Religion Today

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Organized Religion and Everyone Else

Judging from responses to my last column, it was a flop; nobody agreed with the argument that atheist organizations were religions. For most readers, the problem lay in the definition: A religion is a group of people who join together because they share a belief about the nature of god or gods. They wanted the definition to read as, "a group of people who share a belief about the nature of the existing god(s)."

OK, let's try out this definition and see how it works.

The definition has two parts. First, it concerns a group of people who get together to think and act for the same purpose. Second, the organizing purpose is that of a shared belief about the character of the divine. In America, where monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam dominate, most people think of a single divine being. Other religions, from Zoroastrianism and Hinduism to Native American religions, believe in more than one.

Some wit once observed the world can be divided into two kinds of people, those who think the world can be divided into two kinds of people, and those who do not. This joke plays on the point that the second option simply negates the first.

In a two-part definition, like this definition of religion, negating each element in turn results in a four-part square. The upper-left corner contains people who believe in a divine being and belong to a group that believes the same. The lower-left consists of people who believe but do not belong. The upper-right corner comprises those who do not believe and who belong to a group of people who do not believe. Finally, the lower-right contains people who do not believe and do not belong.

Those who conform to the definition, a group who believes in a divine being, are often referred to as "organized religion," or, to follow the definition, "organized belief." Members of organized religions meet together and perform activities stemming from them. Such activities may include worship, rituals, education, service to the organization and others (e.g., the poor), and gifts. These include Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics, as well as Orthodox Jews, Sunni Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists.

People who believe but do not join a group (lower left) often consider themselves spiritual. Most of us have heard someone say, "I'm not religious, but I am spiritual." They mean that they do not join religious groups, but they believe in a spiritual realm, with a god; we could call it "non-organized belief."

People who do not believe and do not join are individuals who are atheists (lower right corner). This is "non-organized non-belief." This is a broad category, ranging from those who made a considered judgment that no god exists to those who just do not think about it. These atheists are simply unconnected individuals.

This leaves the upper-right category, those who join a group of liked-minded people because they do not believe in the divine. The key term in the previous sentence is "because"; people who get together because they share a belief in that gods do not exist. We can term this "organized non-belief." This is where last week's column comes in.

Many individual atheists are unaware that such organizations exist, but they do. They have names like the Atheist Alliance International or The Humanist Society. They celebrate holidays, such as the Winter Solstice or Human Light. They practice rituals such as baby-naming ceremonies, weddings and memorial services for the dead. And they educate their children in their beliefs about the non-existence of the divine, a "catechism" if you will.

Members of these groups think of themselves in comparison to religious organizations. They believe their views belong in the same place as those of other religious groups, such as a nativity display. This year atheist organizations were represented in displays in Westchester, N.Y. and Olympia, Wash. Atheist groups also "evangelize" their beliefs in signs on buses and in subways, aiming to compete with religious evangelization.

So, if it quacks like a duck and swims like duck, it must be a duck. Right? The essential difference between atheist organizations and religious organizations is the lack of a belief in a god. But since many recognized religions do not believe in a god, such as Buddhism, why should non-belief in a divine being disqualify atheistic organizations from belonging to the classification of religion?

30 Comments:

  • By this definition, someone who believes in a "divine being" but doesn't join a group isn't religious. This is rather different from the way the term "religious" is commonly understood. The very fact that the term "organized religion" exists implies that there can be "non-organized religion".

    You could call atheism a worldview, perhaps - sometimes "organized", sometimes not - but calling it a "religion" seems to be a stretch.

    Of course, assuming that organization is a hallmark of religion would lead to some interesting consequences. People who believed in God but didn't belong to a church would not be considered 'religious', and would therefore not have Constitutional protection for their beliefs, no? But organized atheists would...

    By Blogger Ray Ingles, at 3/03/2009  

  • Paul Flesher said:They wanted the definition to read as, "a group of people who share a belief about the nature of the existing god(s)."Uh, no, they did no such thing. No where, in any of the 6 comments that you received on your last post, did anyone say that religion should be defined as "...a group of people who share a belief about the nature of the existing god(s)."I call strawman. You're just making this up out of whole cloth, on-the-fly, as you go along.Here is what they DID say - and that which you conveniently chose to ignore in this, your most recent post on the subject:Atheism, plainly and simply, is the absence of a belief in one or many gods, which is an important difference from how you defined it. Here are some metaphors that may help.If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color, hunger is a food, silence is a song, and barefoot a kind of shoe.If atheism is a religion, then unemployment is a career, not collecting stamps is a hobby and health is a disease.You just don't seem to understand, do you? Let me try and clear things up for you a bit. Now, please pay especially close attention to this:NEITHER theism or atheism are "religions". Rather, they are descriptions. "Theist" describes a person in whom god-belief is present, and "atheist" describes a person in whom god-belief is absent.That's all. The end. No more. Done.Now, a religion may *incorporate* atheism (Buddhism) or theism (Catholicism, Pentacostal, Mormon, Baha'i, etc.), but atheism and theism CANNOT, in and of themselves, be religions.There. That wasn't so hard to understand now, was it?Not that I expect you to read this, or post it, but I hope you'll surprise me.
    Brent Rasmusson

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/03/2009  

  • To Ray's comment.
    In the definition I gave, being religious but not joining a group makes one "spiritual."

    My point is that atheism NOT just a worldview. It is for individual atheists. But when atheists join a group, the purpose of which is atheism, and they then carry out activities, it is no longer just a world view, it is a way of life carried out by a social group. Worldview, way of life, and social group constitutes the foundation of most religions (see the work of Jacob Neusner, for example).

    Constitutional protections for individuals? Sure, they still exist. They are usually referred to as "freedom of speech."

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/03/2009  

  • Dear Mr. Rasmusson,
    Despite your rudeness, I will not only publish your comment, but respond to it.

    OK, you want to redefine atheism as a species belonging to the same genus as theism. Alright, you have redefined the terms I used, but my point still holds, I just need to adjust my claim slightly.

    Applying your terminology to my argument, you are correct, "atheism" would not be a religion. However, the beliefs and activities of groups such as the Atheist Alliance International or the Humanist Society indicate that these societies and those like them are religions.

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/03/2009  

  • Your previous post contained a number of fallacies, which you've ignored.

    What is your point in all this, anyway?

    Do you consider e.g. Focus on the Family to be "a religion"? How about the Anti-Defamation League?

    By Blogger Brian Westley, at 3/03/2009  

  • First of all, why was my comment deleted, then re-inserted without formatting under an "anonymous" monicker? Also my name is "Rasmussen", not "Rasmusson", thanks.

    My rudeness? I'm sorry Paul, but I don't see that I was being rude, merely instructive. You were incorrect in your definition of atheism, and I corrected you.

    > OK, you want to redefine
    > atheism as a species
    > belonging to the same
    > genus as theism.

    (An aside; What is with the biological terms, Paul? Why not just be precise with your language? Why all the fuzzy logic and clunky analogies?)

    I am not "redefining" anything. Atheism and theism are two sides of the same coin. Anyone who understands how the English language works at even an elementary school level should be able to figure that out.

    > Applying your terminology to my argument,

    It is not my terminology. It is the correct definition of both theism and atheism.

    > ...you are correct,
    > "atheism" would not
    > be a religion.

    ...and you just tanked your own argument. Paul, atheism is a description. It is literally *impossible* for it to be a "religion". It's like calling "tall" a religion.

    > However,
    > the beliefs and
    > activities of groups
    > such as the Atheist
    > Alliance International
    > or the Humanist Society
    > indicate that these
    > societies and those
    > like them are religions.

    Those groups are not synonymous with "atheism". There may be people within those groups who can be described as atheists, but this does not mean that the group and atheism are interchangeable. Again, it's like saying that the Bird Watchers Society is equal to "tall", because some tall people belong to it. It is just downright silly.

    You are confusing the word "religion" with someone, or a group of people, who practice something "religiously". Don't worry, it's a rookie mistake. You see, someone may follow a hobby, or an interest "religiously". This is a legitimate use of the word "religiously" - to apply it to a non-religious activity like bird watching, or coin collecting, or crossword puzzle solving. "He solved the New York Times crossword religiously every day for 20 years."

    Does that mean that he is *worshipping* the NYT crossword? That it is his *religion*?

    Of course not. Someone may watch Nascar religiously, but that does NOT mean that they think that Dick Trickle is god.

    By Blogger Brent Rasmussen, at 3/04/2009  

  • One more question Paul - why even have a blog if you are going to moderate your comments?

    I suppose this is more of a rhetorical question, because from what I can tell, religious folks like yourself ALWAYS moderate their comments, as if they are afraid of coming up against something that they will disagree with, or find disagreeable.

    We welcome all comments over at Unscrewing The Inscrutable. Anyone may comment, and they will never, EVER be censored or "moderated" (which is just a less offensive way of saying "censored" in my mind.)

    Please consider this an invitation to come on over and comment without moderation. We would certainly welcome you.

    By Blogger Brent Rasmussen, at 3/04/2009  

  • > Do you consider e.g. Focus
    > on the Family to be "a
    > religion"? How about the
    > Anti-Defamation League?

    Excellent point, Brian! Of course he doesn't. His prejudices are glaringly obvious.

    It is my opinion that Paul has created a strawman atheist in his mind, and he is now merrily tilting away at his personal windmill - facts and reality be damned! :)

    By Blogger Brent Rasmussen, at 3/04/2009  

  • Mr. Flesher - I understand that your definition excludes 'un-organized' theists from the 'religious' category. My point was that this is a highly idiosyncratic definition... rather like the Queen in "Alice in Wonderland" - "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

    As others have noted, there can be organizations of religious people that are not themselves religions, like Promise Keepers, the Knights of Columbus, or Opus Dei, or Focus On The Family. Even within a religion there may be groups that aren't themselves religions, like, say, the Jesuits.

    The closest thing to a 'religion' in the common sense that atheists might belong to are the Unitarians.

    As to individual rights, I recall a case where a man who didn't believe in a "divine being", but did believe that he should not cut his hair, lost an employment discrimination suit, because his beliefs were not 'religious'. (Can't find the link yet, but I'll keep looking.) Do you think the case was decided correctly?

    By Blogger Ray Ingles, at 3/04/2009  

  • Excellent explanation and clarification, Paul. I always find your columns thoughtfully interesting and well-done; this one is no exception.

    By Anonymous Keith Miller, at 3/04/2009  

  • To Mr. Westley and Mr. Ingles,

    Certainly Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, etc. even the Jesuits are a religion, by the definition. They come together because they share beliefs about the divine, they worship and carry on other religious activities because of that shared belief. I don't know enough about the ADL to pass judgment.

    The definition I laid out is hardly "idiosyncratic". It is in fact fairly ordinary within the academic field of Religious Studies. It is an attempt to be exact in meaning rather than the typically mushy, vague, inexact usage common to popular speech. In good explanatory form, I simply defined what I was talking about before I launched into the explanation. That's what any good teacher would do upon introducing a new subject to a class.

    If you want to make the definition more complicated than it is, you are certainly welcome to do so. Your comments seem to be saying that within religions there are sub-groups and then asking about the status of those sub-groups. That is a perfectly valid direction of thought to pursue. I could not talk in such complex terms in just 600 words. Given that the purpose of the column is to promote further thought and discussion, I'm glad you are pursuing it.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • To Mr. Rasmussen,

    Sorry for mispelling your name. It was unintentional.

    With regard to the theism/atheism divide. Actually, most theological thought would consider "theism" to be the genus (the category of "thinking about the divine") and "atheism" to be a species, along with other species, such as deism, Thomism, Puritan Separatism, and so on. So I built my analysis on that intellectual understanding.

    When you declared that you thought atheism and theism were equivalent categories, I realized that you were tripping up on the terminology. Since you clearly understood your own terminology, I decided to try to recast my analysis in your terms, rather than the ones I used. That's all. You can still disagree.

    By the way, your comment about pursuing something "religiously" is way off the mark, at least as it applies to this analysis.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • RE: "theism" to be the genus (the category of "thinking about the divine") and "atheism" to be a species

    Claiming atheism (no god belief) is a variety/species of theism (god belief) is like claiming dark (absence of light) is a variety of light. A rethink of your 'intellectual' position is in order.

    By Anonymous gb, at 3/04/2009  

  • I don't disagree with the seeming illogic, but that's how the academic field uses the terminology.
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • Since there has been some confusion over this, let me explain it this way:

    To think about the category of theism includes the ability to think about the question of whether or not a god exists. It also includes the ability to conclude that a god does not exist. This is a perfectly fine theistic question and theistic answer. It does not become an "atheistic" answer just because the answer was negative.

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • BTW, Why do I moderate the blog?

    1. Because I want to prevent companies from posting advertisements as comments. Sounds desperate, but it has happened.

    2. Because this is a "family" blog. I want the ability to prevent profane language from appearing on it.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • RE:
    "I don't disagree with the seeming illogic, but that's how the academic field uses the terminology."

    An academic field using vague terminology that is easily misunderstood/misrepresented? Do you have a web address where such terms are in routine use?
    But you do raise another point. In this terminology you choose, would logic be a species of illogic or would illogic be a species of logic? Or are they opposite sides of the same coin?

    By Anonymous gb, at 3/04/2009  

  • A very short internet search yielded this definition:

    "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

    Note the qualifiers 'usually' and 'often', and the use of superhuman to indicate some level of transcendence. This definition would include Zen Buddhists (which is a religion), but exclude atheism (which isn't). I am not sure why this wheel ever needed reinvention.

    By Blogger Doug, at 3/04/2009  

  • Your point intrigues me.

    By your definition the boy scouts of America is a religion. By definition all boy scouts must believe in at least one god, so they are an organized set of people.

    Since many of these scouts are members of "conventional" churches as well they have different religions.

    Some of them might also belong to a church affiliated sports club, thus making them members of yet another religion.

    Interesting definition of religion you have, when the ladies sewing club at the local temple is a total separate religion from the one in the temple.

    By Anonymous Soren Kongstad, at 3/04/2009  

  • To Doug,
    If you look at the examples of atheist organizations I cite, they fit the definition you came up with. They are not excluded by it. They include the "usually" and the "often".

    So your different definition demonstrates my claim, that atheist organizations are religions.

    To Soren,
    No, the Boy Scouts are not a religion. They believe in a god, but they do not organize _because_ of that belief or to celebrate that belief or to support one another in that belief. The purpose of the organization is not religious, so it is not a religion. Neither are sewing clubs religions. Go back and read both of the essays, and you will see what I mean.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • It absolutely does not include atheism. In fact, it expressly excludes it because of the condition that religion considers creation as the result of superhuman agencies. The qualifiers ("usually" and "often") occur AFTER the main condition and do not modify it. Belief in superhuman agencies is a requirement for religion, and atheism is an express rejection of these beliefs. Since atheism is not a religion, an organization of atheists cannot be a religious organization. You can't just make up definitions and conditions to suit your arguments -- that's cheating!

    By Blogger Doug, at 3/04/2009  

  • Nice Job.

    By manipulating the definition of religion into a position where you could defend the statement that Atheism is a religion, you are truly successful.

    Now, a circle is a polygon without corners. So this polygon, that likes to call itself a circle...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/04/2009  

  • Paul,

    There is a word for redefining a term and then going back and using the new definition to apply to an older argument when a different definition of the term was used.

    It is called equivocation and it is universally recognized as a logical fallacy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/04/2009  

  • To Doug,
    No, that's not how to read it. The "especially" indicates the best way the definition works, but the definition does not require the "especially" clause to work.

    Moreover, that's my point. If the only significant difference between a religious organization and an atheist organization is that one believes in god and the other does not, then that indicates that the atheist organization is a religion. Why? Because "not believing in a god" is not a hindrance to being defined as a religion. Many religions do not believe in a god.
    If it quacks like a duck...

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/04/2009  

  • No, I disagree completely. The essence of religious belief is in the first clause of the definition, particularly the part about superhuman agencies. That's what makes religion religion. It's not the belief, it's what you believe. I believe there is no god. If I believed in some other supernatural agency, then yes, you could consider that to be a form of religion. In my case, I have no spiritual or transcendent beliefs at all. Therefore, my atheism is not a religion, period. In fact, I would challenge your assertion that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Some forms have the Taras and little Buddhas, other forms see the human as transcendent -- none lack god belief unless you confine your definition narrowly to include only the Abrahamic god, which seems a bit narrow minded to me. Since you closed with an old joke, I will to. Considering atheism a religion is a bit like considering not playing baseball to be a sport.

    By Blogger Doug, at 3/04/2009  

  • Mr. Flesher - If that definition is in fact common within Religious Studies, it still leads to problems with some of your conclusions. Terms can take on technical meanings in sub-disciplines that don't apply to common language. (For a topical example, look at 'theory'. In common parlance, it means "supposition" or "guess". In science, it means "an explanatory framework that accounts for a large number of observations and has withstood a large number of tests".)

    Or look at what "organic" means in common parlance, in chemistry, and in food-labeling and advertising law.

    So the key question is - should the definition of religion that's "fairly ordinary within the academic field of Religious Studies" be used as the legal definition for the purpose of Constitutional law, as you propose at the end of your article? I have to say that I'm not convinced so far.

    By Blogger Ray Ingles, at 3/05/2009  

  • > With regard to the theism/atheism
    > divide. Actually, most theological
    > thought would consider "theism" to
    > be the genus (the category of
    > "thinking about the divine") and
    > "atheism" to be a species, along
    > with other species, such as deism,
    > Thomism, Puritan Separatism, and
    > so on. So I built my analysis on
    > that intellectual understanding.

    Ah. I see. I was *wondering* when you were going to articulate your version of the Courtier's Reply.

    So, apparently, in "theological thought", us uneducated, barefoot rubes couldn't possibly understand the sophisticated nonsense, er, heights -- which is to say "depths", because the genus is "height" (the category of "thinking about spacial relationships"), and the species is "depth", along with other species such as "width" and "breadth" -- to which you and your theologically-thinking brethren (and sistren?) attain in the Religious Studies program.

    So, in your little corner of the world you teach that the word "religion" doesn't actually mean "religion", and the antonyms "theism" and "atheism" aren't actually antonyms, and mean something completely different from what they actually mean.

    Oh, and words are referred to in biological terms instead of etymological terms. You know, because it's "theological thinking" - which apparently means "make stuff up."

    Gotcha.

    > When you declared that you thought
    > atheism and theism were equivalent
    > categories, I realized that you
    > were tripping up on the terminology.
    > Since you clearly understood your
    > own terminology, I decided to try
    > to recast my analysis in your terms,
    > rather than the ones I used. That's
    > all. You can still disagree.

    I thought I explained this? The words do not describe categories of thought. They are descriptions. Of human people. Theist = god-belief present in this human person. Atheist = god belief absent in this human person. This genus / species stuff is a huge excercise in ivory-tower, academic hand-waving.

    How's that working out for you?

    > By the way, your comment about pursuing
    > something "religiously" is way off the
    > mark, at least as it applies to this
    > analysis.

    Of course it is, Paul. Of course it is.

    By Blogger Brent Rasmussen, at 3/05/2009  

  • >Certainly Focus on the Family, >Promise Keepers, etc. even the >Jesuits are a religion, by the >definition.

    No, by your bizarro-world wordplay.

    Sane people differ.

    By Anonymous Brian Westley, at 3/17/2009  

  • Dear Paul,

    while your article on Buddhism was reasonably good in parts, you demonstrate no understanding whatsoever of the teachings on emptiness. This is a very deep and profound subject that takes many years to understand correctly, and many more years or lifetimes to realize.

    The clearest explanation of this subject that I am aware of is the book Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Try to get hold of a copy if you would like to educate yourself a bit more about this subject.

    By Anonymous Adam, at 3/19/2009  

  • HI,
    I lust wanted to chime in. I am a self-proclaimed "Atheist" and I do have to agree with the author. I look at organized religion in the sociological sense in which the definition is "A social institution, where members share same or similar beliefs, that exist in order to socialize with and integrate other members. So by this definition it is most certainly an "Organized Religion." I just don't understand why so many atheists have to be such zealots today. I see people attacking others' beliefs all the time to try and prove some null point. Please see that these zealots do not represent most of us and the majority of us are happy when people have their own beliefs. My beliefs work for me and help me live and make decisions. If someone uses Christianity, it's a good thing! I would never attack someone else's beliefs as long as they are not trying to hurt others with it.
    Sorry for the mini-rant. I just thought I would add my insight on the matter.

    By Anonymous Austin S., at 6/07/2015  

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