Is Atheism a religion? 7 criteria for detecting a religion
- By : Oliver Santos
- Category : Articles, Blog
- Tags: and, atheism, atheist, bible, Biblical creationism, cmi, Creation, Creation Ministries International, Creationism, creationist, dimensions of the sacred, Disbelief, doctrinal, ethical, Evolution, experiential, flying spaghetti monster, genesis, Genesis Unleashed, Humanist, intelligent design, Material, narrative, Ninian Smart, ritual, science, Social, the, young earth
Today we are asking the question “Is atheism
a religion?” and of course the answer we would give – YES – is often disputed.
Yes, many atheists would say that atheism is not a religion because it doesn’t require
belief in the supernatural or a ‘creator’ etc. But this is where we can get into problems
defining what a religion is because no one seems to doubt that Buddhism is a religion
for example but it denies a belief in an overarching deity like the supernatural creator of the
Bible. We have for example Jainism, which holds that
every living thing is sacred because it is alive, or the Mayans who worshiped the sun
as a deity in and of itself (rather than a deity associated with the sun) So it starts
to get a little tricky. Yes, now another thing that seems to be happening
lately is that with the advancement of atheism in Western society the word atheism is being
re-defined by many groups, perhaps to try and refute the claim that atheism is religious. Claims from atheists like “Atheism simply
means the non belief in the existence of deities” or that “Calling Atheism a religion is like
calling bald a hair colour” they say those types of things. Or, “atheism isn’t a belief system, it’s
a DIS-belief system.” But that is like me saying “I don’t believe
in the flying spaghetti monster” simply means I lack belief in the flying spaghetti monster.
But the truth is I am also saying I BELIEVE there is no such thing as the flying spaghetti
monster. It is a positive affirmation. Yes, and classic definitions of atheism recognized
this. According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of
Philosophy: “Atheism is the position that affirms the
non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”
Atheism is the belief that there is no god. So really if you can just change the definition
of words here and there to suit your philosophical needs then different people can argue about
different definitions all day long. But the rubber hits the road when you start comparing
the similarities between belief systems. Kind of like saying “what makes a car a car?” or
“a dog a dog?” Oxford University educated Ninian Smart’s
work, a man highly decorated and well known in the field of secular religious studies,
is widely accepted by anthropologists and researchers of religion as broadly defining
the various aspects of religion, without focusing on things unique to specific religions. In
his book Dimensions of the Sacred, An anatomy of the World’s beliefs, Smart identifies seven
dimensions of a religion. The seven dimensions or components proposed
by Smart are narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Of
course not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within
an individual religion. But it gives us an excellent template to study from an expert
in the field. Let’s start with #1 on Smart’s list; narrative.
Every religion has its stories. Almost all religions have stories explaining where the
universe came from and what humanity’s part in it is.
Narrative is a particularly important aspect of western Atheism. As the prominent Atheist
Richard Dawkins said, referring to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Darwin made
it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
Evolution is an explanation of where everything came from without God: the cosmos (came out
of nothing at the big bang-nothing exploded and became everything); one creature turned
into another, humans evolved from non-human creatures, hence humanity’s place in the cosmos
is being just another species of animal. Evolution is an integral part of atheism and it’s full
of stories. Next we go to the experiential component.
There are actually two aspects to the experiential dimension. The first is the events experienced
before someone founded a religion (for example the Disciples physically saw and touched the
bodily resurrected Jesus). Christianity spread after the Disciples experienced and observed
these and many other things. But it is often asserted that Charles Darwin,
after observing evidence from around the world during his voyage on HMS Beagle, developed
the theory of evolution. He experienced events which lead to his belief system.
The second aspect of the experiential dimension concerns the experiences of later adherents.
Many people feel certain emotions when they participate in certain religious ceremonies.
But some Atheists have reported feeling liberated after converting. Karl Marx said that the
removal of the illusion of happiness by the removal of religion was a step towards true
happiness. Smart also seems to include “faith” as part
of the experiential dimension. The meaning of the word “faith” is often twisted to make
it mean things it does not. In Christianity, faith is logical, being defined in Hebrews
11:1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is not
blindly believing the impossible (which is how many Atheists define faith), but rather
trusting the promises of God, whose past promises have all been fulfilled. However, Atheism requires “faith” (using their
own definition) that the laws of chemistry, physics and biology were once violated and
life arose from non-life via chemical evolution via abiogenesis, which contradicts one of
the most well know laws in science (the law of biogenesis). So atheism seems to have an experiential component
and a great deal of faith as well… Now lets look at the social component of religion.
The social dimension of religion looks at the hierarchies and power structures present
within the religion, such the Hindu caste system. In missionary religions, it also includes
how people get converted and how missionaries go about their work.
Many scientists are high up on the social hierarchy of Atheism because their research
enhances their understanding of the world and the facts they uncover are often interpreted
as evidence for evolution, which is vital to atheism. Particularly honoured are those scientists
who write extensively about evolution. Because of this, many scientists include a little
about evolution in their research papers, even when there is little or no relevance
to the topic they are writing about. Contemporary Atheism has been fuelled largely
by authors promoting their Atheistic beliefs through evolution as science and so called
fact. In the preface in his book The God Delusion, Dawkins says; “If this book works as I intend,
religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”
Dawkins is saying he hopes that his book converts “religious” people to his worldview – exactly
what a missionary of any religion hopes to do!
Next on the list, the Doctrinal component of religion. Doctrines are the beliefs and
philosophies that develop out of a religion (not necessarily being specifically stated
in the religious narratives, etc). For example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, while
not directly stated in the Bible, is logically derived from it. Contemporary Atheism gained popularity in
the 18th and 19th centuries, after the “enlightenment”. In 1933, some prominent Atheist philosophers
realised the effects the lack of a belief in a god would have on the morals of society
and wrote what they believed would be a suitable set of beliefs and goals for a secular society
in the 20th century. In doing so, they formed the branch of Atheism
known as Secular Humanism. By and large, many Atheists believe and adhere to the things
written in the Humanist Manifesto, even if they don’t know the specifics of the document.
The doctrines, ethics and goals outlined in the Humanist Manifesto, while being atheistic
and accepting evolution as true, are opposite of what would be expected if they were solely
derived from the evolutionary narrative. This is because this particular branch of atheism,
Humanism, also makes the assumption that humans are basically good, which is an assumption
not an observation. Then there is the ethical component. Atheism
is a morally relativist religion. Most Atheists adhere to an ethical system but in Atheism
there is ultimately no foundation for morality, as many atheists admit. A few examples…
Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear…There are
no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death.
When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me.
There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will
for humans, either. Professor Bill Provine from Cornell University
First, there is no moral law: the universe is a nasty, heartless place where most things
wouldn’t mind killing you if you let them. No one is compelled to be nice; you or anyone
could go on a murder spree, and all that is stopping you is your self-interest … P.Z.
Myers, University of Minnesota professor And of course Richard Dawkins himself says
that we live in a universe which has “…no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing
but blind, pitiless indifference.” Of course many systems of ethics have been
proposed by atheists and utilitarianism is probably the most popular one. Some atheists have taken a further step by
creating ethical systems based on the evolutionary narrative and the principle of “survival of
the fittest”. People who have lived by such principles include the perpetrators of the
Columbine Massacre, the Jokela School Shooting in Finland, and on a much larger scale, the
Nazis. Most people (Atheist or not) inherently know
that systems that lead to such atrocities must be ‘wrong’, but Atheists cannot give
a logical reason for why it is wrong. This contradiction was highlighted by Dawkins when
he said “I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science, when it comes to explaining
the world, but I’m a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to morality and politics.” It was also graphically shown when two evolutionists
wrote a book claiming that rape is an evolutionary mechanism to spread male genes-and see how
one of them squirmed to justify why he agreed that rape is objectively wrong under his philosophy.
A world governed purely by Atheistic, evolutionary ethics has been shown by history to be a horrible
place to live. Most Atheists recognise this and choose to live by the ethical systems
of other religions instead, or at the very least, live by the laws enforced by the government.
Ritual is the only dimension which on the surface might appear to be absent from the
religion of Atheism. In some religions, rituals have meanings attached to them, such as Passover
commemorating the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Because Atheism is a relatively recent
movement, it doesn’t have much of a history to commemorate. In other religions, rituals such as sacrifices
and dances are done to appease the gods or the spirits. Because Atheism denies the existence
of gods and spirits, it doesn’t have the second type of ritual either. However, it’s noteworthy that in recent years,
the atheists’ public commemoration of the anniversary of Darwin’s birth each February
(and even of the publication of his Origin of Species in November), along with calls
for the general public to do the same, is rapidly becoming something of an annual ritual.
One might even say that this modern Atheistic commemoration is being ‘celebrated’ with greater
fervour and passion than many longstanding religious rituals. And interestingly there has been a news story
about how atheist mega churches are starting to take root all over the world. Its opening
line said… It looked like a typical Sunday morning at
any mega-church. Several hundred people, including families with small children, packed in for
more than an hour of rousing music, an inspirational talk and some quiet reflection. The only thing
missing was God. Perhaps atheism just needs more time to fully
develop their ritual component. The material dimension of religion, says Smart,
includes all the physical things created by a religion such as art and buildings, and
also natural features and places treated as sacred by adherents.
Now mass atheism again is in its infancy, but look at what the atheist philosopher and
writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build in London England; a 46-metre (151ft) tower
to celebrate atheism! Proposed is a £1m “temple for atheists” among
the medieval church spires of the City of London to evoke more than 300m years of life
on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent
a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount
of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary
code denoting the human genome sequence. Whether this tower is ever built or not remains
to be seen, however, here is a monument to atheism that HAS been built. From a 2013 news
article; A group of atheists unveiled a monument to
their nonbelief in God on Saturday to sit alongside a granite slab that lists the Ten
Commandments in front of the Bradford County courthouse.
As a small group of protesters blasted Christian country music and waved ”Honk for Jesus”
signs, the atheists celebrated what they believe is the first atheist monument allowed on government
property in the United States. ”When you look at this monument, the first
thing you will notice is that it has a function. Atheists are about the real and the physical,
so we selected to place this monument in the form of a bench,” said David Silverman, president
of American Atheists. This atheist group has vowed to erect 50 more
such monuments around the country on public sites where the Ten Commandments now stand
in the future. Of course Nature itself is often treated as
sacred by some Atheists in and of itself. There are two extremes in the range of ideas
held by Atheists on the ‘material’: Natural resources are here to be exploited
because of “survival of the fittest” and humans are obviously the fittest species; or
We should respect all of nature, particularly living things because to kill them is tantamount
to murdering a cousin. This second view essentially holds that all life is ‘sacred’. Both ideas can be derived from the evolutionary
narrative, but views tending towards the second idea are more prevalent than the views tending
towards the first. An Atheist’s view of the material dimension
is strongly influenced by their view of the ethical dimension.
Conclusion Atheists often claim that their belief is not a religion. This allows them
to propagate their beliefs in settings where other religions are banned, but this should
not be allowed to happen. Contemporary Western Atheism unquestionably
has six of the seven dimensions of religion set forth by Smart, and the remaining dimension,
ritual, has also started to develop. Thus it’s fallacious to assert, “Calling Atheism
a religion is like calling bald a hair colour”. Perhaps a better analogy would be calling
a shaved head a “hairstyle”. Other than the denial of the divine, there is little difference
between Atheism and other worldviews typically labelled as religions and atheists are admitting
it when it suits them. For example here in Canada is an article from
the National Post titled; ‘Atheism a creed that needs the same religious protections
of Christianity and Islam: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal’. Atheism shouldn’t be taught or enforced in
settings where other religions are banned and shouldn’t be favoured by laws which imply
a religiously neutral government. Atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse has admitted
evolution is a religion, and it could be considered the narrative dimension of Atheism. Here’s
what he said; ‘Evolution is promoted by its practitioners
as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion-a full-fledged
alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am an ardent evolutionist
and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one complaint-and Mr [sic] Gish is
but one of many to make it-the literalists are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion.
This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.
‘… Evolution therefore came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an explicit substitute
for Christianity.’ Now evolution is taught pretty well as fact
in most Western World public schools, so no wonder the religion of atheism is on the rise.
So guess what? If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, its probably a duck. Atheism
IS a religion… For details please see the articles we link
to in this video’s description. See you next time on Genesis Unleashed.