Thursday, April 28, 2011

Atheism as Religion

I spend a fair number of posts explaining how atheism is not a religion, which is an exercise in futility. Those who believe atheism is a religion won’t be swayed by simple “facts.” If they were, they wouldn’t be religious.

So, I figure: why not analyze how atheism could be a religion?

Before I start, I need to define my terms. Most importantly, I need to explain my capitalization convention when it comes to atheism. To me, “atheism” is the lack of belief in gods, while “Atheism” is the belief that there are no gods. The former is an agnostic position (lacking knowledge), while the latter is a gnostic position (having knowledge). To me, the only possibility for our purposes in discussing a religious form of disbelief would be Atheism.

At this point, it is also important to define what a religion is. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which means “piety for the divine.” Here we have our first major hurdle in defining an Atheist religion.

In another sense, religion is defined by ritual. The very word “religious” is used as an adverb to describe the performance of some action in a regular, ritualized manner (or “religiously”). Again, this leads us down a dead-end, as atheism is not particularly associated with any particular rituals.

There is a third aspect of religion that might be exploited in order bend atheism into the shape of a religion. However, atheism can’t do it alone; it is going to need some help from its friends.

One role of religion is to define the nature of all things, from mankind and the world we live in to the universe as a whole and its origin. Atheism has nothing to say on the matter, besides ruling out a supernatural deity from the process, but science does a rather adequate job of filling in the some of the gaps.

I hesitate here, because I find it a to be fundamentally ignorant of religious people to argue that science and atheism are one in the same. One can be atheist while rejecting science or embrace science and theism simultaneously. Science isn’t a religion, nor is it really a true substitute for religion. Yes, science is better than religion (if only because it’s so quick to correct its errors), but one flirts with stupidity when pretending that science is similar to religion.

Still, science is able to answer simple questions about nature which were previously answered (incorrectly) by religions. In this way, science can be used to replace some religious beliefs in the same way that a laptop computer can be used as a paperweight.

Another aspect of religion that needs to be addressed is morality. There are two cues here for atheists: ethics and the law. Some might say ethics is a science, I would disagree. Either way, morality must be addressed by the atheist to some degree.

I highly recommend against using the law as the guide for one’s morality. For one thing, there are many things which are wrong, though they are legal. For another, adopting the status quo as one’s own beliefs is counter-productive in an imperfect world. Unless you think everything is perfect the way it is, there will end up being laws you want changed, removed or added. In this case, one needs some basis for determining what the law ought to be, rather than blind faith in what the law is. This basis is called “ethics.”

Ethics, more than economics, sociology, or any other field of study that straddles the border of science and humanities, is still a largely non-scientific study. If one were to take an ethics class or read a book on ethics, it would essentially be a study in the history of ethics. That is the difference between the sciences and the humanities: science is constantly focused on where we are going, while the humanities is chiefly concerned with where we have been or where we are now.

Still, in the absence of experimentation on what behaviors empirically create better societies, knowing what others have said regarding ethics may be useful in the pursuit of happiness and improvement.

Already we have had to tap into science and ethics in order to complete the religion of Atheism. Things are not looking good for the “Atheism is a religion” argument.

But I have an open mind. Sometimes people have too narrow of a view when it comes to things they’re close to. Religion tends to be defined by the religious, or in the context of mainstream religion. What if I looked to unconventional faiths?

Let’s see… characteristics including:

- charismatic leaders
- a polarized “us vs. them” mentality
- pre-occupation with recruiting others

are some of the tell-tale signs of a cult. Those are things Atheism has covered, without the need to borrow.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… there’s no way Atheism is a religion, but I suppose some people may treat it like a cult.


  1. You drew me in with your premise, and you could have done so much more. I'm disappointed you simply used this as another opportunity to bash religion.

    Like everyone, I've heard people say that atheism is as much a religion as... A religion. More often, I've heard liberalism described as a religion. Since you describe yourself as left of the left, I'm curious if you see that you replaced faith in god with faith in liberal ideas?

    Anyway, what I expected from your post was a description of atheism as a religion. What would an atheist religion look like? We could have prophets/saints (Darwin), martyrs (Hitchens), charismatic leaders (Dawkins), and a holy canon (The End of Faith, The God Delusion, Religion Explained). We could create moral codes and call them denominations. We could celebrate the births of those we revere and mark holidays that are meaningful to us. We could even start holy wars based on competing religions' "god" references in public.

    Overall, I liked the idea but I think you could have done more with it.

  2. All of that said, of course, I agree that atheism is not like a religion. But you still could've had more fun with the idea.

  3. I could do a post about liberalism as religion, or conservatism as religion, or how you can make a religion out of sports or Star Wars or drugs or Charlie Sheen... really, there are a lot of things that can be seen to have a few of the characteristics of a religion and might be held as dearly to an individual as a religion.

    But the post was about atheism, and atheism is less of a religion than... I dunno, dentistry. At least there is ritual inherent in the dental faith (the brushing of teeth, annual appointments, etc.). Atheism is a religion like "I don't eat fish" can be one's favorite kind of sushi (sure, they may one day try a veggie roll and like it, but that isn't "I don't eat fish").

    Really, it was just another attempt to show how atheism isn't a religion, with a slight back-handed comment on how some atheists take atheism too seriously.

  4. There's a difference between a religion and an obsession.

  5. Very true, His Lordship, at least until obsessions become a tax shelter.


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