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Austin Cline

Atheists who say Atheism is a Religion

By January 15, 2011

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The claim that atheism is a religion is more often heard from religious theists -- and Christians in particular -- than from atheists. Still, there are a few atheists out there who make this claim and we should take a close look at why. What are their reasons? What is the overall quality of their reasoning? How firm is their grasp of facts, definitions, and law?

The G-Man writes:

Atheism is a religion too. Perhaps not in the purest sense, but it is one possible stance out of many on the issue of deities.

Is "atheism" defined as "a stance on the issue of deities"? No. Not even bad definitions of religion suggest such a thing and good definitions of religion make a point of explaining that religion is a complex cultural phenomenon. Many have tried to reduce religion to one or two key attributes, but even the better attempts at this end up leaving out a lot.

Atheism is not a religion because the mere absence of belief in gods lacks even the most fundamental characteristics of religion. Mere atheism is no more a religion than mere theism is. Both can be part of a religion, but neither standing alone can qualify as religions.

Curiously, it's not clear that even G-Man believes what he wrote. Why? Because at the very beginning of his rodomontade he asserts:

First off let me state once again that I am an atheist. Give up your desires to pull out the "religious nut-job" stick because you couldn't miss the target by a greater margin than that.

He seems to be insisting that, as an atheist, it isn't possible for him to qualify as a "religious nut-job." However, if atheism really is a religion, then it isn't possible to assert "Being an atheist, it's not possible for me to qualify as a religious nut-job." If atheism is a religion and G-Man is an atheist, then G-Man is religious and eminently qualified to be a religious nut-job. G-Man wants to have it both ways: he doesn't want to be accused of being a religious nut-job and uses his atheism to fend that off, but he also wants to argue that atheism is a religion so as to level the field between atheists and Christians. Logic doesn't allow this, though.

Logic is also a problem for G-Man's ideas concerning the separation of church and state:

You have to mind the wording that is used. It is not "freedom from religion", but "freedom of religion". A policy following the phrase "freedom from religion" would institutionalize atheism, which as I mentioned is a form of religion.

If atheism is a religion, then institutionalized "freedom from religion" would include "freedom from atheism." Ergo, institutionalized freedom from religion could not also institutionalize atheism (at least if it were done consistently and correctly)! The claim that the separating church from state institutionalizes atheism is made by those who treat atheism as the opposite of religion (which it isn't, but that's another error for another post). Here G-Man wants to assert both that and his mistaken idea that atheism (all by itself) is a religion. Again, logic doesn't allow for this.

One of the problems here is the failure to understand that in order for a person to have freedom of religion, they must be free from the government trying to impose or otherwise encourage/endorse/promote other people's religions. The separation of church and state is the separation of religious and civil authority. The government doesn't have the authority to tell you what to pray, when to pray, how to pray, to whom to pray, or even if you should pray. This sort of thing is what ensures religious liberty.

Seeing a person exercising their religion offends you. I revel in it, because it proves that we are indeed free. I would venture to guess that the reason the Democrat's feel ill at ease seeing another person enjoying their freedom of religion, is that they are not secure enough in their beliefs and seeing one act out their religion evokes a feeling of guilt or insecurity.

Just how often is a private citizen's ability to exercise their religion infringed upon? Not very often -- and it is far more likely to happen to religious minorities or minority Christian denominations than to mainstream Christians. We don't see Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians bringing lawsuits against government agencies for violating the First Amendment, we see Santarians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and even some Catholics or Mormons occasionally.

The usual lawsuits aren't brought because someone found the individual actions of a private citizens to be "offensive." That's just nonsense. The usual lawsuits are brought because some private citizen wants to stop a government employee from abusing their position of authority by promoting or enforcing their personal religious beliefs. It's not a person who puts a Ten Commandments plaque on the front door of their private residence who is sued, it is a judge who puts a Ten Commandments monument in a public courthouse who is sued. There is a big difference between the two.

The G-Man is, then, making two common mistakes here. The first is a failure to differentiate between the actions of a private citizen and the official actions of an officer or representative of the state. A person's personal liberties (be they religious liberty, free speech, etc.) are restricted when they are acting in their official government capacity. This is as it should be.

The second mistake is the idea that when a person objects to a government agent promoting their religion, this is because that religion or the religious beliefs are somehow "offensive." As a matter of fact, lawsuits are often brought by people who share some of those same beliefs. It's not that they are "offended" by the beliefs but, rather, that they object to the government being used to promote them. Just because you have certain religious beliefs doesn't mean that you agree that the government should single them out for special privileges, thus effectively discriminating against all others.

January 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm
(1) tracieh says:

Atheists who assert atheism is a religion may well one day cause me to have an aneurysm.

January 16, 2011 at 9:47 pm
(2) DanDare says:

On the Australian ABC website an argument burst forth about atheism as a religion. One put forward that if atheism is a religion then so is not believing in the the tooth fairy. Eventually someone brought up professor Ninian Smart’s 7 dimensions of religion to show atheism WAS a religion. This was taken down quick smart and I saved the rebuttal. Here it is (slightly abridged):

Let’s look at Smart’s 7 seven dimensions.

Let’s apply them to toothism and atheism….
1. Doctrinal…systematic formulation of religious teachings
Toothism has a doctrine. It’s a tad simplistic but it’s there.
Atheism? Sorry, no doctrine there.
2. Mythological…stories that work on several levels.
Toothism has a mythology
Atheism? Sorry no mythology there.
3. Ethical…Rules about human behavior
Toothism arguably has an ethical implication (reward for giving up something)
4. Ritual…Forms and orders of ceremonies
Toothism definitely has rituals
Atheism has no rituals
5. Experiential…dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss
Toothism provides plenty of that.
Atheism no
6. Institutional…belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group.
Toothism is widely practised.
Atheism? The only common thing atheists have is an unwillingness to believe in a divine entity without evidence.
7. Material…ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural
Toothism magically transforms teeth into money.
Atheists no

And the scores are:
Toothism – a religion on all seven dimensions
Atheism – a zero on all seven. Well atheists can hold a meetings so as I’m in a charitable mood I’ll give you 0.33.

January 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm
(3) Richard says:

tracieh: Thanks for the reference to Smart, I hadn’t heard of him.

Austin has occasionally commented on atheist bloggers or writers who have attitudes similar to The G-Man. I wonder if he has a list? Have any changed their stances?

January 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm
(4) Jehovah Witness says:

There is something wrong about promoting your particular brand of religion on others when you are in a position of authority, such as a judge or teacher, making your beliefs incumbent upon those who you are in charge of.

However, the Ten Commandments and similar precepts cover universal truths that even most athiests can embrace.

The fight for freedom of worship, includes the rights of those who reject worship. All are free to their own belief system in the United States.

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