Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Atheism Is Not A Religion

An atheist's rule of thumb:
Show me don't tell me
I am very fortunate to have a wide range of friends who are liberal Christians, conservative Christians, atheists, libertarian atheists, agnostics. This creates a fertile ground for some honest and civil discussions on Facebook. One of my buddies brought up the atheism is a religion line of discussion and I thought I may as well put my response on Purgatory as well as Fb.

Here is his question.

Andy, I was pondering this thread the other day [My Letter to the Tea Party post] and came upon this thought; my MacMini's onboard dictionary provides four definitions to the term, "religion", one of which is, "a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance" Do you think atheism would qualify as a religion under this definition? Not trying to whack the hornet's nest but from a practical standpoint I'd like your take.

Here is my response.

Well, first off you never have to worry about stirring up a hornet's nest with me -- consider my nest of hornets to be in a perpetual state of being stirred. And as a general principle I don't think that certain ideas should be off topic, that by their very nature they are off limits from discerning what merits, if any, they possess. If I were to gasp and say "No!  We can't discuss how atheism may or may not be a religion!" would be, at the very least, hypocritical. Considering that a common refrain from theists are  Atheists worship science! or Atheism is another religion! this is a golden opportunity to offer some clarity.

I'd like to say two seemingly contradictory things: Just because one authority defines a word in a certain way does not mean it is an accurate definition; and It is quite possible that a majority of authorities at a particular time are simply wrong in classifying/defining an idea.  It takes a click or two to on the internet to find an online dictionary. At first I went to the Oxford English Dictionary only to find that they have the audacity to charge for their services. I then went to Merriam-Webster's and searched religion.
1 a: the state of a religious religion>
(1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural  
(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic: scrupulous conformity :
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
I can point out the definition in (1) as being the definitive proof that atheism isn't a religion, but I would be wrong (as well as an insulting the idea of what constitutes proof). The obvious problem here is that this conversation can devolve down to My dictionary can beat up your dictionary! type of silliness, but that really doesn't help matters. Which brings me to the latter point. A majority of authorities at a particular time have simply been wrong. The main authority for Western Europe during the Middle Ages (the Church) insisted that the wafer magically became the actual body of Christ during communion. Earthly governements supported this inanity.  Instead of relying on authorities (which are helpful at times, but we can't 100% rely on them ) I ask myself Does this make sense? Why or Why not? In that case it is easy to say that why yes, atheism under the definition found on Merriam-Webster's Dictionary (#4) and on your MacMini would be considered a religion.

But that definition is a crappy definition.

Any human endeavor could be classified a religion under that! Christianity, Islam, baseball, sex, jogging, crossword puzzles, cats, horror movies... the list goes on and on. One can use the term religion accurately while writing a description, Ted's religion is baseball. (Ted is a sad case), but no one reading that sentence thinks that Ted is sacrificing catchers' gloves  and crappy beer in plastic cups to the All-Father of America's Past Time. It's a figure of speech -- to use it any other way in such a manner is is to muddy the conversational waters.

Your statement implies that if atheism isn't a religion, then what is it?

Atheism is simply not accepting the assertion that there is a God or gods. While religions (in this case defined as a service to God or the supernatural) make all kinds of statements about reality: Shiva is going to destroy the world with his funky dance, the gates of Heaven are open during Ramadan so God gives extra credit to good deeds, or Yahweh said it was moral for the ancient Israelis to committ genocide against the Amalekites, an atheist says That simply doesn't pass the smell test.

Oh, it smells, but more like a two week old ham and cheese sandwich.

So an atheist can hold the principle of Show me don't tell me in a high regard, but calling atheism a religion is at best incorrect, at worst a purposeful manipulation of the the language to undermine a perfectly rational position.

I hope I expressed myself clearly. 


  1. I always say that I'm a skeptic and you have to prove it, or show me. Atheism is the absence of religion.

    Maynard put it like this: Beliefs allow the mind to stop functioning. A non-functioning mind is clinically dead. Believe nothing.

    I add to this statement: The truth doesn't need you to exist. And believing nothing is the best way to perceive actual reality.

    To which I might add a quote from Samuel Clemens: "It's not what you don't know that gets you into trouble, but what you know that ain't so."

  2. According to Merriam-Webster,
    4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    Atheism most definitely is a religion. Surely you provoke and debate others of other religious belief systems with ardor, and you hold fast with faith to your belief that there are no gods, so that definition makes atheism a religion.....and protected under the US Constitution.

    1. The problem with 4. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
      and atheists would be the word "beliefs" . Atheism is a vague grouping of people with widely held allegiances , beliefs and ideals . The only thing that they have in common is that they don't belong to cults(?) or religions .
      With a wide and loose definition you could call us a religion . However by the same standard Christianity , Islam , hinduism and Judaism are cults .

      cult [kuhlt] Show IPA
      1.a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
      2.an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
      3.the object of such devotion.
      4.a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
      5.Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.


Google+ Badge

Pageviews last month