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Atheism Is Not a Religion

Some Atheists … assert that Atheism is not a religion but instead is the total absence of religion…. But this is like saying that "black," (which physicists define as the total absence of color) is not a color…. In common practice throughout the world, "black" is understood to be a color, despite the technical definition of the physicists. Likewise, "Atheism" is a religion, despite any technical definitions to the contrary. If black is a color, then Atheism is a religion.

—Rev. Bill McGinnis, The Religion of Atheism

You hear it regularly from talking heads like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter (whose latest 'book', Godless, is subtitled The Church of Liberalism), and you're only going to hear it more now that the War on Christmas season is upon us: atheism is a religion just as sure as Christianity is, and all these heathens want to do is foist their religion on the good, god-fearing folk of America.

There's always an undercurrent of defensiveness and desperation in this claim, as if one's own faith is invalidated by the existence of a genuinely different approach to life and the universe. In making their convoluted arguments, people who conflate atheism with religion actually weaken the foundations upon which their own belief is built. Atheism simply cannot be a religion unless that term carries essentially no meaning.

Here's a handy list of qualities shared by almost all religions that atheism lacks:

There Is No God

First things first. Atheists do not believe in a god or gods. This is a tautology, of course, since the term "atheism" itself carries that literal meaning. Some atheists have suggested that the term cedes too much to religious believers and argue for a new coinage that captures what atheists do believe rather than what they don't. The fact that there is no such suitable term is a strong argument against classifying atheism as a religion, as we shall see. The denial of god alone, however, is not sufficient proof that atheism is not a religion, since many belief systems do not believe in god. Some, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto — even Scientology — are properly classified as religions since they meet many of the other criteria listed below.

There Is No Common Belief

Contrary to what the O'Reillys and Coulters of the world will tell you, atheists are bound by no common ideology or belief. An atheist is someone who does not believe in god. Period. Beyond that, things get a little murky. There are the dreaded secular humanists, there are logical empiricists, there are existentialists, there are skeptics, nihilists – you name it. Not all atheists believe in evolution or put their 'faith' in science. This is why no one term could positively describe the entirety of atheism. Atheists as a whole are bound by a common disbelief – and nothing else.

There Are No Laws

Most religions feature a set of laws or regulations, ranging from what not to eat for breakfast to who thou shalt and shalt not kill and or covet. In atheism, this is entirely lacking. This is not to say that atheism is amoral (see below), but to note that there exists no universal atheist code of standards, either vague or specific.

There Is No Church or Ritual

It has become fashionable to claim that the Church of Atheism is the editorial board room of the New York Times or the chambers of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but this is nothing more than sophistry based on the supposition that all atheists are cut from the same (non-ecclesiastical) cloth. In fact, this is far from the case. Atheists are everywhere, in all walks of life (watch out!). The idea of an organized church of atheism in which its rituals are practiced by gatherings of (un)believers is a non sequitur.

There Is No Unified Conception of Spirituality

Unlike atheist religions such as Buddhism, non-religious atheism has no spiritual credo. Some atheists may consider themselves 'spiritual', while a great many do not. Some may feel some sort of connection to nature or the universe while others may feel nothing of the sort. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud called this the "oceanic feeling", and saw it as the source of the religious impetus. He claimed to have never experienced this feeling himself. Whether or not atheists have experienced this oceanic feeling, it has never coalesced into anything that could be called a religion.

There Is No Scripture

Christianity has the Bible, Islam the Koran; Judaism has the Torah, Hinduism the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Atheism has no scripture or sacred text. Darwin's Origin of the Species, while held in high regard by many atheists, doesn't count. The very fact that scientists are continually building on and even refuting Darwin's claims is proof that his version of the truth is not considered to be inerrant or divinely inspired.

There Is No Priesthood

In addition to having no rituals, atheism has no ritualistic leaders. Unlike virtually every religion known to man, atheism has no anointed hierarchy to lead its 'adherents' closer to the truth. This is not to say that there aren't prominent atheists. There are. But, absent the sacred texts and rituals of religion — not to mention a proper congregation — they do not constitute a priesthood or clergy.

There Is No Tradition

All religions have a tradition and a history. Atheism has many, but no single one that sustains a movement over centuries, as you find in every major world religion.

There Is No Founder

Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, L. Ron Hubbard – most major religions have a founding figure or prophet. Atheism has no such figure. There are many old-timers like Galileo, for example, who rise to prominence, but none of these atheists 'founded' atheism and none commands the reverence accorded to the founders and patriarchs of the world religions.

There Are No Holidays

Most religions have holy days (still, despite the all-out assault on Christmas). Atheism has no holidays, and no framework to decide when such holidays would be or what they might commemorate. Festivus doesn't count.

There Is No Identifying Clothing

Yarmulkes, robes, veils, turbans, sacred underwear and other holy vestments hold great importance for the majority of religions. Atheism has no dress code, although comfortable shoes are recommended.

There Is No Concept of the Afterlife

Most religions attempt to answer the question of what happens to us when we die. Where do we go to be warmed in the loving embrace of the lord? Where do they go to be horrifically tortured? There's heaven and hell, of course, and reincarnation, nirvana and moksha. Atheists have no concept of the afterlife, except that, most commonly, there isn't one.

There Is No Creation Myth

Now wait just a minute! How is the Big Bang any less of a myth than Genesis? Keeping in mind that not all atheists believe in the Big Bang theory, it's different because it's a scientific postulate that can be tested and the effects of which can be empirically demonstrated. If in the end this theory does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, it will be chucked on the trash heap alongside the bodily humors and the Atkins Diet.

******

So, atheism shares none of the characteristics common to all belief systems commonly known as religions. Even widely-despised and derided belief systems like Satanism, Wicca, paganism and Presbyterianism are religions by these standards. Atheism is not. Arguing that it is means that faith in god, ritual, community, tradition, spirituality and theology are irrelevant. Religion then becomes an incredibly paltry thing. It is not a source of solace and spiritual wonder; it is not a vehicle for bringing symmetry to the chaos of life and meaning to the void – it's just the act of taking a position on the existence of god. That's it. How pathetic.

Those who would prefer not to do such grievous harm to the meaning of 'religion' have another argument at hand. Atheism may not be a religion, but it is a faith. Because the existence of god can be neither definitively proven nor disproved, atheism merely replaces faith in god with faith in science. While this argument is subtler, it poses no less of a threat to the underpinnings of religious belief.

There is a fundamental difference between faith and atheism that cuts to the essence of what religion is. A scientific-minded atheist believes that science can explain the world and the universe. This does not require that it already has explained everything; only that it can. This is a world view based on hypothesis and evidence. For most religions, on the other hand, faith in the absence of clear evidence is a virtue. Evidence (or at least purported evidence) is not entirely lacking from the religious world, but it is beside the point. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Religious faith is a complicated thing. It involves the belief in god, but it goes much further than that. Faith is the trust in god and the acceptance of paradox and contradiction. It revels in the revealed truth and embraces the unknowable. In religious people, it is the umbilical cord to the soul. Science is not anathema to faith; it simply operates on a different plane of thought. Faith is 'belief', but it's not the belief in just anything. To say that atheism is a faith because it stakes claim to a belief is to denigrate all true faith. To have a faith and to hold a belief are two distinct things. All faith is belief, but not all belief is faith.

Another common misperception is that atheists merely put their faith in secular 'gods' and call them by another name. Richard Dawkins is a popular choice, as are Darwin and Carl Sagan. But whether an atheist is drawn to the ideas of these men or to Nietzsche or Frank Costanza, it is not proof of 'faith'. Plenty of people are widely admired, from the aforementioned thinkers to Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. We sometimes even use religious language and talk about how they are 'idolized' figures. But there is a difference between agreeing with someone or admiring them and having religious faith in them.

Without this distinction, the concept of faith is utterly worthless and the designation of 'god' is a meaningless banality. Certainly the religious faithful do not believe this to be the case. But there is no way to hang the mantle of faith on atheism without eviscerating one's own beliefs.

Once it has been established that atheists have neither religion nor faith, it is assumed that they must therefore believe in nothing. Atheism is then synonymous with amorality and chaos. It should be quite obvious that this argument is a fallacy based on a false dichotomy in which all the attributes of religious belief are necessarily absent from non-religious belief.

There is a facile assumption that morality belongs only to the realm of religion, and the codes of religious law are offered up as proof. Where would we be without the Ten Commandments? Coveting asses, no doubt. But there is plenty of historical and anthropological evidence to suggest that religious morality is simply a reflection of taboos and strictures that have developed over millennia and are intrinsic to all cultures, regardless of religion (or lack thereof).

******

"All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?"

"Brought peace!"

"What!? Oh… Peace, yes… shut up!"

—Monty Python, The Life of Brian

Once upon a time, Jesus said, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" I'm pretty sure that's a fancy way of saying, "What, you think your shit doesn't stink?" It's a little snippet of scripture that every atheist should know.

I'm aware that atheists are an embattled minority, far less likely to be elected to the presidency than Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, child molesters and Frenchmen. I know some of the vitriol and condescension of the true believers at Focus on the Family and FOX News is hard to stomach. That doesn't mean you have to return the favor.

One of the biggest selling points for the "atheism is a religion" trope is the common misperception that atheists know that there is no god. Certainly there are some who would say so, just as there are Christians who have no religious doubt whatsoever, but these are not (I hope) majority views. Insistence on the absolute correctness of your position is not a sign of either faith or rationalist purity; it's a sign of hubris and epistemological immodesty.

There's no question that certain religious groups would like to impose their narrow view of the world on everyone. These people need to be opposed at every turn. But this does not mean that religion as a whole should be denigrated or dismissed as irrelevant.

Religion has been central to the history of humanity and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to be. The wisdom of the Greeks and Romans survived the Dark Ages thanks to religion. Gutenberg designed his printing press to reproduce the Bible. Much of the greatest art and architecture in the world was inspired by faith. Religion has been central to movements for social justice, democracy, peace and charity for centuries. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, religion has been the cause of and solution to most of the world's problems.

That is not an endorsement of religion so much as it's an exhortation to intellectual honesty. All atheists are not represented by a jerk who wastes everyone's time with irrelevancies like trying to get "under god" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, just like all religious people are not represented by Ann Coulter or Ted Haggard.

So much of the atheism versus religion debate takes place at the intractable fringes where there are so rarely either hearts or minds to be won. If we can surge past this white noise, however, we may come to a place where differences can be honestly respected and ideas can be exchanged in good faith (if you will).

Despite our differences we must strive for common ground, for that's the only place where we all can live.

About parenthetical

  • Mark Eden

    Note that atheists are not the most rational folk on the planet. Quite the contrary. Statistically, empirically, they are among the least! See Wall St. Journal.

    Hong, please. Had the Gallup folks added the question: ‘Is there a God?’ (God being the prototypical paranormal actor) to their credulity study the results would have been dramatically different proving that ‘church goers’ are suckers for the irrational.

    Mark

  • Hong Lei

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks for your reply. Very quick! You must be on-line, like me!

    Anyway, whenever someone addresses issues relating to the person, e.g. by saying I’m confused, rather than addressing the question itself, i.e. is atheism really a religion? It misses the point. That’s what I’m referring to as the ad hominem path. You’re also falling into this trap when you refer to Flew as 81 and the university as Christian. Effectively, you invalidate any arguments based on the source. It’s a poor approach to reasoning.

    Finally, for Chris, atheism as opposed to agnosticism positively denies existence of a god or gods. Therefore, atheism does not simply require disbelief in a monotheistic god. You’re creating a false dichotomy. I’ve met people who disbelieve monotheism but aren’t atheists!

    Dear Mark,

    Thanks too. Only, “Hong please” is not very persuasive! The Gallup poll asked some pertinent questions: dreams foretelling the future; Atlantis existing; haunted places; communicating with the dead; big foot, Loch Ness monster, leprechauns, ghosts, etc. Agnostics and atheists “beat” others by roughly 4-to-1 for credulity.

    Finally, I’ll wait for some good reasons why faith in life and the universe popping into existence by accident does not constitute superstitious religious faith, before answering again. I’m quite open-minded about the question. But all you’ve convinced me of is that atheists remain rather irrational and respond somewhat emotionally when challenged.

    Bye for now, Lei

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Hong, It was you that put forth Flew and that Christian Uni as sources, I simply said that they lack credibility, which they clearly do.

    As to atheism, as I’ve said before, the word itself is part of the faithist armoury to define those who oppose these cults and is usually used to shape the debate. There is not really any need for such a word, just as there is no word for those who don’t believe in astrology.

    Agnostics are basically just wimps and want to avoid taking a position.

    You’re really just playing word games whilst ignoring the central truth here, that there is absolutely zero evidence to support any theory that any gods of any type actually exist.

    Equally, you are not showing that you do actually have an open mind nor are you really taking the words of either Mark or myself seriously. So far you’ve just dismissed them with unsupported statements like

    I’ll wait for some good reasons why faith in life and the universe popping into existence by accident does not constitute superstitious religious faith, before answering again. I’m quite open-minded about the question. But all you’ve convinced me of is that atheists remain rather irrational and respond somewhat emotionally when challenged.

    I’m not sure what you mean by faith in life but, just because we do not yet know what happened to trigger the Big Bang, does not mean it didn’t actually happen, nor does it support the emergence of gods billions of years later.

    Reacting emotionally to superstitious drivel doesn’t undermine an argument either. When people try to persuade me to take astrology more seriously, I am openly derisive too.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Atheism is not necessarily a religion. Simply not believing in God would be pretty much the opposite of religion.

    But for many people who use the word “atheist” to describe themselves, it very much is a religion in the practice. It provides the basis of an ideology and belief system. They are just as sure of their worldview and fit everything to it as any crazy Jehovah’s Witness.

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair, for example, was a devout believing atheist intent on imposing her (anti)religious vision on the country, suing NASA to try to prevent astronauts from reading the Bible in space. Our own BC alumni Brian Flemming is a militant believer in his Godless world. People getting their little panties all up in a bunch over a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn – they’re quite adamant about their religion, and not wanting to have their beliefs contradicted.

    And Ann Coulter is EXACTLY correct to label liberalism as a secular religion. Again, this does not necessarily describe everyone who votes Democrat – but the whole socialistic idea of making heaven on Earth is absolutely religious. There’s no missing the distinctly charismatic religious faith and fervor behind many supporters of Obama.

  • Brunelleschi

    Al

    Liberalism can’t be a secular religion. That’s an oxymoron, and Coulter simply is a moron…

    That’s like saying religions are made up of atheists that believe there is a god… sheesh

    “Liberalisms” dreams of heaven on Earth (if that’s what they are) don’t need religion. Every philosophy has come kind of concept of the ideal. God is not required. Maybe liberals just want to make the best of things here and now. Big deal.

  • Brunelleschi

    #195, Lei-

    That’s a lot of nonsense!

    It’s clear you don’t want to agree with or understand evolution, so you are free to get it wrong and make strawman arguments against it, but that doesn’t help your case.

    Religion’s contemporary attacks on science/evolution are foolish. Science is solid and it works, every day.

    If i thought you cared, i would pick apart what you have wrong, but I suspect it would be a waste of time.

  • Alyson

    I think that categorizing beliefs as separate because of the nature by which they proven are disproven is dangerous territory.

    A belief is a belief and in that sense, Atheism could be called a religion. But that in itself would detract from the meaning of the world religion. It wouldn’t hold the same significance.

    But anyway, my point is that you can’t label any random belief a religion without losing the significance of what religion is. By it’s most simple definition religion is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.”

    Atheism may even have a number of the qualities of a religion, but the argument that these similarities make it a religion does not hold water. If anything atheism is the antithesis of religion. Maybe I missed something important here, but those are my two cents.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Alyson, if you accept the idea that religion – or theism – is based on belief in a god or gods, then atheism is by definition not a religion.

    By the same token, someone who is apolitical cannot be said to have political views. That person simply doesn’t participate in politics.

    To be sure, some atheists do defend their position with the same degree of fervor as people of faith. A few even evangelize (for want of a better word)! But it’s not the same thing at all.

    Those who believe often have trouble grasping the notion that someone might not believe in anything. So they confuse belief with non-belief.

  • duane

    Of course, the latest one-liner that many evangelistic types are throwing around goes something like, “Those who claim not to believe in God are willing to believe in anything.”

  • benjamin

    i have been asked my religion multiple times. and when i tell that person im an atheist, i get a lecture about atheism not being a religion.according to most dictionaries, religion is a common belief or set of beliefs. the belief that there is no god is still a belief. its not so much that i disagree with you completely, its just that i tend to get pissed off getting a lecture from someone i barely know.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    A religion is a lot more than just belief. The members of Greenpeace also share a set of beliefs, but Greenpeace isn’t a religion.

    Actively disbelieving in a god does exist as a philosophy – as I observed before, there are atheists who act in ways that can only be described as evangelism – but for most atheists, not believing in a god is as creedless as not believing that there is a Ferrari parked in your driveway.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    It is so much fun watching atheists argue interminably over that which they do not believe in. Indeed, if there is a hell for unrepentant atheists, it will be arguing interminably over their common lack of belief – all the while not realizing that centuries are going by as they continue to rehash the same arguments – and get absolutely nowhere….

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Isn’t rehashing the same arguments and getting nowhere pretty much what Blogcritics is all about, Ruvy? :-)

  • duane

    Ruvy: It is so much fun watching atheists argue interminably over that which they do not believe in. Indeed, if there is a hell for unrepentant atheists, it will be arguing interminably over their common lack of belief – all the while not realizing that centuries are going by as they continue to rehash the same arguments – and get absolutely nowhere….

    I’ve heard this before [except for the reference to "centuries"(?!)]. You’re spinning your wheels, Ruvy.

    Why don’t we have an argument over whether or not it’s beneficial to argue? I’ll take the “pro” side. You first.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Duane writeth,

    Why don’t we have an argument over whether or not it’s beneficial to argue? I’ll take the “pro” side. You first.

    I’d be happy to…. But I have other wheels to spin. Four of them, in fact, will be spinning me off to the metropolis of J-lem in a little while to get me a haircut and get some bureaucratic business done, for example.

    The person you should have this proposed argument with was my father, z”l. He loved to argue, just for the sake of arguing – so unlike his son. But, as you may imagine, a man born in 1908 who passed to the of the veil in 1976 may be hard to argue with….

  • benjamin

    ok, i do agree with you, but if atheism is not a religion; then what is it? (im not trying 2 argue, hopefully i didnt sound like it. ive just been wondering that)

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Benjamin,

    As I hinted at in my #211, it can be either an active philosophical position or it can be nothing. My nephews, for example, were brought up without a religion: I doubt it’s something they devote much thought to at all. They don’t have a religion in much the same way that you probably don’t have a favorite lacrosse team* – it’s just not a factor in their lives.

    Perhaps you could call them areligious rather than atheist. But I still think active atheism is a philosophical position, rather than a religion. The latter usually involves a ritual element and/or some sort of creed: aspects which are conspicuously absent from the former.

    * Yeah, yeah, for all I know you could be a mad crazy lacrosse fan. I just didn’t think that example was a long shot. :-)

  • Simple Simon

    The problem I see with established religion, and even this article, is ambiguity. EVERYTHING has multiple meanings and interpretations.

    For instance, “Common disbelief in god” can be seen as “Common belief that there is no God”. Keep that in mind most when you deal with Religion and Women.

    There are Athiest “scriptures”, they just aren’t widely accepted by Athiests. The Athiest Manifesto.

    “God is Dead Day” is suggestive that there was a god, I don’t get that from any Athiests I talk to.

  • Alexis Hollingshead

    The very beginning of this post makes me not want to read any further because of how obviously your ignorance shows. The quote you choose shows your willingness to believe something that’s not true.

    Physicists do NOT define black as the absence of COLOR, they define it as the absence of LIGHT — relatively. Technically, black is the absence of a REFLECTION of light. That’s what color is — how light is interpreted by our eyes. Dictionary.com tells us that a color is “the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object, usually determined visually by measurement of hue, saturation, and brightness of the reflected light; saturation or chroma; hue.”

    Black is located at the bottom of the color scale which is put together based on how much light something reflects. It absorbs the majority of the light it receives. That’s how we can measure black and why we count it as a color. You can’t apply color theory to religion.

  • Prototype

    The fallacy of the undistributed middle is a logical fallacy that is committed when the middle term in a categorical syllogism is not distributed. It is thus a syllogistic fallacy. More specifically it is also a form of non sequitur.

    The fallacy of the undistributed middle takes the following form:

    1. All Zs are Bs.
    2. Y is a B.
    3. Therefore, Y is a Z.

    It may or may not be the case that “all Zs are Bs,” but in either case it is irrelevant to the conclusion. What is relevant to the conclusion is whether it is true that “all Bs are Zs,” which is ignored in the argument.

    Note that if the terms were swapped around in the first co-premise or if the first premise was rewritten to “All Zs can only be Bs” then it would no longer be a fallacy, although it could still be unsound. This also holds for the following two logical fallacies which are similar in nature to the fallacy of the undistributed middle and also non sequiturs.

    An example can be given as follows:

    1. Men are human.
    2. Mary is human.
    3. Therefore, Mary is a man.

    Fun Time:

    Simply insert the proper vaiables from the article and we see how this excercise in critical thinking has failed the author.

    -unless u need me to do that for you also…

  • enochsauthor

    calling atheism ‘religion’ is like calling an empty highway traffic.