A Discussion Entitled "Is Atheism A Religion?"

This post was first published by me as a comment on a discussion on BlogCatalog. The discussion was entitled "Is Atheism A Religion?" For reasons which you will probably guess, I decided to copy it here as a back-up, just in case the BlogCatalog people decide to obliterate the entire discussion. I thought this post was worth keeping.

I don't usually have a lot of time for religious discussion, except when there is a philosophical angle, since religious discussionists are often the most stupid of all. Yes even worse than the trivialists (How many comments a day do you get on your blog? You know the kind.) Religionists (and atheists) tend not to listen to each other but just bang on with their own pre-programmed spiel and damn the other side to eternal perdition.

But this here discussion DID interest me, for two reasons. First, because I really do think that atheism has certain characteristics normally associated with religion. Second, because I think a lot of the problems and disagreements over religion that I mentioned above are, in large part, caused by the semantic laziness which I talk about in the following post.

So without further ado, I'll now let you read it!

Sorry to keep going on about semantics, but I feel I have to because, in so many of these religion discussions, people don't take the trouble to accurately define the meanings of the words they are using. This can lead to people arguing about different things but calling them by the same word. In turn, this leads to misunderstandings, bafflement, the giving of offence, or even to fights breaking out!

Maybe what I'm going to say has already been said a bit further up (I haven't had time to read every post) but anyway I'll say it.

Someone further up said that the word religion means "reverence for God". Well it may mean that for some people, but only by association. The root meaning of the word is the Latin "religare" which means "to bind, or to bind up". It's quite interesting that the word "yoga" has a similar root meaning of binding.

In this pure definition of the word "religion" it may well be possible to say that atheism is a religion, but only when applied to those who are, as it were, active exponents of atheism. In other words, those atheists who attempt to convince others of the rightness of their belief. Some would argue that atheism, (or should we say Atheism?) is a credo, since the atheist is professing a belief in a proposition that is not susceptible of proof, any more than a belief in God is susceptible of proof. We can twist words around all we want, but the atheist is probably saying, "I believe there is no god."

There are some thought-systems that are given the label of religion, with the meaning of the word in the pure sense we have just defined, in which it is not necessary, nor is it even considered desirable, to believe in God. Buddhism is the most obvious one that springs to mind here. This is one of the criticisms sometimes aimed at Buddhism by adherents of other religions, that Buddhism is fundamentally atheistic. This does not, of course, apply to all branches of the faith, which is vast and fantastically varied. But some sects of Buddhism do allow the worship of a deity or deities, largely it seems because people like to worship something or someone.

I think the Buddhist would reply to an accusation of being atheistic by saying that she/he neither believes nor disbelieves in God. But I'm only guessing about this, since I am very far from being an expert on any religion, atheistic or otherwise.


Winton Bates said...

Your definition of a religion seems to be "belief in a proposition that is not susceptible of proof".
Doesn't that convert a lot of beliefs about the way the world works into religious propositions? For example, if someone asserts that there is no life elsewhere in the universe they are making a claim that is not susceptible of proof. But it is a factual statement that is potentially capable of being disproved.

It seems to me it might be more appropriate to define a religious statement as one that is not susceptible of disproof. If you accept that definition then atheism could be viewed as a scientific hypothesis rather than a religion. If God were to appear to a person who had provisionally accepted the atheism hypothesis, they would have to abandom the atheism hypothesis.

Adam Tramantano said...

I like your reference to the root of the word for religion meaning holding things together. I don't often hear people say that.

I think that the question of whether atheism is a religion is a very interesting one; one that I've been considering lately. I think that semantics aside, religions actually congregate on a regular basis and have hymns, rituals, and lots of other things that atheism as a whole doesn't have.

You're right to point out that Atheism is not an affirmative belief so much as a statement of a denial.

I do think that the question of whether Atheism is a religion is only philosophical if we are only being semantical. If we are looking at behaviour, then no, it isn't a religion. There's no place for an atheist to go talk about atheism on Sunday morning.

Language by its very nature is stitched up with limitations. we begin to discuss something, and suddenly we meet up with a limitation.

Sometimes we have to be direct, to the point, and practical, in order to avoid confusion. I am an atheist, and I believe that god is fake, enlightenment is fake, religious ritual is pointless. I belong to no group, do not require any ritual or sacred text. In short, I lack all of the things normally found in religion.

Anyway, interesting post!

Sofia said...

To Winton Bates: First of all, thank you for your comment which I read with great interest.

I may have expressed myself badly in my post, giving the wrong impression. In fact, the definition of religion I was using was the literal one, from religare, relating to the idea of binding oneself to a set of ideas. The "belief in a proposition not susceptible of proof" was characterised by me as a "credo". I am aware that many people use the word credo and the word religion interchangeably, but in fact, as I should have made clear, I was using credo in it's more literal sense. "credo" simply means "I believe" so in this sense it can be used to refer to a belief accepted without proof, which is not necessarily the same thing as a "religion".

There are other ways in which atheists often exhibit behaviour more normally characterised as "religious". They tend to gather into groups (congregation) for support, they often accompany their assertions with quotes from Biblical texts, they often adopt the air of suffering from the attacks of religionists (martyrdom), they sometimes use Biblical imagery, apparently to reinforce their arguments, such as when Richard Dawkins describes evolution as a "river flowing out of Eden". Furthermore, those atheists whose thinking is, shall we say, less than subtle, can end up sounding pretty much as dogmatic as the most earnest Alabama Bible-basher.

Of course I don't really believe atheism to be a religion, and I viewed the whole exercise as rather "tongue-in-cheek".

I was fascinated by what you said about the statement that is not susceptible of proof, which could be overturned by God appearing to an individual person one day. To my mind, that would count as a self-revelation of God, and this would not constitute a proof in the usual scientific sense, since it would not be repeatable by everyone.

And if a person is provisionally accepting the atheism hypothesis, would that not make them an agnostic rather than an atheist?

To Adam Tramantano: Thank you also for your intersting remarks. Language is indeed limited, and as we often find when we try to use it for the expression of exact concepts, words can also be very slippery.

Paul8bee said...

I define religion as 'Applied Philosophy'. To be kind and loving is a good philosophy but if I'm still an angry asshole.. then my philosophy needs some more application.


"I am an atheist, and I believe that god is fake, enlightenment is fake, religious ritual is pointless."

This is a quote from above. Now consider how much sense this sentence would make if God were defined as Absolute Reality? You would be saying that Reality does not exist. Can anything ever prove Reality, except by personal experience?

How about the child who thinks that God is a Bearded Robed kindly Old Man who sits on a throne up in heaven. You would think that this is a fantasy of the child. Yet this God still exists, not in outer Reality but in the child's own mind and imagination. Very real but limited to the experience of that one person.

To sum, everyone is limited by their ability to perceive the world. An Atheist would be limited to his/her ability to understand the word GOD. The word exits and is in print all over the place. A Theologist is one who studies this word. Theo means God, and ology means Study.

Great Blog. I like this thinking stuff. http://paulscave.wordpress.com/theology/

Adam Tramantano said...