Saturday, 28 March 2015

Atheism is not a religion



This quote sums it up quite clearly: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby - Penn Jilette

Having established that atheism is a non-belief in God, it is fairly easy to understand why it is not a religion with Jilette’s  analogy.

The City Bible Forum makes an attempt at a refutation of this analogy by claiming that even if one doesn’t collect stamps, one could collect something else, which means that not collecting stamps is still a hobby. I don’t understand this reasoning, especially as the refutation attempts to explain further, and merely digs holes ending with:

Hence, to summarise, Christians believe that there is a God, we can't prove it but we act on 'faith' that it is true. Atheists believe that there is no god, they can't prove it, but they act on 'faith' that it is true. Therefore atheism must be some kind of 'faith' commitment. This is different from stamp collecting because we can 'prove' that stamp collecting exists.

Which prompts me to explain what faith and religion are, and how they cannot be used to defend the accusation that atheists have “faith” that God doesn’t exist, and that it is merely another religion in the human pantheon, that “atheism requires more faith than theism.” 

Starting with the definition of faith:

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as:

…confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as:

…belief in the existence of God, or strong religious feelings or beliefs.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

Atheism is, very simply put, the disbelief in God (or gods).

It is therefore fairly obvious that the “faith” argument fails. 

Atheism is not faith. It is also not faith in science, or faith in disbelief. Very simply put, if faith is what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not seek, or belief in the existence of God, then not believing that God exists, does not require belief, i.e. “faith.” If you don’t believe something, then it does not imply that you believe it doesn’t exist. I don’t believe or accept that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. This doesn’t mean that I have a belief that he doesn’t exist. In other words, it does not require “faith” on my part, nor that of any fully-functioning adult to not believe in Santa Claus, so why should it require faith for me to not believe in God. 

But is it a religion?

I’ve had this discussion on several internet forums. I therefore am fairly experienced at explaining why atheism is not another in the pantheon of human religions. For the following reasons.

What is a religion?

Anthony Giddens in Sociology, (Polity Press, 1993) defines religion as:

Characteristics that all religions…seem to share are as follows: Religions involve a set of symbols, invoking feelings of reverence or awe, and are linked to rituals or ceremonials engaged in by a community of believers.

These symbols, feelings of reverence, rituals and ceremonies are very much part of every religion, even the ones that don’t have deities such as Confucianism and Buddhism. For this reason, he does not include the worship of God or gods in his definition. 

He goes on to say:

Whether or not the beliefs in a religion involve gods, there are virtually always beings or objects inspiring attitudes of awe or wonder…In some religions…people believe in and revere a ‘divine force’ rather than personlized gods. In other religions, there are figures who are not gods, but are thought of with reverence - such as Buddha or Confucius, or even the despot who is running their country.

Atheism does not have any beings or objects that inspire attitudes of awe or wonder. There is no divine force or people who are held up for reverential obeisance. Therefore from the point of view of awe and wonder for any man-made objects or beings, atheism is not a religion.


The rituals associated with religion are very diverse…may include praying, chanting, singing, eating certain kinds of food [or not,]fasting on certain days, and so on. Since rituals are oriented towards religious symbols, they are usually seen as quite distinct from the habits and procedures of ordinary life. Religious rituals are often carried on by individuals in isolation, but all religions also involve ceremonials practised collectively by believers…usually regarded by sociologists as one of the main factors distinguishing religion from magic, although the borderlines are by no means clear-cut.

Having established that there are no symbols involved in the non-practise of religion by atheist, I can safely say that there are no rituals either. Atheists do not pray, chant, sing, refrain from eating, or eat, certain foods. We also do not practise any ceremonials, either collectively or alone. Thus atheism cannot be called a religion.

Looking at religion as a “set of beliefs, feelings, dogmas and practices. As an atheist, my disbelief does not require any set beliefs, dogmas, or practices. I simply go about my day, and even if routines are involved in my day, they are not rituals that I share with other atheists.

Therefore my disbelief is not a religion.

A religion may be defined with its three great characteristics:

•Beliefs and religious practices

•The religious feeling i.e. faith

•Unity in a community of those who share the same faith: the Church. It is what differentiates religion from magic.

The study of disappeared or existing religions shows the universal character of this phenomenon and a very large variety in the ritual doctrines and practices.

One generally distinguishes the religions called primitive or animists, the Oriental religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism...) and the religions monotheists derived from the Bible (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Christianity has itself given birth to several religions or Christian Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelic…)

Atheism has no beliefs, and no religious practices. 

It also has no faith. 

There is no community of atheists. 

This lack of cohesion is a major difference between religion and atheism. Even though we might agree with other atheists that God does not exist, or that he hasn’t been shown to exist, the common disbelief ends there. 

Thomas A Idinopulous, Professor of Religion at Miami University of Ohio, says:

The study of religion is not the same thing as the practice of faith, and therein lies the problem.

He what atheists have been saying all over the internet in the recent past: people follow the religion in which they are raised. People born to parents who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, in the majority, become Catholics themselves. I say “in the majority” because there are exceptions to every rule, as we have seen recently where children raised in the west, as members of western religions, have left to join Islam. 

This is an important aspect of religion. It is one that several modern writers have pointed out. People tend to belong to the same churches as their parents. 

Atheist parents raise their children without religion. Sometimes their children carry on to raise their children without religion, sometimes their children are influenced and attracted by religion and they adopt the religion of their friends. This is not evidence that atheism lacks something that the child finds in religion, it is merely evidence that children raised without religion tend to think for themselves. If thinking for themselves means that they adopt religion, so be it.

Richard writer, Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff explains from a psychologist’s point of view. He says:

Ludwig Feuerbach (1985) in 1841 explained religion as the childish nature of the humankind, manifesting the psyche of humans staying on childlike psychological stages. According to Feuerbach, the risen intelligence and grown maturity of humans might explain the emergence of atheism during the age of Enlightenment. He discriminated the “emotional man” of the premodern world from the “rational man” of the modern world as the fulcrum of the development of religion, science, and culture. He excellently demonstrated how single religious ideas and practices root in childlike mental characteristics.

I agree with this. I see the belief in God as equal to the belief in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. It is my personal opinion, and not one that I cannot back up with evidence. I simply regard people who believe that when they go to church every week to worship what I think of as an imaginary friend, as being on a par with creating an imaginary friend in childhood, and as something I outgrew before I left primary school.

Religion provides social cohesion, which Robert A Baron and Donn Byrne, in their book Social Psychology call social cohesiveness “the force that binds.”

With respect to groups, all the forces the cause members to remain in the group, including facts such as attraction and desire for status...

Consider two groups. In the first, members like one another very much, strongly desire the goals that their group is seeking, and feel that they could not possibly find another group that would better satisfy their needs. In the second, the opposite is true: members don’t like one another very much, don’t share common goals, and are actively seeking other groups that might offer them a better deal. Which group will exert stronger effects on the behaviour of its members? The answer is obvious: the first. The reason for this difference involves what social psychologists describe as cohesiveness - all the forces that cause members to remain in the group, including facts such as liking other members and the desire to maintain or increase one’s status by belonging to the “right” groups. {Festinger et al., 1950). At first glance, it might seem that cohesiveness would involve primarily likening between individual group members. However, recent evidence suggests that it involves depersonalized attraction - liking for other group members stemming from the fact hat they belong to the group and embody or represent its key features, quite apart from their traits as individuals. Hogg & Haines 1996).

Atheists belong to the second group. Although there may be members of the group known as “atheists” who do like each other as people, apart from the common disbelief in God, few individual atheists share common goals regarding their disbelief, nor do they actively seek affirmation, or other groups that offer them a way to practise their disbelief. It’s a little like people who don’t believe in Santa Claus not having meetings to discuss why they don’t believe in Santa Claus.

On the other hand though, people who belong to a religion have successful groups. Churches, and other places of worship flourish because of the cohesiveness the practising of their religion. Even if individual members don’t like each other, they join in fellowship when they meet, they strongly desire the same goals, and they actively seek ways of pointing out why other groups are “wrong.” 

The status that religious people seek is their belief in an afterlife. Religious people follow their faith, attend their meetings, and overcome their dislike of individual members of their particular brand of faith because they believe that their group has the correct path to the afterlife, or in the case of the Jewish people, the retrieval of Jerusalem, and Buddhists, the achievement of Nirvana, but for all of them, they seek status as those who will achieve eternal bliss. 

Atheists do not do this. As an atheist, I believe in this life. I want to achieve success, happiness, fulfilment, and bliss, in this, the only life I have. I do not believe, nor seek status as a chosen member of God’s “holy choir.” 

From the above, it may be seen that I have demonstrated that atheism is NOT a religion.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

What is atheism?

According to the Wikipedia page on “Atheism” it is,…

in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities,…


…in a narrower sense,…specifically the position that there are no deities.

It is really as simple as that.

Atheism rejects the belief in deities, all of them. As Richard Dawkins says in his book The God Delusion, every one of us is an atheist about all the other gods that we don’t believe in.

Jews are atheists about Jesus, and Christians are atheists about the gods of Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, as well as all the other countless deities worshipped around the world. 

All religions, whether they worship one god or many, are atheist in their disbelief in the validity of the gods of all the others, and their followers are, as individuals, thereby, atheists.

However, in the sense of modern understanding, atheism is easily explained as the non-belief in gods.

Linguistically, the prefix “a” indicates “not.” The rest of the word “theism” is defined as the belief in existence of a god, or gods. Thus “atheism” is not believing in a god, or gods.

It is nothing more than that. In the same way that “apolitical” means “not political,” atheism means “not theism.” 

There is nothing more to it, except to add that there are various degrees of atheism, which I shall now go on to explain.

At the top we have a 99.999% certainty that “God” does not exist. Some atheists, and I’m one of them, say that they are 100% certain that God does not exist. Some people say that that degree of certainty requires evidence of that non-existence. I say that my disbelief is my personal opinion, I’m not expecting anyone to accept it, or to go along with it, and it is not possible to prove a negative anyway. The burden of proof is not on me. It is on the person who wants me to believe in the existence of God. I don’t have to prove he doesn’t exist, the person who claims he does, should show me evidence I can test. In the absence of such evidence, and until it is presented, I do not believe he exists.

Note too that I say “I do not believe.” I don’t say “I believe he doesn’t exist” because, again, in my opinion, wording it that way implies that there is a belief. There is no belief that God exists, I do not believe he doesn’t exist. Semantics, I know, but to make my point, that my disbelief is not based in a belief in something else. 

Then there is agnosticism. This is the belief (and this is a belief) that nothing can be known about God. 

Strong Agnosticism:

This is the view (also called hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism, absolute agnosticism or epistemological agnosticism) that the question of the existence or non-existence of God or gods is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience.

Mild Agnosticism:

This is the view (also called weak agnosticism, soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism, or temporal agnosticism) that the existence or non-existence of God or gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until more evidence becomes available.

Pragmatic Agnosticism:

This is the view that there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence of God or gods.

Apathetic Agnosticism:

This is the view that there is no proof of either the existence or non-existence of God or gods, but since any God or gods that may exist appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic anyway.

Agnostic Theism:

This is the view (also called religious agnosticism) of those who do not claim to know of the existence of God or gods, but still believe in such an existence.

Agnostic Atheism:

This is the view of those who claim not to know of the existence or non-existence of God or gods, but do not believe in them.

From the above it is fairly obvious that atheism/agnosticism is a far more complex idea than merely saying “I don’t believe in God.” It is also more complex than merely dismissing the gods of other worshippers, and claiming that “everyone is an atheist.” Yes, we are all atheists about the deities of other religions, however, that doesn’t make us into “atheists” by definition of not believing in any, or all gods. 

Simply put, the atheist/agnostic we encounter in everyday life, go about their lives in the same way as everyone else. The only difference is that they don’t include the practice of theism-based activities in their lives. For the most part, people who don't believe in God, hardly even talk about it, except when they’re asked.