New Religions Don’t Look Like Christianity Either

To those familiar with religions throughout the world, new religions like environmentalism, veganism, wokism, marxism, etc. are pretty obviously religions and are causing a lot of damage because that’s what bad religions do. People who are not familiar with any world religions beside Christianity frequently miss this because they think that all (real) religions look like Christianity but with different names and vestments.

I suspect that the idea that all religions look like Christianity was partially due to the many protestant sects which superficially looked similar, since even the ones that did away with priests and sacraments still met in a building on Sundays for some reason. I suspect the other major part is that there is a tendency to describe other religions in (inaccurate) Christian terms in order to make them easier to understand. Thus, for example, Shaolin “monks”. There are enough similarities that if you don’t plan to learn about the thing, it works. It’s misleading, though.

You can see the same sort of thing in working out a Greek pantheon where each god had specific roles and relationships and presenting this to children in school. It’s easy to learn, because it’s somewhat familiar, but it’s not very accurate to how paganism actually worked.

All of this occurred to me when I was talking with a friend who said that the primary feature of a religion, it seemed to him, was belief in the supernatural. The thing is, the nature/supernature distinction was a Christian distinction, largely worked out as we understand it today in the middle ages. Pagans didn’t have a nature/grace distinction, and if you asked them if Poseidon was supernatural they wouldn’t have known what you meant.

Would the ancient pagans have said that there things that operated beyond human power and understanding? Absolutely, they would. Were they concerned about whether a physics textbook entirely described these things? No, not at all. For one thing, they didn’t have a physics textbook. For another, they didn’t care.

The modern obsession that atheists have with whether all of reality is described in a physics textbook is not really about physics, per se, but about one of two things:

  1. whether everything is (at least potentially) under human control
  2. whether final causality is real, i.e. do things have purposes, or can we fritter our lives away on entertainment without being a failure in life?

The first one is basically an enlightenment-era myth. Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows that human life is not even potentially under human control. That it is, is believable, basically, by rich people while they’re in good health and when they’re distracted by entertainment from considering things like plagues, asteroids, war, etc. Anyone who isn’t all of these things will reject number 1.

Regarding the second: ancient pagans didn’t tend to be strict Aristotelians, so they wouldn’t have been able to describe things in terms of final causality, but they considered people to be under all sorts of burdens, both to the family, to the city, and possibly beyond that.

If you look at the modern religions, you will find the same thing. Admittedly, they don’t tend to talk about gods as much as the ancient pagans did, though even that language is on the rise these days. In what sense the Greeks believed in Poseidon as an actual human-like being vs. Poseidon was the sea is… not well defined. Other than philosophers, who were noted for being unlike common people, I doubt you could have pinned ancient pagans down on what they meant by their gods even if you could first establish the right terminology to ask them.

As for other things, environmentalism doesn’t have a church, but pagans didn’t have churches, either. Buddhists don’t have churches, and Hindus don’t have churches, and Muslims don’t have churches. Heck, even Jews don’t have churches. Churches are a specifically Christian invention. Now, many of these religions had temples. Moderns have a preference for museums. Also, being young religions, their rites and festivals aren’t well established yet. Earth day and pride month and so on are all fairly recent; people haven’t had time to build buildings in order to be able to celebrate them well. (Actually, as a side note, it also takes time to commercialize these things. People under-estimate the degree to which ancient pagan temples were businesses.)

Another stumbling block is that modern environmentalists, vegans, progressives, etc. don’t identify these things as religions—but to some degree this is for the same reason that my atheist friend doesn’t. They, too, think of religions as basically Christianity but maybe with different doctrines and holy symbols. They don’t stop to consider that most pagans in the ancient world were not in official cults. There were cults devoted to individual gods, and they often had to do with the running of temples. Normal people were not in these cults. Normal people worshiped various gods as convenient and as seemed appropriate.

There is a related passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book The Dumb Ox which is related:

The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, “This is the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion without Authority.” But in truth, a wider experience outside Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes; it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives; a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations. Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance, by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it. Asceticism, or the war with the appetites, is itself an appetite. It can never be eliminated from among the strange ambitions of Man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic Authority than in Pagan or Puritan anarchy.

Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.