Thinking out Loud about Virtual Atheists, part 2

How to move on from here? I’m resisting the temptation to look any more closely at that post previously discussed, for there’s really little fruit in trying to unravel one lousy post from a relatively obscure blog. Besides, my object, as I said in the beginning, is to formulate a thesis about ‘virtual atheism’ which surely must appeal to more and better sources. To that end – while unfortunately giving a degree of legitimacy to AbT – here is a brief post by Craig Martin at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog which perhaps suggests something about the atheists’ – virtual and otherwise – sense of religion.

Some scholars of religion talk as if cultural stuff—icons, myths, rituals, practices, ideologies, discourses, etc.—allows practitioners to “express” themselves, their religious beliefs, or simply their “religion.” Other scholars talk as if the use of this cultural stuff has the effect of “constituting” (perhaps by “performing”) themselves, their religious beliefs, or their identity.

The implicit ontological differences here are considerable. For the former group, “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression.” For the latter group, “selves,” “beliefs,” or “identities” are products.

Roland Barthes once said “tell me how you classify and I’ll tell you who you are.” What does one’s preference for either “express” or “constitute” say about who one is, or about one’s assumptions and theoretical commitments?

[Someone help me here. What theorists does Martin have in mind? It occurs as I make the last edits here that I’m not really addressing Martin’s last question and I oughta, somewhere, sometime.]

The ontological differences may be considerable but I don’t see why we, scholars of religion, have to choose here, and surely the integration of these two images is possible, and necessary. However, that is mostly a discussion for another time.  The epistemological differences here are also considerable, and equally require some sort of integration. But, let me toss this out: contemporary atheists (following their antecedents) almost invariably assume that “selves,” “beliefs,” and “religions” precede their “expression” and almost never construct their image of religion with the converse in mind. It’s easy enough to understand how and why they got there and what this says about the atheist understanding of religion.

But before I explain that, read this other short post by Martin written a week after the one above:

one thing that interests me is the fact that scholars in other fields working on “religion” rarely avail themselves of cutting edge research from our field of study.

This is not reciprocal: scholars of religion writing on gender read critical gender studies; scholars of religion writing on culture read anthropology; scholars of religion writing on society read sociological theory.

Yet, scholars in other fields may write on religion without ever having availed themselves of our work. Hence we get Daniel Dennett recreating a 100-year-old wheel, when arguing that religion is animism.

Is this because “religion” in the popular imagination is something so naturalized or self-evident that serious theory on it need not be read? Or is it because our discipline has fallen down on the job?

I’ll return to the question of the discipline’s impotence later (not that I have a lot to add to what many have already said). For the present it is Martin’s previous question that is the important one. And the answer (to what we all may understand as a rhetorical question) is unquestionably, yes. Religion is considered “so naturalized” and “self-evident,” not just in the popular imagination but in scholarship of all sorts, and that’s not so much the problem as the encapsulation of numerous concrete problems.

Those problems begin with the self-evident premise (as above) that religion precedes religiosity. Hence, anything and everything that’s imagined to be entailed by the concept of religion (grant for the moment that this is understood primarily in American Christian – evangelical – terms) is taken as given and serves as the foundation upon which to interrogate the religiosity of any given religious actor or group of actors.

I had an early experience with this when I had to read Michael Persinger’s published papers on his God Helmet experiments since a student was going to lead a senior seminar on them. Among the several jaw-dropping aspects of Persinger’s work is the fact that the concept of “religious experience” is tossed around with little explication or interrogation of what exactly this might be. Just before writing this I had a similar experience with the concept of prayer: in the post Praying for Pain Relief, Tom Rees begins with the question, “Prayer seems to work as a form of pain relief – but is this a physiological response, or is it purely psychological?” (no evidence of the former was found). Again, prayer, in essence, was a given (even liturgical directions were given to some participants). ***What was the source of the pain for participants? “By administering a carefully calibrated shock, electrodes like this can deliver a 5-minutes long burst of sharp pain, but without causing any damage.”

And contemporary atheists carry on endlessly in the same vein (eg. recall Martin’s statement about “Daniel Dennett recreating a 100-year-old wheel, when arguing that religion is animism”). Arguably, religion as naturalized and self-evident for atheist writers begins with belief, as religion’s essence, and the contents thereof (evidenced by believers or imagined), and the presumed ultimate sources of it (ie. revelation, scripture, religious texts, whatever you want to label it). (We in RLST have seen this movie before, though as Martin implies, we’ve come a long way – probably just not far enough). Hence, to be religious is, in the first instance, to believe, and then to assent to some larger set of truth claims which are possibly somewhat eccentric but usually pulled straight from a revered written source (notice I didn’t say derived or somesuch). Allow me to skip lightly over why belief, what believers believe, and the assumed foundations of believers’ belief require serious interrogation – one would think in the name of intellectual honesty at the least – as I try to move on to the locus where I think this must remain in the scholar’s pocket, namely, among the virtual atheists and within their (anti-)religiosity: dare I use one of those terms popular in pomo and other circles, contexts that the atheists dismiss with a wave and a snort, and state that at the least all these conceptions are … contested?

[Forgive the quoting of whole posts. And forgive the length, couldn’t find an earlier halting point. One more part and we’re done.]

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1 Comment »

  1. Bret Alan said

    Meh, none of this is about me… on to part 3…

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