Rarely 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)”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.