Atheism is Not a Religion

By Michael Hawkins

Despite popular belief, there is actually hardly anything which links atheists together.

It has become all too common to claim that atheism is a religion. This usually acts as a purely rhetorical tool to use against atheists. The implication is if there is agreement that something must be true (and there usually is), and all things are religion, then some religion must be true. It’s a form of false equivalence, like a creationist claiming that evolution and creationism are equally valid ways of looking at the (obvious) evidence.

Consider for a moment that there are approximately 14 million Jews in the world. The lobbying and political power of this group is owed in large part to the organizing principle of religion (not to mention a devastating past). But contrast this with the 350 million or so atheists (1.2 billion if you consider “non-believers”). There is little to no organizing power behind atheism. The reason is simply that atheism does not offer a system of belief.

Behind Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are central beliefs. First there is the Abrahamic God. From that follow a number of dogmas and various collections of doctrine which act to centralize belief. The same is true of all religion with substitution for specific god(s).

Atheism only has one common thread holding people together – the lack of belief in any deities. Nothing specific follows from this. Some atheists find religion to be a bad thing, others don’t. Some find that monetary success is the most important thing, others don’t. Some find that family comes before all else, others don’t.

If it were enough to say that statements on the existence of God define something as religion, then the deistic and (most) agnostics would be religious. The statements “the creator is hands-off” and “maybe” constitute claims about the existence of God. All belief, except perhaps the most strict “I don’t know” agnostic waffling, would then be religious in its nature. At best this is a confusion with metaphysics. At worst, it’s just a political and rhetorical ploy to pull atheism down to the lowly level of religion.

Fundamentally, that’s what this is all about. Call atheism a religion, and the claim by many – but not all – atheists that all religion is wrong is conveniently side-stepped. If everything is religious in essence, and something has to be right (sorry nihilists), then atheism becomes a whole lot easier to dismiss as just another wrong religion.

So of course atheism does not display any of the defining characteristics of religion – no more than clear displays any of the characteristics of colors. But there is a silver lining here. The implication that something is lost in atheism when it is deemed a religion actually has some appeal. While I cannot speak for the non-unified, disparate beliefs of any fellow atheists, the notion that there is something negative about religion seems nothing less than perfectly fitting.

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21 Responses

  1. Well a view about the the nature of God (even His non-existence) is obviously a religious position, though it may not constitute a ‘religion’.

    And a belief system doesn’t need to involve a belief in God to be religious – various Buddhist and Hinu sects are atheistic, for example.

    I think atheists – particular our latest crop – are very consistent in their tenets and fundamental beliefs about many things. The books by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are very consistent in their positions, repetitively so (which I think rather belies the smallness of atheistic belief), which would indicate an underlying creed that is followed.

    It makes claims about the nature and order of the universe and humans place in that order, which are certainly religious considerations.

    So whether atheism constitutes a religion is debatable – but it is certainly religious in nature.

  2. Dawkins is more libertarian than the others, Harris argues for meditation and uses terms the other detest (such as “spirituality”), and Hitchens is quite hawkish, something with which the others barely deal, but when they do, they dismiss such a position.

    But if by “latest crop” you mean those who hold the singular theme of religion being bad, then Nietzsche, Freud, and Russell all fall into being part of this new trend.

  3. Well I think by most standards they are all definitively libertarian, and i have never heard a leading atheist oppose Hitchens ‘hawkishness’.

    And I agree many atheists throughout history have held such a position; though I think that demonstrates further the narrowness of their belief system, and rather contradicts the notion that their beliefs are particularly diverse beyond the common acknowledgement no gods exist.

  4. Dawkins has commented on Hitchens’ favoring the Iraq war a few times. Victor Stenger has also made a few comments. I think the limit here is that Hitchens has a bigger focus on politics whereas most of the other popular atheist writers tend to be scientists.

    You’re picking a few popular atheists to make your point. You seem to be forgetting the huge number of atheists who think religion is a good thing (coined “faitheists” by Jerry Coyne).

  5. Remind me again – who are these atheists that think religion is a ‘good thing’? I mean I am sure they exist, but they don’t seem to be present in the leadership of the current atheist movement.

    Obviously other leading atheists like Coyne see fit to mock them, so I am not sure they represent a serious faction of the whole.

  6. Robert Wright, Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, the NSCE. And there is no leadership.

    How do you go from observing one guy (or a couple people) mocking those who are atheist and favorable toward religion to concluding that such atheists are thus a small faction?

  7. Well Wright and Ruse are agnostic and I haven’t seen anyone giving Schermer a particularly hard tiime, so I am not sure why those examples are pertinent.

    But it is Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris who call themselves the ‘Four Horsemen’ of atheism, so apparently they consider themselves the established leaders of the movement.

  8. If you listen to Wright prattle on, he’s actually an atheist. He accepts the potential premise of a hands-off deity (which is the only thing compatible with the facts of biology), while rejecting an intervening hand, but that describes Dawkins just the same. His real beef is with the “New Atheists”, not atheism.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about with Ruse. He has often written about his atheism. And people give Shermer a hard time often enough.

    “The Four Horsemen” is not a term which supports your contention of atheistic leadership.

  9. If one believes a deity exists (or might exist) even in a hands off manner, one isn’t an atheist.

    But quite frankly I don’t think it matters because you seem to be trying to prove opposite two things at once – one that ‘atheists’ aren’t rigid in their beliefs beyond certain particulars, and second that atheists persecute other atheists who aren’t rigid in their beliefs beyond certain particulars. Have fun arguing with yourself about this.

  10. I refer you to Dawkins scale of belief from The God Delusion. By any strict definition, almost no one is an atheist at all. By the same measure, we’re all agnostics about fairies.

    The criticism Ruse, Shermer, Wright, and other atheists get is not based upon their lack of adherence to some atheist principles (which don’t exist since atheism espouses no principles, good or bad), but because they’re sympathetic to faith. That sympathy doesn’t conflict with a lack of belief – it’s entirely possible to believe in no gods and still think faith/religion is good while being logically consistent – but it doesn’t conflict with the positions held by a few of the more popular atheist writers.

  11. Again, if atheists are as varied a lot as you would like to pretend, there would be no need to circle the wagons and shoot those who stray outside the camp – but as you have acknowledged, that just isn’t the case.

    Atheism is the narrowest of metaphysical constructs and more intolerant than any religion ever was; currently they simply lack the political power currently to impose their dogmas on society at large – let us all hope for the sake of freedom that doesn’t change.

  12. Those who “shoot those who stray outside the camp” consist of a few of the more popular atheists. That there are about six especially popular atheist writers right now who all feel the same about religion doesn’t support your contention that there is uniformity amongst atheists. I would recommend you read one of those atheists, Victor Stenger, to get an account of the distinction between atheism and so-called “new atheism”.

    But what “dogmas” would atheists impose?

  13. I would have to say your views on the subject here are suspect as you share the same views as those six or so popular atheists.

    And I think we have already been discussing one dogma, that being that belief in God is the primary source of evil in the world.

  14. Okay, that there are six especially popular atheists plus me does not equal your contention that there is consistency amongst atheists. The position of the six I have in mind (and me) is that religion is a bad thing. This isn’t evidence for a wide-spread belief. Fortunately, it would be difficult to really poll a random sampling of atheists to see what they believe since there is nothing which ties them together besides one single position (that there are no gods).

    The dogma you’ve listed makes no sense. No atheist believes in God, so no atheist can possibly think he is a source of evil. One can, however, think that religion is a source of evil.

  15. I didn’t say God was a source of evil; I said belief in God, which is presumably the aspect of religion you oppose as their are atheistic religions.

    And if you wish for me to narrow my claim that atheistic belief can be essentially religious to those who ascribe to the beliefs of Dawkins et. al., I have no problem with that.

  16. I misread.

    Belief in God itself generally isn’t evil. Deists, for example, don’t tend to get heavily criticized by any of the six atheists I’ve named. It is religion that is the problem (and Dawkins and others have criticized Buddhism).

  17. Re there any deists left to criticize? I don’t even know that it exists as a regular belief system in the 21st century.

  18. Deism isn’t a belief system, just a belief. It falls under the same heading as agnosticism and atheism in this regard.

  19. Actually, Deism, at least of the sort held by well known deists like Jefferson et. al. was certainly a belief system. Perhaps you are thinking of Theists.

  20. What follows from deism? “There is a creator.” Okay. So what? There are insects. Does some system of belief follow from that statement?

  21. Traditionally believes God eixists, He created the universe and man, there is good and evil, God punishes evil, He has a plan for history, etc.

    There is a certainly a system of belief there.

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