Is Atheism a Religion?

According to many conservative religious apologists, like pastor and DJ Kevin Childs, atheism is a religion whose members fervently deny their religiosity.1 The purpose behind such a characterization is to dismiss atheism as an inherently hypocritical and contradictory position, thereby providing the theist with an excuse to ignore whatever valid points may be raised. This argument is usually the mark of someone having exhausted all capability for intelligent discourse, thus resorting to a weak kind of ad hominem attack. The other side to it may also be that religious believers become so entrenched in their own views and dogmas that they cannot imagine how someone else might live without religion of some type. However, as we will see, Childs and his fellow apologists make several critical errors in their case for the ‘religion of atheism.’

I. What is Atheism?

First of all, we should define what atheism is before we can make any comparison to religion. Kevin Childs doesn’t define atheism, aside from presupposing his conclusion that it is a religion. What is atheism? Atheism comes from the Greek word atheos, meaning ‘without god’. The prefix a- is often used in language to denote the lack or absence of something. Asexual reproduction is a reproductive method wherein sex is absent. Atonal music is music that lacks a central tone. Similarly, since theism is understood as the belief in at least one god, a-theism is the lack of belief in gods, or – put another way – it is the absence of theism.

Atheism is not a belief, worldview, or philosophy; it is a negation of theism and nothing more. It is exemplified in a response such as, ‘I don’t see a reason to believe that’ to the statement ‘god exists.’ Some atheists think religion is harmless, others think it is actually good but not for them, and still others consider it dangerous. Some atheists are conservative, some are liberal, some are moralists and others are amoral, but these are all additional views and beliefs not intrinsic to atheism. What we will find in Childs’ blog is a frequent distortion of atheism, because he either does not really know what atheism is, or because he intentionally omits a real definition for it, knowing that it will dismantle his entire argument.

II. What is Religion?

Secondly, we need to define what it is we’re comparing atheism to. Webster’s Online Dictionary defines religion as the following:

1 a : the state of a religious (a nun in her 20th year of religion)

b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Definitions 1b and 2 are perhaps the closest to religion in the context we are discussing. Definition 4 is somewhat relevant, but seems more in the manner of a figure of speech, such as ‘music is a religion for him.’ You will note that none of these definitions can accommodate atheism, however. Atheism is not a set or institutionalized system of beliefs or practices. It is certainly not the service or devotion to god, faith, or religious observances. And as I will explain further when examining Childs’ blog, atheism is not a principle or cause that is held with faith. Atheism fits under religion in the same way that a square block fits into a circular peg, but Childs is determined to force it in there, and as we’ll see, he winds up distorting both religion and atheism in the process.

III. Painting Atheists With One Brush

“A religion doesn’t have to posit a god who must be identified or worshiped,” Childs states on his blog, citing Buddhism as a non-theistic religion. Buddhism is not recognized as a religion by everyone, since some identify it as a philosophy instead, but even if we grant the author’s statement as true, we must still have a coherent definition for religion that fits atheism too, without grossly redefining either one. Atheism is the rejection of theism, so it is indeed non-theistic, but what does Childs offer for counting atheism as a religion? The first bit of ‘evidence’:

They have their own worldview. Materialism (the view that the material world is all there is) is the lens through which atheists view the world. Far from being the open-minded, follow-the-evidence-wherever thinkers they claim to be, they interpret all data ONLY within the very narrow worldview of materialism.

Richard Dawkins and numerous other atheists have said on more than one occasion that if real evidence of the supernatural were presented to them tomorrow, they would have to change their opinions. Atheists are not strictly committed to materialism, as most of us simply do not accept anything beyond the observable world when there is insufficient evidence. Yet it’s not even true that atheism necessarily entails materialism, because there are some atheists who believe in ghosts, psychics, and other supernatural elements. A rejection of gods does not at all imply a rejection of everything supernatural. For those who are materialists and atheists, like myself, materialism is recognized as an optional and additional belief that has little or nothing to do with atheism. Thus the first criterion from Childs’ list is untrue.

They have their own orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a set of beliefs acceptable to a faith community… In brief, it is that EVERYTHING can be explained as the product of unintentional, undirected, purposeless evolution. No truth claim is acceptable if it cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny.

Once again, this is based on a feeble understanding of what atheism is. Not all atheists are concerned with science, and I have a hard time believing that Childs doesn’t realize this, since he names Nietzsche as a ‘prophet of atheism’ elsewhere (Nietzsche was anything but a scientific reductionist). There is often this assumption about atheism, though, that it exalts science and evolution in place of the theist’s god, but the absence or rejection of gods says nothing about science. A person may be an atheist because they think science explains away god, but they may also be an atheist because they note the contradictions of religion and the lack of any justification for faith in a god. A reliance on science is not inherent to atheism, nor is an acceptance of evolution, and the primary reason these are typically taken up by atheists is because in the last several decades many theists have been turning to science as a means of apologetic. So criterion two is another untrue broad generalization.

They have their own brand of apostasy. Apostasy is to abandon one’s former religious faith.

The example given for this is the reaction some atheists had to Anthony Flew’s decision to turn from atheism and accept theism. Is being disappointed in a person’s choice really apostasy though? Childs is truly grasping at straws here. No one is claiming that Flew was not a ‘true atheist’ because of his conversion. No one is making death threats to him. The author is only using the word apostasy to suit his agenda here, and this is seen most clearly in the circular reasoning he employs. Atheism is a religion because atheists have apostasy; apostasy is an abandonment of religious faith. This is called begging the question, Childs, and so your third criterion fails.

Next the author claims that atheists have their own prophets, mentioning Nietzsche, Russell, Feuerbach, Lenin, and Marx. While the first two may be staples among atheists, the latter three are included by Childs primarily to blame atheism for communism. In what sense are any of these men considered prophets? We don’t even get an explanation, most likely because Childs has none. He identifies noteworthy figures who have written or spoken against religion and labels them prophets, all out of a desire to make his pre-conceived conclusion inevitable. I suppose we can also say Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, and Timothy McVeigh were prophets of Christianity, since they had opinions on Jesus and the bible, and two of them definitely had many followers. Yet again, Childs is carelessly using religious language to build his case for atheism being a religion, meaning that he is begging the question and failing in his argument once more.

They have their own messiah: He is, of course, Charles Darwin. Darwin – in their view – drove the definitive stake through the heart of theism by providing a comprehensive explanation of life that never needs God as a cause or explanation.

Surely the author must know that there were atheists long before Darwin, and there were good arguments against a creator god before Darwin too. Darwin didn’t even explain what Childs claims – evolution is about the diversity of life, not the origin of it. Furthermore, Darwin was a Deist, not an atheist, and he saw his theory as nothing inconsistent with the existence of a god. I’ve always said that even if evolution had never been discovered, there would be more then enough reason to reject religions like Christianity and Islam, based on their own internal contradictions and lack of supporting evidence. Darwin is not a messiah in any sense of the term, and this is just another instance of Childs manipulating words to endorse his pathetically weak conclusion.

Lastly, he brings up ‘evangelists’ and ‘preachers’ such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, and then wraps up by accusing atheists of having faith. The first of these points has been covered already, suffice it to say that Childs is abusing the words evangelist and preacher as anyone spreading a message. This is broad enough that it cannot really provide evidence for the religiosity of atheism, since politicians, musicians, artists, and authors could all be considered preachers or evangelists for sharing a message with the rest of us. As for the faith comment, Childs claims that because god cannot be proven or disproved, it takes faith to deny god. A denial implies that something is there to be denied, however, and the common atheist position is that there is insufficient evidence for a god, not that there is absolutely, positively no god. It does not take faith to reject something on a lack of evidence, it takes faith to believe in something on a lack of evidence.

Childs goes on to say that:

…(atheistic) evolutionary theory has no rational explanation for why there is such a thing as rational explanation. There is no accounting for the things they hope you won’t ask: Why do we have self-awareness? What makes us conscious? From what source is there a universal sense of right and wrong?

This is perhaps one of the most ignorant statements made by the author. There are dozens of books written on the evolution of the mind, how rationality aids in survival, and everything mentioned here. Consciousness is unlikely to be anything but the workings of our physical brain, indicated by how trauma to the head can cause one to lose consciousness, change personality, and so on. There is no grand supernatural mystery to it, as theists love to pretend. It’s very easy to tell how self-awareness and rational thinking are benefitial too, when you consider the advantages of survival that come from being able to make conscious decisions and evaluate complex circumstances. But even if these were questions that atheists struggle with, what’s so wrong about not having an answer immediately available? The irony is that Childs goes on to admit this about theists in just the next paragraph: “There are questions we cannot answer.”

IV. Theism and Religion

Let’s go back for a minute to Childs’ previous statement on what constitutes a religion. “A religion,” he claims, “doesn’t have to posit a god who must be identified or worshiped.” A religion can be theistic, but theism itself is not a religion. Like atheism, theism is one simple proposition: a god exists (or many gods exist). Merely knowing that someone believes in a god tells us nothing about what doctrines, dogmas, rituals, or practices they subscribe to, if any. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism are religions, while theism simply describes the fact that all these worldviews have a common belief in a god or gods. Similarly, there can be non-theistic or atheistic religions, like Buddhism, but atheism itself is not a religion.

Childs scoffs at the atheist rejoinder, “If atheism is a religion, then not playing baseball is a sport”, but he doesn’t even bother to address the point of it. Calling atheism a religion is a category error. The rejoinder would actually be better rephrased as, “If atheism is a religion, then not playing baseball is a sports team”. Not playing baseball is the rejection of a specific sport, but this sport is not a sports team itself, although there are baseball teams. By analogy, atheism is a rejection of a specific claim (theism), as stated before, but this claim itself is not a religion, although there are theistic religions. The author points out that “denying something doesn’t prove it is not there”, so where is his refutation of this rejoinder that is beyond simple denial?

V. All For Naught

Labeling atheism a religion is one example of what I call a ‘shut em up argument.’ Its intention is not rational debate, nor is it even to persuade. Its only purpose is to give its proponent an excuse for ending discussion, allowing him/her to write off their opponent as holding to a hypocritical, contradictory worldview. This makes it easier to discard any challenging objections and reaffirm one’s beliefs, rather than having to reflect on the conversation. The equivalent gesture is plugging your ears and shouting ‘la la la’ over things you don’t want to hear.

The argument is made even more ridiculous by the fact that it doesn’t really matter what one chooses to call himself or herself with regard to disbelief. Whether it’s atheist, freethinker, anti-theist, non-theist, non-religious, irreligious, or so on, the labels are insignificant. There are no labels for people who reject the existence of ghosts, leprechauns, or aliens, but because of the overwhelming prevalence of religious faith in our world history and culture, non-believers have received a label to distinguish them from believers. Yet now it is claimed that these non-believers are no different from the believers. One has to wonder what true non-believers would look like to these theists, or if there ever could be such a thing in their eyes.

 

Sources:

1. Childs, K. (2010) What I’m Learning From Atheists (III). Retrieved Aug. 25, 2010.