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Myth:
Atheism is just another religion.


Response:
For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. It's an assertion which I keep hearing in newsgroups, in private email, and in this site's chat room. Maybe it is because these people are so caught up in their own religious beliefs that they cannot imagine any person living without religion of some sort. Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don't care that what they are saying really doesn't make any sense.

Whatever the actual reasons, this claim keeps appearing and this article is my attempt to answer such ideas by dissecting an actual letter which I have received, one which manages to perpetrate a number of mistakes:

Dear Sir,

I am afraid I will have to kindly decline your offer to rewrite my post. I stand by my original contention; atheism is a religion. Whether it fits technically with the semantics or not is not a concern of mine; the practical definition of religion is what matters to me, not the letter of the law. And the practical definition, distasteful though it may be to those who disdain religion in all its forms, is that the very thing most atheists hate is what they have become: a religion, with clearly defined rules, eschatology and a philosophy by which to live. Religion is a means of understanding our existence. Atheism fits that bill. Religion is a philosophy of life. So is atheism. Religions has its leaders, the preachers of its tenets. So does atheism (Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Lenin, Marx). Religion has its faithful believers, who guard the orthodoxy of the faith. So does atheism. And religion is a matter of faith, not certainty. Your own faithful say that, as that is what I was referring to in my posting. Welcome to the religious world!

Please forgive my contentious tone. However, I would very much like to bring some (albeit not all as that is not possible) to the realization that all religions set themselves apart from the crowd; they are the pure, the faithful, all others are just "religion." Here again, atheism fits the bill.

That's the whole letter in one shot, in order to give readers a sense of original context. Let us now examine it piece by piece so that we can get a better sense of just what lies behind it all...

Whether it fits technically with the semantics or not is not a concern of mine;

In other words, he doesn't care if he misuses language to fit his purposes? This is a very sad attitude to adopt, but at least he is honest enough to admit it - others making the same claims are less forthright. The fact is, his (convenient) definition lacks one of the central aspects of what a religion most often is (a belief in gods or the supernatural) - and that's an abuse of language. In fact, whether or not atheism fits technically with the semantics of "religion" should be a concern of his, if he has any interest in an honest dialogue.

Let's examine what he considers to be the defining characteristics of "religion."

...a religion, with clearly defined rules, eschatology and a philosophy by which to live. Religion is a means of understanding our existence.

Does atheism have anything approaching "clearly defined rules?" Not in the least. There is only one "rule," and that is the rule of the definition of "atheism" - not having any belief in any gods. Other than that, atheists are free to do whatever they want and still be called atheists. An atheist can do and believe absolutely anything beyond gods and still fit the definition. Quite the opposite of how "rules" are treated in a religion. This is one area where a misunderstanding of what atheism is probably comes into play.

Does atheism have an "eschatology? Eschatology is a "belief about the end of the world or the last things." Now, I'm sure that many atheists have some sort of beliefs about how the world might end, but those beliefs sure aren't clearly defined or uniform among all of us. In fact, any beliefs about the end of the world are accidental - that is to say, they are not a necessary part of atheism. There is absolutely, positively nothing inherent in the disbelief in gods that leads one to any opinions about the end of the world. Quite the opposite of how 'eschatology' is treated in a religion.

Does atheism contain "...a philosophy by which to live?" Atheists certainly have philosophies by which they live. A popular philosophy might be Secular Humanism. Another might be objectivism. Still another could be some form of Buddhism. There is not, however, a clearly defined philosophy common to all or even most atheists. In fact, there is nothing inherent in the disbelief in god(s) which leads a person to any philosophy of life (although a person without such a philosophy might be a bit strange). Quite the opposite of how 'philosophy of life' is treated in a religion.

Religion is a means of understanding our existence. Atheism fits that bill.

Sorry, wrong yet again. As the term is normally used, atheism means not believing in any gods. That's as far as "understanding existence" goes with atheism. Other than gods, there's a lot of room for differences among atheists as to what they think about existence. Thus, atheism itself is not an "understanding", but a single commonality. Any two atheists might have as much in common as a Christian and a devout believer in Odin - both of whom are obviously theists. Although some person's understanding of their existence might contain a principle of atheism, that atheism is not itself the means to understanding.

The belief in an objectively existing world is a common assumption, too - but the people who share it don't belong to a common religion, now do they? Besides, since many atheists don't believe that gods "exist" and, hence, aren't a part of "existence", that disbelief doesn't have to be seen as understanding "existence". I don't believe in the Tooth Fairy, and that disbelief isn't a means of understanding our existence, doesn't have an eschatology, and certainly has no clearly defined rules.

Religion is a philosophy of life. So is atheism.

Atheism is a disbelief, not a philosophy. My disbelief in the Tooth Fairy is not a philosophy of life - is it for anyone else? Furthermore, a philosophy of life is not necessarily a religion and it doesn't necessitate that a religious belief exists in the person with the philosophy.

Religions has its leaders, the preachers of its tenets. So does atheism (Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Lenin, Marx).

All of those philosophers disagreed in many ways - thus supporting my contention that atheism, as such, does not have any set of "clearly defined rules" and is not a single religion. Many atheists, in fact, have no interest in those authors.

The Democratic Party, the United Way, a university - all have had their leaders. Are they religions? Of course not - anyone who suggests such a thing would be immediately recognized as a loon, but somehow people imagine that it is respectable to do the same with atheism.

Religion has its faithful believers, who guard the orthodoxy of the faith. So does atheism.

What possible orthodoxy is there for anyone to guard? There are those who attempt to guard the orthodoxy of belief in the Democratic Party - is that a religion, too? At least political parties have some semblance of "orthodox beliefs" which are worth guarding against the gradual shifts of culture.

And religion is a matter of faith, not certainty. Your own faithful say that, as that is what I was referring to in my posting.

"...my own faithful...?" Who are they? What is he talking about? He acts like I'm a high-priest of atheism. Some people imagine that those who read this site and regularly visit the chat room and/or bulletin board are somehow "followers" - but they are simply reading their own predispositions onto the lives of others.

Just because religion necessitates the existence of faith does not mean that the existence of faith (in whatever form) necessitates the existence of religion. I have "faith" in my wife's love for me - is that a religion? Of course not. I have "faith" in the value of empiricism - is that a religion? Of course not, that'd be silly. The connection between religion and faith only goes in one direction, not both.

Moreover, religionists in cases like this love to equivocate upon the term "faith." Faith has multiple meanings - not all of which are exactly the same. The sort of faith to which I refer above and which one might consider common among atheists is that of simple confidence based upon past experience. Moreover, that faith is not limitless - it should only go as far as evidence warrants. In religion, however, faith means a great deal more - it is, in fact, essentially a belief without or in spite of evidence.

Welcome to the religious world! Please forgive my contentious tone. However, I would very much like to bring some (albeit not all as that is not possible) to the realization that all religions set themselves apart from the crowd; they are the pure, the faithful, all others are just "religion." Here again, atheism fits the bill.

Huh? This makes no sense. Just because atheists see themselves "apart from the crowd," this makes atheism a religion? Absurd.

At every point in the above letter, there is an attempt to show places where religions and atheism have something in common. I've either pointed out that there isn't anything in common - that the alleged commonality is shared by other organizations or beliefs that clearly aren't religions - or, finally, that the alleged commonality isn't a necessary part of atheism. The problem is, the author managed to pick things that aren't necessary parts to religion. A religion doesn't have to have leaders, an eschatology, defenders, etc. to be a religion. Just because something does have those things doesn't mean that it is a religion. If someone disagrees, they're going to have to do a better job of supporting this position than just listing them - they're going to have to explain, in depth, just how each of those points are sufficient and necessary.

Perhaps it would also help to examine what a religion is. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its article on Religion, lists some characteristics of religions. The more markers that are present in a belief system, the more "religious like" it is. Because it allows for broader grey areas in the concept of religion, I prefer this over more simplistic definitions we can find in basic dictionaries. Read the list and see how atheism fares :

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  7. A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  8. A more or less total organization of one's life based on the world view.
  9. A social group bound together by the above.

To try and claim that atheism is a religion requires, it should be pretty obvious from the above, a radical ad hoc redefinition in what it is that "being a religion" is supposed to mean, resulting in a radically equivocal use of the new term-- if atheism is a religion, then just what isn't a religion?

In addition, it should be noted that theism itself does not qualify as a religion based upon the above - and for most of the same reasons that atheism does not qualify. When you stop to think about it, theism - the mere belief in god(s) - does not automatically entail almost any of the beliefs or practices listed in either the above letter or the above definition. In order to have a religion, you need quite a bit more than either simple belief or disbelief. This fact is clearly reflected in the real world, because we find theism which exists outside of religion and religion which exists without theism.

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