According to Fox News, a group of atheists are performing de-baptizing rituals with hair dryers (thanks for the link Tad). This is one of these moments where as an anthropologist you feel a certain smug self-congratulation that human beings are in fact just as culturally creative as you keep on telling people they are. But it also speaks to deeper issues in the so-called atheism/religion debate that flares up periodically in America and England and is increasingly diffusing all over the place.
Just mentioning people likeRichard Dawkins is likely to draw tons of aggro to this blog, so I will keep it short: most commenters on the cage match between the rabid evolutionist-cum-atheists and the rabid evangelical christians-cum-creationists imagine this conflict to involve two separate groups. The genius of the hair-dryer ritual is that it demonstrates so clearly that what we actually have here is a case of what Simon Harrison calls ‘mimetic conflict’ — two groups competing to occupy a single identity. The opposition is not one of Christian versus non-Christian, but rather a conflict between two different permutations of protestant culture.
Consider: one side believes it possesses an infallible book written by an omnipotent author with a huge beard with completely explains the dynamics all living things on earth. The other side believes in the literal truth of the bible. One side believes it will go to heaven, the other advocates a space program to achieve “Mars in our time” as a mission to direct and shape human aspiration. Atheist parodic appropriation of Christian identity even comes with (according to the article) a ritual officiant who “doned a monk’s robe and said a few mock-Latin phrases” before the drying began — and of course there is nothing more protestant than damning your opponent for their popery.
This de-baptism makes clear in a single ritual what is at the heart of much of this debate: that within American culture, science and religion are two different things but two versions of the same thing, both of which rely in shared, rather intellectualist understandings of human nature and the role of the bible/Darwin: humans attempt to ‘find meaning in the universe’, explain natural phenomenon, and live regenerated lives free of the corrupting influence of earlier, false doctrine. These are notions that are, in general, not shared by members of other religions.
Partially is a way of saying that the anthropological notion of culture often cuts across what other people’s ‘ethnocultural’ notions — we see a single system made of oppositions where others see two discrete ‘cultures’ or groups. But mainly this is just a way to give props to atheists for such a well-designed ritual. I’m not particularly big on running other people’s beliefs down, but setting aside the mean-heartedness that comes across in the interview with the atheists, I have to say as a piece of cultural practice the ritual is superbly imagined.