Atheism: A Decentralized Religion?

29May07

Surfing through Technorati for something good to read, I stumbled across this post from the Reformed Chicks Blabbing blog. This post isn’t of much interest to me, but the conversation she references caught my eye. The conversation is between Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) and Douglas Wilson (author of Letter from a Christian Citizen), arguing over whether Christianity is good for the world or not.

Read as an argument between two sides, I can see flaws in both sides. Wilson saw Hitchens’ dodging his question as an unspoken answer (which I don’t think is true) and Hitchens seemed to spin around in a circle a bit without going very far beyond his first letter in the series. Additionally, both sides presumed to explain to the other how their opponent viewed the world (a tactic which I find decreases the potential for truly beneficial dialogue), and despite what the final paragraphs of Wilson’s final statement may say, neither side comes out on top.

All that said, the post did get me thinking about something interesting. One request Wilson made over and over again was to ask Hitchens to point out a unified book, or some other source of the atheist creed so that atheists might be able to judge one another as to who is being more moral. This was one of the questions that Hitchens dodged repeatedly, and as he did so I was reminded of a book I read recently called The Starfish and the Spider.

Ori Brafman’s The Starfish and the Spider is all about the power of decentralized organizations, break them down from a sociological perspective. I found that the conversation between Hitchens and Wilson closely resembled several of examples from the book. To borrow Brafman’s terminology, Wilson seemed to be looking for the head of the spider to argue with, the immediate problem being that perhaps atheism is a decentralized movement, and if so his question would be entirely moot.

Granted, decentralized organizations do require a strong ideology in order to survive. However, this is is where it gets more interesting in the case of atheism, because I would argue that the ideology of atheism is simply not to believe in any god as the religious traditions today have defined it. This creates an interesting scenario, because just as in programming where one can’t perform the NOT operation on anything other than a specific type of variable (for example, not five could be any value in the world except five), holding an ideology that states one doesn’t believe in God as has been presented in any of the mainstream religions lets its members hold specific beliefs that may have nearly no correlation with each other other than the lack of a traditional god. One atheist could find frog migration patterns to be the key to existence, while another could decide that life is music and anything else isn’t worth considering.

It’s intriguing to see that many atheists still experience many of the same things that those who follow a mainstream religion do. Awe, inspiration, ethics, and a sense of purpose can still drive them just as strongly as any believer in a traditionally defined higher power.

The way I think I’ll put it is this:

Some people may define themselves as atheists, but being atheists doesn’t define them as people.

Of course, nothing I’ve said takes into account the neo-atheists that have emerged of late, Hitchens among them, and their potential effects on centralizing atheism. I’ve also left out analyzing many of the Hitchens’ benefits of decentralization as they pertain to atheism. Perhaps I’ll delve deeper into those issues later, but for now I’ll settle for drawing the connection between decentralization and atheism.

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One Response to “Atheism: A Decentralized Religion?”

  1. Atheism may well be spurred on by the refusal of religions to engage in self-criticism. I’ve just read http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/263/ on how foreign self-criticism is to religion, and, moreover, how religion misunderstands itself. You might be interested in it.


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