court rules atheism a religion", World Net Daily, August 20, 2005.
  4. Oh, Please, PZ Myers
  5. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-01/25/alain-de-botton-atheist-temples
  6. c.f. http://www.nontheistfriends.org/
  7. Reproduced at Creationist.org.
  8. See "Is Evolution a Secular Religion?" by Michael Ruse and Evolution as a Religion by Mary Midgley for further discussion.
  9. Topic: Religion, Eugenics Archive
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Epic of Evolution.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Michael Crichton, "Environmentalism as Religion".
  12. See, for example, Conservapedia's "Environmentalist" article, "Environmentalism as Religion" by John M. Ostrowski, and "Environmentalism is a Religion (Photographic Proof)" (which featured as a main page "news" item at Conservapedia during September 2008).
  13. See "Is There a Godless Church of Liberalism or Atheism? Responding to Ann Coulter" and "Is Godless Liberalism a Religion?" for repudiations of Coulter's theory and explorations of why liberalism is not a religion.
  14. And then there was market, P. Sanaith
  15. The State Religion, Ernest Partridge
  16. Invisible Hands: Intelligent Designs and Free Markets, Mark Wexler
  17. Religion Facts: The Big Religion Chart (last updated June 24, 2011)
  18. nontheistfriends.org: What is a Nontheist? September 20, 2006
  19. Dudeism.com
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