Thomas J. Coleman III sets out a rhetorical argument promoting the notion of ‘implicit atheism’ as a means to critique the concept of implicit religion, highlighting problems that can arise when researchers employ ‘religious’ language in reference to nonreligious individuals.
We desperately need a theory of ‘implicit atheism’, and not because we need to take implicit atheism seriously (it is a spurious concept), but because we need to demonstrate the negative hegemonic effect that ‘implicit religion’ (IR) has on the social scientific study of religion, non-belief in God and non-religion. In this post I argue against the framework / concept of IR in general and its potential application in studying non-religion by advocating for the development of ‘implicit atheism’ (jokingly so) to demonstrate that many ‘religious people’ can be labeled as ‘implicitly atheists’.
While the notion of ‘implicit religion’ is not something new to academia (eg. Bailey, 1983), it is an area that seems to be gaining momentum, with the first journal dedicated to its ‘study’–Implicit Religion –established in the not too distant past. This ‘implicit’ concept has seeped into the psychology of religion field, and also risks reification from the cognitive study of religion field as well, albeit in the form of ‘implicit belief’ (eg. Barrett & Lanman, 2008).
What is wrong with the concept of ‘implicit religion’? The relationship between IR and what we are now forced to term as ‘explicit religion’ is of a tyrannical hegemonic nature. The political power to socially construct (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) a category or grouping that then allows the current discourse of whatever is deemed ‘religious’ to be extended to things that are not deemed as such by the individual is nothing more than a power struggle which (similarly constructed) explicit religion always controls. Interestingly enough, this notion of IR, in various forms, seems to be favored by those in academia with theological degrees (cf. Bailey, 1983, 2010; Clay, 2009; Francis & Robbins, 2007; Streib & Hood, 2013; Schnell, 2003, 2013) and although there are certainly exceptions this seems food for thought! We should be asking why we do not extend this ‘implicit concept’ to other areas of academic inquiry. For instance, where is our theory of implicit art or implicit sports (Belzen, 2010, p.59)? Moreover, why is sports psychology not taking the notion of ‘homo- athleticus’ seriously? Perhaps the topic of implicit sports should take a closer look at the three-to-four feet free throw I make with a crumpled up piece of paper into my office trashcan? Would a researcher label my actions as ‘implicit basketball’? Moreover does it contribute to sports psychology? More than likely, however, it would only serve to confuse our idea of what an ‘athlete’ is. The reason implicit concepts are not typically extended into other domains should be made clear. It seems that due to certain religious a priori’s (Belzen, 2010, p.93) or the idea that we are inherently religious i.e. homo religious, some scholars feel it necessary to label humans in general as ‘religious’. This can lead to researchers claiming that such things as cross dressing, playing sports, or our reverence and enthusiasm for selling Apple computers (just to name a few) are ‘religious’, albeit implicitly (cf. Schnell, 2003).
If we want to know what someone ‘believes’, or doesn’t, we have to ask them. We should consider this the nature of ‘belief”. There is no such inherent thing as ‘religion in general’ or a ‘religious act’ or ‘religious emotion’ (Belzen, 2010, p. 12, 32), only things deemed to be ‘religious’ by the person carrying out the act and or displaying the emotion (Taves, 2009). If there is anything that could be considered an inherently religious act or emotion, we know that this act or emotion can be fulfilled in secular ways as well (Vergote, 1997, p.45, cf. Hood, 1975). If the notion of ‘religion’ is not oriented around a belief in the transcendent, then it remains a paradox i.e. the scientific endeavor can then be considered ‘religion’ (e.g. Geertz, 1973, p.90), as we as researchers end up not merely as scientists, but could be considered clergymen proselytizing our favourite scientific theory to the laity. As Vergote says, ‘The broadening of the object of psychology of religion is done for bad reasons and leads to absurdities.’ (1986, p.68).
One of the foremost questions we need to ask in the social scientific study of religion / non-religion, belief and ‘non-belief” (Silver & Coleman; 2013) has to do with the terms we employ in our academic endeavours and where they lead us. The team at Culture on the Edge is currently dismantling commonly held notions of ‘identity’ and exposing the strategic political ways in which rational agents employ terms. While their critical approach and the modest critique on ‘IR’ as seen here can seem, at times, non-productive, nothing is further from the truth.
Silver and Coleman asked participants during their Non-Belief in America Research if they believed that ‘there are experiences which are profound in this life but are not accurately described in the terms spiritual or religious’ (2013). One response that stood out was from an individual we may call ‘Jenna’. Jenna illustrated that the stakes are high as academia dives head first into researching atheists and other non-believers in God.
‘I dislike the word “spiritual” as so many religious people use it to describe themselves. I think the term has too many religious connotations. However, there are certainly many awe-inspiring, moving experiences in life, and I might describe my feeling towards nature as “spiritual”, were I in a solely atheist group who would not misunderstand my beliefs.’ –Jenna
The quote above outlines exactly what is at stake if we as researchers start to employ language in foreign contextual settings; our language goes on ‘holiday’ (Wittgenstein, 1973, p. 19). In other words, and in the case of Jenna above, she is not going to share certain experiences with us as researchers, she will not describe the things that might be most valuable to our very research, the ‘awe-inspiring, moving experiences in life’ if we use ‘religiously tinged’ terms to describe her behavior! The key here of course is the term employed (spiritual) and the trust bestowed upon the person listening (someone who would not misunderstand her). If we employ ‘religious language’ in general, and the concept of ‘implicit belief’ or ‘implicit religion’ when researching and describing the growing number of non-believers willing to share their experiences with us, we may soon find ourselves with no one willing to talk to us.
Approaching the issue of language from another direction, Berger and Luckmann state in The Social Construction of Knowledge that ‘I encounter language as a facticity external to myself and it is coercive in its effect on me. Language forces me into its patterns. I cannot use the rules of German syntax when I speak English’ (1966 p.53). If we apply their idea to researching atheists and non-believers in God, you cannot use religious language (German syntax) with ‘religious baggage’ when you want to speak to, research, or describe non-believers and the non-religious (‘English speakers’) or as Vergote states, ‘religious terminology is deprived of clarity’ (1997, p.15). All in all, perhaps we need a theory of ‘implicit atheism’ to function as a rhetorical device allowing non-believers to control the discourse on belief or un-belief. If the concept of implicit religion can be found ‘beneficial’ in anyway possible to the social sciences, then so too can a concept of implicit atheism. Intuitively we would assume that atheists don’t typically go to church (for exceptions see a recent article in The Christian Post) and if you identify as ‘religious’ and don’t go to church, your behaviour is atheistic, albeit implicitly so! See how this works, implicit frameworks are a tyrannical hegemonic enterprise – explicitly so.
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Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Director of the psychology of religion undergraduate research laboratory at UTC under Dr. Ralph Hood. Mr. Coleman and his colleague Dr. Christopher F. Silver recently finished up a study researching “non-believers” in America and a synopsis of the results can be found here. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu