I’d propose here that the impulse to resort to a religious, or at least some kind of absolute, claim about reality is inescapably human. That if it isn’t religion it will be something else. Maybe it will be that there will be future wars fought on the topic of how to be a better Atheist like South Park suggested. I don’t know, but we are not going to do away with absolute claims and we are not going to stop using violence to solve them. Here interestingly is where we come to a sort of entry point into the mind of Anders Breivik. He is not what most evangelicals would have called a “Christian” given that the evangelical emphasis is on conversion and on a personal relationship with Jesus. If not evangelical, is there some other way in which Breivik really does think of himself as Christian? Perhaps he is the final, decadent stage of Christendom. He appears to be Christian in the sense that he prefers Norway’s Christian heritage and he sees “Christian” as shorthand for various Western values of which he approves and which he believes are under immediate threat. His Christianity is a territorial, political, philosophical, and cultural entity, a sort of Christ-less Christendom.
The companion piece went up today.
With the recent Sandusky case at Penn State we can see a similar parallel with the horrific cases of abuse in the Roman Catholic church and more secular institutions. If we use Rome as the stand-in for religion in this case there seems to be something that fits the charges of atheists: because the church offers transcendent metaphysical claims about life and the universe, because it is a model for understanding humanity’s role in the world and a hope for the future of course people would to anything to defend it. And tragically “anything” has included covering up the actions of numerous serial rapists by moving them around and buying off the victims. While the hierarchy does this, there are legions of lay-Catholics who are ready to get up and defend the church in the public eye (though there are legions more who are not). The New Atheist move is to say that this is because the church makes all kinds of absolute spiritual/metaphysical claims and so has a hold on otherwise reasonable people.
In the case of Sandusky though, we saw all kinds of people getting up to defend a pedophile and those who allegedly enabled him because of football. Here the stock response is that in many parts of the US football is “like a religion” or something to that effect. We can even point to the Reformed tendency to see idolatry as the root of all sorts of evil and say that yes, football might look like an idol. But beyond that, how is football like a religion? It can’t save your soul. It doesn’t explain why humans are on earth or how we got here. It doesn’t explain what happens after we die. It makes no sorts of abstract metaphysical claims. People just seem to really, really like it, so much so that they may even say that it’s one of the things that gives their life meaning.
But again, football has none of the features that the New Atheists suggest make religion so dangerous to humanity.[emphasis mine] It is possible to be a completely satisfied materialist and still be crazy about your football team. So what’s the takeaway for a New Atheist? Forget about religion, maybe people should just not care about stuff because when you care about stuff you can end up irrationally defending the indefensible?
Dan's comment about how it's possible to see football as like a religion or an idol, when informed by a Reformed tendency to see idolatry as the root of all sorts of evil is fascinating. Let's note that seeing football as capable of being an idol is informed by religious categories of thought. Religious thought and language, obviously, brings with it an internal capacity for critique of self and others. Strip that away and with that we "should" strip away any completely secular critique of Penn State that attempts to frame the flaws in the culture in religious terms. There would be plenty of room to say that Penn State overvalued football for other reasons. "Religion" may be a useful word in the English language for a variety of reasons but the Sandunsky case doesn't seem like one where an actual religion, as Dan outlines religion, was the engine for covering up years of crimes.
Like Dan I don't think getting rid of religion will get rid of the human propensity toward violence. Roy Baumeister wrote years ago that many psychologists and people on the street thought violence was due to low self-esteem. Baumeister himself admits to having held this view but then he did research and surveyed studies of criminal activity and violence. He concluded in the late 1990s that people with truly low self-esteem are simply not the sorts of people to resort to verbal or physical violence. The people who are most violent, the greatest bullies, are people who generally have a very high self-esteem that isn't stable. People with truly high self-esteem are rarely violent if their self-esteem is stable. To put it another way, Superman knows he's amazing and so doesn't fight unless someone else is going to get hurt. By contrast Lex Luthor keeps trying to kill Superman because Superman represents an ego threat. Well, anyway, there's a comics nerd example of what Baumeister articulates about tendencies in people here in the real world.
I'm tempted to go off on a lengthy rabbit trail here about self-esteem, idolatry, "identity in Christ" and the diffusion of identity across multiple spheres ... but I'm going to resist that temptation ... maybe.