If You Think Atheism Is A Religion, You Should Read This

There’s a lot of stupid on the intarwebs. If you can’t let most of it slide, you’re going to spend a lot of time angry. However, some of the stupid gets repeated over and over, and at some point, someone has to speak out about it, or sheer repetition will get people starting to think it’s true. This is one that’s been coming back over and over in recent years, and I just can’t let it slide, because now, I even see otherwise intelligent friends of mine saying it like they think it makes sense.

In a perfect example, the nice folks at Fox News published an steaming pile of crap opinion piece entitled Sorry, But Atheism Is A Religion (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/03/17/sorry-but-atheism-is-religion/), by author Johnnie Moore. I hesitate to direct anyone to read it, as it’s not a particularly well written article, but it does clearly demonstrate all the most common fallacies used to support this dopey notion.

There are two levels at which we have to deal with the question, the simple-minded one and the ‘sophisticated’ one. The simple-minded level is the idea that atheism is literally a religion. The ‘sophisticated’ one is more metaphorical, making the argument that while atheism doesn’t meet the definitional requirements of a religion, it functions as though it were a religion in meaningful ways. Both arguments are false, but they have to be dealt with separately in order to prevent the apologist’s tactic of slipping back and forth between one argument and another to confuse a debate. I’m giving the author of the Fox News article the benefit of the doubt, and assuming he really subscribes to the ‘sophisticated’ level, so you’ll see direct references to the article in that response, but let’s deal with the easy part first.

On the simple-minded level, there are just a lot of people who have never really thought the topic through. They believe that atheism is literally a religion, because they can only see the world from their own dogma-saturated viewpoint that “everyone believes in something”. Of course, this viewpoint is easily dismissed, for three reasons:

  1. Because they erroneously think atheism is a philosophy: A lack of belief is not a coherent belief system. Most atheists have a belief system, be it implicit or explicit, but it has nothing to do with whether or not they believe in a supernatural being. Ask a room full of atheists where they stand on various moral and philosophical topics, and you will get very different answers. There is no atheist dogma or ritual, no inherent common belief system, no book of rules, etc.
  2. Because they are committing a semantic error: They conflate ‘faith’ (believing something in the absence of evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary) with ‘belief’ (an opinion that something is true), thereby confusing themselves with language. While it is probably true that somewhere out there, there are one or two very confused atheists who would go on record as saying that there is no way they would believe in a god, even if they were presented with strong evidence that one existed, for the most part when an atheist says “I believe X.” they mean “My experience or logic tells me X, so that’s what I’m going with unless I see evidence to convince me otherwise.” The “everyone believes something” crowd can’t tell the difference between this and the faith interpretation of the word ‘believe’, where “I believe X.” means “I know X to be true in my heart, and nothing will ever shake this belief.”
  3. Because they fail a simple, definitional test: Religion is defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies”, so a lack of belief in supernatural beings automatically disqualifies any beliefs, systematic or otherwise, from the term. Even if you accept a more liberal definition of the term, one that allows there to be religions without supernatural claims, not believing in a supernatural creator is in NO WAY a belief system about “the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe”, only a negation of one hypothesis about “the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe”.

On the ‘sophisticated’ level, this position *still* doesn’t hold water. The functional argument doesn’t pass the sniff test, because the vast majority of things that define the function of religion (ritual, moral code, dogma, community, etc) don’t grow out of a common lack of belief!

Moore’s (and those of this fallacious mindset) thesis is that, “Atheists are, in fact, some of the most religious people.” Let’s look at his arguments to support this.

Moore’s first argument is that “they have a functioning God under whom they are subservient (normally it’s science or rationality, but mainly themselves), and that idea of God informs the way they live and interpret their lives.” This is amazingly incorrect, in virtually every way. Never mind that science and rationality are modes of thinking you choose to use at your discretion, so saying you are ‘subservient’ to them is mind-bogglingly stupid, let’s talk about the “mainly themselves” part. Is it even possible to be ‘subservient’ to one’s self? If so, who is the master, and who is the slave? If I act according to the will of my master, but my master is me, am I not acting freely, according to my own will? What a pile of garbage!

Next, he makes this gem of a claim: “Once that’s all settled all that’s left is the preaching. And they preach all the time.” Even if you allow that any attempt to change someones beliefs is ‘preaching’, and that non-believers reach out to believers in hopes of convincing them to stop in the the same percentages as believers do the reverse (I don’t) the implication here is that if you ‘preach’ you have a religion, and that if you don’t, you aren’t religious. Of course, this is a double edged sword. Since the vast majority of believers don’t try to convert others to their beliefs, he’s effectively saying that most of them don’t actually have a religion. Somehow, I don’t think he thought this plan through…

All of the remaining article is just ham-handed rewording/repetition of these two points, thrown in with utter gibberish

  • “Instead of just ignoring God, or the idea of God, atheist preachers feel somehow compelled to rid the Earth of him” – According to his vast experience as or research with “atheist preachers”, I assume? This has no bearing on whether atheism is a religion or not, but it’s just so perfectly designed as a distraction, I just had to call it out.
  • “Occasionally, some of them discover that they do indeed worship a God, but it is an insufficient one. They worship a God … filled with flaws and inadequacies” – what is this I don’t even
  • “Everyone needs and everyone has a “God.” That’s why we’re so religious.” – I call bullshit. Show me the research.
  • “Oddly enough, atheists often accuse theists of being the simple ones. We are “anti-intellectual,” they say, and in so doing they become exactly what they accuse us of being.” – Again, let’s assume this ‘often’ occurs, which I doubt. How the hell does calling someone ‘anti-intellectual’ make you yourself anti-intellectual? Is he just making shit up at this point?

There’s a common saying: “Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.” It is true that within the atheist ‘community’, a growing number have begun to express anti-religion sentiments in public. This is a social/political opinion, certainly, and one might say that some have made a career of it, but by that logic, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Brady Campaign are religions. Heck, these two examples even have rudimentary ideologies/dogmas, where the ‘religion is bad’ crowd does not, but I bet no one in their right mind has ever seriously considered them to be religions…

About the Author

Despite a decade of Catholic school, I have never been a believer. I guess I was just born without the gene! Nevertheless, I've always tried to explore others' ideas and practices, on the theory that just because you can't use one part of a product, it doesn't mean you have to throw the whole thing away.
 
I spent over a decade traveling the world, and I've lived in both Europe and the US. I've read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran. I've studied engineering, yoga, martial arts, shooting sports, and ballroom dancing. What I've discovered is that a) spirituality is just a spooky sounding word for any of a number of methods for learning about yourself and your mind, and b) whatever word you use, doing so is the single most important thing in learning to be happy.
 
My blog, The Passionate Rationalist (http://www.societyofreason.com/devoutrationalist) is dedicated to my thoughts both on gaining self-knowledge and using your mind to eliminate misunderstanding and delusion.