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Is Atheism a religion?

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Published: 4 May 2010 (GMT+10)
atheist Richard Dawkins
Would Richard Dawkins ever acknowledge that his rabid atheism is actually a religious view?

Atheism is the belief that there is no god. 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.”1

Buddhism is atheistic in the sense of denying that there is any overarching deity such as the Creator-God of the Bible. Atheism in the western sense excludes Buddhism, and adherents claim that it is not a religion. One Atheist said:

“Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair colour”2

However, atheists make such claims so Atheism can avoid legal imperatives placed on religions in many countries, and can avoid some of the ideological hang-ups people have about ‘religion’. It also creates a false dichotomy between science (which they claim must be naturalistic and secular) and religion.

Atheism3 will be defined in the contemporary western sense: not just the lack of belief in a god, but the assertion about the non-existence of any gods, spirits, or divine or supernatural beings. Atheists in this sense are metaphysical naturalists, and as will be shown, they DO follow a religion.

Religion is a difficult thing to define. Various definitions have been proposed, many of which emphasize a belief in the supernatural.4 But such definitions break down on closer inspection for several reasons. They fail to deal with religions which worship non-supernatural things in their own right (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)5; they fail to include religions such as Confucianism and Taoism which focus almost exclusively on how adherents should live, and the little they do say about supernatural issues such as the existence of an afterlife is very vague; they also don’t deal with religious movements centred around UFOs—which believe that aliens are highly (evolutionarily) advanced (but not supernatural) beings.

A better way to determine whether a worldview is a religion is to look for certain characteristics that religions have in common. The framework set forth by Ninian Smart,6 commonly known as the Seven Dimensions of Religion, is widely accepted by anthropologists and researchers of religion as broadly covering the various aspects of religion, without focusing on things unique to specific religions.

The seven dimensions proposed by Smart are narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion. Smart even argues that the ‘secularisation’ of western society is actually a shift of focus from the doctrinal and ritual to the experiential.

1. 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. Smart calls this Narrative.

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.”7

Evolution is an explanation of where everything came from: the cosmos (came out of nothing at the big bang—nothing exploded and became everything); humans evolved from non-human creatures, hence humanity’s place in the cosmos is being just another species of animal. Some have gone so far as to say that humanity is a parasite on earth, and advocate killing up to 90% of humanity.8 There are some who attempt to combine belief in God with belief in evolution, not realizing the foundational nature of evolution’s connection to Atheism.9 The testimony of those who after learning about evolution in ‘science’ reject Christianity should alert church leaders to the incompatibility between evolution and the Gospel.

2. Experiential

There are 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). 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. (In reality, he had already learned a version of evolution from his grandfather Erasmus’s book Zoonomia and similar ideas were around at the time).

The second aspect of the experiential dimension concerns the experiences of latter adherents. Many people feel certain emotions when they participate in certain religious ceremonies. Atheists often believe that Atheism is freedom from religion, and some Atheists have reported feeling liberated after converting.10 Karl Marx said that the removal of the illusion of happiness by the removal of religion was a step towards true happiness. Atheistic denial of the divine entails denial of an afterlife. If there is no afterlife,11 then ultimately there is no higher purpose in life for Atheists than to be happy. According to the Humanist Manifesto II, the only meaning in life is what the person gives it. In the Humanist Manifesto III, this was changed to finding meaning in relationships. Belief in evolution also causes people to aim for self preservation and to spread their own genes.12

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. I would classify Christian faith as part of the doctrinal dimension rather than experiential. On the other hand, 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.

3. Social

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.

Contemporary Atheism has been fueled largely by authors promoting their Atheistic beliefs. In the preface to 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.

Communist countries often made the state religion Atheism, often to the point of persecuting (other) religions.13 This followed from Karl Marx’s statement:

“It [religion] is the opiate of the masses. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”14

Marxists saw the removal of religion as a step toward true happiness for the common people, although in practice this did not occur, and contemporary critics see Marxism itself as a religion15. (I would contend that Marxism is a sect of a larger religion: Atheism).

Many scientists are high up on the social hierarchy of Atheism because their research enhances their understanding of the world. 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 (one recent example concerns research into the chameleon’s catapult tongue and suction cap; see Created, not evolved)

Atheism is also taught to children in many schools in science classes as evolution. As atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse admits, “evolution is a religion”, and it could be considered the narrative dimension of Atheism. Thus teaching evolution is teaching Atheism. Several Atheists even support teaching lies, as long as the end result is more children believing evolution.16

4. Doctrinal

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, Atheists believe and adhere to the things written in the Humanist Manifesto, even if they don’t know the specifics of the document. After all, many Atheists do want to do what is good.

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 Humanism also makes the assumption that humans are basically good.

In 1973 however, the Humanist Manifesto was updated because of the atrocities that humans inflicted upon other humans during the intervening years (specifically mentioned are Nazism and communist police states).

5. Ethical

Atheism is a morally relativist religion. Most Atheists adhere to one ethical system or another, but in Atheism there is ultimately no foundation for morality, as atheists Dawkins and Provine admit. Many systems of ethics have been proposed; utilitarianism is probably the most popular one.

Some people 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.

6. Ritual

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. Many Atheists do practice ‘secular rituals’ such as their birthday celebrations, or the ‘ritual holidays’ of other religions such as the Christmas and Easter public holidays of Christianity, but this is usually to simply maintain the tradition of a public holiday, and the original meaning of the celebrations are rejected. 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, even in some ‘churches’. One might even say that this modern Atheistic commemoration is being ‘celebrated’ with greater fervour and passion than many longstanding religious rituals.

7. Material

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. While Atheism by its nature of denying the divine can’t have objects that represent the divine (such as icons or idols), nature is 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. But as G.K. Chesterton said a century ago:

“Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. … The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”

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 so.

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.

The dichotomy that Atheists try to create between science and religion is false. The conflict is between interpretations of science coming from different religious worldviews.

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.

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Is atheism a religion?

References

  1. Rowe, WL. ”Atheism”, in Craig. E Routledge, Ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, 1998. Return to text.
  2. Don Hirschberg, viewed on 6 October 2008, http://Atheisme.free.fr/Quotes/Atheist.htm. Return to text.
  3. In this article, Atheism is deliberately written with an upper case ‘A’ as an indicator of what it has become. Return to text.
  4. For example Cline, A., 30, October, 2009 What is Religion? Viewed on 15, March, 2010. http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/definition.htm Return to text.
  5. It should be noted that this example isn’t saying that Mayans didn’t have other deities. Return to text.
  6. Smart, N., 1996. Dimensions of the sacred: an anatomy of the world’s beliefs. HarperCollins, London. Return to text.
  7. Dawkins, R., 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. Penguin Books, London. Return to text.
  8. Pianka, E. 3 March, 2006, Dr. ‘Doom’ Pianka Speaks Recorded audio. Transcript Retrieved on 6th October 2008, from http://www.pearceyreport.com/archives/2006/04/transcript_dr_d.php; see also Doomsday Glee: An astonishing lecture makes sense if you understand the evolutionary framework; . Return to text.
  9. Anderson, D., 2009. Creation or evolution: choose wisely! Return to text.
  10. Colbeck, R. 8, December, 2006. Book answers atheists’ prayers. Viewed on 5, October 2008. http://richarddawkins.net/article,399,Book-answers-the-Atheists-prayers,Robert-Colbeck. Return to text.
  11. Provine, WB. 1994. Origins Research 16(1), p.9. Return to text.
  12. Dawkins, R., 2006. The Selfish Gene. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Return to text.
  13. Sinishta, G., 1976. The Fulfilled Promise: A Documentary Account of Religious Persecution in Albania. Albanian Catholic Information Center, Santa Clara. Return to text.
  14. O’Malley, J. (ed), 1970. Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Return to text.
  15. Ref. 6, pp262–269 Return to text.
  16. Zivkovic, B. (aka ‘Coturnix’). 25 August 2008. Why teaching evolution is dangerous, viewed 7 October 2008, http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2008/08/why_teaching_evolution_is_dang.php. See also Evolutionist: it’s OK to deceive students to believe evolution; . Return to text.

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