chartHere is a chart from Positive Atheism that epitomizes why I find the Atheist vs Theist conversation annoying and hopelessly mired mired in religious illiteracy.

Notice, not only are Buddhists listed as Atheists … a dubious assertion at the best of times … but Hindus are as listed as Atheists as well! My head hurts. Is there a religion that has more gods than Hinduism?! I am stretched to think of one.

Here’s how Positive Atheism justifies it:

In Western society the term atheism has been used more narrowly to refer to the denial of theism, in particular Judeo-Christian theism, which asserts the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good personal being. This being created the universe, takes an active interest in human concerns, and guides his creatures through divine disclosure known as revelation. Positive atheists reject this theistic God and the associated beliefs in an afterlife, a cosmic destiny, a supernatural origin of the universe, an immortal soul, the revealed nature of the Bible and the Koran, and a religious foundation for morality.”

“Theism, however, is not a characteristic of all religions. Some religions reject theism but are not entirely atheistic. Although the theistic tradition is fully developed in the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism, earlier Hindu writings known as the Upanishads teach that Brahman (ultimate reality) is impersonal . Positive atheists reject even the pantheistic aspects of Hinduism that equate God with the universe. Several other Eastern religions, including Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, are commonly believed to be atheistic, but this interpretation is not strictly correct. These religions do reject a theistic God believed to have created the universe, but they accept numerous lesser gods. At most, such religions are atheistic in the narrow sense of rejecting theism.

So what’s wrong with that? Oh gosh, where do I start!

Ok, firstly, we’re a global society now. These are world religions we are talking about. Why the fixation on western, pre-globalization definitions of religion? Imposing western views of religion on world religions is cultural imperialistic, academically sloppy and just doesn’t cut the mustard. Because eastern religions don’t look like western religions they can’t be religions? Oh, pleeeeeese! Where’s a brick wall when I need it. Get some global eyes guys. You’re supposed to be liberating people from cultural imperialism aren’t you?

Secondly, look, when we start talking about “irreligious religions” can’t we admit that semantic stupidity has taken over.

Thirdly, speaking of semantic stupidity, “theistic gods” versus non-theistic gods? Scuse me? What does theos mean again? Ah … god! So, tell me everyone, is it genuinely meaningful to distinguish between “godly gods” and “ungodly gods”? Just guess what I think.

Fourthly, if it can be acknowledged that it is “not strictly correct” to equate pantheism with atheism, that it is actually a kind of theism, then why persist in it?

Fifthy, and most importantly, religious worldviews are generally three tiered, not two tiered. Every heard of the flaw of the excluded middle? Any model of religion that is worth anything must account for all the gods and spirits in its orbit, not just high level understandings of ultimate reality. This more than anything shows the fallacy of classifying Buddhism or Hinduism as athestic.

I could rant on but I think I’ll leave it there. I trust you get the idea. All this talk of nonreligious religions and atheistic gods gets up my goat. What we’re seeing here, I think, in this binary Atheist vs Theist conversation, is the failure of Atheists to come to grips with globalization, pluralism and postmodernity.

And you know, just as we are seeing Atheist versions of fundamentalism blossoming in response to pluralism and postmodernity I am wondering if, in years to come, we’ll see an Atheist equivalence of emergence burst out.

8 thoughts on “The Gods Must Be Godless

  1. And atheist version of Emergence… I watch out for that one 🙂
    Anyhow, thanks for the post, certain Atheists is getting me quite worked-up at this stage as well (OK, I’ll admit, I just watched Religulous), but I’ll blog on that after Easter is over…


  2. While I agree with most of this, there is one common misconception in here.
    Hindus are not polytheists in the sense that most people mean by that. They believe there is one Deity, with many avatars. The best analogy I can think of is that it’s Sabelianism on steroids.


  3. Another intellectual and level-headed post from you Matt. I really wish I had time to discuss this also in more depth.
    I too am getting tired of certain illogical and fallacious arguments coming from the supposedly enlightened and free-thinking quarters.
    I can’t help sometimes though that despite the effort you have gone to, 99% of the time it is but casting pearls before swine.


  4. >>certain Atheists is getting me quite worked-up at this stage as well (OK, I’ll admit, I just watched Religulous), but I’ll blog on that after Easter is over…>>
    I have seen Religulous a few weeks ago. Yes, the Dawkins/Hitchens-type “new atheism” reflected here (and the SA newspaper Mail & Guardian review of this film by Shaun de Waal) can get one all worked up, and (as is the case with The God Delusion) may even end up alienate atheist scholars that are embarrased by its lack of careful, well-thought-through analysis. More recently, I have read a New York Times article about the presenter of Religulous, Bill Mahler, engaging in a debate – sort of in his capacity as a “liberal”/”secularist”/”sceptic” – against the equally outspoken and controversial Ann Coulther – supposedly representing the “other side” of the coin as ultra-conservative-American-patriot from the “Religious” Right. She has alienated and embarrassed some conservative Republicans such as John McCain’s daughter in the same way that some atheists have disowned Richard Dawkins as their apologist.
    With her heated “religulous” rhetoric (“Americans should invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and make them Christian”), she seems to represent everything that Mahler warns against as he concludes the film Religulous (“see, I’ve told you, religious people stoke warfare!”). But actually, they get along very well. As hard-core fundamentalists from their respective traditions, they like heated debates and confrontations with their adversaries, certainly not interested in a thoughtful, “enlightened” conversation.
    The atheist-theist conversation between Kevin and Roger held last year (at Pretoria TGIF) set a good example of how to engage somebody from the “opposite side”. But I believe one can also engage books like The God Delusion and films such as Religulous constructively, they do raise good points about the perils of religious fundamentalism, and questions about Bible interpretation, religion and science, etc, that is worth discussing. An example of such constructive discussion is a review by South African theologian Sakkie Spangenberg of The God Delusion – even though I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions reached by Spangenberg (and don’t support his and the South African New Reformation Network’s “liberal” theology), I appreciates Spangenberg’s concern for a thoughtful discussion about Dawkins’ book. Even though I may be theologically closer to conservative evangelicals, I certainly don’t appreciate the way some of them selectively quote controversial parts of that book (e.g. that infamous paragraph about the “mysoginistic, genocidal”, etc Old Testament God – it DOES in my view raise important questions worthy of discussion) and the “insults” to Dawkins from some atheists to ridicule/bash Dawkins and others.


  5. Pseudonym,
    In my experience pantheism and polytheism are not mutually exclusive.
    For example, in the popular guide “Drawing Down the Moon”, Margot Alder states, “If you were to ask modern Pagans for the most important ideas that underlie the Pagan resurgence you might well be led to three words: animism, pantheism, and – most important – polytheism.”
    Moving amongst Hindus I have encountered similar views regarding a convergence. Religion Facts puts it this way, “Hinduism is a decidedly theistic religion; the difficulty lies in determining whether it is a polytheistic, pantheistic, or perhaps even monotheistic religion. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this is chiefly a western difficulty: the Indian mind is much more inclined to regard divergent views as complementary rather than competing.”
    To that I would add that it is important to note the differences between philosophical Hinduism and folk Hinduism. The gurus we educated westerners get most exposed to do indeed emphasize Brahman as you suggest, but amongst ordinary Hindu migrants I find a more pragmatic mindset prevails along with a plethora of gods and goddesses. They seem to be more interested in what works, in devotional practices rather than philosophy, and they don’t seem too worried about drawing such fine distinctions as we are here. Ganesha, Shiva, Murugan, that’s what the Hindus near me care about, not Brahman. So I think our understanding of Hinduism needs to encompass both the high and low manifestations of it.
    Oh, and as a technical point, I know what you mean but the word avatar tends to be restricted to “physical” manifestations of a god, like when Krishna is said to be an avatar of Vishnu. Where all gods and goddesses are related to Brahman, irrespective of their physical or non-physical status, Hindus tend to speak of forms or manifestations rather than avatars.
    In any case, I think calling Hinduism atheistic or nonreligious is very open to critique.


  6. Lex, if I was being genuinely scholarly I would have backed off on the sarcasm a bit but thanks all the same. Yes, I doubt there will be too many who drop the tautologies and contradictions as a consequence of what I say here but I felt it must be said sooner or later.


  7. Gert, I agree that New Atheist critiques like The God Delusion do raise some valid points. My critique is that these New Atheist critiques are so mired in stereotypes and hyperbole that considerable sifting is required to extract the valid points from the invalid points. I long for conversation that is mutually constructive, where more thoughtful understandings of religion and irreligion prevail.
    In many ways what I am reacting to here is the way Atheistic tautologies and contradictions like the “theistic Gods” and “nonreligious Hinduism” we see here undermine constructive debate. This is rhetoric, not reflective analysis, and the agenda seems to be defining Atheism more expansively, but only when it suits.
    You see, I have observed many Atheists defining Atheism broadly, again and again, as the rejection of the PERSONAL God of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, in what amounts to little more than anti-YHWHism, thus drawing in disgruntled Buddhists, philosophical pantheists and even (unbelievably) some Pagans into their attack on western expansionist religions. Then I have watched these same Atheists get self-righteous where surveys come back showing many so-called Atheists believe in supernaturalism.
    So, they can’t seem to make up their minds whether they’re happy with an “inclusive” definition of Atheism or an “exclusive” definition of Atheism, and swap depending on the situation, on what is most likely to give them the rhetorical advantage. Then they have the hide to say they’re being “scientific” and Christians are being evasive. I think there’s a time to call a spade a spade. In any case, it is one way of sifting between the reflective types capable of constructive conversation, and those who are not.
    In short, I see a qualitative difference between anti-YHWHism and anti-spiritualism, and while I can see that underselling the latter as the former helps to sell books and swell the ranks of supposed Atheists, I don’t find it at all conducive to genuine dialogue.


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