Is Atheism a Religion?
I’ve been paying attention to how people in the media address atheism. With such personalities as Bill O’Reilly, the “God Squad,” and other theistic people on the scene, it should be no surprise that I’d be frustrated. I’m not frustrated that there are theists stating their opinion, as I believe in and would fight for their right to do so. No, rather it is the argumentation given that disturbs me. In a recent NPR interview on “Talk of the Nation” a commentator offers up the old claim that atheism is a religion; that is requires as much faith (if not more!) as belief in God. So, is this true? Is atheism a religion? Does it require faith?
Put simply; no. That is ludicrous. Atheism is a religion in the same way that baldness is a hair color. It requires faith in the same way as people who don’t believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn requires faith; in other words it doesn’t.
But before I address the question in more depth, I would like to supply a quote of Einstein’s which I find to be thought provoking and relevant:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.
It is in this sense that an atheist might be considered religious, and no other. Richard Dawkins has expressed a similar view, and agrees that he is religious in this sense. This deep awe of mystery is something that can be appreciated with or without a belief in any deity.
However, it seems disingenuous to equivocate this specific and unorthodox use of the word ‘religious’ with it’s more common use; to conflate this sense of awe that atheists can feel with what we usually call ‘religion.’ A universally accepted and universal definition of religion is a difficult task. That is, many definitions that we can refer to will seem to exclude some other things that we generally call religious. If we say religion requires God, then we are leaving out religious traditions that often don’t require a god such as much of Buddhism. If we stretch the definition to something like “devotion to something” or something equally vague, then we essentially define it to be meaningless; does my devotion to hockey make hockey a religion? Is baseball a religion? How about stamp collecting?
Wikipedia defines religion as follows:
Religion is a system of social coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, and rituals associated with such belief or system of thought.
This seems like a fair definition, thus I will use it as a guidepost for my attempt to answer the question at hand. It may not be the most accurate of definitions, but I believe it to be largely uncontroversial and it suffices for our use here.
So, what’s an atheist? My definition, a definition shared by many atheists within my radar, is that atheism is the lack of belief in god. Some will include those that say god does not exist (the so-called ‘strong’ atheists), but I believe that the only necessary aspect of atheism is the lack of belief. The assertion that god does not exist is certainly sufficient for someone being an atheist, but said assertion is certainly not necessary but rather in addition to the lack of belief.
So, with these definitions in hand, let me address the relevant questions.
Is atheism the lack of religion?
I address this because some people try to answer the question of whether atheism is a religion by suggesting that atheism is simply the lack of religion. This does not hold up for a number of reasons. The first, as mentioned above, is that it would imply that non-theistic religions are actually not religions at all. Despite the fact that Zen Buddhism does not claim that gods do not exist (nor that they do!), I think that most of us would agree that Zen should be included as a religion. It has specific practices, is based on a person (the Buddha as well as other Buddhist teachers), and is shared by a common group (other Buddhists).
One might argue that Zen might not technically be atheistic, as it seems to be more of a position of doubt. However, I argue that the distinction between atheism and theism is sharp; there is no middle ground. The proposed middle ground of agnosticism is incorrect, as agnosticism is an answer to what we know, not what we believe. I, for example am an agnostic atheist; I lack belief in gods, but ultimately I do not claim to know for sure. Thus someone without an active and conscious belief in god is an atheist. This includes people who reserve judgment. Further, if any Zen Buddhist could be found that did not believe in gods, this lack of belief would not be in contradiction with his or her being a Buddhist, and therefore someone could be both a Buddhist and an atheist.
Another reason is that the simple lack of belief in the gods of religion people does not necessarily make one anti-religious. There are many beautiful rituals, writings, and other aspects of religious practice that someone who did not accept the claims of gods can appreciate. Further, one might still remain as part of a theistic community and participate in the rituals, songs, etc without believing in the god of said religion. In this sense, we might call that person a religious atheist, just like the Buddhist above.
Finally, the question of whether one believes in God has nothing to do with being religious; someone who is a theist is not necessarily religious. Simply believing gods exist does not mean that person is also a member of some religion or not. The point being that atheism is not simply the lack of religion, as a person’s atheism/theism does not have anything directly to do with being religious or irreligious.
People, such as Ray Comfort from Way of the Master, have tried to argue that there are no atheists. His argument is that in order to prove that god does not exist; the atheist would have to know everything. Nobody knows everything, so nobody can know there is no god. Looking past Comfort’s misunderstanding of what an atheist is, the point he’s making is that when someone says they believe there is no god, they are making a faith claim; one that many apologists claim is a stronger claim than the theist makes. Atheists are, according to people that propose this argument, believing something extraordinary without being capable of knowing it for sure. This is simply not the case.
What is faith? The way I understand and use the term, it means a belief in something either despite the lack of evidence for it or evidence against it. Thus, faith is essentially irrational; it is not held for rational reasons, but rather outside of rationality. Atheism cannot require faith because atheism does not require any beliefs at all—rational or not.
To believe in the stories of the various religions which have little to no supporting evidence one must accept them despite this lack of evidence. Most Christians believes that Jesus Christ lived, preached, performed miracles, was crucified, and on the third day rose from the dead. They believe this person was God-incarnate. This is an article of faith, as no historical evidence could verify this. Even if the historical events that were supposed to have happened actually occurred, the belief Jesus was God is something that must be accepted by faith. In short, faith has an object it believes in; it is a belief.
Atheism does not require faith because it is simply a lack of a specific kind of belief. Atheism only exists because some people make claims; they claim there is a god, and it’s like this, this, or this. The atheist simply rejects the claim. When someone comes along and says that the atheist has a belief—that god does not exist—they are incorrect because they misunderstand what atheism is. As I discussed above, this assertion that god does not exist, while held by many atheists, is not the definition of atheism itself but is an extension of the lack of belief.
So, what does all this amount to? Atheism is the lack of belief in any and all god concepts that particular theists propose. It is the responsibility of the theist, the one making a theological claim, to bear the burden of proof. Their religious conviction (whatever it may be), if it claims a god exists, is the proposal and the atheist hears that proposal and says “no, I don’t believe that.” The atheist is not making any claim at all. What the atheist does is reject the claim and lack belief in the gods the theists propose.
The only thing that ties atheists together is the shared lack of belief—and this is a very loose tie. Getting atheists to organize, agree, or in general share anything in addition to this lack of belief is like herding cats. There are no rituals, social coherence, or beliefs at all. There is a simple lack of belief. That’s it. If two atheists happen to share a belief, there is no significance to atheism at all.
Part of the confusion is, I think, based in the fact that atheism has the “–ism” in it. This is because atheism comes from a-theist, not because it comes from athe-ism or anything like that. It’s not a positive assertion but a lack of acceptance of millions of assertions by theists. That is, atheism is the lack (a- means lack of, or ‘without’) of theism (belief in god).
And if particular atheists act in a religious way, either in awe of their beliefs (a la Einstein’s mysteries) or in some evangelical fervor to spread their atheism to the world, this is not evidence of them being religious. Their actions might share common characteristics of religious people, but that’s merely because these characteristics are part of human nature and have been understandably adopted by religion over the millennia. Religion is a human activity, so its attributes will be common to most humans, even the ones that happen to not believe in god. But atheism itself is a specific philosophical answer to a particular question. Anything else the person who gives this answer does is strictly in addition to their being an atheist. It is not part of their atheism.
So, unless we are willing to call the lack of belief in god, which has no beliefs, rituals, etc at all, a religion, atheism does not qualify as a religion. Anyone who claims atheism is a religion needs to be called on it and corrected.
I'll fight for a person's right to speak so long as that person will, in return, fight to allow me to challenge their opinions and ridicule them as the content of their ideas merit.