Is atheism a religion?

Is atheism a religion?

Ewan Smith

26/07/2017

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“LIGNUM CRUCIS” flickr photo by J. Ruano https://flickr.com/photos/95800247@N03/15028682919 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

 

 

INTRODUCTION

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.

 

ON BELIEF

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.

 

CONCLUSION

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

8 thoughts on “Is atheism a religion?

    1. I think there is a distinction – atheists do not have a lack of belief. They believe that there is no god. Theists believe that there is. Agnostics do not believe either way. There is nothing else that can separate atheism from being just another form of religion, who just happens to hold a the non-existence of god as their central tenet.

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      1. Unfortunately, god is unfalsifiable. If he were to come down and make himself known to everyone, then we could prove his existence, But there is no way to prove that he doesn’t exist.

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  1. So as an atheist towards Zeus this is an active religion for you? You have a belief system based on your lack of belief in Zeus? Maybe you should look into the difference between knowledge and belief and you could understand why I call myself an agnostic atheist. Do I believe in any Gods? No…. Can I prove there are no Gods? No.

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    1. How can you be an atheist towards only one god? Atheists by definition believe in no god. For example, a Christian can believe in their own god, but not believe in Zeus. This doesn’t make them an atheist. Equally I wouldn’t expect that anybody believes in every single god. So either a) you believe in no gods (atheism); b) you believe in at least one god (theism); or c) you don’t have a belief (agnosticism). As I argue in the article, I see no difference between the first two in terms status as a religion.

      As for the difference between knowledge and belief, we could descend down an epistemological rabbit hole, but I would just say that knowledge is belief + evidence. But since you cannot have evidence that disproves the existence of something, atheism must be belief. It may be rational, but there is no way it can be known that god doesn’t exist.

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      1. So when atheism is defined as

        disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

        You are blinded by the fact that you believe your God is the only true god. Believe me a Hindu would define you as an atheist towards his gods…..

        So if you define knowledge as belief + evidence … so then you are saying your belief in God is without evidence?

        gnosticism refers to the epistomologocal question and atheism refers to the belief question.
        I agree there is no way to know that God doesn’t exist (thus I am an agnostic) but I also believe there is no way to know if he does exist …. so sorry my default position is to not believe in something until I have proof … I bet you live like that in every other aspect of your life except this one question … I am saying maybe you should examine why that is.

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  2. Firstly I think you have assumed that I believe in god. I’m an agnostic. I don’t know if there is a god or not. There is a whole other argument as to the usefulness of religion which I may write about in the future, since I do think religion is a useful thing in society. But back to the question.

    The definition of a theist is someone who believes in a god. The particular religion doesn’t matter, as long as you believe in some god, you are by definition a theist. As such, a Hindu shouldn’t consider a Christian to be a theist, since he does believe in a god.

    If we want to rephrase my previous 3 variations in terms of gnosticism and theism (both binaries, not spectra) then we can say that you either: a) believe that some kind of god exists (gnostic theist); b) you believe that god doesn’t exist (gnostic atheist); or c) you don’t know (agnostic). In my opinion agnosticism requires that you are neither atheist nor theist. This is because if you take a stand either way, and say definitively that ‘there is no god’ or ‘there is a god’, then you are, by definition, no longer agnostic.

    My view is the same as yours. Since there is no evidence in support of or contrary to the existence of god, I have decided to reserve my judgement. As such, I am an agnostic, not an atheist. All I am arguing in this article is that (gnostic) atheism is as much of a religion as (gnostic) theism. Only agnosticism refuses to take a stance, and as such only agnosticism avoids this definition

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