Religious and atheist diversity

Religion is sometimes held to be untrue today because there are so many different and often conflicting claims made about it. To even speak of “religion” in such reified and monolithic terms offends contemporary ears. When I attended then president Mark Juergensmeyer’s address to the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, he pointed out that after 100 years of studying religion scholars were still not agreed as to what, if anything, the term means. While this may be true for academics, it would seem to be the case that religious diversity exerts a kind of negative pressure on those who practice a given religion today, a sort of uncomfortable fact present in the background. Religious diversity, in other words, is very often felt to count as an automatic blow to any and all religion whatsoever. But this wasn’t always the case.

While there have been important figures in the past who have noted religious variety as a problem for religion itself, it has not inherently exercised a negative influence for the greater part of European history and its principle religion, Christianity. For every Michel de Montaigne there have been dozens of Christian apologists who cited Cicero’s argument, made in his dialogue “Of the nature of the Gods” (De natura deorum), that all men in all times and places have been religious. Put in Latin, the consensus gentium or “agreement of all mankind” proves that man is homo religiosus, a religious being by definition. Of course Cicero was not a Christian, and as a “pagan” he did not face the same problem that Christianity faced: having to explain how religious diversity seemed to prosper in the face of divinely revealed exclusive Christian truth. While the Church Fathers offered a series of responses to the seeming diversity of truths on offer in various religions and philosophies of the ancient world, the situation was made more acute within Christendom by the rift in the Western Church we now call the Reformation—it is of course no accident that Montaigne wrote his famous “Apology for Raymond Sebond” as a man who had lived through often violent wars of religion. But even in the face of such arguments as made by Montaigne, many church apologists, like the English theologian and biblical scholar Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, were able to offer an explanation of religious diversity–with a nod to Cicero’s consensus gentium–which attributed religious error to idolatry and superstition.

It would be a mistake, then, to suggest that religious apologists were left without resources in the face of religious diversity. Even today one can still find fairly sophisticated defences of the homo religiosus argument, such as that made recently by Karen Armstrong in The Case for God (Knopf, 2009). But after the Reformation the force of diversity seems to have exhibited an increasingly greater amount of pressure on the beliefs and practices of Western European societies, at least if we are to judge by the scale, scope and number of Christian apologetic works published thereafter. Historian Peter Harrison has argued, in ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1990), that the emergence of “religion” as a category of scholarship in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was in some sense determined by an engagement with religious diversity, to the extent that it meaningfully shaped what has counted as religion ever since. Whatever the resilience of Christian apologetics, though, it no longer appears as acceptable as it once did to subsume religious diversity into an argument for the religious nature of man.

Quite obviously one of the arguments an atheist might make about religion today is based on religious diversity: how can religion be true given the fact that so many religions make contradictory claims? But there is a push back. Given the fact that atheism itself has experienced significant growth in the past century, it is not altogether surprising that different reasons and different kinds of atheism have emerged. One may be an atheist for a whole host of reasons. As a recent Guardian article noted, some contemporary atheist groups are not entirely sure what to do with this diversity. In this particular instance the difference lies between atheists who subscribe to humanism and those who do not. A recent book, An Atheism that is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford University Press, 2010), appeared last year, and an extended discussion of this non-humanist atheism can be found on the The Immanent Frame. To some atheists, it appears, admitting alternate forms of atheism, with different and uncomplimentary reasons, is tantamount to admitting atheism isn’t true. History, it has often been said, is not without a sense of irony.

Neither uniformity nor diversity on their own, then, can count as anything in arguments for or against religion or atheism. The strength or weakness of diversity as a fact within an argument is a product of the use to which such diversity is put within said arguments. When Montaigne lined up a seemingly countless set of examples and quotations on religion from classical antiquity, from Church Fathers, and from contemporary learned divines, he was incorporating these examples into a broad argument that, when analyzed, has to be judged by more than its examples alone; in order for these examples to actually have any force as marks against religion they need to be presented in discourse that made that force clear. In short, the persuasive power of such examples for Montaigne’s contemporaries was not necessarily obvious (otherwise why go to such lengths?), and scholars today can still be found debating what exactly Montaigne intended in his Essays. While it would be naive and mistaken to suggest that religious diversity caused no concern whatsoever in early modern Europe, it was not an automatic source of anxiety about religious truth.

In an analogous way, the emergence of atheist diversity should not necessarily be alarming to atheists themselves or cause for celebration among the religious. Nor should anxiety about such diversity be heightened by the suggestion that it is new—there have been different kinds of atheism in history, or at the very least different motivations and reasons. A history of atheism that papers over its divisions and different motivations would be as false as a history of Christianity that papered the manifest differences within that religion.

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to say so, but there have clearly been different historical ways of approaching diversity. If we look to the history of history itself, that is, the history of historical writing, we can see that accounting for continuity and change has been contested. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica is quite obviously not Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Approaches to the past, like approaches to diversity, have a history. Explaining this history requires an act of interpretation that presupposes an orientation to the world, including its supposed uniformity and diversity.

If there is anything to be gleaned at all from a cursory glance at religious and atheist diversity it is that its place in our understanding has a history which must be reckoned with, and that contending with this is a task that we have to take up as a genuine challenge. Such an engagement with religious and atheist diversity is the path of patient and potentially painful reflection, one that takes this challenge seriously rather than merely taking it for granted.

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