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”.