If Atheism is a Religion, What Isn’t?

I got asked the question a few weeks ago.  You know the question, right?

“Isn’t atheism just another form of religion?”

I gave the flippant answer right away: atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Atheism is the absence of religion.  I have no deity guiding what I do.

“Yeah, but isn’t science your religion?”

No.  Because if new research shows conclusively that the prevailing scientific paradigm is wrong, I’ll change my view.  If the existence of ghosts could actually be proven, I’d totally believe in ghosts.

If I believe in the Abrahamic god and someone presents me with proof that what I believe is wrong, I would most likely ignore it or come up with an explanation for the dichotomy without providing proof to back up my claim.

Why are there dinosaur bones in rock strata dating to millions of years before the creationists claim god created the Earth?  Because the devil put them there!

See how easy that was? I didn’t have to prove a damn thing.

Prove to me that it wasn’t the Devil!

Religion ignores contradictory evidence.  Science examines contradictory evidence and, if it proves correct, embraces it.

Here’s the overarching problem I have with the question, though.  If believing in god is a religion and not believing in god is a religion, what isn’t  a religion?

Would it only be the agnostics who have no religion?  The fact they steadfastly say “I don’t know if there is a god or not” means they are the only ones who can definatively be said to be free of religious belief?

I don’t even think that works because most self identified agnostics steadfastly state that they don’t know whether there is a god or not.  They are still professing a belief on the subject of god and they can, therefore, also be called religious.

I think that’s just silly.  The presumption that any belief system that takes a stand on god is a religion completely devalues the word.

In fact, I don’t think being a theist necessarily means you are religious.  What if you believe in god but reject all forms of organized religion?  Are you religious simply because you say you believe in some sort of god?

Religion, I believe,  is driven by dogmatic views that dictate not only what god is  but how we are expected to relate to him/her/it. 

Atheism dictates only one thing:  there is probably not a god.

Heck, it doesn’t even dictate that we believe in scientific evidence.  You can be an atheist and ignore scientific evidence if you want.  You can be an atheist and believe in ghosts.  You can be an atheist and believe in ancient aliens.

If you are going to call yourself an atheist, the only thing you can’t do is believe in god.  That just won’t work out.

You don’t have to listen to/agree with Dawkins or Myers or Watson or me to be an atheist.  You don’t have to read “The God Delusion.”  You don’t have to tell anyone you are an atheist.  There is no complex ritual involved.  You will never be expected to attend a meeting. Ever.

There is no right way to be an atheist.  The only way you can do atheism wrong is by believing in god.

In order for the word “religion” to matter, you have to make sure it means something other than “a view of reality that professes any opinion on the subject of god.”

Because if that is your definition,  everyone is religious and the word is a useless qualifier.


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3 Responses to If Atheism is a Religion, What Isn’t?

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  2. Albatross says:

    I see this question as emerging from the conflation of the words “faith” and “religion.” Although lots of atheists will argue with me about it, I consider atheism a “faith” insofar as it is impossible to prove a negative. The difference between atheism and agnosticism (when one declines to assert positively that “gods do not exist”) is that the atheist proceeds to live as if gods do not exist. An atheist lives as if there are no gods despite being unable to prove that a god is not, in fact, hiding behind the third quasar from the end. An agnostic takes no position and so lives as if gods might or might not exist.

    How this difference plays out in day-to-day living is not clear and probably not discrete – any given self-described agnostic might live “more atheistically” than a given atheist. But the effective difference is that the atheist says “Nah, there are no gods,” while the agnostic says “I dunno.”

    So to that extent atheism is arguably a faith – a faith in your own logic in arriving at the conclusion that there are no gods.

    But it’s not a religion. It has no creed, it has no leader, it has no dogma, and if you put three atheists in one place you’ll end up with seven different views on what atheism is (the views each individual, each pair, and all three together). Look at the contretemps regarding women’s issues and the A+ movement in the atheist community.

    Efforts to say “well aren’t all of X just the same thing” are simply a lazy person’s way of avoiding thinking. Saying “aren’t all politicians dishonest?” is a way of avoiding acknowledging a particularly dishonest politician, or discussing politics at all. Saying “Isn’t atheism just another religion?” is a way of saying “I don’t know anything about atheism or religion and I really don’t want to talk about it.”
    And that for me is the saddest part. People so un-self-aware, people whose engagement with the world is so cosmetic, that they have no interest in exploring or challenging anything in it. In the religious realm, those whose religion is so flimsy that they simply go through the motions, do what is expected in order to avoid criticism, but never seriously think about how they are living their lives, those are the sad ones. I’ll take a committed theist who knows their faith and lives it over some shallow person who has never thought twice about why they go to church on Sunday… or even a supposed ‘atheist’ whose philosophies have more to do with contrarianism and rebellion than any thoughtful consideration of the world.

    Atheism isn’t a religion, but for a lot of people who ask that question, neither is the religion they profess to follow when in fact all they do is attend church because they’re “supposed to.”

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