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Is Atheism a Religion? Let’s Ask What We’re Asking

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American Atheists

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today's post from atheist blogger Chana Messinger continues a series here at Strange Notions on whether atheism is a religion. Be sure to read the past articles by Jimmy Akin (Is Atheism a Religion?) and Stephen Bullivant (Atheist Religions?).
 


 
I have been asked to provide the atheist perspective on the question of whether atheism is a religion or can be reasonably called one, and so I shall, primarily in response to Jimmy Akin’s piece, “Is Atheism a Religion?

I agree with Mr. Akin that “taking a position on God and the afterlife” is a reasonable definition of a religion, though it is in my opinion it veers towards the overly broad. But the rationalist approach to language has taught me that while an important step is to acknowledge that various definitions may be reasonable, another is to realize that each definition is really an answer to a question; the next step, then, is to decide what questions are being asked and how well our given definition can answer them.

So my question is: What questions are we asking when we ask if something is a religion or if someone is religious?

If by asking if atheism is a religion we are asking whether atheism has opinions on the existence of God and the afterlife, then atheism certainly is a religion (and agnosticism, for instance, may not be). Atheists even occasionally have an intellectual/emotional commitment to their beliefs about God and the afterlife the way that religious people do, though they lack the large cluster of beliefs that tend to characterize other religions.

But is this the question we are typically concerned with?

Far more often, we use the word religious in place of the word “theist”, and asking if someone is religious is a more polite way of asking if they believe in God. Given this usage, it would not certainly not be helpful to call atheism a religion, as it would only confuse.

We might also be asking whether a system of thought requires faith, such as in miracles, an afterlife, or a supernatural entity. In such a case, it does not help us to equate atheism to other systems we call religions. I wrote previously about the ways in which any system requiring faith in the supernatural must account for the intersection between empirical and religious claims. Atheism has no such requirement.

Some claim that it takes just as much faith to not believe in God as to believe in God. I disagree, but even if it is true, it is at most the kind of faith of a nondenominational theist; it is certainly not the same kind of faith as faith in a God with specific characteristics, powers and history. To employ the tu quoque of “you have faith too!” in conversation with an atheist is missing most of the point. There is something different about rejecting supernatural commitments than about accepting them, and it is worth maintaining that difference to achieve better understanding.

We might ask whether a system of thought determines commitments to certain practices for specific reasons. We might be wondering whether atheism requires something like regularly attending services or refraining from eating shellfish, and if it guarantees rewards for appropriate behavior. Again, it is not useful here to put atheism in the same category as religions like Islam or Christianity. While some think it odd that I, as an atheist, go to services at Jewish synagogues on a regular basis, they cannot point to a prohibition I am committed to that would bar me from doing so, nor a punishment I ostensibly believe would come to me as a result.

Finally, we may ask whether atheism comes with an attendant set of values, as religions frequently do. The diversity within the atheist community on this question itself speaks to the answer being a negative one. Some atheists adhere only to the core idea: that there is no God. Nothing else need be involved. Skepticism, the valuing of the separation of church and state, political liberalism and anti-religious sentiment are all optional add-ons that are not fundamental to atheism. This is distinguished from religions, in which, while a diversity of opinion certainly exists, a group of values is at the core of the belief system.

Mr. Akin’s definition of religion, a system which takes a stand on the existence of God and the afterlife, certainly points to a similarity or kinship between atheism and other religions that many may not have noticed. However, it does not seem to be a particularly useful definition, and I would wager it is not the one he uses in his daily life either. The vast majority of the characteristics for which “religion” is a proxy do not apply to atheism or atheists. They may better apply to humanism or what we might call atheist religions (different from atheism as a religion), discussed beautifully here.

While of course many definitions of religion can be used, and no religion need satisfy all the criteria I have laid out, atheism can be described only by the broadest possible definitions of religion. Even then, atheism fits uncomfortably with the rest of the cluster. It should therefore not be considered one in most common contexts. Such usage leads at best to misunderstanding and at worst to an avoidance of atheist arguments by shifting the burden of proof, because after all, “you’re religious, too.” I would hope that religious people would take pride in the all-encompassing system of thought and belief to which they belong, so much broader than the one truth claim of atheism, and not seek to elide the difference.
 
 
(Image credit: American Atheists)

Chana Messinger

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Chana Messinger is a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Chicago with a BA in mathematics. She was the president of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance for two years, a Speaker at the 2011 Secular Student Alliance Conference, a panelist at the 2012 Skepticon Conference, a speaker at the 2013 Chicago Skepticamp and at Chicago Skeptics. She is an atheist, feminist, Jew and nerd, as well as a blogger and (soon!) high school mathematics teacher. She has spent a great deal of time in secular, Jewish and Christian communities, and loves learning from all of them. Follow Chana through her blog, The Merely Real, or on Twitter at @chanamessinger.

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  • 42Oolon

    The issue seems actually to be "what is a religion"? Another issue is WHY are we asking this?

    I think in the present context saying atheists are religious is little more than a rhetorical move. The discussion should be about whether any gods exist not whether someone is religious according to a certain definition.

    The conversation goes something like this:

    Atheist: ... and that is why I have a problem with religion.

    Theist: Atheism is a religion. You must have a problem with yourself!

    Atheist: Whoa, you're right! I am going to stop calling the kettle black! [just kidding]

    Atheist: What! I am not religious I don't believe in any gods, pray or go to church!

    Theist: But religion is defined as a position on the afterlife so you are religious.

    Atheist: Fine under a broad definition like that, I guess I am religious. I should have clarified, I am talking about a subset of these people, but only the ones who believe in gods and are organized in groups that take authority from the god.

    Or, it descends into a useless tangent on what the definition of religion is.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I've generally found that the argument that atheism is a religion usually is limited to just the premise that atheists share a similar quality of faith. It's generally not extended to the idea that atheists shouldn't be discriminated against, or included within interfaith community and charity work.

  • http://weighandconsider.wordpress.com/ Noah Luck

    If we call it a religion, it's a funny sort of religion that is merely the disparate group of people who reject one particular belief, and who otherwise have no *official* organization, membership requirements, beliefs, ethical values, life goals, gatherings, rituals, aesthetics, or tradition.

    It leads me to wonder if conventionally religious people who insist that atheism is also a religion aren't thereby disrespecting themselves and the sheer amount of work and lifeblood that they put into maintaining all the complexities of their religion.

  • Fr.Sean

    That was an excellent article. the one little nuance i would mention is that if faith is defined as; "believing things to be true that cannot be proven in an empirical way," then atheism does require faith and is a religion in that sense.

    • 42Oolon

      What do you think atheists believe that cannot be proven in an empirical way?

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        "What do you think atheists believe that cannot be proven in an empirical way?"

        That God does not exist. This belief cannot be empirically proven.

        • 42Oolon

          Technically I do not hold that belief. I simply lack a belief in any gods. But I mean this in the same way that, technically, I do not hold the belief that there are no dragons, just that I lack a belief in dragons.

          Conversationally, I would say yes, I believe there are no gods, and there is no dragons and my basis for that belief is the lack of empirical evidence that god claims predict.

          In any event, I would definitely dispute the need for "faith" to call yourself a religion. But I really do not care too much about these semantics.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi 42Oolon,
            I guess i should ask first, but if you are an agnostic, who only believes what you can empirically prove than you don't have faith, and you're not an atheist. if you're an atheist who believes God does not exist, or if you believe the multiverse theory is true, or the various atheistic theories about the source of religious faith as true then you do have faith. i suppose you could give a basic equation for faith as evidence + theory= belief.

          • josh

            Where does 'faith' appear in your equation?

            Oolon calls him?self an atheist because he doesn't believe in God. Not believing something due to lack of evidence or contrary evidence would seem to be the opposite of faith.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Josh, Paul and 42Oolon,

            I thought it might be easier to reply to all of you if you don't mind. I suppose as a theist i was surprised to see how often "some" atheist's seem to separate 1. reason and logic and 2. faith as if they were contradictory ways of thinking or evaluating the world and life, etc. I suspect most theists were unaware of how both ways of thinking were put on two different "poles" if you will. Naturally a theist has "faith" that is specific to what they think has been revealed. but there is also faith in a general sense of how we all use faith to evaluate the world around us and in making decisions. i suppose you could say when one posits a theory that they are going to apply to the scientific method, until it is verified it still remains in the "theory" realm. or they may have some amount of "faith" that their theory will prove correct. thus you could say you have two "religions" (in a general sense) of how one may evaluate information. within those two religions one makes decisions of how or what they will believe even though they cannot prove what they believe in an empirical way. Let me use three examples to illustrate;

            1. God; A theist would look at the evidence and conclude that they believe God exists. An atheist would look at the evidence and conclude God does not exist. Since neither can prove their theory their belief remains in the "faith" realm.

            2. The Multiverse; A theoretical idea that may give a reasonable explanation of why our universe is so nearly perfect to be able to create large stars, which translates into a full periodic table, as well as planets. furthermore it creates the possibility of having life on a planet. Now, when one looks at the physics it's certainly seem to give credence to the idea that an intelligent powerful being guided the universe's development such that it formed stars, planets, and life or we were extremely lucky. Thus there are three main possibilities 1. the Multiverse. 2. An intelligent powerful being. 3. this is the only universe but we were extremely lucky. if you're familiar with physics 3 is really not plausible, thus the two most likely are 1. and 2. An atheist will have to appeal to number 2 since he/she does not believe God exists. A theist would appeal to number 1. but may think number 2 is a possibility. Thus you have two ways of evaluating how the universe became so perfect,(or perfect enough to afford life) however as of yet neither one can be proven in an empirical way so both theories need some amount of faith. 1. Atheist= Multiverse 2. Theist= God.

            3. Sources of belief in God.

            Atheist 1. Agent theory or some of the other psychological necessity theories for the idea.

            Theist 2. Theory originated because it's source was placed in the human heart by God himself/herself.

            Since Neither theory can be proven in an empirical way both remain in the "faith" realm.

            I suppose you could say only an agnostic would be one who could appeal strictly to reason and logic since they may choose not to believe anything that cannot be proven in an empirical way.

            Thanks for taking the time to read this.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Fr Sean,

            Thanks for writing this up. It helped clarify your thoughts about this. I got two questions.

            1. What about theists who think there is a multiverse, like Don Page ( http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.5608 )?

            2. What about atheists who don't think there's a multiverse, like Peter Woit ( http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/12-07-11/ )?

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Paul,
            Thanks for the websites listings. i did mention that a theist can believe in the possibility of other universes, but an atheist (unless of course various fine tuning observations turn out to be false) is almost forced to appeal to a multiverse theory. i also think there is a possibility of other universes, but the main point i was attempting to convey is that an atheist does believe in things that have no empirical evidence that they exist and therefore also has "faith" in a general sense.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I don't see why atheists would see the need to appeal to a multiverse. Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge philosopher and an atheist, doesn't accept the multiverse (and it's an open question whether he accepts the Big Bang theory). He sees no reason to accept fine tuning in the first place. There is an indefinite number of logically possible values that the fundamental constants can take, and only a few of them allow for life. There is an indefinite number of logically possible things that can happen when I flip a coin (it could land on its side, or vanish, or turn into an elephant), but only one is tails.

            Since we don't know how the physical constants of the universe are set, and we don't really know which are fundamental, we can't say what the chances are that a life permitting universe would arise from a typical big bang event. We can't extrapolate off of one data point.

            So I don't see why atheists would bother with many universes, except for the reason several scientists have started thinking about the multiverse hypothesis. Because string theory applied to inflation predicts that there would be many different universes. Anthropic arguments should have nothing to do with why people take the multiverse hypothesis seriously. It should be taken seriously because it is a consequence of one of the more promising theories of quantum gravity: string theory.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Paul,
            I hope you'll be patient with me as i am somewhat of a novice when it comes to physics. I have read a few books or articles on various physics observations by both Atheists as well as Theists. I once heard a lawyer say something to the effect of; "if your client's innocent, stick with the facts, if guilty, confuse the jury". I think we tend to do that when discussing various issues. If we feel that perhaps our particular perspective is faulty, or perhaps not all that well thought out it's natural to change the subject (confuse the jury) as a way of avoiding conceding our point may be wrong or not all that well thought out.
            When i read the various observations of fine tuning i may not have to have a degree to observe how interesting or intriguing they are. Hawkings interpretation of the original big bang, the rate of entropy over the development of the universe, the energy needed for neutrons to keep protons together, as it corresponds to gravity. the weight of protons, neutrons, and electrons. etc. the effect of dark matter. all of those variables have to be the way they are for large stars or supernova's to form. naturally large stars are imperative to fill the periodic table and thus are also imperative to create planets. Now, one does not have to call it fine tuning, but it is absolutely amazing that they are indeed so perfect.

            as far as i know there are three possibilities (i suppose there may be more, just the three i'm aware of) of how physics became the way that they are. 1. a multiverse, thus with 10 to the 50 billionth power of other universes at least one would have physical properties that would be so perfect.(thus the anthropic principle) 2. an intelligent designer guiding the universe. 3. pure mathematical chance, or there is only one universe but we were extremely lucky.

            Now, i will conceed that it's a possibility that we were simply that lucky, but really what our the chances? i think a good analogy would be if i got a job at the lottery and encouraged you to play the powerball, and lets say you won, you might think, "well, it's possible that Sean rigged it for me to win, but it's also possible that i simply just won on my own. but then lets say you played every time, for an entire year, and lets say you won every time. while you may have no empirical evidence that i cheated for you the mere chance that you won simply by chance is so astronomically low that it would almost be a guarantee that i cheated for you. that's kind of how i look at the physics properties of the universe, i may not be able to produce empirical evidence of God's existence, but with all of the other proofs, and with how perfect the physical properties need to be it's almost a guarentee that it was tuned by something powerful.

            Furthermore, why is it that physicists can't simply say, "well, we've studied the physical properties of the universe a little more and found out we were wrong, there are billions of ways large stars could have formed (a necessity for planets, and life) but they don't all they do is simply bring in confusion to various physical observations which may only seek to distract one from the truth.

            if in fact there is a God, and if God wanted you to discover him/her through humility, objectivity and searching than isn't it perhaps a worthwhile investment of time to do what many other believers have done? look at the evidence from an objective point of view (not saying you haven't) read through the bible, perhaps the new testament and pray and humbly ask God to reveal himself to you? if in fact other believers have recounted a cause and effect relationship, they searched for God and claimed that something was revealed to them (or more specifically realized God was attempting to get their attention) then perhaps why not apply that same type of cause and effect relationship. there's really nothing to lose by doing so?

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Or:

            4. "I don't know, but I'd like to find out!"

          • 42Oolon

            Way to wordy for me to read fr. Above you seem simply to be using the word faith instead of hope and wishful thinking. If we test our hypothesis and get no results, we just don't know. I see no reason to talk about a "faith realm"

            There are easy to find refutations of the fine tuning argument. Essentially it is an argument from ignorance. We simply do not know what the likelihood of the constants being so precise is , they may be necessary, chance or design. Of course even if they are designed we can never know if they weren't designed by aliens. In fact, this would be more likely as it requires no suspension of natural laws. Check out Rationally Speaking's podcast on the subject.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Thanks again for the detailed response, but some questions still remain.

            I once heard a lawyer say something to the effect of; "if your client's innocent, stick with the facts, if guilty, confuse the jury".

            What are you trying to say here?

            Now, i will conceed that it's a possibility that we were simply that lucky, but really what our the chances?

            No one knows. It may be that, out of all the physically possible universes ours is very unlikely. It may be that our universe is very likely (Hawking and Hertog present a theory with our universe arising nearly 100% of the time: http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0602091v2.pdf ). It may be somewhere in between.

            Until someone can come up with some rules by which to assign probabilities to various physical constants or initial conditions, how can we say what is more or less likely?

            Furthermore, why is it that physicists can't simply say, "well, we've studied the physical properties of the universe a little more and found out we were wrong, there are billions of ways large stars could have formed (a necessity for planets, and life) but they don't all they do is simply bring in confusion to various physical observations which may only seek to distract one from the truth.

            I didn't understand you here either. Are you asking why physicists don't just outright deny that our universe is finely tuned? Because some do. Some physicists think that, even if the fundamental constants are chosen entirely randomly, with a flat distribution, life-permitting universes are still more likely than not. Victor Stenger is one name that comes to mind.

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Paul,

            "I once heard a lawyer say something to the effect of; "if
            your client's innocent, stick with the facts, if guilty, confuse the
            jury".

            What are you trying to say here?"

            when i read various physical properties of our universe they do seem to be in a delicate balance. as for an example, i would never know what specifically the energy that is required for neutrons to keep protons together as it cooeraponds to the energy created by the pull of gravity produced by that specific atom, but i can understand from a novice point of view why it would be important, or why it needs to be in a specific ratio for a star or planet to form. that seems rather clear and logical. Now that is just one of many variables physicists observe that seem to have a delicate balance for large stars and planets to form. you might say it appears to be a little too coincidential? Thus, one might need an interpretation of what that specific physical constant "may" or "may not" mean? Could it be that when physicists observe how delicate those balances are that it is in a sense intended to cause the individual to think, "wow, that is an amazing coincidence, it's almost as if it was designed that way?"

            Now, if i was attempting to argue a point that made sense i would be compelled to stick to the facts. if my point was flawed i may attempt to "muddy the waters" if you will because i don't want to have to acknowledge that my point may be wrong. if you look at the nuts and bolts of the physical properties as they are they do appear to have a great deal of perfect coincidences that may compell one to ponder how they became so perfect? for example there are many microbiologists who came to faith, or conclded there must be a God when they saw the intricate complexity of an individual living cell, simply because they marveled at its design. Thus when one looks at the physical properties of our universe the overwhelming intricacy and cohesiveness does cause when to ponder how it became so well balanced. Thus, what do i do with this awareness of how intricantly balanced our universe is. it might cause me to ponder a creator. I think some physicists, who may be atheistic may be compelled to resist the idea that it was designed, or it's intricate nature, thus other theories are purposed, which don't refute the intricacy of the universe but only bring confusion in (confuse the jury) by positing there may be 10 to the 50 billionth power of other universes, such that at least one may have been so perfect (delving into the anthropomorphic principle). some might say that the universe isn't fine tuned because of the "method" of how the information was obtained, or by simply saying there are a lot of things we don't know yet. Now, while those things may be true, they don't come right out and say, "based on our latest observations we've come to the conclusion that the universe is not fine tuned because of reasons a. b. and c." all they seem to do is muddy the waters. if i'm defending a client who appears to be innocent, and the evidence points in that direction i simply stay with the evidence, but if my client has guilty all over the case, i can't argue the facts, i simply have to confuse the jury so that they can't be sure enough to hand down a guilty verdict?

            "No one knows. It may be that, out of all the physically possible universes ours is very unlikely. It may be that our universe is very likely (Hawking and Hertog present a theory with our universe arising nearly 100% of the time: http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/06... ). It may be somewhere in between."

            I have read some of the various multiverse theories, but there only theories that aren't based on physical observations. it does take faith to believe in them. if we simply stay with what we know and can observe will still left with a very intricately "designed" universe?

            "I didn't understand you here either."

            My point is that what does the physics convey? does it convey that it isn't fine tuned? if it does that it would be helpful if various physicists could explain how and why that is. but if they cannot do that, and they are compelled to steer clear of a creator, than the only option is to again bring in confusion. Victor Stenger does not hesitate in voicing his atheism, thus when he comes up with a "potential" theory it might be helpful to approach his theory with a little criticism or caution. unless of course Stenger can produce evidence based on physics that shows the universe is not fine tuned. Otherwise it still may just be a theory in a physicists mind who has a bent towards atheism?

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            I have read some of the various multiverse theories, but there only theories that aren't based on physical observations. it does take faith to believe in them. if we simply stay with what we know and can observe will still left with a very intricately "designed" universe?

            Hawking and Hertog are not arguing for a multiverse in that paper. They are arguing that the universe that we have is a likely outcome. And that leads me to what I think is the crux of your response:

            Could it be that when physicists observe how delicate those balances are...

            Some physicists think the balance is very delicate but I'm not convinced. How can we say that there are delicate balances if we don't know how likely alternative possibilities are?

            Here's another example. If pi were changed in its value by a small amount, our universe could not sustain life. But pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter in Euclidean space, is mathematically set. God could not change the value of pi.

            I wonder, maybe God could not have made the universe any other way?

            My point is that what does the physics convey?

            I think it indicates that the initial conditions to the universe are unusual, but I think it is too early to say why.

            Otherwise [Stenger's theory] still may just be a theory in a physicists mind who has a bent towards atheism?

            Maybe so. If I were an atheist, I wouldn't be compelled one bit to accept the multiverse.

            Personally, I think the multiverse makes things worse for the atheist's position. Instead of just one universe, you have an infinite (or at least very large) number of (seemingly contingent) universes. What explains their existence?

            I'm not alone in thinking that the multiverse makes things worse for atheists. http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Did-God-Create-Multiple-Universes-William-Lane-Craig-/640

          • josh

            Fr.Sean,
            Why be surprised? It's obvious that most atheists consider themselves not to have 'faith' while they do attempt to use reason and logic, so clearly they are separate things in an atheist's mind. Moreover, when atheists observe how religious people use the word 'faith', they conclude that religious faith is contradictory to rationality. So it appears you are equivocating on the word when you say atheists have faith by reducing the term to such a generality that it just means 'believing something' or acting on one's best judgment. If I think based on the available evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow, it is simply disingenuous to say that I have faith in it in the same sense that Faith, Hope, and Charity are supposed to be theological virtues. Do I get partial spiritual credit for thinking that my car won't spontaneously combust?

            'Religion' simply does not mean 'a way of evaluating information', so let's chuck the false equivalences. Moving on...

            1.) An atheist and a theist can come to different conclusions. This does not mean they have both used a valid process to come to those conclusions. If you want to be stubborn, there is nothing, including math, that can be absolutely 'proven'. But it doesn't follow that everyone has an equal degree of faith. The distinction between an atheist and a theist here is between a justified conclusion and an irrational one.

            2.) The universe is not perfect or nearly perfect, it is exactly what it is and has no ideal to attain to. You have got your reasoning entirely backwards here. Stars, life, whatever are a product of the universe. They follow from the structure of the universe, the structure of the universe does not exist in order to produce particular effects. We can explain that structure down to a certain level of reduction, basically the Standard Model of physics right now. This model has a number of free parameters that must be measured.
            Either
            a)There is no discoverable principle that sets the parameters, in which case they are brute facts. No notion of probability applies. No further explanation can be given. There is no fine tuning, the consequences of the universe follow from those brute facts.

            or b) Some further simplification is possible and the current parameters can be related to a reducing principle, a deeper structure. In this case, there is no fine tuning because the parameters are exactly explained by the deeper structure. Again, the outcomes (stars, life, mostly space-dust) are consequences, not causes.

            Now, in case (b) we can consider a multiverse-like theory. This would tell us that the deeper structure generates many variations on the 'local' parameters of our current theory. However, it would tell us that our local parameters don't by themselves tell us much about the deeper theory. So pointing to a seemingly conspicuous coincidence would not be much of a guide to the deeper theory.

            But we don't need a multiverse. Apparent fine tuning may be explained in detail by the deeper theory directly. An atheist can believe either (multi or nonmulti-verse).

            What the theist believes is a special case of b), they think that some 'being' designed this universe with particular outcomes in mind. But this is an exceedingly poor explanation. It doesn't make any predictions and it raises a much larger number of unanswered questions. What are the rules of the meta-universe that determine that said being exists, that it wants anything in particular, and that it can direct a universe like ours and that it would choose one exactly like ours to accomplish it's ends? We can't strictly rule out a designer (on these grounds) but there is absolutely no support for the idea and no way to rule out an infinite number of equally unevidenced and unexplained theories that could also give rise to the parameters of our universe.

            But on top of all this, 'God' is going the opposite way from all our successful advances in understanding the universe. That is, mind-like things, people with wants and goals, hierarchies of power and so forth are all characteristics of human society and the march of science has been to show that entirely different principles, ones defined in terms of mathematics and correlations and mindless interactions are the more fundamental aspects of reality. Particles explain a great deal of your mind (even if you don't yet accept that they explain it all), but your mind doesn't explain anything about particles. So all these human-like aspects of the God idea look like the least deep and most particular outcomes of our successful general theories. It's quite an unfounded leap to reverse that trend.

            3. Again, the atheist theory, based on empirical evidence, is much more successful and explains many dimensions of our experience where the theist 'theory' fails. It's not an all-or-nothing case where either something is absolutely proven or it is a matter of faith. If you insist on inserting the word faith then we must say that the atheist has much much less faith than the theist.

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            How is the multiverse theory atheistic?

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Paul,
            I replied to all of you under Josh's post. Thanks!

          • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

            Why not agnosticism? ;D

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi 42Oolon,
            I replied to you down below under Josh's post. Thanks!

        • Foxhole Atheist

          That (god does not exist) is not an appropriate starting point ...one doesn't start with the null hypothesis...put it another way, one does not get up one day and have too prove a unicorn (or whatever imagined thing) does not exist...the null presupposes a claim (hypothesis)...in the case of proving a unicorn doesn't exist it is the claim (hypothesis) that a unicorn exists...and so we must start with the claim (hypothesis)...so we must never start with the null that there c is no god but rather with the claim (hypothesis) that there is a god...the onus is on the one making the claim (hypothesis) to provide evidence in support of the claim (hypothesis). If evidence is provided then the null is rejected and we accept the claim that there is a god...this is the source of my atheism...I do not see any evidence by which to reject the null hypothesis...I am open to future evidence should it be forthcoming

          • Fr.Sean

            hi Foxhole Atheist,

            to my knowledge there's no legitmate evidence that unicorns exist but there is a great deal of evidence that God exists.

          • Foxhole Atheist

            Please elaborate on this evidence

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Foxhole Atheist,
            Owe...talking about all of the evidence for God's existence and discussing the details for each one might take far more time than you or i have interest in investing. If i was to narrow it down i would say two things;

            1. the evidence; Aquinas's five proofs, the fine tuning of the universe, the source of the natural law, or conscience, individual consciousnesses.
            2. Any potential refutation of the evidence for God's existence has not nullified the evidence but has only brought some amount of confusion in, or has distracted one from the evidence.

          • josh

            Fr.Sean, you seem very confused about how evidence works. 1. Isn't evidence, they are arguments that have long since been shown to be flawed.

            2.More importantly, refutation of alleged evidence is critical to a rational approach to the world. One is not being distracted from evidence by considering other (better) explanations or contrary evidence. Strictly speaking evidence is the sum of all evidence. You can't pick and choose the parts you feel are consistent with your preferred conclusion. It's not even that one somehow weighs up the evidence 'for' something and 'against' it, as though each fact has a binary value. Rather, the sum of the evidence points to the best overall explanation.

          • Foxhole Atheist

            Josh, I was just about to respond in a similar manner but you beat me to the punch. When there is no real evidence the apologetics fall back on the same tired (and long refuted) argumentation...and some of these arguments (e.g. FTA) actually counter the claim of an omnipotent god (see http://goo.gl/jhtrqw)

          • Fr.Sean

            Hi Josh,
            I suppose i need to clarify. as you know there's different levels of evidence. Empirical evidence would naturally be the first level but there is other evidence that isn't empirical. the first cause, unmoved mover, entropy, natural law, or conscience, fine tuning, etc. if you notice none of that evidence is refuted by atheistic explanations.
            not sure if you're from the U.S. but if you watched the Casey Anthony case, it appeared that she was indeed guilty, but they did not have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt so they had to hand down a not guilty verdict. but the evidence still pointed to her guilt. the evidence for God is similar, but you don't have to have "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" to investigate whether or not God exists, just a certain amount of certainity. any individual piece of evidence in her case would not be enough to make her appear to look guilty, but when you looked at the evidence as a whole it became more clear that she most likely committed the crime.

            i hope i'm not being too wordy, i have another Mass in a few minutes and wanted to try to answer your question.

        • geekborj

          I think that the faith of atheists rely on their adherence/faith in the assumption that "everything to be believed has to be provable empirically."

      • Matjaž Črnivec

        They believe in proving things "in an empirical way". It is assumed that this is the "reality". If not the whole of it, at least the most important part of it. This can not be proven, it is an axiom you take for granted. You actually have absolutely no guarantee that this is true - it is just an accepted "language game" among large parts of the contemporary society. What is "scientifically proven" has now the ring of absolute truth, which religious "dogmas" enjoyed in the past.
        This is usually accompanied by a whole worldview, which, if you do a little bit of investigation, shows to be based on a certain type of "natural philosophy" of the 19th century. It was called empiricism or positivism. It is now a very much outdated form of philosophy, but it is still popular in non-philosophical spheres because of its implications for the technicist worldview, which seems to go well with the liberal capitalism/consumerist society.
        Therefore: there are some fundamental PHILOSOPHICAL assumptions (shall I call them "dogmas"?) about the world that lie behind the contemporary atheism (or at least the most of it). The fact that they are usually not reflected or recognized as such at all, makes them even more problematic and questionable.

  • Dan Ortiz

    Oolon, you have hit the nail on the head. The definition of "religion" is the underlying issue. A definition which is highly problematic and usually unachievable.
    For example, is Christianity a religion? Yes. Why? because it has a set of beliefs one of them being the belief in a God. Is Islam a religion? yes, on the grounds above. Is Buddhism a religion? Yes, but they don't believe in a God. Are the animistic rituals of high ande's peasant religious? There is no set of beliefs, nor a deity as they worship the earth.
    Is atheism a religion? a belief? an identity? All of the above? I personally haven't decided, but what does seem certain is that atheism is religio-dependent. That is, if there were no religions, there wouldn't be a need for atheism as an identity and even as a philosophy and thus there wouldn't be any atheists.... quite a paradox.

    • Randy Gritter

      What about this. A religion must have:

      1. A significant set of moral and metaphysical beliefs in common.

      2. A sense of community. People self-identify as being part to of the group. People get offended if the group is attacked.

      3. There must be some sense of certain things you can't believe if you are in the group. So even asking whether you can oppose gay marriage and still be an atheist is a big sign. What are you asking? Hitler didn't believe in God and opposed gay marriage. But modern atheists don't consider Hitler part of their group. It is more than just not believing in God.

      • josh

        Hitler was evidently an idiosyncratic Christian, that's why he's not an atheist. Stalin on the other hand was probably an atheist. It is 'just not believing in God.' We also often extend this to just not having a religion. So a Buddhist might be described as an atheist religious person in some contexts, but I think someone who answers 'I'm an atheist' to a question about religion is most likely asserting that they have no religion.

        • Randy Gritter

          On the Hitler thing try this
          http://www.doxa.ws/social/Hitler.html

          OK then say Stalin if you want. The point is that people who don't believe in God are atheists in one sense but might not be in the meaningful sense that they are part of the thing we call atheism is the modern west. Stalin was an atheist in one sense but no atheist I know sees him as one of their own.

          • josh

            One really shouldn't take history from apologists worried that the "potential for violent retribution" from "Dawkinsian" atheist hate groups. Like I said, Hitler was idiosyncratic, certainly critical of the organized Church in private when it conflicted with his views of militant German greatness. His own view of God seems to be a weird mix of Christianity, Paganism, anti-Judaism, Nationalism, etc. The larger point that Nazism and Hitler's public persona were Christian and anti-atheist stands, at least in some contexts.

            Anyhow, let's stick with Stalin. Plenty of people, including Dawkins for instance, acknowledge that Stalin was an atheist in the strict sense. Some would point out that his own cult of personality, or revolutionary Communism in general, functioned very much like a religion. Of course most atheists don't identify with him since they don't hold with his positive beliefs (or actions). But we agree with him in not believing in God. Many are also quick to argue that Stalin's heinous actions didn't stem from atheism per se, in contrast to, say, antisemitism, homophobia, defenses of slavery, misogyny, religious wars, witch-hunts, etc. which are rather harder to separate from religious motivations. But Stalin was an atheist as far as I know.

      • Foxhole Atheist

        Atheism is a religion as not collecting stamps is a hobby...the equating of atheism and religion is rather silly....all atheism is is the rejection of the claim that there is a god(s) - full stop...I think this is a game a lot of believers like to play because their evidence is lacking and they must rely on faith so if they equate atheism and religion they can then claim that atheists are also only relying on faith...this is clearly not true (see my above response to Brandon Vogt)

        • Dan Ortiz

          If you haven't noticed, it is not the definition of atheism but the identity we are discussing.... try to keep up.

          • Foxhole Atheist

            Hmmmm...just 6 days ago you were posting about the definition of religion and viz atheism...but I am happy that you pointed out that we are changing directions...the subject of the original article was: Is atheism a religion? So, being slow that I am, I thought we are looking at definitions to enable us to answer this question...but no, apparently we are looking at identity?...I am too dim-witted to begin to imagine how this relates to the question at hand (ie. Is atheism a religion)...I am a football fan (the american version) -so this is part of my identity - so football=religion? Is this what you are saying? If so, this is rather silly and facile...but i don't think this is it at all, it is about definition if you follow the thread (even in your original post 6 days ago)...no keeping up on definitions -
            paradox: a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory

            How exactly does the concept of atheism fit this definition? Perhaps you meant ironic, i dunno..

            In any case, of course there would be no atheism without theism...this is an argument apropos of nothing...anytime there is a claim made (a hypothesis) automagically there is a null claim implied (null hypothesis)..so when one claims, for example, that dragons exist, automagically the null claim that dragons do not exist is generated...if one subscribes to the dragons existing camp then one is a dragonist...if one subscribes to 'dragons do not exist' (which should be everyone other than the one making the dragon exist claim, pending evidence of dragons existing) then one is an adragonist..nothing more, nothing less

      • Dan Ortiz

        1. Agreed , but not all religions are metaphisical. Buddhism for example. Animism aswell.

        2. Any human gathering creates this, which will also apply to atheists gathering.

        3. perhaps instead of going with the negative we should say things they DO believe, which again atheism will fall within.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      An alternative way of viewing it is to see atheism as an adjectival -ism ala monotheism, pacifism, dogmatism, and vegetarianism, something that pops up in multiple religious/philosophical traditions that don't necessarily share the same worldview or community.

      After all, we don't say that because Catholics and Muslims both profess monotheism, that Christianity and Islam are the same religion. Nor do we say that pacifist Quakers and Buddhists are the same religion because of their pacifism.

      I'd say that three elements claimed by multiple religions that, taken together, constitute a useful definition are:

      1. A doctrine about truth.
      2. A set of practices derived from that truth.
      3. A shared community for supporting those practices.

      New Atheism might be a religion, but New Atheism doesn't encompass more than a minority of atheists in American culture according to Coleman and Silver. Likewise Secular Buddhism, Secular Judaism, and Unitarian-Universalist Humanism likely are religious.

  • Randy Gritter

    I would distinguish atheism as an abstract belief and atheism as we see it in the modern west. Everyone believes in something. Atheism defines one thing people don't believe. That is not enough to call it a religion. But atheists we meet today typically believe more. It is really a development of modern liberal Christianity. A Christianity that does not focus on doctrine or sexual morality but focuses more on loving your neighbor and not judging. A natural progression of this school of thought is to notice you don't need to believe in God at all. You just need to follow your natural inclinations to be nice. Truth mostly comes from secular sources and liberal theologians spend most of their time squaring secular wisdom with the bible and Christian tradition. So why not just punt the bible, Christian tradition, and the whole God concept? That is where most modern atheists are. I would call that a religion because of the plethora of Christian tradition that they do accept without question. I don't need to ask whether they think it is OK for Syria to use chemical weapons. They are going to be against it for precisely the same reasons Christians will be. Even when they get answers wrong it is wrong in a predictable sort of way. There will be a mix of sentimentalism and consequentialism that liberal Christians have been using for a long time. The sentiments and consequences they appeal to will be quite Christian. It is a classic heresy. It uses one Christian idea to defeat another.

  • Linda

    In an exchange of comments and ideas earlier this week, David posited an Atheist Elementary School to counter Catholic and other religion-based schools. if Atheism were a religion and had schools, how might that work? A religion-based school spends a bit of its day in that religion's rituals and a bit of the class time discussing its history and beliefs and how those shape our lives. Would an Atheist School be possible?

    • Octavo

      I would find such a thing highly undesirable. It would be better to have a secular school that has a world religion class. I'd rather that people be educated about religion rather than have religion be promoted or discouraged.

      • Linda

        David was flipping the tables on me since my children go to Catholic school and my Atheist friend refused to buy a raffle ticket from them as he does not want to support organizations that promote God. David asked how I would feel about it if my friend's child went to an Atheist school and was selling raffle tickets. I'm glad he did as I have been mulling it over for a couple days now. And it's interesting to think about. What in the curriculum or practices would make a school specifically Atheist instead of secular?

        I think many (most?) public schools offer world religion. I would imagine Catholic schools do as well.

        • Octavo

          "What in the curriculum or practices would make a school specifically Atheist instead of secular?"

          An Atheist school would probably discourage religion, which is probably not a good idea for an educational institution to do. I wouldn't want to give students an excuse to feel smug or look down on people who hold theistic viewpoints.

          • Linda

            That's an interesting comment you make as I've noticed a superior and occasionally smug tone from some Atheists commenters. I went to a Catholic school; I don't remember being taught or ever having anyone suggest that we are superior because of our beliefs. The Catholic thought of all of us being fallen creatures doesn't really allow for too much smugness or looking down on others. Logs in our own eyes are too big for that! :)

          • Octavo

            Internet atheists have a well deserved reputation for being smug. Here, I've noticed that the smugness has been pretty equally distributed, although Catholics sometimes make sure to get a dig in at the protestants as well as the atheists. Specific examples on both sides seem to have been mostly banned. (That's not a comment for or against the mod policy.)

            I went to a private protestant university, and the prommotion of superiority over atheists, heathens, (and sometimes catholics) was not ameliorated by the teachings of fallenness.

            That experience has put me off the notion of joining any institution that bases membership on one's stance for or against any metaphysical position.

          • CrismusCactus

            "Specific examples on both sides seem to have been mostly banned."

            Most non-believers left voluntarily:

            http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/2013/08/an-experiment-in-strange-notions.html

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          What in the curriculum or practices would make a school specifically Atheist instead of secular?

          Mangling language to capitalize atheist?

          • Linda

            Thanks for the correction. Every time I type it I think it is probably grammatically correct to use lower case, but it feels disrespectful when I am capitalizing the religions. Which I suppose gets us back to the topic. Since its not a religion, I don't need to capitalize it. But the I'm back to the respect problem: I feel like it looks as though I am being disrespectful of their beliefs. It is a belief, isn't it? That there is no God? ARGH!!

          • Doug Shaver

            but it feels disrespectful when I am capitalizing the religions.

            Capitalization rules are conventions, nothing more. They have nothing to do with respect.

    • Dave H

      Hi Linda - It's an interesting thought - given your raffle ticket incident. Your hypothetical raises two (rhetorical) questions in my mind: Number one: Who would donate enough money to build and run this school? Two: why would Atheists desire such a school when public schools are already being stripped of the last remnants of religious expression?

      (I realize you're not suggesting this is possible.)

      My hypothetical question: In such a privately run "Atheist" school, would an outspoken Christian be tolerated as much as a vocal Atheist in a Catholic school?

      • Linda

        I like your hypotheticals. Thanks for responding. It's been a particularly interesting thought as I think about the religious and non-religious families at our Catholic school. We have a few Atheist parents, some agnostics, Hindu, Muslm, Jewish, Lutheran, and one woman who describes herself as a Jewdist because she's half Jewish, half Buddhist. :)

        I'm wondering now if I would send my children to an Atheist school if the values and academics were the same, the way this diverse group of people trusts their children at our school. We must be teaching Catholic thought without saying anything about other religions or non religions. Everyone seems happy and comfortable with their children going to Mass every week and having religion class (which i think is probably more about loving and respecting others than Catholic doctrine). It's kinda weird, though, now that I give it some thought.

  • SJH

    In my opinion the question is not one of language but one of behavior. The modern atheist movement behaves like a religion even if it may or may not be defined that way.
    This behavior is expressed in a number of ways:

    1. They see their world view as a superior one and one that is the most correct. (This despite the fact that if God does not exist then there is nothing to measure what is most correct.)
    2. Because of their view of atheism as superior, they actively try to convert others to their world view.
    3. They tend to have faith in the scientific community. I have seen far to many atheists fall in line with the scientific community without any skepticism. It seems that if the scientific community makes a statement, atheists agree without question, especially if that statement disagrees with evangelical beliefs.
    4. They gather to share their views, experiences and seek solace in each others company. This is especially true with the onset of "atheist churches".

  • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

    A quote from Fr. Stanley Jaki, whom I've been studying.

    Real cult means real religion, that is, a religion with a God in its center to whom man can be truly "re-ligated" (the etymology of the religion) so that he may truly worship. No true worship is deserved by a God who is the product of a cosmic process, let alone the distillation of a process theology. The only God who deserves a proper cult, which is worship, is much more than the Creator who brings forth the universe out of nothing. All the deists, old and new, professed to believe in the Creator, without ever feeling the need to pray to Him. Only that God inspired real worship who was believed to have conveyed to man a specific message concerning the manner in which He is to be worshipped. In other words, by real cult I mean a religion steeped in Revelation and in particular in the Christian Revelation, which I take to be the fulfillment of the message Abraham received in the first place.

    Stanley L. Jaki. A Mind's Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography, Ch. 1

    Given that, I'd say atheism is about as far away from religion as one can get.

  • Octavo

    I liked this quote from Dave Willis' website:

    "There are seven dimensions of religion as developed by Ninian Smart, and they are material, myth, doctrinal, ethical, experiential, ritual, and social. Atheism fails these dimensional requirements by A) not having any sacred buildings or art (material), B) not having a standard myth, C) no ritual or social structures, etc."

    Reference: http://itswalky.tumblr.com/post/60277082652/what-irks-me-about-the-atheism-is-a-religion-is-that

    This isn't just quibbling over definitions. When I meet another atheist, I have almost zero guarantees that we have any beliefs in common. Hell, one atheist I know believes in ghosts and hauntings and such and I don't. Quite a few are Ayn Randians, and when compared to my own belief system, that's just about the epitome of "lawful evil", if you'll pardon the gaming parlance.

  • kuroisekai

    Why exactly do we even bother? I mean, if atheism is a religion? So what? How does this help the message that atheists need to be saved through Jesus Christ? I fail to see a connection.

    And suppose we finally, finally conclude that Atheism is Religion. What's next? If it turns out to be that way and Richard Dawkins turns out to be a deeply religious man as he stands in the pulpit of the Church of Atheism, what good does it do us Catholics other than we can now point a finger at him and mock his liturgies and litanies? Doesn't that make us as bad, if not worse as him? I thought Catholicism teaches us to take the high road.

    • Dave H

      We bother because the question is really about faith. Once an atheist realizes his position requires faith just as a theist's does, it has potential to rattle his outlook a bit. It can open his mind to deeper inquiry.

      For this reason, atheists typically don't want their assessment of reality to be likened to religion. Just think if you'd constructed for yourself a nice life built around a comfortable moral code and habits, would you want to have these things challenged?

      But the atheists and former atheists I know are intelligent, and truth matters to them. Atheists believe they possess truth in the form of the most rational, science-backed worldview presently available. So when that nagging voice says, "na-ah, that's a religion too!"…or, "that's taking things on faith too!" it might just be easier to shut it out and close ranks around whatever trendy scientific theory espouses that the universe(s) can come from "nothing."

      • Doug Shaver

        We bother because the question is really about faith. Once an atheist realizes his position requires faith just as a theist's does, it has potential to rattle his outlook a bit.

        That depends on what you mean by faith, and I've seen a few threads here trying to settle that question.

        If you mean that my position requires me to believe a few things that I cannot prove, then I'm not the least bit rattled. I call those unprovable beliefs assumptions. If it pleases you to call them faith, I don't care a whole lot.

        Now, if you tell me that, in additional to those things I already believe without proof, I should add a belief in God the father almighty and in his son Jesus Christ, then I will ask you why, and we can discuss whatever response you offer.

    • Doug Shaver

      Why exactly do we even bother? I mean, if atheism is a religion? So what?

      I have long suspected that people who insist on atheism being a religion are under the impression that it is to their rhetorical advantage to claim that it is impossible for anyone to not have any religion.

  • Don Schenk

    I used to be a Agnostic, but I mainly kept it to myself because, well, who was I to tell someone else that he was wrong? I was a-gnostic, and wasn't sure. Besides, even if a religion was completely false, if it helped the believer cope, what was the problem?
    That's why Atheists only avoid the issue if they claim that believers are wrong, therefore their arguments can be ignored. That's saying that the other guy is wrong because he's wrong, without giving any reason why he's wrong other than that he's wrong.

  • geekborj

    I think the issue here is whether we define religion to cover only specific "cultures" that result from a belief system (a system of assumptions that cannot be proven true via natural means), or cover every belief system regardless of the resulting culture (e.g. attendance to "social gatherings" or "acts of worship").

    IMHO, defining religion first and then arguing it also includes atheism is a tautology which attempts to do what is desired to be done. I think the real question is whether human beings BY NATURE has to have a belief system (as defined above) or not. My observation tells me that everyone, theists or atheists or nontheists or agnostics or deists (or what-not), will always have a defined belief system with assumptions that cannot be proven true beyond reasonable / natural doubt resulting to a specific culture (e.g. catholic culture, atheistic culture, protestant culture).

  • Ararxos

    Yes it is, some Atheists still believe that the Universe is Eternal to get rid of God, other Atheists believe that absolute Nothingness can create something, both have been debunked by Science but Atheists still use them as arguments which means they have a religion. Atheists put reason over faith while for Atheism the Universe exists without a reason of existence, yeap sounds legit! LoL.