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Atheism/Atheists tacit support of polytheism



What I have analyzed is atheists tacitly support polytheism. For example, I know many atheists who just practice atheism but their own family members are steep into polytheism but they seem to be totally unconcerned. Also atheists sometimes wish polytheists during religious festivals. I find monotheists seem to be keen to keeping their monotheism intact for them and for their progeny. But in case of atheists, it is highly likely that their own progeny will be polytheists.

What do you think on the above.

ANSWER: Hello amtry,

I must say I have not observed this connection between atheism and polytheism that you describe. At the same time, I don't think atheists generally treat all religions the same. So there are a couple of points I'd like to touch on that hopefully clarify my position.

Who is a Polytheist?
I find it surprising that you use the term polytheist. I would think that the polytheist religions are so few and so diverse that any cultural phenomenon would be specific to that religion, not polytheism. When I think of Polytheistic religions, I think of Hinduism, Jainism, Neopaganism/Wicca/Neoshamanism, Shintoism, Folk Religions[1], Tribal Religions[2], and Mormonism. This is a diverse group. And even within themselves, there can be variation in the degree of polytheism. Many Hindus see their deities as many aspects of the same God and so one can make an argument that those are really monotheists. Some individuals who practice Neopaganism, folk religion, tribal religions or Shintoism might be better classified as pantheistic or animist, which some see as subsets of polytheism, some see as subsets of atheism, and others see as their own class. Mormonism is a polytheistic religion only by technicality, it inherits most of Christianity's monotheistic characteristics such as a strong hierarchical church and a clearly defined religious dogma.

There are various other religions are often misidentified as polytheistic, such as Buddhism, Christianity (especially Catholicism), Ba'hai, Sikhism, etc. Because these religions do not consider themselves to be polytheistic, I think it is inappropriate to label them as such. Then there is the Islamic concept of shirk[3], which is sometimes interpreted to mean polytheism (as I have described it here) and is sometimes interpreted to mean any religion other than Islam.

Making peace with religious family members:
I would not regard having religious family members as tacit support of that religion. Most atheists were raised religious and had to renounce the religion they were given by their family. Merely by calling themselves atheists they make it clear that they do not endorse the religion of their family. Many atheists do try to convince their religious family members to leave the religion (and vice versa) but obviously they cannot always expect to be 100% successful. Having a difference of opinion about religion doesn't mean they stop being family.

Allow me to use myself as an example. I was raised Christian and almost all of my family is still Christian. If you browse my past AllExperts answers[4] you will surely see that I do not hesitate to criticize Christianity. I sometimes debate religion with members of my family, but so far have not managed to convince any of them. This is just like how we sometimes debate politics, but that's okay. I still value them as my family. And were I to make an ultimatum that they must reject Christianity or I would disown them, I would probably not change anyone's mind and just lose my family. I celebrate Christmas with them but not Easter. Christmas is a fun cultural experience for me that does not require Christianity to enjoy. I do no join them for Christmas mass or join in on Christmas prayer, but I do not prevent them from doing so themselves. I suspect one day my siblings' children will hear my perspective on religion and one day I will have children that will hear their perspective on religion. I believe most atheists, of all religious backgrounds, have an arrangement like this. It does not make us hypocrites.

More generally, if I was only friends with atheists I'd have very few friends indeed. I haven't restricted my dating to atheists either. I would always say “Anyone open-minded enough to date an atheists is open-minded enough for me to date” and “They do not need to understand atheism, but they do need to understand humanism”. At this point in my life I have been in a relationship with a non-practicing neopagan, a liberal Christian, and two atheists (I am currently with one of the atheists). Right now in the US, atheists are 64% male and 36% female[5] which means that if all the female atheist couple up with a male atheist than that still leaves 28% of all atheists which are male and must date someone outside of atheism[6]. If its a choice between being alone forever or compromising on religious differences, I cannot blame someone for choosing the latter.

Pragmatic Allies of Atheism:
Atheists don't criticize religion just to increase the number of atheists, they criticize religion out of ethical concept. Atheists care about human rights, secularism, science, and skepticism and they criticize religion when they harm society by opposing these ideals. I talk about an atheist's goals for speaking out in a previous AllExperts post found here [7].

Atheists believe all religions are false, but they do generally hold all religions to be equally harmful. Consequently atheists often prioritize their criticisms of religion by focusing most of their attention on the world's biggest and most harmful religions. In explaining how religion can be harmful, it is also useful to present some of the most commonplace and egregious examples. I analyze religion from this perspective in two previous AllExperts posts [8][9], in which I explain why atheists seem to pick some religions to focus on.

Examples are abundant of prominent atheists making explicit comparisons between religions, especially to make a point about their own priorities. Sam Harris has said many times that he regards radical/fundamentalist Jainism or Buddhism to be inherently less dangerous than radical/fundamental Islam [10][11]. Obviously Sam Harris prefers atheism to both Jainism and Buddhism and as (ex-Jain) Hermant Mehta points out there is still much to criticize about Jainism [12][13]. Sam Harris has said he's not sure the West should present liberal Islam as a credible alternative to fundamentalist Islam, but Salman Rushdie has said we should [14]. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has (controversially) recommended fundamental Christians evangelize to fundamentalist Islam [15], but goes on to say she would also recommend the same evangelization by communist-based atheism (which she also rejects) and enlightenment-based atheism (which she endorses).

Part of the reason these atheists and other atheists are fixated on Islam is because of its association with modern terrorist organizations in conflict with the West. But another reason is that ex-monotheists know how to criticize monotheism. Abrahamic religions make similar arguments for their religion (cosmological argument, argument from design, arguing atheists can't be moral, arguing their holy book is accurate) and are equally vulnerable to the Problem of Evil. Therefore an ex-Christian have some expertise in making an atheist case against Islam and considerably less expertise in making an atheist case against something like Hinduism.

The last factor is politics. Atheists stand for secularism and against theocracy, and it is usually the majority religion in a nation that is standing against secularism and for theocracy. In the US, for example, Catholics have traditionally advocated for the separation of church and state because they would be discriminated against by a Protestant Christian majority. But as Protestants have increased their tolerance for Catholics and the number of Catholics increased from immigration, Catholics have started to argue for government enforcement of religious values. Similarly, US Muslims generally support separation of Church and State even while Islamist theocracies are commonplace elsewhere in the globe. So political power shapes a religion's views on secularism and atheists therefore find themselves in common cause with local minority religions across the globe. Most of the time this means opposition to the monotheistic control of society. Only India and Nepal are majority polytheist and indeed in these places atheists called themselves rationalists and define themselves in opposition to Hinduism [16].

I hope you found this discussion enlightening. Feel free to ask a follow-up especially if I missed something.

[6] I am excluding any gay, lesbian, poly-amorous, asexual, and/or non-gendered atheists only for the simplicity of calculation.
[9] (go to the follow-up question)

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your reply. I also noticed that in India, there are many statues constructed for dead atheists leaders. Atheists also put garlands, flowers over them during their leader's birthday, death anniversary etc. I find this similar to idol worship practices. Also christmas is one of the christianity's important festival and it represents the birth of christianity. So participating such festival represents tacit support of the christian belief.

You might be surprised to know that one of the Indian Hindu fanatic organization was founded by Atheist.

Overall, I feel that atheists have contributed to polytheism as much as polytheists.

ANSWER: Hello again amtry,
I think that follow-up question is helpful. I now have a much better idea of what is on your mind when you are thinking about atheists and polytheists. The politics of India has been an interesting subject for me to read about.

Flowers on Statues:
Supposed atheists did not adorn statues of dead leaders they admire with flowers. Suppose instead they left plaques or notes simply saying “I believe the person depicted in the statue was a great leader and many of their ideas are still relevant today. This community will not forget their words”. Each plaque is translated into twenty different languages and each plaque is dated with the time it was constructed. Surely you would not call this idol worship? You could disagree with the sentiment, but you would recognize this as a secular political activity, right? This is precisely what it means to leave flowers by a statue of a dead leader. It is an unambiguous show of support that transcends languages and conveys recent activity. It would be certainly a more effective way of communicating than leaving a pile of plaques.

If one recognizes that atheists can sign petitions, wave flags, use logos and make public art, than one should recognize that atheists can engage in communication via symbolism without being superstitious.

Of course, there are other reasons why people leave flowers by statues. One reason would be to leave a gift for the deceased – a token of support to be seen or used by a spirit floating in another realm. Another reason would be appeasement of God (or the gods) – a sacrifice made is support of the deceased. And someone putting flowers by statues for these reasons would be engaging in a religious practice. However unless you ask someone why they left flowers by the statue, you cannot know whether their reasons are consistent with their stated beliefs. So I don't think you should assume that just because you see flowers by an atheist statue that atheists are engaging in a religious practice. It may be that you are right – that there are atheists engaging in these practices as a kind of idol worship – but so far you have not presented me with the kind of evidence that would cause me to conclude that.

Celebrating Christmas:
Perhaps I confused you by mentioning my participation in Christmas activities – I'm not sure how familiar you are with American Christmas practices. Christmas itself is a diverse and constantly evolving holiday[17]. Before Christianity there was Scandinavian winter festival Yule and a Roman winter festival Saturnalia. Then Christianity comes to be the most popular religion in both Scandinavia and the former Roman empire. Although Christians don't actually know what season Jesus was born in, the pagan winter festivals were so popular that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the winter. Christmas included many of the secular/pagan elements, including gathering with friends and family, eating seasonal food, decorating homes and giving-gifts. In addition to these elements, Christianity added church attendance and depictions of nativity scenes. The degree to which the holiday was a secular party, a cultural practice, or a religious ceremony varied over time and place. In the early 19th century, it was a religious somber affair that was starting to wane in popularity. Then Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” (1843) and Clement Clarke Moore “Twas the night before Christmas” (1822) - these stories revived the holiday, re-established it an all-inclusive secular festival, and fixed most of the specific traditions into their modern form. A little later (1885) it becomes an official US holiday. In the early twentieth century advertising[18] for Christmas gifts and Christmas-themed children stories[19][20] shaped public conception of the holiday.

So Christmas is about the birth of Jesus to some people but not other people. I prepare foods that I like, I visit my family, I engage gifts with friends, and I decorate my house with lights. What's religious about that? I enjoy doing these things and don't see it as related to Christianity. Most atheists, including notable and outspoken critics of Christianity like Richard Dawkins, celebrate Christmas in a similar fashion as I do[21]. I enjoy the fact that other members of my community, friends, and family (who are Christian) will celebrate Christmas with me. I can visit them when we both have time off work, our house decorations will match, I can give and receive gifts, and we can help each other cook Christmas meals. Unlike Christians who celebrate Christmas, I don't depict nativity scenes, attend church services, say Christmas prayers, read the Bible, or think about Jesus.

Some atheists have worried it would be symbolically supporting Christianity to participate in any Christmas traditions whatsoever. They would argue that if we want to decorate, eat special meals, and exchange gifts that we should do so at different times and different ways. These atheists have variously proposed the Winter Solstice[22], Festivus[23], Newtonmas[24], or HumanLight[25] as substitute winter holidays. The main problem with these holidays is that Christmas can already be celebrated as a secular winter festival, so in practical terms these holidays don't have much point. And secular participation in Christmas can actually provide a strategic advantage against the religious version of Christmas. The semi-religious, individuals who call themselves Christians but don't go to Church or think about God that often are a main target audience for atheists and Christians. If Christmas makes the semi-religious think about religion, then the Christians “win”. If either the semi-religious doesn't think about Christmas or Christmas doesn't make the semi-religious think about religion, then the atheists “win”. Out of the two strategies for atheists, breaking the association between Christmas and Christianity is the more effective strategy.

Even without atheist intervention, Christmas is already becoming a bigger holiday and a more secular holiday. For instance, its become popular among American Jews (especially in New York) to eat Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas (two things Christians rarely do on Christmas so Jews would not have to wait). These alternate activities have become so popular that now it is difficult to get movie tickets on Christmas (especially in New York), because it has become its own Christmas tradition. So even when people avoid Christmas, their wintertime activities are shaped by the presence of the Christmas celebration and become traditions of their own. Many Jews now have Christmas trees[26], because it is not considered to be an exclusively Christian tradition.


Indian Politics:
I am not very familiar with Indian politics, but I do believe I understand the atheist mindset. So forgive me if I make a mistake in describing the politics but hopefully I can help you understand how it relates to atheism anyway. The key thing to understand is that atheists are not just atheists. Atheists have social and political views and for some atheists those views are more important that their religious views.

I read your wiki link on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. As I understand it Savarkar created and shaped the term Hindutva, a concept principally about Hindu nationalism. It seems Savarkar rejected British imperialism, he wanted a unified Indian subcontinent, he rejected the Hindu caste system and supported a democratic political system. Its unclear to me whether Savarkar was personally anti-Muslim, but it is certainly true that his concept Hindutva has been used to advance discriminate against Muslims.

If there were an atheist that has an anti-Muslim Hindu-nationalist view it does not necessarily reflect a religious preference. They may or may not be racist, bigoted, or xenophobic, but their views are stemming from a preference for a culture not a theological perspective. Remember, atheists are pragmatic. One atheist can prefer the social, political, and cultural views of a typical Hindu over the social, political, and cultural views of a typical Muslim. Another atheist might see it the opposite way, agreeing with the Muslim more than the Hindu. And the two atheists could have different ideas about what the views of a typical Hindus and Muslims actually are. But when atheists chose their allies, they are not thinking about the theological traits of the religion so much as whether its moral values and political policies closely align with their own.

Hindutva seems to be a cornerstone of the modern Bharatiya Janata Party part of the National Democratic Alliance, currently India's most powerful political party[27]. India's second most powerful political party is currently the Indian National Congress part of the United Progressive Alliance. BJP seems to prefer Hindus over Muslims and atheists, whereas INC/UPA seems to be more supportive of both Muslims and atheists. But there are also other issues at stake – the BJP prefers free markets whereas the INC prefers more regulated markets, the INC wants more social welfare programs whereas BJP wants less, BJP prefers a more confrontational approach towards Pakistan and the world whereas the INC prefers a more conciliatory approach. Perhaps the analogy is illusory, but the BJP/NDA reminds me of the US Republican party and the INC/UPA reminds me of the US Democratic party. In the US, only about 7% of atheists are Republican[28]. Therefore, by analogy to the US, I would expect that most Indian atheists reject the NDA and support the UPA.

I could not find any information on the political preferences of Indian atheists. However, there is a wikipedia page on notable Indian atheists [29] which I take to be a fair sampling of Indian atheist political views. Many of the of the atheists were involved in politics (say on science, anti-superstition, or pro-free-speech) but not obviously affiliated with a political party. Of the atheists on that list with unambiguous political affiliations I count 7 affiliated with the INC[30] and 2 affiliated with Dravidar parties[31] making a total of 9 affiliated with UPA. I found 6 affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [32], 1 affiliated with the Community Party of India (M. N. Roy), and 2 primarily known for contributions to Indian Communism/Marxim (Bhagat Singh and Irfan Habib) for a total of 9 communists. I found only 1 affiliated with BJP, Jagadish Shettas, and its worth noting he was previously associated with the Janta Dal (Secular) party. Depending on how you count[33] that gives us about 1/19 = 5.3% of notable atheists with a BJP political affiliation. Given the popularity of the BJP, I think its fair to say that any Indian atheist who supports the BJP would be supporting it despite their atheism rather than because of it.

[28] and
[30] Siddaramaiah, Motilal Nehru, P. Chidambaram, S. Nijalingappa, Sushilkumar, A. K. Antony and C. P. Joshi
[31] Karunanidhi (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (Dravidar Kazhagam)
[32] Jyoti Basu, Sitaram Yechusy, Subhashini Ali, V. S. Achuthananlan, E. M. S Namboodiripad, and E. K. Nayanar
[33] If we count Savarkar as BJP (even though his politics were shaped by pre-independence issues) we should also count the pre-indendence affiliateion of Ram Manohar Lohia with the INC. I also came across Khushwat Singh, who was commonly associated with INC by other people but was not formally associated with that. Including those three would give us 2/22 = 9.1% .

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

Thanks for your reply. Your reply was lengthy but did not answer my questions fully. Hindutva supports and enforces hinduism on others. It was founded by Savarkar who was an atheist. This is a well known fact. My point was atheists contributed to polytheism. Also putting flowers, garlands is the practice of polytheists in the belief that they are paying homage to the dead. Polytheists also put flowers, garlands to the atheists leaders in the same time when atheists do the same. General public would not know the difference as you claim. Also there are many atheists actors act in films with the character that supports polytheism. Yet they claim to be atheists. So lets accept the fact that atheists say one thing but they behave in a different way tacitly supporting polytheism.


I am sorry I cannot help you more. I believed I had answered your questions, but I think my answer is not clear. I do not know what to say except that what I have said already. I will try once more to explain.

Savarkar was indeed an atheist. He did indeed found Hindutva. Hindutva does indeed enforce Hinduism. I agree on all these points. The point of my last response is that is unusual behavior for an atheist - most atheists do not support the BJP, the modern form of Hindutva. I do not support Hindutva either, so I can only speculate on Savarkar's motivations. If he says he is an atheist, I believe he is telling the truth - what religious person would they are an atheist? If he is an atheist who supports Hinduism, he must do it for a different reason for Hindu believers do. He did not believe, as the Hindu believers do, that Shruti and the Smritis are inspired by a divine force. He also did not believe in the Hindusim-based caste system.

Instead he supported people descending from individuals native to India, typically Hindus and polytheists, over people descending from individuals external to India, typically Muslims or Christians. Since most individuals have the religions of their ancestors, he used religion to discriminate between natives and foreigners. This intolerant view can be viewed as anti-imperialist, nationalist, nativist, racist, but it is not the same a Hinduism.

Allow me to give an example from another context. Many white American Christians do not want Mexican Christians to immigrate to the United States [34]. They share religious views, but they reject Mexican immigration because they have negative stereotypes about the behavior of Mexican immigrants. These Americans believe that Mexican immigrants are lazy, aggressive, or ignorant. If it is possible for an American Christian to prefer non-Christian Americans over Christian Mexicans, than surely it is possible for an atheist Indian to prefer non-atheist Indians (i.e. Hindus) over atheist non-Indians (i.e. Muslims and Christians).

As I said before, I do not support Savarkar's vision of Hindutva. I do not think religion is a fair way to judge ancestry and I do not think ancestry is a fair way to judge someone's rights. And I do not know why he supports individuals of Hindu ancestry over individuals of Muslim ancestry. It is a common human mistake to believe that everything was perfect in the past and to blame outsiders for the problems of the present times.

As I said before, putting garlands on a statue is not only a traditional religious practice, it is also a symbol - a way of communicating a point of view to other people. Unless you ask someone who is putting garlands on a statue "Why are you doing this? What does this mean to you?", you cannot know whether they are attempting communication to gods or communication to men.

I see no contradiction between in atheist actor playing the role of a polytheist. It is commonplace for actors to play characters they do not agree with, just as it is commonplace for writers to write dialogue for characters they do not agree with. It does not mean anything for an actor to play the part of a character they do not agree with. If every actor had to agree with the character they played, how would the movies ever show villains? Sometimes a movie needs to show a bad person in order to demonstrate how their behavior is bad.

It is another matter for an atheist to play a role, any role, in a movie whose themes support polytheism. But even here I see a more complicated dilemma. Being part of the movie may hurt atheism, but it also poses an opportunity to help atheist. Someone who is a well-known actor can speak in favor of atheism. When polytheist views are commonplace and atheist views are marginalized, the atheist may decide it is actually worth the cost.

Again an analogy outside of India comes to mind to illustrate the point. Willie Best [35] was an African-American actor working in the 1930s who played characters who depicted negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Willie's characters were lazy and stupid, even though Willie was not. As an African-American man, he knew better than anyone how harmful these negative stereotypes were. However they were some of the only roles available for African-Americans. In becoming a successful actor earned the respect of white actors and he never would have had that opportunity to change their minds if he didn't take those roles. Over the next century Americans would come to realize the negative stereotypes about African-Americans were factually and morally wrong. Its hard to say for sure whether Willie Best helped or hurt the social progress that would come. Perhaps something similar could be said of even an atheist who works on a film that attacks atheism.

Atheist and Polytheism:
Some individual atheists may support polytheism. I'm sure there are some individual atheists that support Christianity or Islam. Atheism, in general, does not support polytheism (or any religion). I do not know of any organization formed around atheist that supports polytheism in any form. If you generalize the behavior of all atheists based on the behavior of a few, you are stereotyping atheists and not treating them like real people.

I demonstrated this in my previous post - only about 5-10% of Indian atheists support the BJP. Since this is less than the average rate of support for the BJP in India, that means anyone who is an Indian atheist is less likely to support the BJP than non-atheist Indian. This means atheism causes people to turn away from the BJP. Furthermore, not all Indians who support the BJP do so because of Hinduism. As I said before, an individual that believes tax policy is more important than religion could prefer the BJP to the INC for this reason. I do not support the BJP, but I believe it would be inaccurate to characterize every individual who supports the BJP as a supporter of Hinduism.

I hope this clarifies my response. If it does not, I do not know what else to say.



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Jeffrey Ellsworth


I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.


I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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