Is atheism a religion?
Beyond the obvious difference in the belief in the existence of god, what, if anything, fundamentally differentiates the two? By exploring this question, I hope to uncover the answer to a related and underlying question: is atheism a religion, or the lack of religion? I hope to show that, in some ways, it is analogous to talking about anarchism, and the related questioning of what defines political belief (and belief in general). There are many facets to this question, which bring up epistemological and ontological points which are fundamental to philosophical thought. We will have to ask others questions, such as ‘What is supernatural?’, ‘What is the difference between belief and knowledge?’ and ‘How can we know something to be true?’ There is a reason these questions keep coming up, as they are the ultimate questions which are present at the root of many inquiries.
WHAT IS RELIGION?
While there are many opinions as to the definition and function of religion, there are certain attributes which tend to exhibit themselves across all that we consider to be ‘religion’. So, instead of trying to look at what a religion is, we will define a religion (in a constructivist sense, perhaps) by its function. So what do religions do? Why do people adhere to them? It would appear most evidently that religions exist to provide a set of guiding principles, norms, and morals to their followers. These usually manifest through belief in the supernatural (usually one or more gods), and are generally exemplified through allegorical stories in a scriptural canon.
If we defined a religion as offering a set of guiding principles, atheism extols the virtues of science, evidence, rationality and deduction – just as religions extol other virtues (charity, self-improvement, respect or modesty to name a few). The similarities, at an illustrative level, do not end there. Atheists actively try to spread their beliefs, much like theist missionaries – they extol the virtues of their system and call other beliefs misguided. They seem to enjoy telling others about their beliefs, and they hold those in academic professions in very high regard, people whose word is considered representative of the group as a whole. All in all, the way atheists act is not dissimilar to the way theists act.
In a way, the question can be framed differently, through looking at agnosticism. Agnostics admit, as to the question of the supernatural, that they don’t know either way, and refuse to hold a belief on the subject other than ‘I don’t know’. Agnostics have no belief, which is the main thing that differentiates them from atheists. Atheists claim that they ‘don’t believe in god’, however in my opinion it is more accurate to say that atheists ‘believe in no god’. Unlike agnostics, atheists do make a definitive claim as to the existence of a supernatural deity.
As such, atheists and theists are actually united in their holding of a belief. The only difference is that atheists believe that there is no god, and theists believe that there is.
ON THE SUPERNATURAL
If we define the differences between atheists and theists in this way, we now need to answer the question – is belief in the supernatural something definitional to a religion? If religions usually believe in the supernatural, we must ask – do they have to? In relation to the question of atheism being a religion, there are 2 possibilities:
- a) If atheism is a religion, then belief in the supernatural is not necessary for a religion; or
- b) If atheism is the lack of religion, then belief in the supernatural still may or may not be necessary.
Thus, if we can find one example of a nontheistic religion (that is, a belief system that doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but is considered to be a religion), then we can conclude that belief in the supernatural is not necessary for a religion. If this is the case, then atheism is still is in the running for religious status.
In a number of religions – mainly Buddhism and Hinduism– there is a large variety in the belief or lack of belief in a supernatural being. In some ways, the supernatural elements of these religions are considered to be very general concepts – such as life, consciousness or spirit. In animist religions, worship is directed to the spiritual essence of all things – which could be conceived either as a belief in the supernatural, or a belief in some unifying force.
In many cases, if you ask a religious person ‘What is god?’, they will answer that they don’t believe god to be a physical, supernatural being, but rather a concept. God is, to many people, an idea that guides them, gives them the values given by the Christian doctrine, embodied through the representation of a supernatural figure. Some even say that god is a representation of their deceased ancestors, allowing them to metaphysically ask for advice when they go through a hard time. In any case, there is a massive variety in belief when it comes to the supernatural, and no one person’s conception is completely congruent with another person’s.
The difficulty comes when we try to delineate where the natural world ends and the supernatural world begins. For example, in most religions there is a belief in something after death – whether Christians believing in heaven, or Buddhists believing in reincarnation, or any other form of a life beyond death. But since we cannot have any way of knowing whether these conceptions are correct or not (which is fundamental to the idea of belief as a whole), we cannot know whether these beliefs are supernatural or not. We cannot really know whether this is knowledge or a belief. It is the problem of an unfalsifiable claim – we cannot know whether some concept is supernatural or not. It is impossible to disprove the existence of heaven, as it is impossible to have seen heaven and to tell people about it.
Unfortunately, we can never tell if something is supernatural or not. We have things that are generally considered to be supernatural – usually those which we have never seen with our own eyes. However, there are still things that we don’t call supernatural, but which nonetheless have never been seen.
The problem of belief, and not knowing whether something is true, applies outside of religion too. Now while scientific theories are falsifiable by definition, there are still problems of not currently knowing whether certain scientific theories are correct. For example, while most of us believe in the theories of gravity and evolution, these are technically theories. They could conceivably be disproved, but up until now, these theories accurately describe the evidence available to us. The variety of theories at the subatomic level – string theory, quantum field theory and the theory of dark matter to name a few – exist as examples of variety in belief within the scientific community.
In a way, we can conceive of these theories as belief in the supernatural, since we do not know with 100% certainty that these theories are correct in every possible circumstance – since every possible circumstance cannot be tested. As such ‘belief in the supernatural’ exists completely independent of religion. Every person has their beliefs, and not all of them can be proved to be correct.
So, returning to the original question – do religions require a belief in the supernatural? Well no, since, as we defined earlier, the function and aim of religion is to provide a set of guiding principles, norms, and morals to their followers. And while they do tend to believe in the supernatural, this is not necessary for the achievement of this goal – the lack of deities in many denominations of religion being testament to this. And since ‘belief in the supernatural’ as we defined it exists everywhere regardless of religion, it would appear that religion can exist in the absence of belief in the supernatural. Religions do not require belief in the supernatural, and belief in the supernatural is not exclusive to religion.
In this, we see an analogous question – is anarchism a political belief? Most people would have barely even considered this question, as it seems fairly evident that this is the case. However, much like atheism, anarchism supports the absence of government, as atheism believes in the absence of god. It is interesting, in that most anarchists are atheists, but most atheists are not anarchists.
There is not much to distinguish the two, as they are (in my opinion) merely different manifestations of the same underpinnings. The difference comes as atheists reject the very existence of god, while anarchists are merely opposed to the existence of the state. Anarchists of course acknowledge that the state exists, and just try to dismantle it. These two ideologies, while being unrelated at first glance, are connected by a sceptical and antiestablishmentarian foundation. The both claim to have the answer to their respective questions (of god and of the state), with that answer being a rejection of the concept as a whole.
Through these arguments and analyses, it is clear that atheism is no less of a religion than Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion. Atheists still have beliefs on the subject of god, it just happens that their beliefs are sceptical. Just like Christianity, Judaism and Islam differ in their conception of god, atheists differ. On the other hand, agnosticism is not a religion, since it has no belief, no concrete opinion on the subject. Atheists act just like the religious people they criticize, and those very religious people do the exact same. While defining atheists in this way may seem pointless, it does clarify, at least in my mind, their worldview and actions. If we can predict how a religion (or any ideology) will affect a person’s behaviour, then we may be able to do the same with atheists.
Featured photo: “St Mary’s Church, Chirk, Denbighshire, Wales, UK 15.07.17” flickr photo by Welsh photographs https://flickr.com/photos/133078440@N06/35903222516 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license