Friday, September 18, 2009

Atheism: not a religion

One of the easiest pieces of anti-atheist rhetoric to come by: "Atheism is just another religion". It's a very clichéd argument. I can't tell if people are just repeating arguments they've heard before, or if people independently come up with it. I wonder if people think themselves terribly clever, essentially arguing, "I know you are, but what am I?" Since it's so common, atheists have come up with a bunch of silly counter-clichés. "Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color." "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby." I hate these. It's not so much that I don't like clichés. I hate cliché arguments, because they suggest that the person has not really thought about the inner mechanics of the argument.

"Atheism is just another religion" is just so overwhelmingly wrong, it's hard to counter one stupidity without implicitly accepting another stupidity. I could start with, "So what if it's a religion?" but that would nearly suggest that I think atheism is a religion and that's okay. I could start with, "Atheism is totally not a religion," but that would nearly suggest that I think all religion is automatically bad.

I'll start with "So what if it's a religion?" Just imagine if atheists argued that Christianity is wrong because "it's just another religion." Or if we argued that Buddhism is wrong because, "it's just another religion." We would be immediately and justifiably dismissed. No, the arguments we make are about how the beliefs are either contrary to reality or contrary to good reasoning. These beliefs, no matter how metaphorical or immaterial they are made out to be, often lead to real harm. We can also talk about specific instances of corruption or abuse within religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church's failure to punish sex abuse cases in their priesthood.

But while I think many religions are bad, that does not mean I think that all religions need to be bad. Just because you have a belief doesn't mean it is wrong, nor does it mean that it will lead to harm. Religious communities need not have scandal. It depends on the community. In fact, I'm a social person, I think communities are a good thing, possibly one of religion's only redeeming features.

As a real-world example of a religion I have no problem with, take the Unitarian-Universalist church. Unitarian-Universalists have diverse beliefs, and I probably disagree with a lot of individuals, but I have no dispute with the group as a whole. Note that some Unitarian-Universalists are atheists. So you could in fact say that those atheists have a religion. But their religion is not atheism, it's Unitarian-Universalism.

I'm not really offended at the suggestion that I might have a religion. So what? But at the same time, I find the argument offensive in precisely the same sense that profound ignorance is offensive. Because it's just factually wrong.

When I took an intro course on the history of religion some time ago, I learned that religion is actually a very tricky thing to define. How do you construct a definition that includes everything from Judaism to Taoism, but excludes things like football? But pretty much no matter how you slice it, atheism is hardly a religion. The mere lack of belief in a god is too meager to be a belief system in itself. Even if you consider naturalism, a larger belief system, it's hardly what I'd call a guidebook to your daily life. Humanism might be a little closer to qualifying, but that's another story.

The other major component of religion, an organized community, is also rather lacking. There are atheist organizations to be sure, but I would call it more of a movement than a community. Another interesting thing to note is that before atheism achieved its current level of visibility, many atheists figured out atheism independently, without contact with any community. You could have a single atheist in a small village who has never met or heard of a single person like themself. I don't think this is true of any religion.

But of course, there's much more to religion than just a belief system and a community. There's also ritual, spirituality, giving yourself up to some divine being who loves you. I briefly discussed different ways of being religious over a year ago. Atheists tend to focus mostly on the beliefs and communities of religions, because those are the most deserving of criticism. But I feel very indifferent towards such religious things as ritual and spirituality. Some atheists may seek these out, but it's rarely atheism itself which provides it. And that's fine, because atheism is not a religion and need not fulfill every function of religion all on its own.

But I think a lot of people just don't care about serious definitions of religion. They just want to say that atheism is a religion in a much weaker sense. They just want to say that atheists believe things! And they have groups who like to do stuff! So what? I don't think it's necessarily bad to literally be religious, why would I worry about metaphorically being religious?

I will conclude by noting that atheism is in fact a category of views on religion. Atheists believe that theistic religions are incorrect. Therefore, if someone asks for my views on religion, I can say "atheist". When it's said that atheism is a religion for legal purposes, I take that to mean that atheism is another category of views on religion, equal to any other under the law. Our laws provide certain rights to people of all different views on religion, so I expect those rights to extend to atheists too. I do not believe that this means that atheism is actually a religion.


The Rambling Taoist said...

I have the same sort of trouble with people labeling philosophical Taoism as a "religion". I point out that there are no deities, rituals, creeds, holy books or "churches" and yet so many folks still wish to call it a religion.

Me thinks this is because the idea of religion is so institutionalized that a vast majority of folks feel that everybody must be categorized in this way, even when the definition doesn't fit nor make sense.

miller said...

The class I took considered Taoism a religion. It also considered Confucianism a religion. I could see it being classified otherwise, though.

But just to make clear, I don't consider belief in a deity to be an essential property of religion.

The Rambling Taoist said...

There IS a religious form of Taoism -- no argument there. But the philosophical form is the older of the two.

You don't consider "belief in a deity to be an essential property of religion."? Why not? With the exception of some forms of Buddhism, almost every other religion I'm familiar with revolves around the worship of a god or gods.

miller said...

Well, we can't just leave out those forms of Buddhism. There are also atheists in Unitarian-Univeralism, Secular Judaism, and lots of new religions.

Another thing to note is that even though most religions have some sort of god or gods, this is at least partly due to the way we translate the words. Hinduism is commonly said to have many gods, but they're not gods in the same sense that westerners think of them. I once heard it said that they're more like patron saints.

Norwegian Shooter said...

Skeptico posted on this in June, I brought up my religion, UUism, and in some comments there if you care to read them.

Two points I made there is that Wikipedia has a great definition of religion. My own quick and dirty definition is the latin root meaning, to bind. Religions bind people together.

In regard to this post and the comments, a lot of the confusion is equating religion with belief. This conflation is buried so deep in the West's subconscious that it is very hard to keep them separate. When a believer says "Atheism is a religion" what they mean is that atheists have beliefs (sometimes called a worldview), that are presumptions and unprovable. Thus, atheists are on the same shifty ground that believers are. You have your assumptions, I have mine. The trick in replying to this is to clarify the distinction between beliefs and religions and address them separately.

For instance, I would rewrite this sentence: "Atheists believe that theistic religions are incorrect."

Atheists state that theistic beliefs are incorrect (or unsupported, or whatever works for you). Atheists acknowledge that certain functions of religious practice can be beneficial, but that these practices do not need to be justified by a theistic belief system. (A little long, but I hope you get the drift).

Atheists (and naturalists) don't have beliefs in the same sense as religious beliefs.

PS Hinduism is incredibly complex, it only confuses things to compare it to any aspect of Western religion.

miller said...

On this point, I would disagree with Skeptico, and agree with you. Religion and belief are two very different things. And neither of them is necessarily bad.

I would readily admit to having beliefs. What kind of silly position would it be to have no beliefs about anything (assuming we're not splitting hairs over belief vs acceptance)?

Norwegian Shooter said...

Didn't mean to split hairs (that really hurts, by the way). I should have said atheists and naturalists don't have supernatural beliefs.

miller said...

The splitting hairs comment wasn't referring to you. I didn't feel like you were splitting hairs. You only said that atheists don't have beliefs in the same sense as religious beliefs, which I think is a very fair way of putting it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "religion" can be defined precisely enough to exclude any system of beliefs without excluding systems of beliefs that are clearly religious. It's just not a very precise term, which -- I think -- is why debates over whether atheism is a religion will always wind up going in circles.

I don't think there's a good argument against calling atheism a religion, but I think that because "religion" is such an inclusive term that it verges on meaninglessness.