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Theism, Even For Atheists, Courtesy of Anthropology

Yesterday, I came upon the latest issue of the journal Social Analysis, which focuses on the anthropology of atheists. The issue, with the title: Being Godless: Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion, was edited by Ruy Llera Blanes, of the University of Bergen, and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic, of University College London.

These two also wrote the introduction to the issue, which I was able to review only in the abstract yesterday, as Berghahn Books, the publishers of Social Analysis makes it difficult and expensive for people outside academia to read material from the journal.

Anthropology Journal Social AnalysisNonetheless, even from what I saw in the abstract for the introduction, I was concerned. I wrote, “The anthropologists writing for Social Analysis seem to have taken on a theism-centric perspective in their studies. In their introduction to the issue, Ruy Llera Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic describe atheists as ‘people who seek to thin out religion in their daily lives’. In doing so, they confuse religion in general with theism in particular. Not all religion is theistic. More importantly, they presume that atheists start out as theists, with their lives thick with religion that needs thinning out in order to achieve atheism.”

“Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic further describe atheism as a “reluctance to pursue religion”, as if atheists’ relationship to worship of gods is one of mere hesitancy. This position doesn’t even do adequate justice to many agnostics, who, rather than being indecisive, have chosen a path of determined refusal to commit to any position on a question as inherently unanswerable as whether divine beings have any true existence. Atheists go even further, being divided philosophically into two camps: 1) Positive atheists, who have the belief that no gods exist, and 2) Negative atheists, who lack any belief in gods. Neither atheist position is characterized by reluctance.”

Yesterday afternoon, I made my way to a nearby university library, where I got distracted by some other fascinating material, but eventually gathered the content of the godless issue of Social Analysis as well. I’ll provide a review of each article’s ethnographic examination of atheists as the week progresses, but for today will focus on the introduction.

The introduction begins on a shaky note, describing atheism as “a way of disengaging from religion.” The editors define atheism as a state of progressive removal from religion, promising a study of “processes of disengagement from religion”, and stating that, “‘being godless’ is an important empirical reality that encompasses processes, aspirations, and practices that purposefully or inadvertently lead to the attenuation of one’s religious life.” Atheism can include the experiences of people who are removing themselves from theist religion, but it can also include the experiences people who are religious in non-theist ways, and the experiences of people who have never been religious at all. Once again, the editors have overlooked a distinction that is key to understanding the cultural perspectives of atheists.

These errors would be expected in an article about atheists from the popular press, which is typically unfriendly to atheists and ignorant about their thoughts and lives. For such clumsy inattention to the cultural distinctions of atheist identity to come from anthropologists, who are supposed to be expert at understanding the intricacies of cultural identities, is profoundly disappointing.

When Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic describe atheists as having “aspirations to move away from one’s religious tradition”, they trap atheists within religious traditions – presumably theist traditions. Their implication is that atheists might aspire to move away from religious traditions, but they actually remain members of those traditions, though perhaps on the margins of them.

The simple fact that the editors don’t seem to grasp is that everyone is born an atheist. No one comes into this world possessing a belief in gods. When we’re born, we don’t even have a belief in dogs. Increasing numbers of atheists are people who simply stay this way, never having any belief in gods at all. They aren’t attenuating a belief in gods, or disengaging from a belief in gods. They never had a belief in gods in the first place.

The editors write that “terminating all religious connections” is an “impossible task”. They seem to believe that membership in religion, and in theist religion especially, is a universal and natural part of being human, and that trying to be atheist is like trying to be hairless. No matter how often we shave away our stubble, it keeps growing out, and Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic expect us to believe that belief in gods is like that, too.

This presumption suggests that the editors of the current issue of Social Analysis haven’t spent enough time out in the field with the people whose culture they claim to be able to describe.

To support their claim that we’re all really steeped in theist religion, and can never get out of it, Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic refer to the example of a young man in Macedonia who was given the inherited social position of a mystical leadership of a Sufi community at birth. No matter how he tries to get away from the social obligations created by his religious entanglements, they say, he just can’t do it.

However, this man isn’t an atheist. He isn’t godless. He’s a theist, and doesn’t want to end his theist beliefs. The editors write, “This shaykh did not renounce religion. On the contrary, he claimed that he was a “staunch believer” in God, angels, and demons as described in the Muslim Holy Book, the Qur’an. The young leader was eager to advertise and sell his services as a spiritual healer to Muslim and Christian clientele, but he was reluctant to reinvest his income into the leaning walls of the lodge and sweep the dirty carpets around the tombs of ancient saints.” Essentially, this young man was a theist through and through, but was simply reluctant to comply with some of the local cultural expectations about what theism entails.

No one who has spent much time with atheists can confuse atheism with the experience of people like the young Sufi. Atheism is not doubt. It is not rebellion within theist social circles. It the state of being outside of theist religion.

Trying to prove their point that no one can ever truly live outside of theism, Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic write, “This impossibility of open defiance is apparent in Louis Frankenthaler’s (pers. comm.) incisive account of how ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gradually negotiate their way out of obligations and regulations imposed on them… Similarly, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola (2010) have encountered atheist Christian priests, who hesitate to abandon religion completely.”

When I read this paragraph, I actually slapped my forehead in disbelief. Yes, in disbelief. The editors are missing a huge range of human experience when they assert that Christian priests experiencing doubt, Sufis with inherited religious responsibilities, and people born into culturally-insulated ultra-Orthodox communities represent the full scope of rejection of theist religious belief. Some atheists emerge from such backgrounds, it’s true, but many do not.

Any anthropologist who can write the sentence “Muslims of Kyrgyzstan are atheist not because they do not believe in God…” is thoroughly muddled. An atheist is without theism. The definition of an atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in gods. It’s as if Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic are claiming to study Canada by going to Minnesota. They are simply not studying atheists.

These editors are so unfamiliar with atheist cultures that they don’t even have the most basic understanding of atheist vocabulary. They write, “We are reluctant to coin a new term — ‘godlessness’…” without understanding that the term “godlessness” is already in common use. Look – it’s in the Free Dictionary! It’s at Thesaurus.com, and Dictionary.Reference.Com! You can’t coin a term that’s already in wide usage!

It seems as if what Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic want to study are theists who are experiencing some kind of struggle about their theism. That’s fine, of course, but they ought to label their project accurately, instead of pretending to study atheists. Let them call this issue of Social Analysis something like Struggles Within Religion: Conflicted Theist Identities.

If I’m wrong, and Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic really do want to study actual atheists, they should come and talk to us. They should spend a few years in the field, and understand how atheists define themselves. They should acknowledge that we really do exist, and that we are not really just theists with an attitude problem.

They should show a little respect for the subjects of their study, and learn to use our language. That’s what anthropologists are supposed to do.

2 thoughts on “Theism, Even For Atheists, Courtesy of Anthropology”

  1. Bill says:

    The well-justified rap on anthropology has long been that its work usually reveals more about the anthropologist than it does about its subjects. I suspect that’s pretty much what’s going on here.

    I enjoyed this pair of articles. When you nail it, you really nail it. Thanks.

    1. Peregrin Wood says:

      Thanks, Bill. I had intended to go on with similar examinations of the rest of the articles, but I did so hoping to find something of redeeming insight in the research. I didn’t find that at all, and was repeatedly unimpressed. The issue eventually descended into talk about anthropologists themselves, as you would expect, and I didn’t want to commit space here at Irregular Times to a repeated observation of the sad inability of these anthropologists to see beyond their own noses.

      I have deep interest in the subject matter of cultural anthropology, but deep disappointment in the quality of work by cultural anthropologists.

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