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. In an address to the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, then president Mark Juergensmeyer pointed out that after 100 years of studying religion scholars were still not agreed as to what, if anything, the term “religion” meant. While scholars may not agree as to its meaning, it seems to be the case that religious diversity exerts a kind of negative pressure on those who study and practice a given religion today, as a fact which such a religion must face as mark against it. 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, in fact, exercised a negative influence for the greater part of Western 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 or 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 in part based on 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. But after the the seventeenth-century 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 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, however, 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 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, including scientific or moral reasons. But 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 on this non-humanist atheism and its emergence in French thought in the twentieth century appeared last year, and an extended discussion on this non-humanist atheism can be found, for those interested, on the The Immanent Frame blog. To some atheists, it appears, admitting this alternate form of atheism, with its 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 is a product of the use to which such diversity is put within argumentative discourse. When Montaigne lined up a seemingly countless set of examples and quotations on religion from classical antiquity, from Church Fathers, and from learned divines, he was incorporating these examples into a broad argument that 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 needed to be presented in discourse that made that force clear. In short, the force of such examples for Montaigne’s contemporaries was not obvious, and scholars today can still be found debating what exactly Montaigne intended in his Essays. While it would probably be naive 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 amongst 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 counterintuitive 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 itself been contested in history. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica is quite obviously not Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. 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 place 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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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Religious and Atheist Diversity

  1. Carl says:

    In the first place, I want to say that it is not true that “Religion is sometimes held to be untrue today because there are so many different and often conflicting claims made about it.” The variety of religions is certainly one of the reasons, but not the only one and, let me say it, not the most important one. I myself am not a believer and this is not the reason I am not a believer. The fact that there are so many claims about religion only confirms my disbelief, if you will, though I would not even say that to describe myself. In fact, the author should consider a new way to look at the discourse of religious and atheist diversity. That is, I am an atheist because I do not care about religion, because religion is by definition man-made, and because I do not believe it is a good idea to worship a god even if there is proof for the existence of that god.
    Now, to say that there is no agreement among scholars as t what the term “religion” means strikes me as, well, false. I am not familiar with Mr. Juergersmeyer’s statement, but it seems that either he is being funny, or the author of this article is taking Juergensmeyer’s original comment out of context. I know not which is it, nor am I interested in it. At any rate, this business of not agreeing is often taken to the extreme, so much so that even experienced philosophers often make the mistake of distorting the meaning of a certain term, perhaps due to pedantic philosophical investigation. Religion indicates the belief in a god, or gods, and that there are individuals who believe in that god or gods. What is so controversial about this statement that scholars, as the author indicates, do not agree with? What could the term “religion” signify? Could it mean baking a pie? Could it refer to the activity of shaving one’s beard? Could it mean listening to music? If you answer “yes” then you’re merely playing a word game. Religion, again, means that a group of people believe in a god or gods.
    Lastly, to even suggest that there is a diversity among atheists is either tautological, just as it is to say that all dogs are animals, or disingenuous in that it suggest an attempt at categorizing atheism. Religious people love to do this, i.e., they like to make people believe that atheism is a category just like religion, race, ethnicity, and what not. In fact, some religious people even go as far as saying that atheism is a religion. Perhaps, and I said perhaps, that is Juergensmeyer’s idea, which would explain why to him there is no agreement upon the term “religion.”

  2. Jonathan says:

    Carl, what a stupid comment.

    Your first two sentences contain contradictory propositions–that his statement is “not true” and that it is “certainly one of the reasons.” Kenneth said “sometimes.” Wow, you missed it.

    Read SOCIAL & CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION (Oxford Press, 2000) if you can muster up enough interest in why the defining the concept of religion creates controversy. (Here’s a softball: Buddhism is a religion that contains religious rituals. Buddhists don’t believe in a god or gods). Your definition, that Religion is “a group of people believe in a god or gods” is too narrow to be of any significant use, as it is only focused on the group of people, and not the rituals, literatures, and practices that are generally produced by what is known as religion. But what can we expect, you thought it was simple…

    Also, “all dogs are animals” is not a tautology, for although it is a true statement, it does not say the same thing twice–there are other types of animals that aren’t dogs, making the statement more akin to a definition. “All dogs are canines” would be a little closer…

    And does your statement about religious people “making people believe” that atheism is a category suppose to argue that its not??? Not a category? What the hell are you talking about!? All that is necessary for categorization is a single common factor, say, the belief that God does not exist.

  3. Gary Horsman says:

    I understand that the term ‘religion’ can be interpreted in different ways and that it’s easy for non-believers to fail to make a distinction between the institutional structure and the personal conviction. To make things clearer, I use the term ‘religion’ to refer to the man-made institution and ‘faith’ as that which a person uses to express an individual set of beliefs and values.

    In much the same way as you might view a school or university as an institution or structure, learning is a human endeavor of discovery and intellectual pursuit. Neither one depends on the other to exist, but they can both be so closely associated that no distinction is made by most people.

    And so is faith and religion. You can participate in a religion and its rituals and not really have any belief or conviction. And you can have faith and belief in God without the benefit of belonging to a religious organization.

    I think to most people, when they think about it, this makes sense. It’s perhaps that that one word is indiscriminately applied to either distinction and so they’re blurred together in many people’s imaginations as they gloss over the subject as they chat away casually. Most atheists, I suspect, are happy to dismiss both as bogus and are perfectly fine with lumping them together, not in the least concerned about taking a closer look as if giving the subject its due as it’s not worthy to consider.

    Atheists have their heroes and spokespersons and are selling lots of books as never before, coming out of the closet and declaring their pride. It’s a shame for them though that despite recent successes, they still have a severe PR problem. Society as a whole gives atheists some of the lowest scores in terms of general favorability.

    It’s not like atheists have ever exactly been the purveyors of sunshine and hope.

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