Atheism is Not a Religion

Critics of atheism often claim that atheism itself is a religion, but I have never encountered any atheist who agrees with this view. Atheists insist rather that atheism is the lack of religious belief. I would like to examine the idea that not believing in any gods is a religion by analyzing two associated claims.

“Atheism requires faith.”

This often seems to mean only that the speaker believes atheism to be incorrect, so therefore it requires faith to believe that it is correct. If this were so, then one could claim every view with with one disagrees is a religion, whether the question is religion, politics, economics, science, history or even sports. This is obviously absurd.

A more charitable interpretation of this statement is that the speaker believes that there is no proof for atheism, thefore it requires faith to believe it is true. There are at least two problems with this. First, weak atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods. A weak atheist doesn't make a claim about gods to consider true, so there can be no faith. Second, strong atheism indeed does make a claim that no gods exist, but this is based on the lack of evidence for gods and certain arguments like the problem of evil. It is true that this does not constitute absolute proof, but that doesn't mean it is believed on faith. We don't have absolute proof that the atomic theory of matter is correct, but the evidence points in that direction and it's reasonable to believe it. We also don't have absolute proof that Santa Claus doesn't exist, but again the evidence points in that direction and no one claims that disbelieving in Santa is a matter of faith. If one wants to argue that atheists just don't have good evidence, that is reasonable, but as discussed above that doesn't entail that atheism is a religion unless one wants to label as a religion every opinion with which one disagrees based on the evidence.

“Atheism worships mankind.”

The only thing all atheists have in common is that they don't believe in gods. Outside of this one opinion, there is infinite variety of other opinions. Some atheists are liberals while some are conservatives, while others are libertarians or socialists or fascists or communists or even monarchists. Some atheists believe in nothing supernatural while others believe in ghosts and the afterlife. Some atheists attend religious services while others don't. Some atheists are open about their disbelief while others hide it. Some denounce religion while some want to preserve it, while others simply don't care. There are general tendencies one can identify among atheists, such as the tendency to think independently, but even this tendency is a source of more disunity than unity. It has been said, correctly in my estimation, that organizing atheists is like herding cats. The reason is that atheists are a negatively defined group. It makes as much sense to make generalizations about people who don't believe in gods as it does to make generalizations about people who don't like chocolate ice cream.

People who make the claim that atheists worship mankind make two major mistakes. First, they think that all atheists are Humanists and thus they use the terms interchangeably. This is simply not true; nihilists are just one example of atheists who are not Humanists. Incidentally, many of the very same people also claim that atheists don't believe in morality, making the exact opposite error of thinking that all atheists are nihilists. Second, they think Humanists worship mankind, but this is also simply not true. Humanists do consider humans to be the most advanced beings we know about and do think humans should solve their own problems without help from deities, but that certainly doesn't constitute worship in any sense. Yes, there are a small number of Humanist celebrants who perform certain secular ceremonies like marriages and funerals, but none of these gatherings involve anything resembling worship like kneeling before humans and offering prayers. These ceremonies instead fulfill the desires some people have for formal rituals like graduation. No one claims that schools worship education simply because they recognize students who do well in a formal program! It should also be noted that only a tiny fraction of Humanists have ever attended even one of these services and most aren't even interested in special Humanist ceremonies. Humanism is more of a label than anything else.

Why do religious people make the argument that atheism is a religion? At first it seems odd because they themselves are religious and they obviously don't consider religion to be inherently bad. I presume, however, that it's a defense mechanism because they encounter atheists who criticize religion as irrational, so they label atheism as a religion in order to cast atheists as hypocrites. This argument might convince many faithful, but it holds no weight for atheists who understand their own position.

If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. — Unknown


1 comment:

beepbeepitsme said...

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