I started this post months ago, and never quite got it right. So it’s being posted as is. Enjoy!
As The Alder Fork continues to grow and evolve my focus adapts to incorporate new elements. I hope my writing continues to explore many exciting avenues, and although I don’t know which aspects of this blog will remain in the future, I do hope that I can stay fresh. Lately, in the podcast, blog and my private writing, I have been reintroducing myself to the philosophy of religion. In particular, I have been interested in large, cross-religion ideas like dialogue, definitions, and conceptualizations of the afterlife and other religious imagery. Has this move helped the popularity of my work? Actually no, in fact it might even be driving people away. I am not concerned about that because The Alder Fork is primarily an outlet for my creativity and ideas, rather than a promotional device (though it can do both).
I recently read someone’s opinion that atheism should not be called a religion because it is exactly the opposite of that. This argument swept my mind back to the endless discussion of how to define religion that I encountered as an undergrad. Indeed, one of the core questions of religious studies is how do we define the thing we study? What are the parameters for saying something is a religion, religious or spiritual? Is it really a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, or can we put limits on what falls inside our focus? If we cast our net to narrowly we may leave out some obvious religious groups. For example, if we say a religion is a group of people who believe in God, we leave out those who do not believe in God, like buddhists. If we cast too wide a net we risk including organizations that are clearly not religious in any manner. This brings me back to the question about whether atheism is itself a religious movement. If you require that a belief in supernatural existence is a requirement of a religion then perhaps atheism is on the outside, although I don’t know that all atheists completely reject the possibility of supernatural activity, say ghosts for example. But if we take atheism in a strict definition as those who do not believe there is a god or gods, or that there is a supernatural order to the universe, can we then say they are not a religion?
Atheists define their beliefs in relation to religion. Without theists there would be no need for a category called atheists. This is important because it shows the roots of the atheist’s objection to being called a religion. For them the very notion of religion is almost an insult, though that language may be a bit harsh. With that in mind it is tempting to say that atheism is more philosophy than religion, and that it only relates to the latter as a contradiction. For a moment I would like to flip this idea on its head and say that because atheism exists as a contradiction it is more religion than philosophy. Returning to the question of how we define religion (and I will likely write a whole entry on this) I have always been in favour of being more inclusive. I don’t think religious activity is limited to those who understand themselves in supernatural terms exclusively. We all have to accept that there are elements of the universe beyond our current understanding and then decide what we believe is the truth behind that unknown layer. Some people believe there is nothing there, outside of physics problems and mysterious matter. Others choose to see god in the cracks of human knowledge. I am not here to make a value judgment about who is correct, but rather to say that by drawing these conclusions people have entered the realm of faith.
I realize this is a troubling statement to make but it grows out of my definition of religion. In my view, religion begins in the individual and then expands into group behaviour and convention where it changes and flows back into the individual. All people are religious people, even if they choose to disregard traditional human religions in favour of a rational or humanistic approach. In the moments that we contemplate the mysteries of life, draw or adopt conclusions, and then act on those beliefs we are acting religiously. For me religion at its core is not about ritual, creed, ethical action, social conventions or adherence to authority, it is the fundamental act of believing in a blueprint for the universe, whether ordered or not. By having faith in ourselves, in our god, in science or math, we are being religious beings. Religion as it is commonly understood by people refers to the big -isms in the world. Maybe we can add a few more isms to the list.