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Apologies for the slightly clickbait title. I am an atheist, and I have no philosophy training at all. My questions are actually pretty simple.

  • Are there questions in theology/religious philosophy which might be valuable if considered from a non-theistic viewpoint. To put it another way, questions which have useful and/or interesting learning outcomes that have nothing to do with religion.

  • If so, could you offer some simple examples?

  • Have any of the "bright"/new atheist authors considered any of these questions and their non-theistic value in their dismissals of religion?

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    Your first question seems to me to be contradictory... if something is a question "in theology/religious philosophy," it must have something "to do with religion." Can you clarify? – James Kingsbery Nov 18 '14 at 17:49
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    I agree with J.K.; the questions you are talking about would be general philosophical ones and not theological ones. Theology make take these up in various forms, but it is not meaningful to consider them as theological ones "that have nothing to do with religion". – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 19 '14 at 0:22
  • "Theology make take these" -> "Theology may take these" – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 19 '14 at 0:48
  • Possibly relevant: F. Stravrakopoulou (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Stavrakopoulou) is a lecturer in the Theology & Religion department at Exeter. Not sure if/how her personal convictions affect her academic work though. – Dave Oct 13 '16 at 13:24
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If the planet Abracadabra is one some astrophysicists insist exist and others insist do not, people in the latter camp cannot at the same time claim they have something to contribute to the body of knowledge (-ology) about Abracadabra. They might have things to say about the beliefs of those that do insist on its reality, but that is not the same.

Hence, there is no definition of theology that would make atheism a meaningful qualifier of it. Starting with wikipedia:

Theology is the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university, seminary or school of divinity.

This alone may seem potentially anthropological -- it says "concepts of", and anyone might study someone else's "concept of" something without accepting it and contribute to a body of knowledge surrounding that conceptualization. However, while theology may involve examinations of false conceptualizations of God, the ground of such analysis is the true things that can be said about God, and contributing to the body of knowledge requires either applying an explicit and existing set of truths about the divine or an adaption or elaboration of a set of truths about the divine. That's not an anthropological approach, which would not depend on either the truth or falsity of the divine and simply would be an examination of a belief about it.

While an atheist could study theology along (e.g) anthropological lines, there is not anything a specifically atheist perspective could sincerely contribute to the body of knowledge; this does not mean the individual atheist could not contribute, only that their contribution could not be something that could only be made by an atheist. Atheism weakly defined is a non-belief in God and the divine; more strongly defined (aka. "antitheism") it's a denial that God and the divine exist.1 Either way, there is nothing to know about and therefore no legitimate body of knowledge to consider and no possibility of making legitimate contributions to it.


1. The significance of this distinction is debatable and that debate is beyond the scope of the question, but if "I do not believe in God" is akin to "I do not believe 2 + 2 = 5" and "I believe there is no God" is "I believe 2 + 2 is not 5", then there you are: there's no knowledge to be had regardless of whether God is something you don't believe in or something you believe does not exist.

  • I disagree with your first point -- whether or not a given astronomer is convinced that abracadabra exists does not preclude them from doing scientific research on its properties (even if the skeptic would have to consider them hypothetical properties). – Dave Nov 19 '14 at 2:33
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    @Dave Sure, someone who's an atheist can do whatever they want -- but there are some things it does not make sense to do as an atheist, such as research the nature of God. There can be no atheist position on the nature of God or the divine (other than they are false concepts), and thus no atheist theology. There can be atheist theories of religion, but again that's not theology. Likewise, a physicist who publicly states as a physicist that Abracadabra does not exist won't be then publishing research on the nature of Abracadabra, but might write about why other physicists are mistaken. – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 19 '14 at 13:45
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As a theist, I sometimes find atheistic perspectives on God and religion to be interesting and even illuminating. Many atheists have thought very deeply and seriously about the subject. (I was going to cite my favorite example, Sartre's description of the God he didn't believe in as the union of Existence and Essence, but I just learned --via Google-- that Sartre was actually responding to Aquinas.)

So from a theistic perspective, I would certainly say atheistic theology can have value (although of course, from that perspective, all of it is guilty of "missing the point"). For an atheist, on the other hand, I assume the value would be in learning to understand why so many people believe, and perhaps gaining the ability to argue against those beliefs.

As far as problems from the world of theology that can be emancipated from religion: There are a vast number of scientific, philosophical and artistic concepts that originated with a religious viewpoint and were later secularized --perhaps too many to mention. Even the early "humanists" of the Renaissance were animated by their religious beliefs, the "secular" version came only later. The same is true of existentialism --Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky preceded Nietzsche and Sartre.

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To some extent one might consider the application of secular humanities studies on religion a (the?) secular approach to theology; examples include history (e.g. what were the theological/doctrinal conflicts in the early Christian church), anthropology (studies of the geographic dissemination various gods/myths) of , literary analysis (textual analysis of holy scriptures), etc. Basically, one can take the position of studying the idea of god(s) as expressed in various cultures as a secular analogue of theology.

In terms of the religious^* side of things--

I don't have any references handy, but I'm sure that there is writing about what the appropriate role for religious services are in humanist communities. Basically, there is a subset of Secular Humanists who want to maintain traditions like attending regular spirtual services, while eschewing the supernatural elements of traditional religions, e.g. Sunday Assembly. These types of organizations need to define their missions and thus define "secular religion". Daniel Dennett has given several public lectures on "What Should Replace Religion" which addresses some of these issues.

^* for this discussion, I'm using a somewhat broad meaning of religious to focus on the practices, and to a lesser extent, doctrine of a given social/spirual community (irrespective of if it is theistic or not).

  • Religion is not by definition theistic, although of course most of them stictly are. However, there are some religious communities that tolerate practitioners who espouse atheism, e.g., certain Sufis and Zen Buddhists. – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 18 '14 at 19:17
  • Also (this is the reason I can't upvote this): secularism is inclusive of, but very distinct from, atheism. Western society is by and large officially secular in that it is not theocratic, but that does not make it atheistic, and secular practices are more inclusive than atheist ones. The study of religion in a secular humanist context is very different than a purely atheist one. An atheist studies religion as a secular humanist; it would be wrong to say there are significant institutionalized atheistic studies of religion. – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 18 '14 at 21:24
  • Right, but atheism is not about things that have no religious or spiritual value -- it's the assertion that theism is false. So you can study religion as an atheist at a secular institution, but that does not make the study atheistic. A strictly atheist institution could not legitimize the study of theology because it would then have to legitimize the study of oogaboogology, whatever-i-wantology, and an infinite range of other other studies of things about which nothing can actually be known. It could allow for the study of the social practice of religion, but that is NOT theology. – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 18 '14 at 23:14
  • @goldilocks I'm not seeing the issue. I've been careful in my use of the term secular; I've included weasel words at the start of the first paragraph to indicate that it would be somewhat of a stretch of language to describe things in this way. I even annotated my use of the term religious since some people have a default interpretation that religion requires theism. – Dave Nov 18 '14 at 23:33
  • The issue is two fold, 1) that the secular studies of religion you mention are still explicitly not theological, and 2) that atheism is a much stricter subset of secularism WRT what would be considered legitimate areas of inquiry; an atheistic institution would have to rule out many of the things which are permissible at a secular one. The question isn't, "Can atheists meaningfully study religion?" -- of course they can. The question is essentially, "Can atheists contribute to theology?", and, no, not as atheists they can't. Theology is not just the "study of religion". – selfConceivedAsEvil Nov 19 '14 at 0:03
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There is value, for atheists, in considering "the corpse of God":

  1. What has replaced God in our thinking, and what is the range of options?
  2. How could we have gotten there without thinking about God/gods?
  3. If we really couldn't or wouldn't, what does that say about important structures in our thought?
  4. To what degree is our attachment to those things based upon the same needs/characteristics of our thought that were dependent upon God
  5. To what degree is our objection to other thoughts/practices based upon our rejection of God. (Anything nonexistent should be irrelevant, not decisive.)

Neitsche gives us a start, but strangely, the people I think do this best, are people who are trying to put together another religion or reform their own. Starhawk's analysis of God the King is moving and seems useful. The crazier work of Crowley can make one think. Even modernist Rosicrucianism or "Magick", which is twice as crazy, has content, in helping on delineate 'faith' from 'magic' and see how much of what we really expect from religions is the latter. Then there are liberation theologians ranging from George Pixley to Matthew Fox in their level of 'real belief'. And Jungianism (particularly as done by those who are not atheists, like Jung himself) has a tradition of looking at religious practices and motifs via psychological or sociological angles that seek purpose and value in them, but do not bear on faith.

I think this kind of thing, which is really still theology of a sort, in that it is done by believers, but those suspicious due to their own abuse of/by religions, could serve a more intelligent atheism well, if one can put up with the implicit 'hokum'.

As a side note: Richard Dawkins recently attempted to start a more pedestrian conversation on these topics via a television series. But it was horrible. He came across as a shallow, biased, finicky, bitter, old man with whom no one would ever wish to have such a conversation to begin with.

  • Dick has been that for a while now. – Neil Meyer Mar 10 '15 at 16:47
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I am surprised no one mentioned Zizek here. One of the recurring ideas in his books/lectures is that Christianity is essentially an atheistic religion. Specifically, refer to his interpretation of death of Christ as the death of the "god of the beyond" itself and the interpretation of book of Job. Mind you, Zizek is a self-professed atheist.

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Atheistic theology is by definition an oxymoron, given that both words are derived from the Greek "theos" meaning God.

If by theology you mean more generally religious thinking, then I would answer your questions in the following way:

1) There are some non-theistic religions, notably Buddhism, which explore religious and metaphysical concepts without invoking a deity. In the case of Buddhism at least, many people agree (including several notable Philosophers) that Buddhist ideas have philosophical value, and that these concepts are independent of religion.

2) Example: Schopenhauer - a leading atheist philosopher of his time, acknowledged the connection between his philosophy and the 4 noble truths of Buddhism.

3) I don't think so: The New Atheists are really about tearing down religion all together, so it is unlikely that they would have taken any religious questions seriously.

If you want to find examples of theistic religious philosophy which has been taken seriously by atheist philosophers, I doubt there are many examples. One might argue that DesCartes contributions to the philosophy of the mind were originally coming from a philosophy of religion point of view (as he was trying to prove the existence of the soul). His ideas are certainly considered noteworthy by atheist philosophers, even if they don't agree with him. However that is an opinion, not a fact.

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There are several existing and past non-theistic or atheistic religions. Theravedic Buddhism, one of the 2 main schools, does not believe in any God. There are several old philosophical schools of Hinduism that are atheistic, specifically the Sāṃkhya, Vaiśeṣika, and the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā schools.

  • Thanks for this. Theravedic Buddhism was one of the inspirations behind this question. I didn't know that Hinduism had equivalents. – Matt Thrower Nov 19 '14 at 13:34
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Why is there religion?

No joke, that's the question. If you choose to believe that there is no deity, the immediate question should be "why is deity worship so undeniably popular?" If you believe in evolution of ideas (generally accepted, but not everyone agrees), then this suggests that you can plumb the questions religion answers as part of your own search to understand what centuries of humans have had to deal with.

For example, there is a tremendous glut of religions which declare killing to be wrong, in one form or another. This may suggest that the presence of a rule along the lines of "thou shalt not kill" is an evolutionary advantage sufficiently powerful to offset any negative effects of believing a "false" religion.

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I'm not overly confident that Lavayen Satanist would necessarily agree but you can make the case that the satanic ideals of the Church of Satan may very easily be an atheist religion or at the very least an attempt at a atheist religion.

It's founder did claim when confronted with the question of what the difference is between his 'Satanism' and secular humanism that secular humanism does not have doctrine where his doctrine has.

Sounds like a religion to me.

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