Is Atheism a Religion?

Yes, I know this is supposed to be a common myth about atheists. And several years ago, I would have agreed that atheism is not a religion. But things have changed with the New Atheism movement and it’s leaders, and the evidence increasingly indicates that atheism is becoming a new form of religion. Consider the following:

The cultish traits that are common among the New Atheists.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that atheism is a creed.

There is a push among the atheists to have atheist chaplains in the military.

Atheist parents send their children to atheist summer camps.

Atheists have become obsessed with representing themselves with symbols.

And now, of course, there are the growing number of atheist churches.
Just one example:

There was singing, reflection, fellowship and a roomful of nonbelievers. A movement dubbed the “atheist megachurch” has arrived in San Diego.

It is dishonest to deny you are a religion when you are busy planting churches!

As it stands right now, those who deny atheism is a religion can only appeal to ad hoc rhetoric, insisting, for example, that a religion must involve belief in the supernatural. But if we draw upon the manner in which atheists want us to take a more scientific approach, and consider the evidence, it increasingly looks like atheism has become a new, secular religion. Atheism is not a denial of religion. It has become a competing religion. Almost as if humans have been hard-wired to be religious.

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26 Responses to Is Atheism a Religion?

  1. Still, what lacks is a definition of religion that includes atheism but does not also include soccer or collecting stamps. As long as you don’t have that, you cannot claim atheism a religion. Of course, some people pursue their atheism religiously, but so do some stamp collectors. That doesn’t make it a religion. “Creed”? Well, if you consider “We don’t believe in any gods” a creed, than it can be one. It’s a world view – or at least, a view of a certain aspect of the world.

    As for the other points…

    – I don’t have a leader. Some philosophers have some good thoughts but that doesn’t mean I believe everything they say just because they say so.
    – What a court rules doesn’t concern me. It may be good for a legal basis but courts don’t decide philosophical questions, only legal ones.
    – Having atheistic people in the military who atheists soldiers can talk to is a good thing, no matter how you call them.
    – Summer camps without religious affiliation have been around for a long time. Why not one a specific atheistic/secular one?
    – People like symbols. All people.
    – Atheistic churches are imho pretty strange, but if people need them… Calling them churches gives people something to recognize, I think. Call it atheistic church and they know what to expect (at least, kind of). What do you want to call it otherwise? AAA? American Atheists Anonymous?

    Still, nothing of that makes it a religion. Yes, some atheists seem to want to borrow some aspects of religion, but the important religious details are missing.

  2. Crude says:

    Still, what lacks is a definition of religion that includes atheism but does not also include soccer or collecting stamps. As long as you don’t have that, you cannot claim atheism a religion. Of course, some people pursue their atheism religiously, but so do some stamp collectors.

    What’s wrong with including soccer or stamp collectors? If someone regards stamp collecting as being of life-or-death importance and intellectually angst for a world where non-stamp-collecting is wiped out, sure, at that point you have a religion. A strange, screwed up religion, but so what?

    The whole point of the ‘something that includes X but not soccer fans or stamp collectors’ routine turns on pretty bland, pedestrian examples of soccer fans and stamp collectors, not ‘any kind you can think up in principle’. Otherwise you’re just walking right into the actual definition of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Also, as near as I can tell, Mike is singling out the New Atheists as a religion, not ‘atheism’ in and of itself.

  3. I don’t know, Mike. “Religion” is such a respectable word. “Religious Cult”, perhaps, but I’d need to see something much more stable and wholesome over time from these guys to warrant the term “Religion”…

  4. Beliefs can be atheistic, just as they can be theistic. But neither atheism nor theism is a religion in and of itself. If chaplains counsel soldiers without mentioning the divine or supernatural, that would be providing atheistic help and support to the soldier. If someone’s morals don’t involve divine reward/punishment or invoke religious dogma, that would be an atheistic ethical perspective.

    To paraphrase big bad Sam Harris, non-Croatian-speakers don’t constitute a language group in and of themselves. They belong to other language groups. The fact that we actually need a term to describe people who don’t profess belief in the supernatural just tells us how seeped in religion our supposedly secular culture is.

  5. TFBW says:

    But neither atheism nor theism is a religion in and of itself.

    Quite. I wish that Dawkins would be so clear. He keeps harping on about the evils of religion, when in reality he’s harping about theistic religion, specifically. He has no problem at all with atheistic religion, or even deistic religion, but he keeps going on with his “religion is evil” shtick like “religion” and “theism” are synonymous. He’s not merely an atheist; he’s an anti-theist.

    The fact that we actually need a term to describe people who don’t profess belief in the supernatural just tells us how seeped in religion our supposedly secular culture is.

    Okay — that’s just atheist self-pity talk. Do yourself a favour and snap out of it. Atheism has been a minority belief throughout human history, and that’s why we need a word for it. Likewise, a “secular culture” is not one where religion has been marginalised to the point of public invisibility — New Atheist’s wet dream though that may be. A secular culture is simply one where the religious leaders are not also the recognised government. Secular cultures are good when they recognise freedom of religion; they’re nasty when the government decides that any concept of a “higher power” is a threat to their authority, and outlaws (as “sedition”) religions which promote that sort of thinking.

  6. TFBW,

    I think “atheistic religions” are just as objectionable as theistic ones. Whether it’s an old-fashioned religious cult like the Moonies or a conspiracy theory cult like 9/11 Truth, these constructs offer certainty and reinforce an extreme, hateful, self-validating fantasy view of reality. At the same time they discourage freethought and promote a pathological suspicion of outsiders. New Atheism doesn’t fit this bill except in the dreams of the most alarmist religious blogmaster.

    And incidentally, I’m not just whining that nonbelievers constitute a minority in our society. I’m concerned that even in the 21st century, believers have no qualms about marginalizing nonbelievers. Even though one of the wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing happened to be a Harvard Humanist, the memorial service for the victims (attended by the President) was held in a church, and no nonbelievers were invited to address the crowd of mourners. What better way for society to declare that only theistic beliefs and perspectives can offer consolation to a community?

  7. Crude says:

    New Atheism doesn’t fit this bill except in the dreams of the most alarmist religious blogmaster.

    Let’s see…

    “these constructs offer certainty and reinforce an extreme, hateful, self-validating fantasy view of reality.”

    Extreme, hateful, self-validating fantasy view? You’ve got that in spades in the Cult of Gnu. Everything from conspiracy theories (Jesus mythicists, complete with conspiracy theories about why academia is almost unanimous in rejecting the hypothesis), to hatefulness (religious upbringing as child abuse, defenses of ‘mild child abuse’, encouragement to mock and belittle religious people in the hopes of swaying ‘fence sitters’ out of fear that they too will be mocked), and extremeness (Treating religious belief as a ‘mind virus’, PeteBog wanting it classified as a mental illness scientists can perform experiments on in order to ‘cure’, etc.)

    The Cult of Gnu fits the bill entirely, and is rejected out of hand only by those emotionally clinging to the group for a mental crutch.

    I’m concerned that even in the 21st century, believers have no qualms about marginalizing nonbelievers. Even though one of the wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing happened to be a Harvard Humanist, the memorial service for the victims (attended by the President) was held in a church, and no nonbelievers were invited to address the crowd of mourners.

    Memorial services tend to be for the dead, not for the wounded. And why would nonbelievers be invited to address a crowd? What would they talk about? Their lack of beliefs?

    Cult of Gnu atheists are going to have to decide one day whether atheism is something more than the lack of beliefs. If it’s mere non-belief, then it makes absolutely no sense to ‘invite a non-believer to speak to the crowd’. They have literally nothing to say about much of anything. But if they have beliefs – say, if they believe God does not exist, if they believe naturalism is true, if they’re strongly certain there is no afterlife, etc – then they are making claims.

  8. Cale B.T. says:

    From an atheist’s blog:

    “I have a tattoo of the “Atheist ‘A’” on my wrist. I’m in the club for life!”

    Good grief.

  9. Crude says:

    Good grief.

    In his defense, if he ever ditches his religion, that’s still a tremendously tattoo to explain away.

    ‘I’m a big fan of the Avengers. Or wait, Captain America!’
    ‘I got a VERY good grade on a term paper once and I wanted to celebrate.’
    ‘I kept forgetting which button jumps in Halo.’

  10. cl says:

    Well c’mon, you know… atheism is a religion when the atheists want something, but atheism isn’t a religion when they’re trying to hold their noses haughtily above the theist.

    Duh.

  11. TFBW says:

    @EtsiterawEtcice:

    At the same time they discourage freethought and promote a pathological suspicion of outsiders. New Atheism doesn’t fit this bill except in the dreams of the most alarmist religious blogmaster.

    Well, I’m sure it doesn’t seem that New Atheism fits the bill to an insider, such as yourself, but you should try taking an external perspective on the matter. New Atheism discourages freethought through belittling labels like “faitheist”, and promotes an extreme suspicion of outsiders who adhere to any religion. New Atheism’s attitude towards religion is more hateful and more dogmatic than, well, just about anything. New Atheism is to the religious as the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is to gays, really.

    I’m concerned that even in the 21st century, believers have no qualms about marginalizing nonbelievers.

    Maybe it would help if the kind of “nonbelievers” who made such demands were known for some semblance of sensitivity towards the beliefs of others, rather than being militantly anti-religious and forever declaring that all religion is evil. If someone stands on a soapbox all day, yelling that religion is the main cause ofl violence and intolerance in the world, then it’s a fairly easy guess what their theme will be if invited to speak on the Boston bombings. Nobody with an ounce of common sense and diplomacy is going to invite such a person to speak at a memorial service.

    If you want to be more accepted by society, learn to play nice. Is that such a hard concept?

  12. New Atheism is to the religious as the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is to gays, really.

    You appear to have a unique definition of the word “really.” The notion that a handful of “new atheist” writers and bloggers, and their online fans, constitute a despicable hate group is something that demonstrates the insularity of the entitled more than it resembles reality. If criticism of religion not only strikes fear into the hearts of the faithful majority but causes them to want to marginalize nonbelievers and even exclude them from speaking at community events, I submit that’s a sign that we need a little more honest, civil discussion of the issue and less alarmist hand-wringing.

  13. If someone stands on a soapbox all day, yelling that religion is the main cause ofl violence and intolerance in the world, then it’s a fairly easy guess what their theme will be if invited to speak on the Boston bombings. Nobody with an ounce of common sense and diplomacy is going to invite such a person to speak at a memorial service.

    Incidentally, the Harvard Humanists who wanted to speak at the service are led by Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman, who have been critical of Dawkins-style atheist activism. Perhaps the broad brush with which you paint all nonbelievers isn’t the best tool for understanding the complexities of modern nonbelief.

  14. TFBW says:

    The notion that a handful of “new atheist” writers and bloggers, and their online fans, constitute a despicable hate group is something that demonstrates the insularity of the entitled more than it resembles reality.

    There was a large crowd of self-professed rational atheists at the 2012 “rally for reason” cheering their hero, Richard Dawkins, as he exhorted them to mock and ridicule Catholics “with contempt.” Downplay it all you like — I think the facts speak for themselves, and your assertions to the contrary show you to suffer from the exact sorts of delusions you perceive in the religious.

    … I submit that’s a sign that we need a little more honest, civil discussion of the issue and less alarmist hand-wringing.

    It’s hard to engage in productive discussion when the other party has identified you up-front as being on a par with cults such as the Moonies, and having “an extreme, hateful, self-validating fantasy view of reality.” If you want to cut down on the alarmist hand-wringing, then go right ahead — start with your own hyperbole.

    … the Harvard Humanists who wanted to speak at the service are led by Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman, who have been critical of Dawkins-style atheist activism.

    I can’t say I’ve heard of them. They’ve got an uphill PR battle to fight, what with all the high profile, militant, anti-religious New Atheists getting all the press. Did any of the victims’ surviving relatives want them there, or was it just a matter of self-promotion and a sense of entitlement?

    Perhaps the broad brush with which you paint all nonbelievers …

    Now, now — I haven’t done that. New Atheists are far from “all nonbelievers”. They’re not even “all atheists”. In any case, you don’t seem to have any qualms about painting the entirety of religion with a very broad, black brush. One standard for you, and another for me, eh?

  15. It’s hard to engage in productive discussion when the other party has identified you up-front as being on a par with cults such as the Moonies, and having “an extreme, hateful, self-validating fantasy view of reality.”

    Neither of which I actually did. I even said I was talking about dangerous atheistic religions like hate groups and cults.

    I can’t say I’ve heard of them.

    Well now, that’s a great big surprise.

  16. cl says:

    EE,

    At the same time they discourage freethought and promote a pathological suspicion of outsiders. New Atheism doesn’t fit this bill except in the dreams of the most alarmist religious blogmaster.

    Are you kidding? Go over to “freethought” blogs and post as a theist, then come back. That place DOES NOT encourage freethought, AT ALL. If you don’t sing the atheist / naturalist creed, you get treated pathologically like an outsider. And there is no freethought. All thoughts must be atheist / naturalist else they get derided.

    You, EE, are either dishonest or woefully inexperienced in the culture you represent.

  17. Are you kidding? Go over to “freethought” blogs and post as a theist, then come back. That place DOES NOT encourage freethought, AT ALL. If you don’t sing the atheist / naturalist creed, you get treated pathologically like an outsider. And there is no freethought. All thoughts must be atheist / naturalist else they get derided.

    So we should judge the validity of claims, ideas, and beliefs on how people behave in the online sandbox? I’d say there’s a siege mentality on both sides. That’s what I was saying to TFBW: if he’s never heard of Epstein or Stedman (both of whom have published books about their views), maybe he doesn’t have the most nuanced understanding of modern nonbelief. In the same way, if atheists are judging belief by the Taliban and the Westboro folks, maybe their views need a little more nuance too.

    You, EE, are either dishonest or woefully inexperienced in the culture you represent.

    I never claimed to represent anything. Did I ever say I’m an atheist, or that I worship at the altar of Dawkins?

  18. TFBW says:

    @EtsiterawEtcice:

    Neither of which I actually did. I even said I was talking about dangerous atheistic religions like hate groups and cults.

    You also said, “I think ‘atheistic religions’ are just as objectionable as theistic ones.” I was merely joining the dots: it implies that the Moonies are just as objectionable as Christians, for instance. Perhaps you’d like to qualify and clarify your remarks.

    That’s what I was saying to TFBW: if he’s never heard of Epstein or Stedman (both of whom have published books about their views), maybe he doesn’t have the most nuanced understanding of modern nonbelief.

    If having a sufficiently nuanced understanding of “modern nonbelief” requires reading every book that’s been published on the subject in the last N years (for some value of N), then yes, I can affirm that my understanding of the subject (and every other subject, for that matter) is insufficiently nuanced. I take it that your understanding of modern theism and/or religion is similarly deficient — or is this another case of one standard for you and another for me?

    I take it from your lack of an answer to my earlier question that no victims’ surviving relatives wanted Epstein and Stedman to speak on their behalf at the memorial service, and that their desire to speak was thus entirely self-serving. Feel free to clarify if you merely overlooked the question.

  19. Michael says:

    So we should judge the validity of claims, ideas, and beliefs on how people behave in the online sandbox?

    No one said or implied otherwise. You insisted that New Atheists did not discourage freethought and did not
    promote a pathological suspicion of outsiders. Cl posted evidence of the contrary.

    I’d say there’s a siege mentality on both sides.

    You said that on Nov 19. On Nov 18, you said the New Atheists did not promote a pathological suspicion of outsiders. Are you just making things up as you go along?

    That’s what I was saying to TFBW: if he’s never heard of Epstein or Stedman (both of whom have published books about their views), maybe he doesn’t have the most nuanced understanding of modern nonbelief.

    You claimed E & S have been critical of Dawkins-style atheist activism. So what are their criticisms?

    In the same way, if atheists are judging belief by the Taliban and the Westboro folks, maybe their views need a little more nuance too.

    If? IF? Sounds to me that you don’t have even the most basic understanding of the New Atheist movement.

    I never claimed to represent anything. Did I ever say I’m an atheist, or that I worship at the altar of Dawkins?

    Okay, so are you an atheist?

  20. I was merely joining the dots: it implies that the Moonies are just as objectionable as Christians, for instance. Perhaps you’d like to qualify and clarify your remarks.

    I thought it was clear that I was saying I don’t tolerate the dogma of a hate group or cult merely because it’s non-theistic. And I don’t paint all theistic religions with the same brush; it’s not my fault that the word religion only describes a broad category. Likewise, the word sport can be applied to activities as different as badminton and boxing. We can’t necessarily say the same thing about one religion as another. Sure, I think fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam have a lot to answer for. But you’ll never hear me criticizing Quakerism or Jainism, because they don’t.

    I take it that your understanding of modern theism and/or religion is similarly deficient — or is this another case of one standard for you and another for me?

    Personally, I think religion is a fascinating subject that involves history, philosophy, literature, psychology, politics, and many other areas of knowledge. I read books by theists and religious philosophers. I went to a Catholic college, so I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about religion.

    I take it from your lack of an answer to my earlier question that no victims’ surviving relatives wanted Epstein and Stedman to speak on their behalf at the memorial service, and that their desire to speak was thus entirely self-serving. Feel free to clarify if you merely overlooked the question.

    I didn’t think it was a serious question. Are you truly interested to know whether victims and their families were polled to determine which community leaders would be invited to attend the service? It seemed clear that, although you probably assume the Greek Orthodox Christian or the Jewish rabbi who spoke at the service did so out of a selfless desire to help in the community’s healing, you’re perfectly content to ascribe totally different motives to the nonbeliever who asked to be invited. You even wondered why anyone would invite a speaker who was only going to excoriate religion anyway, as if there’s no other type of nonbeliever apart from a nasty online blowhard.

    I already mentioned that a woman who belonged to the Harvard Humanist organization was maimed in the bombing, and her daughter was wounded too. Polls show that there’s a sizeable secular community in Boston. Humanist rabbi Greg Epstein felt it was appropriate to have the nonreligious community represented. He wasn’t asking to crash some private prayer service in a church: this event was attended by former governors of Massachusetts and the President himself spoke. The fact that Rev. Nancy Taylor of the South Church talked before the service about the event representing a “coming together” in the name of “unity and community” makes it clear that the organizers should have been expected to make every effort to be as inclusive as possible. However, even though the Harvard Humanists made sincere pleas for inclusion to the event, the organizers ignored them. It’s only because our society doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with marginalizing nonbelievers.

  21. TFBW says:

    I thought it was clear that I was saying I don’t tolerate the dogma of a hate group or cult merely because it’s non-theistic.

    Yes, you made that perfectly clear. Unfortunately, you said it in such a way that “hate group” seemed to apply to all religion, all the time, not some religion, some of the time. The apparent synonymy of “religion” and “hate group” seemed all the more implied, since you never acknowledged that a large crowd of atheists cheering a sermon of hate from Richard Dawkins counted as a hate group. The actual hate doesn’t seem to factor much into the classification, you see. But no problem with Jains and Quakers, so the brush does leave a small margin around the edges after all. Lucky them.

    I read books by theists and religious philosophers. I went to a Catholic college, so I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about religion.

    But my knowledge of “modern nonbelief” lacks nuance because I haven’t heard of Epstein or Stedman. Okay, thanks for clarifying the double standard.

    And, on that note, I can’t envisage a productive outcome from prolonging this conversation, so adios.

  22. I can’t envisage a productive outcome from prolonging this conversation, so adios.

    I apologize for thinking it was worthwhile responding to your comments in a thoughtful, civil manner. I wrongly assumed you were interested in dialogue. Que le vaya bien and stuff.

  23. Michael says:

    Etsiteraw Etcicero,

    Aren’t you going to tell us what Epstein or Stedman’s criticisms of Dawkins-style atheist activism are?

  24. Michael says:

    EE,

    You claimed Epstein & Stedman have been critical of Dawkins-style atheist activism. I have twice asked you to spell out their criticisms, but you have twice ignored the request.

  25. If criticism of religion…

    You mean like “People who raise their children to believe in a religion are child abusers?”

    How, exactly, is this different from “People who are gay are going to Hell”? It’s just as ridiculous and, considering that atheists don’t believe in Hell, certainly just as offensive. The Westboro Baptist Church is a perfect comparison.

  26. Shizzle says:

    What will atheists do @ a crowd mourning session? Say that pseudoscience will keep you safe?

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