Ten Ways Atheism Qualifies as a Religion (2nd Debate)

February 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is the 2nd debate on this topic, posted in a thread about the misuse of religion in society on AskAnAtheist.com, a site run by atheists that offers insights on what atheists believe.  The following discussion resulted from that.

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Mike Johnson

Ten ways atheism qualifies as a religion:

1. Atheists worship. We are all made to regard, respect and devote our lives to something greater than ourselves, and everyone worships something. Atheists do not acknowledge worship in a traditional ‘religious’ context. But in the vacuum of a recognizable God, they give themselves to human reason, materialism, wealth, science, naturalism, communism of sorts, nihilism, or themselves, or other prominent atheists (i.e. Richard Dawkins).

2. Atheism is denominational. Just as every major religion has subdivisions with varying shades of beliefs on certain doctrines, atheists have different denominations that distinguish their beliefs in what atheism means, for instance. And of course, “gods” vary too (see #1).

3. Atheism is dogmatic. Atheists will deny this (as with most of these points), but if dogma is defined as “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or a particular group or organization”, atheism absolutely fits this definition. They follow ideological rules.

4. Atheism is exclusive and narrow. Atheism excludes any other possibility other than the conclusion centered on the non-belief in God, so it is no different than any other religion that makes exclusive claims.

5. Atheists seek converts. Well, some do and some don’t, just as some religions prosthelytize and some don’t. For example, the recent “We Are Atheism” movement hopes that there are closet atheists and seeks to add to their numbers by encouraging their “coming out.”

6. Atheists have holy books. Take a look at the “Letters” section of RichardDawkins.net and you’ll find scads of letters from “converts” to atheism that praise Dawkins and his book “The God Delusion”, testifying how it changed their lives and lit the way to the “truth” of atheism. They revere it as Christians do the Bible.

7. Atheists have a worldview, including ideas about ultimate origins and the place of humans in the world, their overall purpose and destiny.

8. Atheists have seen persecution. As is true with any religion, atheists have endured discrimination and persecution for their beliefs.

9. Atheism appeals to universal morality. To even argue for atheism, the atheist has to appeal to “moral law”, a sense of right and wrong that he assumes to be true for everyone. Otherwise, there would be no reason to debate. Atheists love to point out the “despicable acts” of the Old Testament God, even though doing so implies moral good and evil that ultimately cannot be explained by nature or biology.

10. Atheists have faith in the unseen. Many assert that the religious believe without evidence. Most religious people would say the same about Atheism. The evidence we all see, often the same evidence, is interpreted differently based on presuppositions. We all place faith in propositions that are not 100% empirically provable.

I admit the definition of religion itself is not very clear, but I would suggest that it is not as clear cut as you suggest. Buddhism does not have a god. “God” in Hinduism is often not even supernatural. Religion USUALLY involves “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe” and “often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs”. It seems to always involves the worship of some entity, be it personal or not, and practices that involve an element of faith. What religion accomplishes for most people, something outside of themselves to aspire to and live by, atheism accomplishes for those who choose not to believe in God. We are free to worship ourselves and our own ideas instead. The parallels between atheism and other religions I’ve listed are not perfect, but I think they do show commonalities that atheists do not realize and even take issue with when they see them in other established religions.

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The Atheist

Hi, Mike. Interesting list of similarities! You seem to want to say that atheism is a religion but I’m not sure why you would care to think of atheism in those terms.

Unless you want to redefine what we mean by “religion”, the common use of the term (and more to the point, the way it is used in this post) means “a system of beliefs in one or more gods”. Regardless of the similarities between atheism and religion, the reason atheism is not a religion is that atheism rejects claims that gods exist.

Consider this example that illustrates why the kinds of similarities you list aren’t enough to make atheism a religion:

1) omnivores eat plants, vegetarians eat plants

2) omnivores drink water, vegetarians drink water

3) omnivores sleep, vegetarians sleep

Since vegetarians are similar to omnivores in these ways, then vegetarians are really omnivores.

Obviously, we can’t say that vegetarians are omnivores because there is an important thing that vegetarians don’t do: they don’t eat meat.

We can’t say that atheism is a religion because there is an important thing that atheism lacks: it does not include beliefs in gods.

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Mike Johnson

From an atheist perspective and in the context of this site, I agree that the definition of a religion would include theism, but in truth there are many definitions of religion outside of this context. Buddhism is the 4th largest religion in the world, and nobody would argue that it is a religion, yet it is NOT a “system of one or more gods” but a myriad of systems that worship various aspects of humanity like self-improvement. No god in any agreed upon sense. Jainists don’t have a god either; instead they worship their own personal wisdom. I think atheism can be categorized similarly. In the absence of “god” in the traditional sense, atheists elevate something else as supreme ruler and first principal, be it the notion of reason, intellect, humanism, naturalism, ToE, etc.

The point is there are multiple elements that many associate with religion that exist in atheism. I might be persuaded otherwise with a list of 11 differences. 🙂

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The Atheist

I think you are right that there are systems that we might call “religions” that don’t accept a system of one or more gods. We could take a more liberal definition to include other types of belief in the spiritual, but I’m not sure how that would change the conversation here. I think it’s reasonable to consider Buddhism a religion in general, since most forms of Buddhism incorporate a belief in the spiritual (Buddhism’s is grounded in a concept of a cycle of death and rebirth). The agreement across sects about the nature of God doesn’t seem necessary to define a belief system as a religion. At most it means that the sects are simply different religions. As you point out, Jains don’t believe in a creator or destroyer God, but they do believe there is a “divine”. I think you could say that there is an area of overlap between atheism and certain religions like Buddhism and Jainism in that the thing that defines an atheist is the lack of belief in a god. One can believe in an afterlife without believing in a god and in that degree, some subset of atheists can overlap some subset of secular Buddhists. However I don’t think you can equate atheism to religions like Christianity and then draw conclusions on that basis.

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Mike Johnson

I wouldn’t go as far as “equating” atheism with Christianity, especially not solely on the basis of the first of my ten points. Christianity has features that set it apart from other theistic religions, so the chasm would be even greater between it and a philosophy that excluded a personal deity or supernatural being. My point in listing characteristics of atheism that fit with other religions is to show that calling it a religion is not such as outrageous thing. The object of worship takes on a natural form, and atheism is set apart from most religions in its rejection of a supernatural form. In both ideology and practice, I really think there are more apparent similarities than differences.

Thank you, I’ve enjoyed the discussion. I especially appreciate the overall civility of most users on this site. 🙂

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The Atheist

I don’t think that calling atheism a religion is outrageous, I just think it’s an incorrect classification. The act of worship in itself is not enough to qualify as a religion, it requires the worship of the divine, or at least the supernatural.

I’ve enjoyed the discussion too – I hope you’ll stay around and contribute to future discussions!

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The Atheist admits to worship, just not in anything “divine”, which was my point expressed in #1 of my original post. No other points were refuted at AskAnAtheist.com. I posted this argument in another blog called “Friendly Atheist” featuring an interview with Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island teen who lobbied to have a prayer banner removed from her high school on the basis that it violated the First Amendment. You can read that debate here.

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