Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is New Atheism a Religion?

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who is non-religious but holds no contempt for those who do happen to believe in God and religion. My friend remarked to me that he was not an atheist, because atheism is itself a religion and he holds to no religion.

There seems to be this common misunderstanding of the word atheism, such that many people in the United States and abroad believe that atheism is itself a religion, or even more common with the rise of the so called "New Atheists" that atheism is itself not a belief, rather it is a lack of belief. As the late Christopher Hitchens (one of the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism ) said in his book "god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything":"Our belief is not a belief is not a belief. Out principles are not a faith. (god is not Great pg. 5 )"

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation often says in debates that he is an atheist because there is no coherent definition of a God. He fails however to offer a coherent definition of atheism, and when pressed for one often says that he lacks a belief in a deity.

So we have two problems: 1. What is the definition of Atheism? 2. What is the definition of religion? If we understand those two ideas, we can reconcile the question as to whether or not atheism is a religion.

First, what is the definition of the word atheism? According to Oxford Dictionary, atheism is defined as "Belief that God does not exist." Notice what is different in the coherent dictionary definition than in the definitions offered by Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Barker. Atheism is, in the coherent sense, a belief. It is not a lack of belief, it is a belief.  In order for a person to call himself or herself an atheist, they must be able to state the following "I believe there is no such thing or being as God."So, truth be told, if this definition of atheism is true, then Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Barker, and a host of other people that accept their definitions are not atheists.

What Mr. Barker has described is more akin to what is known as agnosticism, which is defined in Oxford Dictionary as "Belief that the existence or nature of God cannot be proven." The problem with this definition is that it basically describes everyone. As a philosopher I am very careful with the work "know", because the truth is that humans know very little. In this case, I can be classified as an agnostic-theist; I do not know that God exists in the same way that I know that the Sun is Orange, but I do believe that there is good evidence to believe in God and accept inferences about his nature and attributes. However, I do hold that some people do know that God exists, but I am not among that group.

Next, what is the definition of religion? If we can trust Oxford Dictionary again it is "1.Belief in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship 2. Expression of this in worship 3. Particular system of faith and worship. 4. Thing that one is devoted to

From these definitions, it seems that defining atheism as a religion within the structure of a yes and no question simply will not do. Why? Because there is more than one definition of religion, and while there is some that atheism would not fit (at least on an individual level), there are some where it could be constructed that atheism is (at least in some forms) religious in nature.

On the first definition, atheism cannot possibly be a religion because it denies what the first definition affirms; atheism believes that there is no God and the first definition implies that on belief in at least one God. The second definition implies belief in the first, so that is also a defeater.

The third and fourth definition is where things become nuanced. Lets here repeat the third definition " Particular system of faith and worship" What do the words "faith" and "worship" mean? Faith is defined by Oxford Dictionary as "1. Complete trust and confidence 2. Firm belief, especially without logical proof 3. A system of religious belief; belief in religious doctrines 4. Duty or commitment to fulfill a trust, promise, etc; allegiance. Worship is defined by Oxford Dictionary as " 1. Homage reverence paid to a deity; acts, rites, or ceremonies of worship 2. Adoration or devotion."

If one combines the 3rd definition of religion (particular system of faith and worship) with the first definition of faith (complete trust and confidence) and the second definition of worship (adoration or devotion), then one could successfully argue that atheism is in fact religious in nature, at least in certain instances. For an example, lets examine the new atheists. They hold that the scientific method and empirical evidence are the only way to know truth. So there objects of faith would be the scientific method and empiricism, and there way of worship would be applying it to there own lives and encouraging others to do so, which would be like missionary work in the religious sense. So, in spite of its hatred and objection to religious faith and practice, the New Atheists are in fact a new religion. Yes, you read that correctly.

Keep in mind here that I am not suggesting that this is true of all atheists, or that atheism itself is a religion; it is not. However, the New Atheists and other forms of organized atheism could be shown to be quite religious as I have shown. If anything, it could be said that the the New Atheists would want to reconstruct religion rather than replace it entirely.

I write this to remind people that some questions are not simply a yes or no, and that beliefs have more implications than they may seem to hold on the surface. I encourage all people, whether religious or not, to look deeply into their own beliefs and to see where logic of the belief takes them.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Understanding Revelation

Today marks 37 years since the announcement on priesthood; which extended the privilege of ordination to the priesthood for men and african descent and temple blessings to all people of african descent. As an African-American convert (I really wish the term African-American were abolished), this is a day I hold particularly sacred. Without this revelation, I could not have received my temple endowment, served as a full-time missionary, or currently serve as an ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple; the temple where this revelation was received. If no one else can appreciate this revelation, I can.

This revelation can teach all (whether black or white) a lesson about the nature of revelation. A little background will be helpful. Before this revelation came to him, President Spencer W. Kimball went to the holy of holies in prayer to the Lord for months before he got an answer. Think of that; President Kimball had the burdens of the entire church on his shoulders, yet sought the Lord diligently on this one question. He did not tire, he was diligent until an answer was obtained. He said  "Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch.... I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems." (Lengthen Your Stride, pg. 216)

This is the point I wanted to make: Revelations do not come if there is only mild interest. They come to those who diligently seek them. And also, the person must be willing to take whatever answer in given. If both of these requirements are not met, a revelation will not come. Perhaps another example would be helpful. Take the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. His question was a common one "Which church is true?" Millions had asked before, millions are still asking that question. It was not enough to merely search the scriptures, which he admits in his biography was not worthwhile when all churches believed in the Bible. It was not enough to ask preachers and ministers; they would only tell you that there denomination is correct. There was only one course the young Joseph could take: Ask God himself and wait for an answer. Because he was willing to do what was necessary and open to any answer, revelation and enlightenment came.

Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that this revelation came in 1978 and not before. Brigham Young installed the practice of withholding the priesthood and temple blessings from blacks without a revelation, so of course he could not receive a revelation to change it. I am sure the Lord has chastised him even more sharply than he did the Brother of Jared for this gross immorality that he caused to come upon his fellow human beings. The other presidents of the Church up until the time of President David O. McKay had other pressing matters to attend to; this issue understandably had to wait. The revelation could have come in the administration of David O. McKay, but in order for that to happen all of the First Presidency and all of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would have to be in total agreement with it. This was not possible as Harold B. Lee and Mark E. Petersen would have none of it. Harold B. Lee daughter once said to a friend "My daddy said that as long as he's alive, they'll never have the priesthood." (David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, pg.64) Mark E. Petersen was not present in the temple when the revelation came 37 years ago although he was a member of the twelve at the time, and I believe it was for good reason. He once said that blacks desired to destroy the white race through interracial marriage, so I am quite confident he would not be particularly anxious to give the priesthood to blacks. He did sign off on it once President Kimball told him of the decision, but as a decision had already been made it was 13 to 1 (Elder Delbert L. Stapley was also not there, he was in the hospital). A revelation could not come during the tenure of President Joseph Fielding Smith could not enact a change for the same reason, and the Lord had to take the life of President Lee for a change to come. As the angel said to Nephi "It is better that one man should perish than a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." (1 Nephi 4:13) Perhaps the same could be said of the black mans spiritual welfare in comparison to Bro. Lee's life.

I hope that we can learn from the blueprint that the prophets have left for us in receiving revelation. First, be willing to diligently seek an answer. Second, be willing to accept any answer, especially if the one you do not want is the correct answer. Third, pray and don't faint. If such is the way of the prophets, should it not be the way for you also?