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Is Atheism a Religion?

January 1st, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 32 Comments

Religious people often label atheism a “religion”. Atheists usually fight back, claiming it is not. I want to make a post about this silly debate. In order to prepare for that post, I would like to collect some opinions from my readers, that I can try to make it more relevant and more directly address the issues my readers run into. (The aim is basically to improve the communication of the ideas I would like to share.)

I would love it if you could give your opinion, with specific reference to your definition of “religion”. While you are welcome to debate the issue in the comments, I’m slightly concerned it might frighten some people away. Thus, if you are interested in debate, enjoy. If you are not, don’t read any of the comments, just add your own opinion via the form at the bottom. Ignore any responses people direct at you. Feel free to use a pseudonym if you like.

In my follow-up, I hope to address both sides of the debate, ideally defusing any arguments that spring up below. In effect, I will be defending your viewpoint for you. (This is why I discourage taking part in any debate, unless you are the type that enjoys recreational arguing.)

Categories: Worldviews
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32 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tim Mills // Jan 2, 2008 at 1:32 am

    I know of two different, equally-legitimate answers to this question that apply in different contexts.

    First, in a legal context, religion tends to be used in the sense of “freedom of religion” or, in America, the constitutional rule prohibiting public institutions from promoting one religion over others. In this sense, “religion” refers to “what a person believes”, or perhaps “what a person values”. In this sense, atheism is a religion – atheists should be free from persecution because of their beliefs in exactly the same way that religious people should be.

    Outside this legal context, I take religion to indicate any belief system that involves believing in the supernatural, in one way or another. It could be a god; it could be an aterlife; it could be non-physical influences of any kind (angels, demons, a transcendent plane of existence, an immaterial soul). In this sense – the only sense most of us need day-to-day – atheism is not a religion. It is specifically and (in a sense) solely a rejection of religion.

    To use a handy analogy, religion is like supporting a particular football team, and atheism is being uninterested in football.

  • 2 Hugo // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:59 am

    Defuse the issue for me, why don’t you! Hehe. Wonderful comment, by the way. So now I’m going to be the one to start a “debate”. (Not really, I just want more detail.)

    By your first (legal) definition, e.g. “freedom of religion”, Buddhism, Taoism and (secular?) Humanism can be considered religions. What about separation of church/religion and state? Creationists love citing the interference of the “secular humanist religion” in our universities, for example. That becomes a finicky legal issue… I wonder if the law specifies in greater depth?

    By your second definition, is “liberal Christianity” a religion? “Naturalistic Christianity”? I’d think by the second definition you would classify some forms of Buddhism as religious, and some as not religious? I’m used to Buddhism being classified as an “atheistic religion”… And what if I consider “love” or “compassion” to be “transcendent”? (I suppose the problem here is me playing with another definition of “transcendent”, hehe.) Is pantheism not a religion? (Hehe, is astrology a religion?)

    I suppose the latter deals with (wikipedia) Transcendence (religion). The section on Buddhism is particularly interesting to me, in the way that it demonstrates a definition of “atheism”.

    And what if I consider “love” or “compassion” to be “transcendent”? (i.e. a religion…) OK, that would probably just shift the argument into “what is transcendence?” territory.

    Other interesting (wikipedia) things I read while reading this comment:
    Transcendence (philosophy), Transcendentalism, Transcendental Perspectivism (interesting…)

  • 3 Steve // Jan 2, 2008 at 9:05 am

    Religion, as per wikipedia (simplified): set of common beliefs held by a group of people.

    Atheism meets this requirement, yes. Even if the set is small.

  • 4 Negate // Jan 2, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I disagree atheism is not a religion it is a label. If atheism is a religion then fat, smart, tall etc are also religions.

    Atheism means one thing and one thing only, that a person does not believe in a god.

    Fat means one thing and one thing only and that is, that you are fat.

    Most atheist are naturalists this is where a common shared belief can come into play that can fall into the defenition of a religion

  • 5 Hugo // Jan 2, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Hehe… I’m biting down hard on my tongue to stop myself from starting an argument, as intensely tempting as that is at this moment. I’d love to encourage my readers to do so on my behalf, then I can “wash my hands” of it and claim innocence.

    – Pilate.

  • 6 Negate // Jan 2, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    hugo stop being a devils advocate and start a debate so don’t we may intellectually solve this issue

  • 7 Hugo // Jan 2, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    I’m not going to waste time on debating the matter until I have laid out my thoughts neatly in a blog post. This post is collecting some more input. I have some input via email as well, sweet sweet input. I look forward to discussion of the post, but I do not look forward to the effort that will be required to present the ideas well. Hehe. But it will be worth it.

    You’ll likely have to wait a week or more for it though, sorry… we’ll see.

  • 8 Auke // Jan 2, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Defining religion is difficult. What works for me, is “man’s relation to the supernatural”.

  • 9 Steve // Jan 3, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Here’s the crux. Calling atheism a religion means nothing unless the people doing this “name-calling” use this “fact” to draw conclusions.

    Thus the relevant definition of religion for this question actually depends on these people who typically claim atheism is a religion – what do they mean by religion?

    Discussing the question for other definitions of religion is not likely to be very fruitful…

  • 10 Paul Botha // Jan 23, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Keeping it simple (trying to!)
    The commonly held “common beliefs, therefore religion” can’t work. Atheism, by it’s own definition as a word, means without religion. So logically it is a failure to believe. If we expand upon it, it can be a school of thought, a component of ideology, but not a religion. It does not fulfil the anthropological observations of religeous behavior either. Rites? Worship practices?

  • 11 Hugo // Jan 23, 2008 at 11:41 am

    It’s going to take me a long time to get the follow-up to this one written well, because I’ll have to carefully motivate everything I’ll say. (Oh, and the answer’s probably going to be something like “yes and no”. Heh.)

    Atheism, by it’s own definition as a word, means without religion

    I’m not sure I agree with that. “Without theism”, sure, but “without religion” is not a definition I’ve seen. An example: some forms of Buddhism are considered “atheistic”.

    Of course, we all know there’s often a difference between the theist’s use of the word “atheist” and the atheist’s… ;-)

  • 12 gerhard // Jan 24, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    is atheism a system of theism ?
    well, a-theism is a lack of theism …. so by using the most basic of logic, no it can’t be a religion as it is simply the lack of religion and not a anti-thesis:)
    {(anti-thesis is a thesis in itself a response to a thesis that is based on that thesis that it is contradicting, so satanism(the common folks def of satanism) could be consider christianity’s anti-thesis) one could tho say, that anti-theism is a anti-thesis of theism -> ‘religion’ … }

    its like saying a carpenter is trade… but not being one is also in the same class of trade … it just isn’t logical :P)

    the argument used is atheism is a religion because they share the attribute of a belief..
    so … by that argument any non-carpenter type person who uses wood for something , say build a toothpick house , is a carpenter :P
    wow , this should make everyone worried about the logic these people use … then again is it supprising ?

    i think what they are trying to say is that atheism is a creed as much as any “other” religion that it is different to my own, but what they are forgetting is that there is no central and universal set of beliefs that unites atheists in their beliefs and that people like dawkins aren’t creating religious works but rather are arguing theistic beliefs … (tey are not writing about atheism but writing about theism)

    theists want atheism to be a religion so they can think of themselves as rational humans. ie. that their induvidual interpretation of the universe is founded on reality, however twisted , is rational enough for it to get the same credit as ‘science’ ..

    basically its them trying to switching the red and blue pill around.

    to add to hugo’s buddism point , buddism didnt start off with divinity but rather a ‘guide on how to experiance life effectively without being unhappy’ however it has over time been transformed into something of a religion with the supernatural etc.. originally it didnt include karma based reincarnation nor the devine .. it started as a guide to life.. its simpler to answer the big questions and social want for not facing reality (your death being final) by adding ‘alpha’ reasoning , “why because our superhero did it”.

    why should every action have a reaction in a community / world (karma) ? ‘because it does’ vs. ‘because the gods will it’. which is harder to cling on to in a world were it is ok to believe _anything_ you want? why do so many people go along with it? because its considered hurtful and uncompassionate to say to you mom , dad , gran or general member of your community that ‘life ends perminently and most of us will vanish without a trace into nothingness, our induvidual existance is meaningless except for our actions.. ‘ saying this goes against your common knowledge..*G*
    atheistic buddists (as hugo called it) is a cultural buddism, in much the same way as dawkins calls himself a cultural christain :) )

    clearly the fact that you can act and that that is what gives meaning in the first place is beyond their ability to understand..
    atheist talk:’meaning is taken not given’

    “Naturalistic Christianity” is still believing in the supernatuarl .. just because they dont evoke the Deus ex machina doesnt bean they don’t belief in a concious deus :P

    theism centers around the idea that there is a concious deus :P irrespective if they consider it a him or it or they and irrespective if _they_ consider it using natural or supernatural force.. by saying atheism is a religion you actually are saying that any belief on the subject is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held , often codified as prayer, ritual, and law. That it encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. Meaning both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction….

  • 13 gerhard // Jan 24, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    btw, i am questioning the reasoning i used about the anti-thesis bit there …

  • 14 Hugo // Jan 24, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    *sigh*, sorry Gerhard, I have no idea what to respond to. There is much I disagree with, and there is much I struggle to sift through. Maybe I’m just tired, it’s been a rough few days. (Going to bed after 3am seemed the order of the day.)

    “Naturalistic Christianity” is still believing in the supernatural

    Huh? So what label would you assign to “Christianity without belief in the supernatural” then? I bet you’d want those “naturalistic Christians” to call themselves “cultural Christians”, or what? Why? Why is that necessary? Why do you want to drive a rift between Christians, isolating the fundies even more, so that they have no hope of learning from diversity…

    (Sorry Gerhard, this isn’t aimed at you, this is a rant about the state of humanity. Especially the next bit, this is aimed mostly at the “Christians”. Getting it out in a comment means I won’t have to blog about it.)

    WTF’s with all this categorising by Christians anyway? The early Christian church/movement rejected labels. “In Christ”, there is no gentile, there is no Jew, there is no Greek, there is no Roman, there is no man, there is no woman. We are all one, “in Christ”. (When we speak of “in Christ”, think “post-sacrificial-religion”, a sacrifice to end the sacrificing, to revolutionise the culture back then, removing the culture that separated the “holier-than-thou” and the “ordinary gentile”.) There is no atheist, there is no theist, there is no Muslim, there is no Buddhist. We are all one, we are all human… *sigh*

    Ugh, sometimes humanity just drives me up the walls. (And I hear all the atheists say “amen”. ;) ) Othering my ass. I wish humanity could just get a grip. (I’m thinking of all the intolerant “we’re right and you’re wrong” people here. Let’s call them WRAYW people. All you WRAYW people: you’re all wrong and I’m right. So there!)

  • 15 Ben // Jan 25, 2008 at 6:22 am

    Not addressed to me, but:

    Huh? So what label would you assign to “Christianity without belief in the supernatural” then?

    Externally, I would consider them naturalistic Christians. Internally, I would consider them naturalists and atheists. I agree with you on labels being of very limited usefulness. There’s no way I’m going to tell someone else what label they should adopt. Well, unless they ask for my opinion. Which did happen somewhat recently:

    http://www.rantsnraves.org/showpost.php?p=66923&postcount=1
    http://www.rantsnraves.org/showpost.php?p=68953&postcount=25

  • 16 Steve // Jan 25, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Gerhard:
    “is atheism a system of theism ?
    well, a-theism is a lack of theism …. so by using the most basic of logic, no it can’t be a religion as it is simply the lack of religion and not a anti-thesis:)”

    This is not the case. You clearly assume here that “theism==religion”. This is not necessarily the case, and depends on the definition of religion used. i.e. I agree atheism is not theism, but I do not accept that this implies atheism is not a _religion_.

    If we assume this definition (which I don’t, and the Wikipedia article on religion seems to support that my view is fairly consensual), then Hugo’s original question is pointless, and further, just plain stupid.

    On a side note, it would really help me understand and follow your comments if you put a little more effort into your punctuation, sentence structure, and argument structure. Perhaps others feel the same, I don’t know.

  • 17 gerhard // Jan 25, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    lol, ok, let me try this again. lets examine the common definitions of religion.
    first wiki :

    A religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. The term “religion” refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction…. ..Religion is often described as a communal system for the coherence of belief focusing on a system of thought, unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or of the highest truth. Moral codes, practices, values, institutions, tradition, rituals, and scriptures are often traditionally associated with the core belief, and these may have some overlap with concepts in secular philosophy. Religion is also often described as a “way of life”.

    ok, now what is the over arching theme here ? mystism and … theism.
    from answers.com

    1.
    1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
    2. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
    2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
    3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
    4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

    lets look at a thesaurus…

    religion
    noun
    A system of religious belief: confession, creed, denomination, faith, persuasion, sect. See religion.

    and finally lets look at the antonyms :P (A word having a meaning opposite to that of another word: The word wet is an antonym of the word dry.)

    religion
    n

    Definition: belief in higher power
    Antonyms: agnosticism, atheism, disbelief

    ok , so i am not assuming theism == religion , waht i am assuming is that religion implys theism or mystisim …. which according to the above it does !!!!! so anyway , pointless debate… like i said , its christain extreamists trying to legitify their view and their right to the view (ie. the right to assert their belief on the world, via policy, social corruption and disimformation )

    hugo , how do u feel about scientology and their quest for global domination ? i am assuming u see them more as a dangerous cult than a religion? how tolerant would you be towards them should they have tangeble power? (i actually read some of their writings yesterday , MGMT_SERIES_1970-74 , Management_Series_1 and Management_Series_2 )…. trust me , this is a cult where if your child was part of this movement you would ubduct the child and do intensive anti-brainwashing on them…. what makes it bad isnt that its a clear fantasy like christainity , but that they base everything on relatively sound reasoning and the real world… all mixed up with some slight misrepresentation of ‘facts’ which is where the power of it all lies..

    i dont want to bring our goebles into this again… but .. the devil is in the details …

    btw, this is how i see christianity , because i know what kids are like once they(people of supposed spiritual athority) got their hands on them … its f’ing sick man … siiiiick :P
    Its not about the big things like causing millions of lives of death… its things like how christianity tends to pervert sexuality and creates this perfect little world in peoples head which just doesnt match up with actual experiance of reality … so the majority of people enter the ‘real’ world after indocrination and have this internal battle lasting years until they finally find some equilibrium that quiets the mind.
    just keep the mind occupied with nonsense and stop focusing on what is real :P like what love and compassion actually means :)

    so no its not about being intollerant to ‘christains’ and ‘muslims’, its about being intolerant to the indoctrination process :)
    hugo : life is precious , every second of every minute is a ‘gift’ …

    hugo : “Christianity without belief in the supernatural” if they believe in a concious creator that can act on you with natural force… is still … supernatural .. there is nothing in the natural would that would even suggest any concious interference … just because you believe in the wisdom of jesus doesnt make u a religous christain :) in the same way believing in karma doesnt make u a religous buddest …
    i think people are getting their idea of what a religion and what culture is mixed up.. you would have been a satanist had you had the right upbringing and indoctination for that too :)

    steve: better ?

  • 18 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Hear hear! Steve’s comment… um, well, except for the “Hugo’s just plain stupid” part. :-P That’s something I’d like to keep a secret, so don’t go telling the world. plz?

    Ah, I’m sorry, I don’t know when I’ll get to the follow-up. I kinda forgot where exactly I wanted to go with this. I’ll draw from the French Wikipedia as well…

  • 19 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Ben,

    There’s no way I’m going to tell someone else what label they should adopt. Well, unless they ask for my opinion.

    It seems I cannot see those links without registering, unfortunately. So, here then the question: I’m asking your opinion on what label you think I should adopt, based on your limited knowledge of where I’m at? (And I’m not going to respond with anything other than “hmph!” ;) )

    Atheists for Jesus remains one of my favourite Dawkins articles, let me paste the URL yet again for those that missed it the last ten dozen times:

    http://richarddawkins.net/article,20,Atheists-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins

    Personally, I’m running mostly with “follower of Jesus” for the time being. It sounds like “disciple” has some connotations that some people find dubious. I’m thinking of myself more as a “pre-Christian-label” Christian, translated into this day and age. In Afrikaans, I hear they called themselves “mense van die Weg”, dunno what the best English translation is… “People of the Way”? “People of the Path”? Neither sounds right.

  • 20 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Gerhard, you’ve got your stuff muddled.

    just because you believe in the wisdom of jesus doesnt make u a religous christain :) in the same way believing in karma doesnt make u a religous buddest …

    Karma would be considered “supernatural”. You can follow Buddhist teachings without believing in the supernatural. Believe in karma and most atheists would say you believe in the supernatural, not so?

    The term “religion” refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction

    Atheists have a shared conviction… they communicate in certain fashions because of it. If taking part on RichardDawkins.net is considered a “ritual”, then those taking part would be religious, according to the definition of that sentence. Their communication stems from their shared conviction, drawing much of their communication from sources like The God Delusion. Am I correct? (The whole statement, please note I’m not saying it is a ritual, I know it is not.)

  • 21 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Oh, and based on this, I’d be religious, not so?:

    3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

    My views on life are based on the teachings of a spiritual leader… Sure, not exclusively. A lot of my beliefs are based on the scientific method (which does not classify as a “spiritual leader”…) Or could I call Carl Sagan a spiritual leader? He was “spiritual”, was he not?

    A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

    Voilá, answers.com agrees that many atheists are “religious”.

    The point being: arguing definitions without a purpose in mind, is rather stupid. Are we being stupid here? Are we just procrastinating, or are we doing something useful?

  • 22 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Spam spam spam. From me. Another afterthought:

    I took another look at the Dawkins “Atheists for Jesus” article. So much there that I could also disagree with. Maybe I should critically pick it apart? Doing the whole article in one shot will be quite a big post, but hey, I guess I should stop shying away from those. Thorough, large posts have their own niche to target.

  • 23 gerhard // Jan 25, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    hugo , what u are describing is culture not religion.
    you keep dropping 90% of the definition and honeing in on one or two shared concepts and then running off saying see.. there … something in common…
    the definition isnt made up of one aspect of the parts but the sum of the parts .. :P
    so yeah , you could choose the label of religion and drop 90% of the things defining a religion or you could just go with … say culture and not drop any ..
    but then this is the problem with nuChristain thinking … pick and choose what you want to believe … be it from the bible or definitions or science .. just go on , thinking ur the parts of a sum and not the sum of the parts :)

    btw, by ur thinking , critical theory or mathmatics , digg.com etc are all religions or part of a religion :P because it is a set of communial practices and rituals and because their scientists / people are of athority and hence listend to …
    and no . .. i wouldnt consider carl sagan a spiritual leader … i dont consider george lucas as one either …

  • 24 gerhard // Jan 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    on the topic of picking and choosing , i equate picking and choosing what bits you want to believe from religious doctirine to picking and choosing whaat you want to believe in science.. does this sentence make sense ? i choose to believe in evolution but i choose not to believe in natural selection nor that gravity is not a universal experiance ?
    no , because all you are doing is creating a little reality you want to live in .. its like those wow players that live life in wow :P

  • 25 Hugo // Jan 25, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    You say this:

    the definition isnt made up of one aspect of the parts but the sum of the parts .. :P

    Clearly I disagree. Dictionary entries don’t work like that. See those numbers in the dictionary entry? Each is a *different* definition of the same word… a different use. So the word is used to identify different concepts. Please do tell me you understand this?

    So, why are we arguing about the precise definition of a word? Is that not modernistic? Words have more than one use, and the context is important, not so?

    And what’s with all the people that on the one hand complain that religion sucks because it never changes, and then they start complaining when it does change, e.g.:

    but then this is the problem with nuChristain thinking … pick and choose what you want to believe

    I’m glad Richard Dawkins isn’t as much of as ass as his followers. Same goes for Jesus, eh…

  • 26 gerhard // Jan 25, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    yes , but the question is put in the context of a theistic religion isnt it?
    the debate isnt around wether atheism is a ‘A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion’. But in the context of why you are asking the question , it is for the comparisonal purpuse between theism and atheis as a theistic relgion because there is an opinion of god involved..

  • 27 Ben // Jan 26, 2008 at 1:12 am

    I’m asking your opinion on what label you think I should adopt, based on your limited knowledge of where I’m at?

    Well, based on my limited understanding of your thoughts, I internally label you as a sort of mystic naturalist and humanist.

  • 28 Hugo // Jan 26, 2008 at 1:57 am

    @Ben: “hmph!” ;-)

    @gerhard:

    yes , but the question is put in the context of a theistic religion isnt it?

    It is?

    But in the context of why you are asking the question

    So based on what do you reckon you know the context of why I’m asking the question? Is that based on sufficient evidence, or on some assumptions you have about what I’m up to? Or was there any discussion about why I’m asking, that gives you a better idea of where I’m headed with this?

  • 29 Ben // Jan 26, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    What label would you assign me, Hugo?

  • 30 Hugo // Jan 26, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Hehehe… the easy way out: “Oh, I don’t deal in labels, I wouldn’t label you”. ;) Naah, I’d possibly go for “atheistic humanist” or something, though I don’t know you that well. (I just believe you like ethics, so I assign you the “humanist” label.)

    I like “humanist”. In part because of its pseudo-vagueness, when not qualified with “secular” or “atheistic”. A nice umbrella term that can catch religious and non-religious people.

  • 31 Ben // Jan 27, 2008 at 3:11 am

    Hmph ;)

  • 32 On “Richard Dawkins is a Fundamentalist” and “Shofar is a Cult” // Jun 9, 2008 at 2:17 am

    […] the crux, pointed out succinctly by Steve’s comment on my old “Is Atheism a Religion?” post: Calling atheism a religion means nothing unless the people doing this “name-calling” use this […]

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