Is Atheism a Religion? (Hint: No)

atheism religion baldness hairstyleRarely do I make new articles based on my interactions with commenters, but a recent one warranted a full response. From my article “Read a Bible – Become an Atheist (In That Order)” one commenter said:

Sorry, atheism is a religion, as it is a system of belief…a very simple one (not saying that everyone’s beliefs are simple, but the simple fact being that one chooses NOT to believe in God). It takes great leaps of faith to believe that there is no God.

Either I have suddenly and inexplicably become religious, everyone including this commenter has multiple religions, or it’s complete nonsense. Let’s get started.

Not Me, But You

I’ve actually heard this many times. Religious people run out of ways to defend themselves against atheists and therefore try to use the schoolyard tactics of redirecting insults back at them. “I know you are but what am I?” or “I am rubber, you are glue, and whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Even a sarcastic slow-clapping cliche from a random TV show can’t express how ridiculous this argument is.

don-draper-slow-clap

…But I guess it can’t hurt to try

Some religious people will drop names like Richard Dawkins and say that books like “the God Delusion,” or A. C. Grayling’s “The Good Book: The Humanist Bible,” are like the atheist’s versions of their own religious texts. They will look at atheist conventions and get-togethers and start using their own religious lenses to impose explanations on such behaviours, claiming that the atheists are doing the same things they themselves do. They call prominent atheists “prophets” and “preachers,” and otherwise use the same lingo that they use for their non-theist counterparts.

I can only imagine that if religious people are going to argue that atheists are religious people too, it would be to say “If I go down, I’m taking you with me.” That’s because such proponents of this notion have given up on the argument that being religious is better than being secular. So instead, they will argue like children, claiming that non-believers are believers like themselves.

mid finger

“I’m religious? No YOU’RE religious! …Screw me?! No, screw you!!” -Debate winner

Definitions Don’t Cut It

One former guest on Real Time With Bill Maher wrote this in an article on Reason.com:

I didn’t know what fire and brimstone was until I made a throwaway claim recently during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. It seemed pretty unaudacious at the time, but by dropping the simple sentence “Atheism is a religion,” I opened a biblical floodgate of ridicule, name-calling, and abuse.

My Twitter feed and Facebook page became engorged with angry responses. [. . .] No matter what I said to counter their statements or clarify my thoughts, by and large they refused to give me a fitting definition of religion. Nobody on my Facebook thread could tell me why it was so problematic and offensive to categorize a system of thought adhered to by a group of people about the nonexistence of a supernatural entity as a religion.

I have yet to hear a cogent response to this question: Why is it a problem if someone considers atheism a religion? How does that hurt the atheists’ claim? It’s not saying you can’t believe God does not exist. Knock yourself out!

There are many ways to tackle this question, and one of the most annoying ways is to argue about definitions. So let’s start there.

The Merriam -Webster Dictionary defines an atheist as “one who believes that there is no deity.” The first commenter, Paul Entrekin, disagrees. “This is WRONG,” he says. “[Atheist] is a person who does NOT believe a god exists because of overwhelming evidence. There is no belief in atheism.” Likewise, the Oxford Dictionary defines atheist as “A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods,” which isn’t so problematic, but the example sentence given is “he is a committed atheist.” The problem here is simply that, well… atheism is not a commitment. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from it.

Having read these dictionary entries, you might understand why I say that using dictionaries to tackle this question in the first place is annoying. Arguing semantics in specific words is pointless – especially in English – because one of the characteristics of the language is its linguistic ambiguity. So let’s change languages.

In Japanese, the word for “religion” (宗教/shuukyou) is almost the same for “atheism” (無宗教/mushuukyou). The first character in atheism (無) can basically be translated to “no,” which is essentially the way I view atheism – as “no religion.” Therefore, when I explain the atheism-is-a-religion argument to someone in Japanese, it comes out as “this religious person is apparently arguing that no religion is the same as religion.” Personally, this sounds just as absurd to me in Japanese as it does in English, but obviously there are people who don’t accept the definition of atheism for what most atheists mean it.

Therefore, let’s get out of word-based semantics.

What it Means to be an Atheist

A Christian person may go to church, give donations in a little basket that’s passed around, pray and say “grace,” read the bible, etc. They won’t go to a mosque or synagogue or temple, they won’t study the Koran, and they won’t practice the teachings of Buddha.

In Japan, most people would probably be thought (at least by Westerners) to have multiple religions (though religiosity is a bit sketchy here). They may go to a Buddhist temple for spiritual rites or funerals, while attending a Shinto shrine for New Years, or to pray, etc.

If a Christian is going to argue that atheism is a religion, then I would argue (with their flawed logic) that Christians (and every other monotheist) are multi-religious. They practice Christianity, and… non-Judaism, and non-Islam, and non-Buddhism, etc. Just like atheists, with their commitment to believing in nothingness. Because, isn’t that the argument that it comes down to? That atheists actively “believe in no god?”

Yet Christians won’t accept that they are multi-religious, which makes sense… because it’s a ridiculous assertion. And so is the notion that atheism is a religion, or that it’s some active commitment.

couple in park

“Hey, there’s a happy couple! What are you guys doing at the park?” “We’re being atheists!”

What an Atheist Isn’t

When I wake up, I don’t pray. Throughout my day, I might thank someone for making a meal, but I certainly don’t thank “god” for it. Likewise, I never think about any holy book until I hear some news about how yet another politician has denied someone their rights on the basis of its contents. Religion never really comes to mind unless I hear an argument about science or something more personal, such as the fact that I’m actually (unbeknownst to me) in a religion.

To put it bluntly, religion has absolutely no part in my life, and there is no active belief system or commitment that I made to any doctrine or sect or whatever. I could just as easily call Christians atheists to every other religion, since they lack a belief in every other religion the exact same way as I do. However, I take it one step further, with Christianity.

So the notion that it takes a “great leap of faith to believe that there is no God” is like saying it takes a great leap of faith to believe that the sky won’t fall. This is something that I never actually think about unless it’s vigorously thrust into my face, like an accusation about my lifestyle. I have no religion. I am 無宗教.

What Others Have to Say

The blog at Strange Notion has a strange conclusion about atheism.

A prima facie or “at first glance” case for the claim that atheism can be seen as a religion can be found in the answer an atheist might give to the question “Are you a Christian?” When presented with this question, an atheist may reply, “No, I’m an atheist.” On the other hand, if he was instead presented with the question, “Are you a Jew?” he might again reply, “No, I’m an atheist.”

If he had been asked, “Are you a Buddhist?” or “Are you a Muslim?” or “Are you a Hindu?” he might well give the same answer: “No, I am an atheist.” This suggests that being an atheist is analogous to being a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Hindu. And that, in turn suggests that atheism is analogous to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

In other words, atheism, too, can be seen as a religion.

This is a terribly weak argument. If this is what you bring to the podium, then I’ll just say “I’m not an atheist either,” and suddenly I get out of the net of arbitrary semantics. But to be honest, it really doesn’t matter. The obsession with calling atheists religious is the tactic of those who aren’t secure enough with their own religiosity to just accept that they are active in their beliefs.

The Good Atheist finds himself flabbergasted at the same thing as me. Referring to a story from Fox News, stating that “Atheists are, in fact, some of the most religious people,” he says:

I find myself wondering what kind of argument would work on such a confused mind. Should I start by trying to understand if this is an insult or a compliment in their eyes? Isn’t faith a good thing, and if so, why do they ‘accuse’ us of faith if they think that shit is awesome? Should I even bother to explain the difference between a belief supported by evidence and one ‘supported’ by the complete lack of it?

The Skeptico blog also had a post from 2009 that raised some good points about argument against atheism as a religion.

The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.

Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.

And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next – it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith.  That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.

The Bottom Line

All I can assume from someone who makes this argument is that they ran out of other arguments. It reminds me of the recent spat between China and Japan in January of this year. In short, China compared Japan to Voldemort – the villain in the children’s book “Harry Potter,” which is so famous that I don’t know why I’m even explaining it. To this childish insult, Japan responded swiftly… by suggesting that China was, in fact, akin to Voldemort.

If the worst thing religious people can say against atheism is “well you know what? You’re religious like I am!…” then I think they have to rethink their strategy.

"You're just like me!" -Debate winner

“You’re just like me!” -Debate winner

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6 Responses to Is Atheism a Religion? (Hint: No)

  1. Jacob Fortin says:

    Moshi Moshi! Hey, nice blog. Always nice to see skepticism around the world! Keep it up.

  2. NoPartOfTheWorld says:

    For someone who knows what one isn’t, there are some bold statements about what one is. You are right in that the definition is important. So how does this argument originate from the bibles perspective (considering it is a side-point based on the criticism of a person of the bible saying an atheist is religious)?

    For some, football is their religion. Is this taking it out of context? Not at all. There are at least THREE “gods” mentioned that the person who says that atheism isn’t a religion would say that these also aren’t gods. They are
    1) the god of one’s belly (Philippians 3:19)
    2) the god of good luck (Isaiah 65:11)
    3) the god of destiny (Isaiah 65:11 also)
    Then we could look at the scripture that says that covetousness (the desiring of someone else’s belongings) is idolatry (also related to a fake god). (Colossians 3:5)

    Therefore, any belief system that a person has is unfortunately stuck with a definition from not just the dictionary, but even the bible. It is a religious belief. In fact, there is a defending of this faith. Faith? Indeed. The faith is in the people who developed it, and that hopefully their motives were pure. Facts are that the worlds motives aren’t pure. They are there for one’s own reasons (their “god of their belly”) lol :).

    Maybe they should write an atheist dictionary, with definitions like these two:

    pig: (n) NOT a dog, horse, bird, fish, fly, cat, giraffe, elephant, human, monkey (although these are the same), aeroplane, ocean, letter, number, building, country, website.

    pigtail: (n) NOT a bald head, ponytail, mohawk, pompadour, combover, spike, curly hair, waves, shaved at level 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, teased. Not a non-hairstyle.

    As for baldness being a hairstyle, it is common practice for many balding men to go bald as their hair style. That is how they like their hair…shaved completely off as opposed to the combover. Who do you see to get your hair shaved off, as far as a commercial entity goes? The “I’m not a hairdresser/barber”? No, we see the hairdresser/barber. We certainly don’t see the tanner, although in their duties, they remove hair (or fur at least) from their products. As a matter of fact, we don’t even go to the hair-loss centres to remove hair, but to put it on. So until the hairdresser or barber stop offering to “take it all off, yep, shave it all off” because they dress hair or otherwise, but don’t do non-hair products and services, I’m sticking to the baldness is a hairstyle. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but to say that atheism is a religion as to baldness being a hairstyle is a weak argument, as it doesn’t strengthen the case. As stated in your article, ask the two dictionaries…or maybe another more accurate one needs to be written (feel free to use my definitions above if anyone wants to).

    I like that the article attempts to put the twist on the statement it not being about what a person believes, but what a person doesn’t believe, but simply put, an atheist doesn’t believe there is a god is less accurate than they believe that there isn’t a god…does that seem absurd? It sure does. In this instance, swapping the + and – signs equate the same answer, and this can be tested by using argumental techniques. Actually, even mathematically, in this instance, we have the same values on both sides. There is no acceptance for instance of “that’s because I believe there is 1+n gods” or “-1 gods”. Because it hinges on the 0 factor, the equation is the same on both sides of the argument, and instead becomes a perspective of just arguing with “Yes it is” as opposed to “No it isn’t”. A bitch-fight, and not a true argument. When a person who doesn’t believe in God is asked “What do you believe?”, it is illogical to believe that they believe in nothing. They don’t believe in nothing. Yet to state a-theism in itself is the argument of basically no belief in a god is inaccurate, as the god as mentioned above can be in many forms. If theism is the belief that there is a god, or that there are gods, then a-theism is the belief that there are no gods. Linguistically, it is the stronger of the two arguments. Theism would be wrongly described as “no belief in no gods”, although depending on edumacational lingo, it may actually apply to the atheist (varmint version)… as in “I ain’t got me no belief in no gods”. If the atheist wants to play the “neutral corner” role, then they can’t be no belief in gods of any sort, as their very next statements will convict them both according to your worldly sources as you’ve stated (the dictionaries) and also the scriptures, which show that one’s god can be many things. A very weak argument for the other side, as that would make every dead person an atheist, because they are dead? They don’t exist any more, so they therefore don’t believe in God? So can we use the same reasoning on the atheist? Is an atheist dead? To flip THIS argument around like we did with the article stating “no belief in a god or gods” as opposed to “a belief in no god or gods” would be harder to do, as the principles are different.

    And it seems there is a crossover about the “er…iunno…” of not knowing where matter comes from. That would be the agnostic atheist, yes? As opposed to the “we came from aliens” version, which would be the faith in the unknown source of life, but knowing that life came from life atheist. Or then there is the “we evolved from monkeys” which is the same as faith in the unknown source of life, but knowing that life came from life atheist.
    Then there is the Stanley Miller style atheist, the one who believes that life came from no life by a strike of lightning in a laboratory, where the right conditions were all set up, and an amazing scientist conducted the experiment.

    My favourite though is the Stephen Hawking style atheist, who acknowledges that science doesn’t know the boundaries past the universe, nor how we got here, but the circular reasoning of we are here, therefore something happened that made a limit of our boundaries of knowledge, but not only what we do know, but what we may never know.

    These theories all require a great leap in faith when there is an “er…iunno…” as the answer for the question “where did it come from?”, when the facts show that it wasn’t always there…”er…iunno…but I’m sticking to it without any facts or reasoning”. That takes great faith. This is why those who believe in God aren’t stuck in a rut. They know that there was a time when some”thing” made the nothing be, and it came from a source that has immeasurable intelligence and greatness. Actually, according to e=mc squared, it harmonises with a scripture, namely Isaiah 40:26, where the scripture shows that the physical universe came into existence “due to the abundance of dynamic energy, he also being vigorous in power”. So to me, which argument is stronger out of
    a) we came from nothing, but just formed by chance, and are alive, and I don’t know how or why or what or where from, or
    b) we were created from an eternal being who had a purpose, and has deep intelligence, and control over everything, and he gave life to physical beings.

    I choose b.

    Thanks for letting me share my comments with you Ryo. It’s been a pleasure mate. I wish you the best, but I’m hanging up my boots and chaps as such. I hope there are many others who would like to put their arguments forth, although I won’t do any more from here. Time for me to bow out.

  3. Brock says:

    Technically, you’re correct. Atheism is not a religion. But it IS a belief system and it does fill the “social” group role in a person’s life that is normally filled by a religion. It inhabits the same “trait” when describing a person.

    Furthermore, it’s believers defend Atheism with much the same (if not more) bravado that religious people do, in my experience.

    As an agnostic who passionately believes in religious tolerance, I really don’t want to hear from either belief system unless I *ask* to hear about it (don’t hold your breath).

    You’re both annoying as hell. ;p

  4. John Box says:

    Very nice post and fantastic use of the Japanese to make a point. I hadn’t seen 無宗教 before, but I think that sums it up pretty well. I’m personally not sure what to believe so I generally take to worship of the bush & bottle. Which I’m pretty sure is what He designed me to do. If there is a He. Which I’m not sure of. Which I guess makes me an agnostic. Which begs the question, Is agnosticism a religion? 😉

  5. Paul Armenat says:

    Actually, atheism is a religion. It meet the criteria of a religion: http://creation.com/atheism-a-religion

  6. Jim Couch says:

    Self inflicted baldness is a hairstyle. You may deny the hair and shave it off but underneath it all it is still there growing in your skin. God is the same way. Atheism is a belief system like any other because you can’t prove or disprove the existence of god to say absolutely there is or is not a god is a complete act of faith.

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