A few months ago, Stephen Prothero wrote an article for USA Today stating that atheists would be better off without some of our more “aggressive” voices. (Disclosure: he mentioned me as an example of a “gentler” atheist.)
I felt there was much more overlap between the two sides than Prothero was giving us credit for.
Now, Prothero is out with a new book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.
There’s a section about atheism where he rehashes some of the same arguments he made in the article. (In the book, he mentions this site. But not my name. You tease me, Prothero!)
He recently discussed the book on BookTV’s After Words with Sally Quinn of “On Faith.”
I’m unable to embed the video, but you can see it here.
The relevant transcript is below. I encourage you to read the whole thing.
Quinn: One of the things I think is most fascinating about the book is the way you refer to atheism as a religion. Explain that.
Prothero: Oh, do I have to? The atheists who are watching will get mad at me…
Quinn: Well, we all have atheist friends.
Prothero: Some of my best friends are atheists. Some of me is atheist, too. Um, yeah, I think the question is… atheists get annoyed when people like me talk about atheism as a religion, because, of course, atheists reject god. But this is a very facile and false understanding of religion to say religion is about god. This is one reason why atheists who criticize all religion by saying, ‘there’s no god so religion is stupid’… that’s wrong, too, because there are religions without god. Like Buddhism. So you haven’t criticized Buddhism if you criticize the concept of god…
The way I think about religion, if I say, do people who love Yankees baseball… is that a religion? Or people who are in Scientology… is that a religion? I think you have to look at the family resemblances question. You have to say, ok, do they have a code of ethics? Do they have a community that they are in? Do they have a cult or rituals that they follow? Do they have a creed where they articulate beliefs about the supernatural and about the afterlife, creation, etc.? And I think if you look at atheists on that score, they fall away from religion on community, because they don’t tend to really… people don’t really go to atheist… ‘unchurch’… on Sunday mornings…
Quinn: Although there are Humanist groups…
Prothero: There are.
Quinn: And more and more so…
Prothero: More and more so. In Boston, where I work, you know, [there are] very active Humanist groups that are actually criticized by other atheists for being, like, too ‘churchy’, right, because they’re kinda getting nervous, like this is getting to be religion. If you look at the creed part, atheists certainly have a creed; they are more into their creed of rejecting god than most theists are about affirming god. So they qualify on the creed side.
In terms of cultist… is there… rituals that they follow? Not so much. Although there are some. And then… do they celebrate, you know, Bertrand Russell Day? No. Not really. But they’re starting to get up those things. Like Darwin Day, for example. And then, community, not so much. And code, ethics, well this has been really emphasized lately by atheists. You know, Greg Epstein’s book, Good Without God, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, he’s saying atheists do have ethics and they’re basically the same as all other peoples’ ethics.
Quinn: He’s basically saying you don’t need to have a religion in order to be an ethical person.
Prothero: Right, but I think he also wants to say an equally important point, that atheists… qua atheists are equally as ethical. So I think that some atheists are religious and some atheists are irreligious. It just kinda depends how hard core they are about their ‘faith’ or their religion or whatever you want to call it.
Quinn: Well, you’ve likened some of them to fundamentalists. And also said that there are “angry atheists” and there are “nice atheists.”
Prothero: Right, and I get in trouble for that, too. The ‘friendly atheists’ are very friendly toward me when I say that and the ‘angry atheists’ are very angry toward me, which shouldn’t be surprising. I think atheism is at a really interesting point in America. It’s visible and there’s been moments in American history, including at the Scopes Trial in the 1920s where atheism became visible, and in the 19th century, there were moments of visibility after the Civil War, and this is another one of them. So it’s an intriguing moment when atheists have said, we’re not gonna just let Christians talk about us; we’ll talk for ourselves.
But there is a way in which they really do chase away a lot of their potential supporters. If you look at surveys on atheism, if you ask people, do you believe in god or a higher power, there’s maybe 8% of Americans who will say. Not Really. And if you say, are you atheist, it’s usually 1% of Americans. Well, why the gap between the people who don’t believe in god and the people who call themselves atheists? It’s because atheism is a bad brand. And the reason atheism is a bad brand is because a lot of people out front are just sort of angry fundamentalists. They are people who remind you of the annoying missionary who comes and knocks on your door and gives you this script and they’re not listening to you and they’re not really having a conversation with you. They’re just kind of hectoring you. And we’ve all had that experience with fundamentalists or sometimes Evangelicals who have harangued us and we have now all had it with atheists, also.
But there are friendly atheists who are very secure in their view that the god proposition is not only false, but dangerous, and yet are able to talk about religious/irreligious matters in ways that Muslims and Christians and Jews can often talk with one another.
I’ll give him a lot of credit — you can agree or disagree with his remarks, but I think he knows more about our community than just about anyone else I’ve seen outside of it.
Is atheism a religion? No. And while Prothero can call it that if he wants, he admits it doesn’t fit the definition as perfectly as actual religions.
I do take issue with his remark about fundamentalists, though, mostly because I think that word is unfair when applied to us.
Muslim fundamentalists fly planes into buildings.
Christian fundamentalists kill abortion doctors.
Atheist fundamentalists write books.
That’s very simplified but you could also argue that religious fundamentalists want to force their views upon everyone else. When I think of Christian fundamentalists, for example, I also think of people who try to rewrite history books and push Creationism into science classrooms.
Our “fundies” use the art of persuasion and debate. They’re visibly angry about religion having such a stranglehold in America and they’re not afraid to say so. They don’t want to rewrite the law; they want it restored to the original intent regarding church/state separation.
That’s hardly the same thing as a religious fundamentalist and Prothero should admit that.
(Thanks to Anna for the link!)