Is Western atheism a kind of Protestant religion?



Alvin Plantinga, while setting up his evolutionary argument against naturalism in Where the Conflict Really Lies, writes (page 311):

Now it is not clear that naturalism, as it stands, is a religion; there is enough vagueness around the edges of the concept of religion for it to be unclear whether naturalism does or doesn't belong there. But naturalism does serve one of the main functions of a religion: it offers a master narrative, it answers deep and important human questions. Immanuel Kant identified three great human questions: Is there such a person as God? Do we human beings have significant freedom? And can we human beings expect life after death? Naturalism gives answers to these questions: there is no God, there is no immortality, and the case for genuine freedom is at best dicey.

I am puzzled by Plantinga's reservation to call naturalism a religion. What is this vagueness he refers to?

It is easy for me to accept a definition of a religious expression as any statement attempting to answer any of those three questions Kant posed or similar ones. That is, anyone attempting to answer any of them would be representing a religious position. The only way not to represent a religious position would be to not talk about those questions at all.

Now, if I limit myself to Western atheism, I can see the development of it perhaps originating in the 18th century that has at least parallels with the development of the forms of Protestant Christianity. Hence I suspect the same social influences in opposition to Catholic Christianity that motivated Protestantism motivated Western atheism.

However, I wonder if I am missing something. I am taking this further than Plantinga does, although Plantinga does ambiguously call naturalism, the form of extreme atheism he is concerned with, as a "quasi-religion" (page 311). I don't see why he doesn't go further except that it might distract from the presentation of his argument against naturalism.

Hence the question in the title: Is Western atheism a kind of Protestant religion?

Plantinga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: Science, religion, and naturalism. OUP USA.

Frank Hubeny

Posted 2018-09-04T17:02:56.507

Reputation: 18 742

Friedrich Jacobi, his biography

– Gordon – 2018-09-04T18:37:58.333

Could you clarify the question. Is it whether naturalism is a religion if "religion" means "any statement attempting to answer any of those three questions"? The answer seems trivially yes to me, but Plantinga obviously knows that this "definition" is not what most people mean by the word (so is his "naturalism"). Or is it why it is not? Also, Western atheism (or "naturalism" in Plantinga's sense) goes back to pre-Socratics and is not specific to Protestantism or Enlightenment. Buddhism too is atheist. – Conifold – 2018-09-04T19:51:39.697

In the classic robust model of Mircea Eliade (book, The Eternal Return) a religion will create a system of order with an eternal return (think of the Catholic liturgical year). Inside this "camp" there is order, outside of it chaos. It can give Being to things. Perhaps Margolis would say that it gives legitimacy to it. I do not think a mere narrative is enough. There is a whole apparatus needed to convey legitimacy. E.g. Buddhism has the, etc – Gordon – 2018-09-04T22:31:58.730

Joseph Margolis The function of philosophy (and religion) is to convey legitimacy. In the old days we could say it made ontology. Made something be pregnant with being.

– Gordon – 2018-09-04T22:35:46.257

Above: Buddhism has the Sangha. So putting Being aside, then for something to be a religion it must have an apparatus to "make legitimate", so the older they are the better. Again, the narrative alone is probably not enough. – Gordon – 2018-09-04T22:41:06.120

@Conifold What I am taking from Plantinga is a potential definition of religion a way to answer those three questions. I think we agree that atheism (naturalism) would be a religion with such a definition. What I am more interested in is specifically Western atheism from the 18th century. Here we may not agree so much. I think this more recent atheism may be closer to Protestantism but with a rejection of Christianity more generally. People claim Buddhism is atheistic, but it has goddesses (or so I've heard). I'm trying to see what I experience as atheism without Buddhism or ancient authors. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T01:09:35.630

1@Gordon Both Jacobi and Margolis are interesting. In particular I like Margolis' historicism. I suspect the act of making something legitimate is the "glaube" of Jacobi rather than the sangha (which I assume is the community) of Buddhism. With Wittgenstein's rejection of a private language, I suspect that if we can state something we are in a community. Just saying the words may be all that is needed to legitimate the religion. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T01:14:41.680

This "definition" will not be of much help, I am afraid, the key is not in the answers. It is in that while Christians care about God, afterlife and free will most "naturalists" do not. The coveted answers Plantinga extracts are mostly an afterthought, an artifact of reacting to those who care. On "naturalism" God and afterlife are fanciful hypotheses more deserving of raised eyebrows than of consideration, and free will is a subtle theoretical question. "Naturalism" is a worldview that can not be a religion because it is indifferent to "spirituality" that drives it (as Buddhism isn't). – Conifold – 2018-09-05T05:10:36.920

"there is no immortality" - are all extropianists thinking technology will make it possible to live longer and longer to eternity non-naturalists then? – rus9384 – 2018-09-05T06:30:32.250

1I'd strongly agree that Protestantism is the main motivation for atheism. By claiming the truth of a dogma in the absence of a metaphysic it pushes rational people away and towards views that are equally ungrounded but are just an Hegelian play of opposites. I would question whether naturalism requires atheism because nobody who endorses it has any idea what is natural and what is not. For me the Perennial philosophy is the only naturalistic doctrine. Naturalism is usually not a doctrine but just an expression of faith, merely the knee-jerk dogmatic opposite of dogmatic theism. . – None – 2018-09-05T09:40:52.490

Atheism as a philosophical point of view was already present in Ancient World: Democritus, Epicurus, Pyrrhonism. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-09-05T12:35:43.677

But the point of view of Plantinga seems to be (IMO) that any sort of belief is a religion; I agree with you that this point of view is not very useful. A religion is "a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements." There are beliefs (worldviews), obviously, but - mainly - behaviors and practices.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-09-05T12:38:59.213

Regarding Early Modern Western culture, you have to go back at least to 16th Century : Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), Bonaventure des Périers (1500 – 1544), Pietro Pomponazzi (1462 – 1525) up to Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677). 1/2

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-09-05T12:52:10.853

As a useful reference about the clash religion-atheism, see M.Mersenne 's L'Impieté des déistes (1624) and La Vérité des sciences (Truth of the Sciences Against the Sceptics, 1624) as well as the "fake ancient" book Treatise of the Three Impostors (published around 1700). See also the study of L.Febvre : The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century (Le problème de l'incroyance au 16e siècle : la religion de Rabelais, 1937).

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2018-09-05T12:55:44.260

@MauroALLEGRANZA Thanks for the references. I think you are right that Western atheism begins earlier than the 18th century perhaps as early as the 14th century along with Protestantism. Although there are other cultures with atheistic philosophies there is something peculiar about what we understand today as atheism in Western cultures. That is why I am trying to think of it as a form of Protestantism. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T15:15:35.620

@PeterJ When I first read Plantinga's description of "naturalism" I didn't know what he was referring to. He claims that naturalism is atheistic, but not all atheistic positions are naturalistic. What makes the atheism of naturalism different is that it is not opposed simply to Gods but to anything God-like, that is, it rejects any form of agency that cannot be reduced to a machine. At least that is how I see it at the moment. I don't think he is referring to the Perennial philosophy as a kind of naturalism. I now think of his naturalism as "extreme atheism". – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T15:20:51.903

What form of "Western Atheism" are you looking at? There's lots of atheists of all sorts in the West, and not all are aligned with any one position (aside from the negative one of not believing in a God). – David Thornley – 2018-09-05T17:27:16.757

@DavidThornley It is true that there are many different groups of Western atheists. There are also many different groups of Protestant Christians. I am focusing only on atheism that is Western and modern and that takes stands on those three questions Kant brings up according to Plantinga. This does not include Eastern religions nor ancient religions. It also does not include people who don't care about those three questions Kant raised to even argue against them. They would be neither atheists nor theists. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T17:54:28.923

A couple of remarks. I think Plantinga would include naturalistic free will libertarians (like Kane) in his "naturalism", free will and agency do not by themselves re-enchant the nature. His own Molinist position on free will is arguably compatibilist, and even Dennett indicated that indeterminism is in principle acceptable. Also, arguing against theist positions does not indicate caring in the relevant sense. Theist positions are actively defended, responding is etiquette and good sport. Many philosophers who do not really care take part, it is for them like dissecting a perpetuum mobile. – Conifold – 2018-09-05T21:24:48.237

@Conifold He might include Kane. I don't know. He does add to naturalism (which I interpret as extreme atheism where not only are there no gods but there is nothing god-like--that is, no agents) a materialism of the mind as if that might not be part of naturalism. I think he adds that just to make sure he defines naturalism precisely enough for his argument against it. I would consider Kane to be at least close to a naturalist from what I have read of him. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T22:04:14.833

My sense is that agency alone is not "sufficiently God-like" for Plantinga's purposes. He wants an epistemic guarantee, and having self-caused non-machines does nothing in this direction. One really needs a benevolent conductor behind the curtain. Kane and the Stanford mafia illustrate that agency is easily compatible even with materialism, matter is no longer Aristotle's passive material these days. On the other hand, McDowell, an analytic Kantian, self-identifies as a "naturalist", but explicitly argues for the "re-enchantment" of nature a la Aristotle. – Conifold – 2018-09-06T00:05:34.330

@Conifold I agree that Plantinga wants evolution to be guided rather than not guided. I think Plantinga wants to define naturalism close enough to what people might think is the case, however, not all atheists are naturalists. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-06T00:17:23.817

@FrankHubeny - What I find unacceptable and the root of much confusion is the hijacking of the word 'naturalistic' to mean something other than 'natural'. Not only is it the case that "not all atheistic positions are naturalistic" but not all theistic positions are non-naturalistic. Naturalism should be about what is natural and not a carte-blanche for dogmatically stating what is natural. For this reason I see the common modern form of naturalism as equivalent to dogmatic religions like Protestantism, a potent mix of guesswork and wishful thinking and a rejection of science. . – None – 2018-09-24T10:45:06.850

@PeterJ I am using "naturalism" the way I think Plantinga uses it. What he is referring to as naturalism I also see as a master narrative and at the very least a quasi-religion. It has also attempted to monopolize science claiming other religions are "dogmatic" and practice a "rejection of science". This is a straw man characterization of those other religions which leads on purpose to much confusion. This is where I think Plantinga's description is most valuable. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-24T11:11:31.587

@FrankHubeny - I get that. My comment was aimed at those who endorse naturalism and then start laying down the law about what is natural and what is not when they are merely speculating. This approach might as well be a religion. Plantinga's three 'answers' given by the 'master narrative' are only naturalistic if they are correct. If they are not, or if they are unproven, then they are just religious dogmas. I don't know about atheism but today's Western naturalism looks to me exactly like a dogmatic religion. . – None – 2018-09-25T09:47:50.860



To some degree it simply comes down to a definition of terms.

In atheist media, whether a debate, book, or podcast much time is dedicated to defining religion in a certain way. Two ways in particular help create the resistant to declare naturalism as a religion.

First, popular atheist speakers argue that religion is ignorance, and science is knowledge.

Well known atheist Sam Harris wrote in his book Letter to a Christian Nation:

It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

Here is another quote, this time by Richard Dawkins:

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

Beyond that, every popular atheist author has devoted many chapters to criticizing religion for its role in the suffering of mankind.

A quote by Christopher Hitchens in his book God is not great shows how strongly this is believed,

“Religion poisons everything.”

These few quotes alone show how strongly atheists hate religion.

After spending so much time defining religion in this way, the atheist must resist using the term for any of their beliefs.

Naturalism is a must have for any atheist looking to build a coherent worldview. While I agree with your assertions that naturalism could very well be described as a religion, it would be utter heresy for an atheist to belong to a religion.


Posted 2018-09-04T17:02:56.507

Reputation: 132

1I made some edits which you may roll back. I agree that atheists would not want to be thought of as members of a religion. I suspect religious people don't want to include atheism as a religion either. That might be why Plantinga calls it a "quasi-religion". Some atheists are not naturalists as Plantinga describes them. I think Thomas Nagel would be one, at least, as I see him. His panpsychism is not likely something a naturalist would accept. Thank you for your answer and welcome to this SE. +1 – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-05T15:29:29.143


I am puzzled by Plantinga's reservation to call naturalism a religion. What is this vagueness he refers to?

Plantinga's implications of placing naturalism -- and, perhaps, atheism -- with other religions are marred with minute but important logical lapses. Allow me to take you through them one by one.

But naturalism does serve one of the main functions of a religion: it offers a master narrative, it answers deep and important human questions.

The mere fact that two things serve the same purposes doesn't make them alike. Naturalism discards the use of supernatural explanation and relies on experiments and observable trends. Some functions of astrology and astronomy may be same but to place them together on the basis of commonality of one among their many objectives is utter stupidity.

Immanuel Kant identified three great human questions: Is there such a person as God? Do we human beings have significant freedom? And can we human beings expect life after death? Naturalism gives answers to these questions: there is no God, there is no immortality, and the case for genuine freedom is at best dicey.

  1. These may be the "three great human questions" envisaged by Kant but these questions are not considered to be important by many religions throughout the world. Some religions reserve their attention to some other questions and are based solely on those other questions that they deem to be important. For instance, Jainism and Buddhism are agnostic religions and they give no regard to the nature of god and after life. Many Pagan religions do not address the question of freedom at all.
  2. Using this criteria to call a set of beliefs religion would not find concurrence with a lot of people in the world. All attempts to define religion are futile because the ideas that people are trying to give one name are so diverse that categorising them into one thing/word is juvenile and is of no utility. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are exceedingly reductionist. They are obsessed with codifying rules of conduct and are open to the whims of clergy with unquestioning authority to bend the rules and morph the faith in any form they want. Hinduism has no central authoritative text, no explicit codes of conduct, and was a geographic identity with no consent on the divinity of any one god among its adherents. Atheists and sceptics were also part of this faith and were still Hindus.
  3. Natural enquiry is not a set of beliefs. It may strive to answer the same questions as some faiths (which we call religion for convenience) but that does not make it one of the faiths.

Theism, atheism and agnosticism are also contextual and will mean different things at different geographical locations and in different faiths based on the version and understanding of 'god' there. Belief or disbelief in 'god' requires the identification and standardisation of what is meant by the term 'god'.

Hence the question in the title: Is Western atheism a kind of Protestant religion?

So, the vagueness of the terms, 'atheism' and 'religion' renders this question meaningless.

But, even after restricting these words strictly to their European meaning, atheism in its contemporary form is far, very far away from other faiths that you might be trying to club it with. Contemporary atheism is more 'anti-theistic' than 'atheistic,' in the sense that it is focused not so much on the disbelief in a 'human-god' and 'Immortality,' but more on the apparent and obvious futility of those beliefs. The question is not of calling scientific enquiry or reason a religion -- a word which does not consistently refer to any identifiable set of things -- but of whether to place it and group it with faiths and call that group religion. Religion, in the sense that people use it, is a statement of speculations while atheism is not just a disbelief in god but is also the endeavour to find answers to questions that religion so conveniently disregards.

Religion is evasion, Naturalism is pursuit. No two things can be more different.

Suyash Mal

Posted 2018-09-04T17:02:56.507

Reputation: 21

Just to be clear, Plantinga doesn't call naturalism a religion. Rather he calls it a "quasi-religion" perhaps for reasons which you have provided. I am the one asking why not just call naturalism as well as atheism in general a religion and skip the "quasi" part. Welcome to this SE! If you have any references to people who take a similar view to yours that would give others a place to go for more information. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-23T18:20:36.437