This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Comment

← Do Atheists Understand and Appreciate Black Bodies?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 74 by Cartomancer

Even I will admit that this article veered disagreeably towards the verbose idiom of the 1970s-80s new academy, but that's not a failing we need dwell on. Racism, discrimination and inequality are too important an issue not to look beyond all that for.

In essence I kind of agree with what the article says. Albeit the piece is phrased as an exhortation to a different way of thinking about political atheism, where it is my impression that a large number of atheist campaigners actually do think that way already. PZ Myers, for example, is hardly a fringe figure in American atheism, and his approach seems to embody quite well the proposed emphasis on promoting critical thinking skills first and foremost, forging wider ties and alliances where they are needed, and actively fighting the assumptions that underlie inequality of privilege every step of the way. If the message is "we need to use our critical and analytical skills more widely, such that we can remake society into a fairer place for all" then I don't think that's a radical suggestion in any way. In fact it's one I hear from humanist and atheist campaigners all the time.

But perhaps the atheists that Pinn encounters all the time are of a different cast of mind. I don't know. If they are then perhaps such an exhortation is timely in those circles.

What I would take issue with is his approach to vocabulary. Pinn seems to think it would be a good idea to co-opt the word "religious" and use it to mean some general sense of human psychological meaning-making activity. He seems to be suggesting that if we water down and widely disperse what terms like "religious" mean then perhaps we can challenge the largely unchallenged presumption that faith groups get to own and have exclusive or primary use of certain important words and concepts in our communal vocabulary. I agree that there is such a presumption, and that it needs to be challenged, but my solution would be the polar opposite. What we need to do is make the precise, limited, narrow and extremely unhelpful nature of words like "religion" and "faith" more apparent to all. We need to show "religious" people that there's nothing general, warm, fuzzy and psychologically universal about their "religious" convictions. There is already a language that can be used to describe universal psychological dispositions like the search for meaning in life. Religious people do that, so do non-religious people. The additional bits that religious people add are not necessary. They're superfluous, and can be dangerous. Fiction and literature are somewhat analogous meaning-weaving activities, but nobody opposes gay equality on the basis of Flaubert novels they've read, or uses their commitment to Steven Segal films as platform from which to limit women's access to reproductive healthcare. There's something else in the mix that qualifies religion for those nasty things, and it's that something else that we need to focus on, not what religious activities have in common with other activities.

"Religious" is a mindset. It comes from the Latin re- and ligare meaning to bind back to or onto. But it's not about binding people together with other people - social institutions of all kinds do that - it's about binding people to ideas and rituals and concepts. It's about conditioning people to value ideas and institutions more than they otherwise would. It's about making ideas and institutions special and important and entrenched in people's affections such that they are treated differently from the rest of the ideas and phenomena in the world. It's about circumventing precisely the critical thinking skills that Pinn and others are so keen we promote. By saying "yes but all this other stuff can be religion too" we don't attack the dangerous bit of religion - the convenient label that gives people a free pass to do irrational, discriminatory things - we implicitly acknowledge that religion is a supernally valid and legitimate thing and try to arrogate some of that assumed supernal validity and legitimacy for other psychological phenomena.

It's like trying to stamp out witchcraft by saying "yes, but science and technology, too, are in many ways, also a kind of witchcraft, and we should widen our definition of witchcraft to encompass them as a way of taking back the word from the people who make potions from the hacked-up limbs of albino children".

Sat, 12 May 2012 00:33:27 UTC | #941110