Is atheism a religion?
As a writer, the appeal of discussing atheism stems largely from the fact that although its definition may be simple, the philosophies surrounding it are not. There are so many different responses to atheism that some have begun to call it a religion. But is this true? Is atheism a religion, and if not, does it emulate any of the elements of it? As I will show in this article, the answer to that question not only makes us curious about the future implications of the growing trend of atheism, it also demands our attention about what could potentially be the next major movement in Western society.
What is a Religion?
To answer that question, we must examine the long history of religion to reveal its purpose, which will in turn reveal its structure. Although no definite number exists for the age of religion, anthropologists are convinced that crude animistic sects were a hallmark of life for our ancient ancestors as far back as the emergence of Homo sapiens (there is even evidence our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals, had their own form of religion as well). Our ancestors were not stupid; they possessed the same raw mental power we do, but were ignorant of the natural laws that governed their environment. They faced the often brutal torment of nature, and life was certainly never easy. When confronted with the overwhelming power of nature, our ancestors turned to creative myths to explain why droughts, famine, storms, and death occurred. As they were passed down orally from generation to generation, the stories became more complex, and these complexities led to elaborate cosmogonies, and of man’s place in the universe.
Religion began to take a more active role in the stability of societies during the Agrarian Revolution roughly 10,000 years ago, due mainly to the production of food which allowed greater numbers of individuals to live together in close proximity. In small hunter-gatherer bands, the groups would typically be small enough to allow conflicts to be regulated by the collective itself, so cheaters and opportunists would be caught relatively quickly, and punished accordingly. In larger groupings, however, the collective was often unable to monitor and punish uncooperative individuals, and so an authoritative system was needed to regulate behavior and establish concrete laws that could be agreed upon. Since religions were responsible for passing on important traditions and information, so too could it create morality myths for the purpose of guiding and regulating human behavior.
Of course, I make it sound as though this process was thoroughly thought out on the part of the sects themselves. This evolution was far more organic than directed; I use the word evolution specifically because of the fact religion was shaped by the selective pressures of the rapidly escalating demand for order and structure as changes began to affect human societies (rapidly when compared to the genetic process of evolution, obviously). As such, the stability of early societies became dependant, in large part, to the stability of the religions themselves, which began to play an increasingly important role in the functioning of society.
Religion was obviously not the only system devised to institutionalize laws, although it probably was the first real stable system to do so. Their powerful influence and apparent divine authority did much to cement religion’s position as arbiter. Even in societies where more complex systems needed to be created, such as states, nations, and eventually empires, many of the mechanisms of authority relied heavily on concepts first devised by religions. In any ancient (and even today in more recent) societies, the collusion of religion and government serves as mutually reinforcing institutions. This arrangement is due to governments needing cooperation from the faithful droves who are heavily dictated to and mandated by religion, while sectarian institutions rely on the ruling government to protect them against other competing faiths. In early societies, religions played a direct or joint role in mandating morality and laws, and secularism is only a very recent trend in the history of human governance.
As with any powerful and highly influential institution, religion has known its fair share of abuses. I hardly need mention the atrocities of the Crusades or the Inquisition, nor do I need to remind the reader that sectarian conflicts are still a part of our daily lives. The Founding Fathers of America understood the dangers in any institution that holds too much power, and devised a system of intricate checks and balances to allow a self correcting process to occur. Religions lack these balances, and are structured in such a way that a very limited number of individuals command an unimaginable level of power and influence. This, coupled with imperialistic tendencies of various faiths aimed at becoming the only religion on earth creates often volatile situations.
When most people think about religion, anyone not affiliated with any sect in particular usually abhors the very notion of these institutions precisely because of the long history of both repression and terror of a large number of religions. Many feel that anything which becomes institutionalized is therefore inherently opposed to human freedom and self-determination, at least when it comes to religious traditions. Obviously, not every religion at any given time is necessarily repressive and controlling, just as every government may not inherently be either. It depends largely on how the institution is created and managed, and on what foundations it lies. Religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are old religions, and many of their tenents no longer match the social mores of contemporary society. Also, the historic structure of religions like Christianity have been mostly responsible for the atrocities committed in their name, since they have relied on the executive control of a privileged few individuals, none of which were immune from the lust for power and control.
All of the major three great monotheistic religions are equally divisive in nature, since their core ideologies tell them they alone possess the truth of God, making any others, by default, wrong. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that many faiths seem to regard others with violent contempt, if not outright hostility. That does not mean it is impossible for various faiths to get along with one another. History is peppered with civilizations that tolerated other faiths, but this tolerance often quickly devolves into violent assaults on tiny religious minorities. What allowed religious dialog was not the structures of the institutions themselves, but rather respect for the rule of law in a different and more powerful institution: government.
Apart from religions being institutions responsible for the codification and sometimes enforcement of morality and law, religions obviously deal with another important element of the human experience: spirituality. This usually involves interpreting the complex and often confusing events and emotions we experience, since they can be overwhelming. But religion is not unique in this regard; philosophy in particular also performs this role, attempting to make inferences about the human experience. It attempts to answer the same questions religion does, but not necessarily by envoking the concept of a creator or god.
So far, we’ve covered the three main components of religion; in explaining processes in the natural world, in creating stability by codifying laws and morality, and in addressing the spiritual concern of individual humans. Although religion has deep roots in all three aspects, it has become obvious over the past few hundred years since the beginning of The Enlightenment that many of the traditional roles of religion are not necessary to the functioning of society. Secular countries have followed suit in eliminating the structures of religious power from the political arena, and laws are no longer modeled on the rather unsophisticated edicts of religious texts. In civilized society, we no longer consider adultery to be a capital offence, not because we are less moral, but because we recognize the finality of such a law does not have anyone’s best interest in mind. We have begun to accept that rules have exceptions, and there should be various degrees of punishment for the specific circumstances of any crime.
The increased marginality of religion has not escaped its biggest supporters, and it has taken considerable effort to wrest these powers away from them. In my home province of Quebec, until the Quiet Revolution of the 60s, the church still dominated the instruction of children, and had deep political influence. In the US, creationists continue their assault on science, refusing to admit the cosmogony of their sacred text is only a myth, and insisting it represents objective reality. But such groups, rather than using the strength of evidence (of which they have none), rely on our fears that society will be doomed without them.
We have begun to demonstrate that the first two purposes of religion can be handled without them, often with far better results. This leads us to conclude, in modern society, that the purpose of religion is dealing with the spiritual component of life. This now leads us to reconsider the original question of this article: whether or not atheism is a religion.
Although it may be said the lack of belief in God eliminates the need for any spirituality, I would argue for many atheists, the opposite is true. The realization there is no higher power and no special purpose to human life, forces us to begin to consider instead what purpose our existence can have, rather than religion’s assertion that our aspirations have already been predetermined. The understanding there is nothing inherently special about our solar system, which is one of many hundreds of billions in this galaxy alone, itself one of billions, is a deep and awesome insight. How can a person not be moved when looking up at the night sky, contemplating that the stars they look upon are all ghostly images of the past ( since light has a finite speed, and because it sometimes takes millions or even billions of years to reach us, the stars we see in the sky may well have extinguished themselves long ago)?
Similarly, atheism forces us to consider morality on a far wider scale. If there is no final arbiter, and if each one of us is accountable to no supreme authority, it raises the stakes about how we manage our laws and ethics. It encourages us to consider the broad implications of our laws, and how they affect other human beings.
If spirituality is also not the exclusive realm of religion, just what is left? For starters, religions have traditions, as well as institutions which teach and pass them on to younger generations. I may know for a fact that transubstantiation (the literal changing of wine into blood) does not really occur during religious masse, but I cannot deny that the tradition is preserved and passed on by Catholics, anymore than I can deny the reality of the tradition of circumcision in Judaism (even though I may find the practice abhorrent).
Are Atheists Dogmatic?
The accusation of atheism being a religion from the faithful seems to me to be a deep and strange paradox. They claim atheists have their own dogma, and a person needs a great deal of faith NOT to believe. Even if that were true, which it is not, it would certainly appear strange for the religious to consider this a flaw. After all, these are the same people that profess an undying need for faith.
There are undoubtedly certain individuals who hold dogmatic ideas, regardless of their religiosity or not. But in general, dogmatism is the specialty of religious institutions; not atheism. A person may reject the notion of a God without needing to make any leap of faith. Any intelligent religious person recognizes the fact they believe in God despite any evidence, or sometimes in contradiction to evidence. Therefore, the position that God is a human construct is not a statement of faith: it is precisely the opposite.
Currently, I would deny the status of religion to atheism, even though I personally lament the lack of such institutions. For all the harm we may associate with them, religious institutions still perform a valuable function in society. For many African Americans, the only institutions who have not let them down in 400 years have been their own religious traditions. The community support they receive as a direct result of their belief is a source of obvious strength, one that atheism does not yet possess. Yet, despite the fact that atheists find the idea of an institutionalized movement repugnant, the fact remains it is not the institution itself which is wrong; rather it is the design of the structure itself. What good can come from institutionalizing atheism? A great deal perhaps.
It is true that in times of crisis, we feel compelled to fall back on those systems of belief with the deepest roots, and religion certainly has a long history. This is the reason many believe the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes. What they may fail to realize is that the same impulse to fall back on various roots does not always mean individuals will adopt a religious stance. We also have a long history of skepticism, and mistrust in the abuses of power. If the traditions of science, skepticism, and free thought are to survive any assault, its roots must be as deep as any religion. Individuals will need to feel the same sense of community and support from atheism as they do in their respective faiths. How else can we hope for individuals to remove their dependence on superstition to provide comfort and familiarity?
Is atheism a religion? No, it quite obviously is not. But we must understand the question is really: can atheism provide the same comfort and support that religion does? In its present form, it may not be able to do so. A serious crisis might push us more towards religious fundamentalism, which is something that is currently happening in the most desperate and troubled societies. If atheism is to both survive and thrive, it will require the adoption of many of the aspects of religion, tailored in a new way that avoids the dangerous temptation of centralizing power and influence into the hands of the few. Are we capable of such wisdom? Only time will tell.