Atheist Criticism of Religion – Why does it often miss the point?


On facebook one can see all types of “culture wars” raging on. I have some 400 friends from different parts of the world and with different opinions and cultural orientations. Recently, a friend of mine, who is atheist, I believe, posted the above photo from a facebook page called “Syrian Atheists.” I think the page is supposed to represent Syrian atheists who support the Syrian revolution, but it seems that it is now, like the bazillion other facebook pages dedicated to the Syrian revolution, busy with ideological and cultural conflicts more than toppling the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.

I don’t consider myself to be part of this culture war between militant atheists and religious militants. I’m neither religious nor sympathetic to the “holy cause” of eradicating religion altogether. But, due to my academic and personal interests, I feel that I should comment on these cultural and ideological confrontations. I will comment on the atheist side in this post, but this doesn’t mean in any way that I sympathize with the other side of the conflict, especially when it becomes equally extreme and naïve in its statements.

The photo makes a strong statement against religion or the existence of God, which is typical of militant atheist rhetoric. It says plainly that science can solve our problems, such as losing an arm, whereas God cannot. In other words, it represents science as an alternative to God. My problem with this statement, and with the rhetoric of militant atheism overall, is that it fails to understand what religion is, why it exists, and what its functions are. They claim to be rational and scientific, but they don’t seem to be aware of the tons of books and the extensive research made by social and cognitive scientists about religion in the 20th century. I don’t claim here that those scientists have already understood religion or analyzed it exhaustively, but I can say that their research is miles ahead of this demagogic atheist rhetoric.

In the 19th century, some British anthropologists (most notably Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer) interpreted belief in supernatural beings or forces as an attempt to understand natural phenomena that human beings could not explain. Frazer, for example, placed religion in a 3-stage evolutionary paradigm, according to which human beings start with magic, then progress to religion, before reaching science, which is the rational and the final stage of the evolution of human intellect. For both Tylor and Frazer, belief in God was a pseudo-scientific concept that survived from a primitive age and hence it does not belong to the age of scientific rationality.

From France, however, a different school of anthropology emerged in the beginning of the 20th C. It stood against the intellectualist anthropological school of 19th-century Britain by emphasizing the sociological aspects of religion and magic instead of how individuals think about them. French social scientists actually made little distinction between anthropology and sociology and saw them as one discipline. They (e.g. Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss) stressed that belief in supernatural beings is a product of the social structure of the community and serves to maintain its cohesion. This sociological view of the functions of religion can be found earlier in Ibn Khaldun’s concept of Asabiyya, which highlights how religion can make loosely related groups act cohesively. Even Karl Marx explained religion socio-economically as the product of class exploitation. Paradoxically, Karl Marx is a hero of many atheists in a country like Syria, who eloquently quote his “religion is the opium of the people” in every possible occasion without looking at the few sentences that precede this often misquoted phrase:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The rise of modern science and its achievements have undoubtedly shaken the world of religion, but it has never led to science replacing religion, as Taylor and Frazer had expected. Religion has proved to be much more complex and adaptable to modern conditions. Although it has declined significantly in many European countries, it continues to be a major social and cultural force in some of the most scientifically advanced countries of the world, most notably USA. Religious decline at any rate cannot be attributed primarily to the spread of scientific rationality, but, more importantly, to several political, economic, social, and ideological transformations that have occurred throughout the world in the past two centuries. This is why the conception of religion by the French anthropologists proved to be more valid and closer to the true nature of religion, which, of course, we are still far from reaching.

Clearly, the statement made by Syrian Atheists falls within the outdated intellectualist current of anthropology, and thus it misses its target of criticizing religion reasonably. This doesn’t mean in any way that I object to the criticism of religion. Criticism of religion and its various manifestations is necessary, both from the religious and the non-religious. But any sensible criticism of a phenomenon requires at first a better understanding of the phenomenon itself.

For more on anthropological theories of magic and religion see The Brill Dictionary of Religion – “Magic”.

12 thoughts on “Atheist Criticism of Religion – Why does it often miss the point?

  1. The Story of a Tree Frog says:

    Reblogged this on The Story of a Tree Frog and commented:

  2. […] Atheist Criticism of Religion – Why does it often miss the point?. […]

  3. Allallt says:

    I actually don’t understand your point. Religion is not an attempt at fact, so don’t challenge it with fact?
    It is consequence-free to wait for God to fix your problems (like a missing arm), so don’t worry about science?

    I can’t pin down your actual point. Religion emerges from certain political and socio-economic conditions (but it masquerades as facts) therefore evidential facts… have no bearing?

    Please help me understand.

    • Thanks Allallt for your comment. Maybe you can understand my point better if you take into consideration that I wasn’t responding in particular to the statement in the photo above, but to the general rhetoric underlying it. The photo was only an example and a means to talk about this rhetoric.
      This rhetoric ignores the social aspects of religion (and other aspects which I didn’t talk about, such as psychological, cognitive, or maybe even evolutionary) and thinks about it merely as an attempt to explain natural phenomena. It is true that religion makes “factual” statements, and one can certainly criticize it on this basis, But militant rhetoric doesn’t stop at that. It reduces religion to statements of facts or explanations of the world, whereas religion is much more than that. In other words, criticizing the factual validity of religion is one thing (which I don’t object to at all), and reducing religion to factual statements is something else, which I do object to.
      I hope this has clarified my point to you and thank you again for your comment.

      • Allallt says:

        Thank you for your reply. It makes a bit more sense now. I do still have questions, though.
        What is religion other than it’s list of claims about the nature of the universe and people?
        It may be viewed as a coping mechanism, but the picture you have used (even though that is not the exact sentiment you are responding it) demonstrates the harm in that. Perhaps it is viewed as being a result of evolution, but so is our tendency towards racism and intuition of Aristotelian physics (where, in fact, Newtonian and then relativistic physics better account for it).

  4. Well, your first question can be the topic of my next post! Hopefully, it will posted on my blog in a couple of weeks.
    Regarding your second point, I agree. If religion was the product or byproduct of evolution, this shouldn’t entail in itself that it’s socially and morally acceptable. It might be more “natural” (given our evolution) for men to have sex with as many women as they can and spread their seeds, but this is not morally acceptable in most societies. Overall, I don’t like to judge religion as “good” or “bad” for itself. I may judge certain practices, creeds, or currents of thoughts in religion as good or bad, but religion as a whole is for me primarily a matter of academic and personal interest. I’m more concerned with understanding and analyze it than judging it as a whole.

  5. […] brings me to a previous post I wrote here in this blog a couple of months ago: Atheist Criticism of Religion – Why does it often miss the point?  In this post I discussed a statement typed over a photo of a woman with an artificial arm: […]

  6. Not sure what your point is – ironic given the title of this thread – but whether religion is good or bad for society will not disprove the fact that gods are all man-made superstitions that have come and gone throughout our history – human ingenuities that gradually changed as we learned an increasing amount about reality and the world we live in. Gone are the days when people like the Hebrews believed that earthquakes were caused by bad behavior. The Atheist revolution is not about overthrowing religion. Its about replacing superstition.

    • I am pretty sure some Atheists (not all by any means) would disagree with your statement that the “Atheist revolution is not about overthrowing religion,” but ” replacing superstition.” Some do say plainly that religion needs to be dispenses with (e.g. here, at the very end, and here exactly lies the problem in my opinion. I do not think that religion is bad just because it contains superstitions, supernatural beliefs, or whatever you may call that. This is my point, which for some reason I was not able to communicate to you. Hope it is clear now.

      • Hi Mohammad ~ I too, am not saying religion is bad. What I am saying is that Atheism isn’t bad as well. It is simply the eventual outcome of the future as humans replace our ancient superstitions with the proper cause and effect relationships.

  7. John Smith says:

    I’m completely unimpressed with any of the points made in the article. “Religion might not be able to stand on its own based on ‘mere’ facts, but doesn’t it make people feel better?” This is just an overly complicated way of saying religion is useful; don’t buy into it. The second line of defense that religious people fall back on (after they acknowledge that it is factually bankrupt) is that it is comforting/useful.
    When you grow into an adult and realize that life is full of brutal, traumatic hazards, potentially very short, and that there are numerous uncertainties around which we as a species try our best to think our way through using the methods available to us, you mature. You become hard, focused, and hopefully develop the self-discipline necessary to maintain a worldview that is as consistent as possible with the newest and most accurate data about the universe as possible without retreating backward into a womb of fairytale and superstition, which is most of what religion offers.

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