Wednesday, June 30, 2010


If there’s one thing I really understand, it’s religion. And yet, like a biologist who is unable to truly define what “life” means, I am at a loss for formulating a perfect, succinct definition of religion. Like a biologist, I have to “know it when I see it,” and my view will not be the same as everyone else’s.

I find some people who reject the idea of gods to be religious, in some ways I might even include myself. As it turns out, gods are not a necessary component of religion. Religion doesn’t even need mythology.

We tend to think of religion in the modern sense, limited as we are by the handful of faiths we come in contact with (less than a dozen, really, of the thousands that have existed). We think of their shared characteristics as the foundations of faith, but the truth is that the idea of gods is no more common or required for a religion than dietary restrictions, ethical guidelines, or even genital mutilation.

Like most people who spend time studying religion from a secular perspective, I have settled on the conclusion that the only thing all religions have in common is ritual. Whether you believe there’s a daddy in heaven watching over us, or that scores of gods are enacting divine soap operas, or perhaps that everything has a spark of the divine, or even that Xenu left us here trillions of years ago… there are rituals you can perform that will “help.”

Religion is sort of like the history of human understanding. Religion is all about cause and effect. Before the monotheistic faiths took over, one of the primary religious ideas in the West was Cosmic Sympathy, the idea that all things are connected. It explained how people could tell the future by reading tea leaves or animal entrails or the flights of birds. It was the basis of astrology and all kinds of magic.

The lunacy! Chew on Willow bark and your headache goes away. Insane witch doctors!

As it turns out, lots of rituals “work” in one way or another. Sometimes we manage to figure out (through trial and error… lots of error) that certain natural substances have interesting effects on us. Sometimes the mechanism of action is nothing more than simple psychology, which today we would chalk up to the placebo effect.

Science is almost a religion. Science changes far too quickly to be recognizable as a religion. If religion were ice, science would be water. Some people treat aspects of science like religion, especially medicine. Plenty of people dutifully take their pills on a regular schedule with faith in the doctor and pharmacist. Some of them are taking placebos and don’t even know it… which is actually part of why it works.

There are also lots of different ways of classifying ritual. There is superstition, which I like to define as “rituals the observer finds ridiculous.” There are rites of passage, which are some of my least favorite rituals. I particularly hate the rituals of initiation or hazing, but I am also annoyed by transition ceremonies (particularly graduations and other self-congratulatory embellishment spectacles). Even brushing your teeth may be seen as a ritual of hygiene.

All rituals work. I may not successfully make someone experience pain with a voodoo doll, but the ritual itself provides the practitioner tangible utility in the form of emotional release. My prayer to cure someone’s disease may not elongate their life, but it will ease my own stress. I could choose to perform any ritual I wanted, and the more I believe in it, the more I gain. Ritual is the natural human anti-anxiety.

So what of atheists? What are our rituals? Well, for one, some of us feel compelled to comment on religious news of the day. Some throw rocks at churches. Some talk to friends and family about our lack of belief.

Sure, we probably don’t pray or look down on gay people, but most of us hope for the impossible and plenty look down on religious people. Atheism can easily be a religion, and it can even be a faith if one lets it.

If “I see no evidence for gods,” turns into “There is no God,” you have stepped into the circle with those making unverifiable claims. Who is worse, the Christian who looks down on atheists, or the atheist who looks down on Christians? To me, it is the atheist, because Christians are often told they are better by their books and preachers. What excuse does the atheist have?

The most common ritual in religion is one that many people have heard of, but rarely think about or understand. The Scapegoat ritual has deep origins and is present in every ideology that has ever been formulated by mankind.

Playing on the cause and effect nature of magic, a scapegoat is something that we are told must be destroyed. If it is destroyed, good things will happen. The rains will come, the sun will rise, all people will live together in peace and harmony forever and forever. This last one is actually a tenant of the religion of some Atheists.

“If only religion were gone,” we’re told, “the world would be [insert suspect claim of utopian society here].” Getting rid of religion won’t do a damn thing if Atheism acts precisely like a religion.


  1. If, for the sake of argument, you are correct, and atheism is indeed a religion, then do you consider the following religions as well?


    I am 99.999999999% convinced that there are no such things as leprechauns, unicorns and Santa Claus. For the sake of simplicity, I round it up to 100%

    Same with God(s). I am slighly open to the idea of some sort of 'cause' to existence and the Universe, but I doubt that there is such a cause, or that if such a cause exists that it's even provable or knowable at all. But even as I recognize unknowables in the Universe, I do not go around calling myself an agnostic. It's pretty obvious that there is no Hebrew deity in the sky commanding men to circumcise themselves and to go sacrifice their son Isaac. Another example; you know if Thor exists or you know that he doesn't. Don't shit around the pot, it's an easy position to take. There are certain things that one can't seriously be agnostic about; You know or you don't.

    So let's just say that there is no God, for the sake of simplicity. Besides, there's this thing called 'burden of proof'. It's up to theists to prove that their God exists. Not to me to prove that he doesn't. Because the burden of proof is upon them, I boldly come out and simply say "there is no God". If they can submit satisfactory evidence that proves his existence, I'll retract my statement. Granted, I'm taking a gamble. There's maybe 0.000000000001% that I'm wrong, but those are statistical odds I'm willing to live with.

    The problem with religion, and specifically theistic religions, is when they get involved in politics. I don't want to ever have to live under a theocracy. If I can show that religion is an absurd load of fallacies and myths, then at least, I've undermined any foundation theocrats may want to rely on.

    So yeah, after our discussion the other day, I thought about it, and I guess I'm not really anti-theist. I'm more specifically a rounded-up anti-theocrat atheist. With slight zen buddhist tendencies.

  2. Atheism can be a religion or a complete lack of religion. If you became obsessed with the idea that leprechauns didn't exist, buying books on the subject and looking down on Irish people, and refusing to wear green... then yes, that could be a religion, too.

    Why do you always focus on creation? I mean, I get that it's the weakest link in the Christian cosmology, but I think we can say the idea of an anthropomorphic deity speaking the universe into existence from an unexplained deep ocean is pretty much bunk. Not much more time needs to be spent on it.

    Without a doubt, passive atheism is not in itself a religion or even a faith. The burden of proof is certainly on the one making the claim, and one is not making any kind of faith statement if one simply rejects every theory of god presented (and it should not be difficult, given how shoddy these theories tend to be). I'm not sure how you're coming up with odds for something that cannot be tested.

  3. Exactly the point, since these odds can't be tested, I am forced to make up the numbers :) They're subjectively rough guesstimates used to illustrate metaphors numerically.

  4. Why not just point out that mathematically, you can be both sure and unsure.

    99.999... = 100


    1 = 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = .333... + .333... + .333... = .999...

    I find it best not to be sure of anything. If you flirt with conviction, you dance with stubborn dogma.

  5. As a sort of public note to myself:

    Baldness : Hair Color :: atheism : religion

    Shaved Bald : Balding :: atheism : Atheism

  6. Not to be sure of anything... is skepticism.

    Absolute certitude is dogmatic conviction.

    Certainty is a psychological factor. Therefore any religious certainty falls into the cognitive sciences.

    To me cognitive science has revealed not just the how but also the why of the formulation of man-made beliefs in a totally naturalistic model which... if understood... should cause EVERYONE to be skeptical of their faith.

    Thus agnosticism is the default position.

    Yet when probabilities are factored in for "personal" or religiously "specific" sorts of deities with unique facets or traits specifically designated to that one belief systme or particular faith, then you can run the numbers and... although we can't say for certain any particular god does not exist... we can be certain that any specific God as designated by the Holy books cannot exist.

    And that's the difference.

    I'm an atheists in the Gods I know can't exist. Knowing being the key word here. In the Gods which I don't know, I leave room for the possibility, that maybe, it might be, plausibly so, but then I'll just wait for the evidence. Since balancing one's beliefs in proportion to the evidence just seems like the sensible thing to do.

    But the way I see it, the attributes of the God of Christianity, Islam, and Jews is so well defined that I know there is no tangible, credible, trustworthy evidence to support that type of deity, so I can be certain that it does not exist... since the evidence would HAVE to exist if that sort of deity were real.

    Case closed. End of story. There's no pot of gold at the end of a rainbow either... but I think somehow we'll all manage to cope.

  7. Do you believe that Jesus was a true historical figure? If so, who do you think he was?

  8. Jesus was probably a real person, but so were Odin, Zeus, Alexander the Great, and numerous others who were worshipped as Gods.

  9. The documented life of Jesus does not belong on the same playing field as mythological figures whose historical origins are impossible to trace. Jesus is the only historical Savior/God who lived a life of sinless perfection which is what we would expect of God incarnate.

  10. Jesus' life is only documented by those who have every reason to lie about the details. The Bible carries no more weight than the hundreds of other mythologies of earthly demigods. The fact that a lot of people believe it today merely puts it in the running with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism... really any major religion with millions of followers.

  11. I am finding it interesting to learn the views of others. But what did the New Testament authors have to gain? They were stoned, crucified and beheaded. They could have recanted but did not. Why would they die for a known lie?

  12. Why did pagans die as Christians tortured them until conversion or death? Are gods anymore real because of the conviction and dedication of their followers? Or is the Christian god more real because His followers were cruel enough to force their beliefs on all they came in contact with?

  13. Yes, Christians have been on the giving and receiving end of persecution throughout history. Both being the sins of man which Jesus came to die for. I believe the disciples died for Jesus' name because they really believed he was from God and they wanted to document it. Why the bible over other major religions? I think the evidence of creation is consistent with the theistic God of the bible and it has been proven to be textually pure. I also believe it is of a historical genre with the events being recorded from eyewitness testimony.

  14. The people who wrote the New Testament never met Jesus. They did not even speak the same language, as they wrote it in Greek. They wrote stories, often a hundred years or more after the fact. Some of the oldest Christian texts are not even in the New Testament, probably because they do not coincide with the agenda of those who composed the Bible, who based their decisions solely on their interpretation a few centuries after the fact.

    The "evidence" is all in the fiction/mythology. Why not follow Islam, or Mormonism, or Scientology for that matter? They all write that they are the truth and that the others are wrong. What weight does your particular idea of Christianity carry, besides a Koine Greek text you probably read in English? You're basing your entire belief system on an interpretation of an interpretation of people who never met the person being written about.

  15. So in your opinion, there is no credibility in the Bible whatsoever? It's all just one big lie, hoax or conspiracy?

  16. Ginx,

    Check this article out - very interesting read.,9171,946794-1,00.html

  17. Saying the Bible is "one" anything is a misrepresentation of the Bible. The Bible is a compilation of dozens of authors spanning several centuries. There is no validity in the statement "the Bible is a lie/hoax/conspiracy."

    More importantly, it's not a conspiracy in any sense. Christianity is quite open and honest. It's no secret Christians are trying to convince others of their ideas, or that they expect some cash for the purposes of funding this campaign of sharing/shoving their ideology with/on others.

    Finally, to say the Bible "has no credibility" is rather unfair. It is not a complete fiction in the sense of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books taking place in a land that doesn't exist with people who were never born. However, just because a few historical facts are proven to be faithfully recorded in the Bible does not lend any credibility to any other statements that are made without any kind of verification.

  18. According to the latest earth tremor in New Testament studies

    - Time Magazine, 1977

    Robinson is the first to grant that his theory is by no means "conclusive." but he challenges his colleagues to try to prove him wrong. If scholars reopen the question, he is convinced, the results will force "the rewriting of many introductions to—and ultimately, theologies of—the New Testament."

    - Time, 1977

    Still waiting on this new development to gain any footing in Biblical scholarship... decades after the fact.


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