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.

Comments (31)

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    I would have thought only agnosticism was not a religion and I believe many people who say they are atheists are actually agnostic in that they don’t believe or disbelive in god or like me they just don’t care but being an atheist these days is the default option. In my experience working in biology there are two kinds of people who care about religion, religous people and true atheists. I have also never seen such passion for a belief than in my many atheist friends. I also have never seen such rigid dogmatic approach to a belief system than in true atheists. After all it takes commitment to a belief system to be an atheist. It even has its own religous zealots who also believe they hold only the truth one need look no further than Richard Dawkins. also there may be a god who knows I for one do not have faith he/she doesn’t exist but I also have no faith he/she does exist I stick dogmatically to agnosticism.

  • avatar

    Intergalactic Hussy

    The only ones who say that atheism is a religions are theists…because they just don’t “get it”. And they want to bring us down to their level, so to speak.

    Di Agnostic (love the name BTW), Atheism is the absence of belief in a god. Not the assertion that there is no god. I don’t believe such a god exists, either. Therefore, I stick dogmatically to atheism.

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    I am not a theist or for that matter have anything against atheists at all. For all intents and purposes I believe the same things as most atheists (ie freedom of thought, science, reason etc) and I am not trying to run atheism down or even really comparing it to religion. I guess I don’t understand why its important to call yourself an atheist if it is not a belief system or a religion. You say that atheism is an abscence of belief in a god – not the assertion that there is no god. This implies to me you don’t believe in god because there is no evidence that there is one (which is essentially what I believe). However, if there was a god and he strolled up to you and said ‘hi Intergalactic Hussy, tricked you’ Would you then change your mind. If so then does that not make you agnostic or is there something else to being an atheist. If you still refused to believe, then what is the difference between creationism and atheism if you stick to your dogma despite the facts. OK I may be seen as hedging my bets but for me it is not important to disbelieve in god and that is why I don’t call myself an atheist. why is it important to you? sorry for being a nitpicker but I find the whole topic fascinating

  • avatar

    I'm An Atheist

    Well when I am talking to religious folk i usually will say I’m an atheist rather than an agnostic if pressed just because I feel like saying that I’m agnostic may give people hope that I just might be open to what they have to say about [insert religion] I feel it is accurate and thruthful because I definitely do disbeleive in whatever particular deities they will have in mind Even though I would technically consider myself agnostic. Atheist also sounds much better and cooler. So Di Agnostic I would agree with you that alot of agnostic say they are atheists, maybe other people have similar reasons. Atheist is a clear NO and everyone knows it.

  • avatar

    Chinaren

    Sheesh, talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. Athiesm is a lack of religion. Hence, by definition, it’s not a religion.

    I find your statement:

    “can atheism provide the same comfort and support that religion does?”

    rather irrelevant and perverse. Why should athiesm provide comfort and support? Athiesm isn’t a belief, it’s a LACK of belief (in a supernatural diety). Hence there is nothing that could provide support.

    That’s not to say that Atheists can’t believe in themselves of course. But that’s not a religion, that’s just common sense.

    Frankly I’m a little offended that you call athiests a ‘movement’. It seems you are trying to lump us in with a religion. If you count the people in the world, I’m sure the majority are actually athiest (most people in China are for example). However, just because we don’t rant and rave about it like religious people do, people forget about us.

    Again: Athiesm is a *lack* of belief in a diety. Remember that and you can’t go far wrong.

  • avatar

    AnnoyedOne

    The classic counterpoint is the leprechaun. If someone runs up to you and claims that leprechauns exist and want you to give them your pocket change, and you insist that leprechauns are only a myth, are you now suddenly a dogmatic member of an aleprechaunic religion? Not believing in ridiculous children’s stories and being able to state with a reasonable measure of certainty that leprechauns don’t exist doesn’t make you dogmatic, it makes you rational, because you believe what the best (only) evidence shows. Seriously considering every crackpot, evidence-less claim about mythical beings is a waste of time.

  • avatar

    Borathian

    well I don’t think atheism is a religion because atheism means to have no theism or no belief in god(s) however most of the secondary beliefs of atheist like the theory of evolution and the big bang could be considered religions basically because they believe thought faith that those things are correct without any way of being able to have witnessed them or have the life span to observe them. I happen to be a theist for many reasons tho don’t necessarily disbelieve in evolution i just believe that not enough time has passed for evolution to have occurred.

    simplified i believe God created the universe with a history and all the creatures in it, however that does not stop the creatures from changing over time tho i believe the process of evolution to be much much slower than most people believe taking trillions of years not billions. i don’t believe the big bang theory for many reasons most simply are the facts that the gravitational pull of the staging area for the big bang would be so grate that there is no way any thing would escape its grip and would kill all life up until that point however it was created if there was life at all, then explode creating a new universe, and life simply does not regrow out of molten rock especially after being compress with equal or greater force than that of a black hole it just does not happen, that and the fact that matter it pulled in would have to come from some ware and one of the basic laws of science is that matter cannot be created or destroyed( except of coarse though fusion in which case it is destroyed) and then there is the reason Steven Hawkins believes there is a God since the laws that govern the universe just don’t pop out of nothing.

    NOTE: when i refer to evolution i mean macro not micro(tho in a more complex way than what radical atheists try to jumble into one big evolutionary pile to keep them selves from rebuke by others)

  • avatar

    Hanif

    Why are we even asking this question anymore? Atheism is not a religion.

    Case closed.

  • avatar

    jam

    Thought I’d solve this for you guys…

    Atheism is indeed a religious position (I.E. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods) but it is not a religion in of itself.

    Agnostics the knowledge that the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable

    so from a theological point of view and put simply:

    Atheists should hate god and agnostics don’t care – oh, and a good atheist? by who’s definition?

    😉

  • avatar

    FITZ

    Why is it, that because i use reason and logic, i am labeled (atheism agnostic etc). I am a complex array of chemicals interacting in such a way to allow conscious thought nothing more. The labeling is done by people who need to group everything when i want just the opposite individualism

  • avatar

    Judgement

    I would say atheism is the fairly reasonable certainty, based on the available evidence, that no god exists. While I consider myself an atheist, if god walked up and spoke to me, I would be fool not to believe in him. An agnostic is someone who hasn’t quite made up their mind on the existance of a god, maybe he exists, maybe not.

  • avatar

    Kurtis Thorne

    The problem with labelling atheism as a religion is that it attaches the stigma of “god” to the antithesis of theism. You cannot hold religion in a “lack” of beliefs. A passion is different from a religion (I’m passionate about video games and pasta; however, I wouldn’t consider that to be my religion).

    Theism is a religion, atheism is a lack of belief in ALL theistic/deistic religions.

  • avatar

    mark

    agnostic means your not sure if there is a god, you havent decided…atheism is being of the opinion that there is no god….and if ‘god’ strolled up to you and said hi(and he had ID on him:)) then i would imagine even an atheist would be compelled to convert…..but it wouldnt happen as there is no ‘god’.

    interesting article though.

  • avatar

    A$$Face

    I guess you could believe in what ever the hell you what to but there no proof for any of it, so keep on believing in what ever non sense makes you happy.

  • avatar

    A$$Face

    This whole God / Religion thing shouldn’t even exist, I shouldn’t have to pick if I’m a atheist or a believer, the whole idea never should of began in the first place it’s not something we should be concerned with at all. it’s is all just something we made up, its only in our heads.

  • avatar

    octovir

    Logically Atheism is the exact opposite of Theism

    Theists dont have a particular Dogma except that they believe in the existance god(s) and have faith to support such beliefs

    Atheists dont have a particular dogma except that they believe in the non existance of god(s) and support such with reason/logic(science?)

    Dogmas come from the subsets of the two

    Theism is more institutionalized therefore having seperate sects (Christians, Muslims..)
    Atheism is mor individualistic so each individual makes their own rules

    But overall..
    Both concern religious Ideas and are of equal catagorical status so if you call one a religion the other must be as well.
    but if you only consider the subsets as religion then those under Atheism could be considered as individual religions

  • avatar

    AnnoyedOne

    @ Borathian
    “most of the secondary beliefs of atheist like the theory of evolution and the big bang could be considered religions basically because they believe thought faith that those things are correct without any way of being able to have witnessed them or have the life span to observe them.”

    You’ve forgetting some of the most important ways we can know things: evidence and the weight of probability. You’re saying that if you place a ball on the table, leave it in a sealed room, and come back to find it on the floor, you’re a member of the :”religion” of Gravity. Both the things you mentioned are evident from processes which are observable and ongoing today.

    Even if there WAS no observable evidence to support them, were you around to see God create the universe in 6 days? Why don’t you apply the same standards of evidence (that you have to personally be around to see things for them to have happened) to that? Even without the massive supporting evidence theories like evolution and the Big Bang have, these theories would still be on par with any religious explanation, save they were far more likely to have happened.

    “simplified i believe God created the universe…”
    Good for you. Do you have ANY evidence to back it up? No? Well, I believe *I* created the universe, last week, on a Tuesday after tea. Any crap I can make up without evidence is just as legitimate as whatever crap you believe without evidence.

    “i don’t believe the big bang theory for many reasons most simply are the facts that the gravitational pull of the staging area for the big bang would be so grate…”
    Oh, wow! You’re right! Cosmologists forgot about GRAVITY! Duh, why didn’t they think of that? Oh wait, they did, and you need to go read more about the Big Bang theory, and how it already takes into account any scientific or pseudoscientific arguments you’ll manage to come up with. It’s a robust theory, and if you *did* manage to disprove it somehow, you’d earn a place in the history books, so good luck with that.

    “Steven Hawkins believes there is a God…”
    Stephen Hawkings doesn’t believe in a God the way you believe in a God. The God physicists use as a rhetorical device is an analogy FOR those immutable laws of the universe, not for some big guy with a beard who watches you when you masturbate.

    On the topic of a creator, deist god, he says things like

    “What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.”

    “One does not have to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the creation of the universe, but if one does He would have to act through the laws of physics.”

    or

    “It is difficult to discuss the beginning of the universe without mentioning the concept of God. My work on the origin of the universe is on the borderline between science and religion, but I try to stay on the scientific side of the border. It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws, but in that case, one would just have to go by personal belief.”

    Hawking is clearly quite ambivalent about God – he’s not generally willing to stir up controversy by going into it directly. He clearly seems to think that the question of whether there is a God in the *deist* is entirely unanswerable – he’s agnostic in that regard, though obviously an atheist in the theist one. (I.e. he says he doesn’t know if there’s a God that created the universe and buggered off, but he’s fairly certain there’s no God in the theist sense, in other words a big bearded man who answers prayers and can violate the laws of nature.)

    On the agnostic/atheist divide, “agnosticism” is a relatively new term. Atheism doesn’t mean that you’re 100% certain there’s no God, it means you’re convinced enough in the unlikelihood of God that you can live your life as if there is no God. Agnosticism is when you’re truly on the fence – Agnostics believe there is no way of knowing (thus the name “agnostic”) either way, and consider the balance of probabilities to be equal. I can’t be 100% CERTAIN that there’s no Toothfairy, but if I lose a tooth, I’m not going to bother putting it under my pillow in the hopes for the magical manifestation of money. That doesn’t make me “toohfairy agnostic,” it makes me a “toothfairy atheist” – this is the historical definition. Do you really think that people went from 100% believers to 100% disbelievers before Huxley coined a new term in the 19th century? There are very few people who would claim to be 100% certain there is no God, because unlike people who are 100% certain of God’s existence, Atheists tend to be people who examine and weigh things like evidence, proof, and probability in forming beliefs. If God got off His Holy Heiny, and provided some evidence of his existence that isn’t obviously the manifestation of some naturalistic process, most Atheists would be happy to admit he exists (assuming the evidence is proportional to the claim.) People tend to gravitate towards “agnosticism” because they misunderstand the meaning of the term to be that which many of the people here think it is – an active *disbelief* in God rather than a position that the evidence does not legitimately support a belief in God. There is also less of a social stigma to the term “Agnostic.” Agnostics never got burned as heretics because the term hadn’t been invented yet the last time the followers of the One, True Faith (All 10,000 of them – faiths I mean, not followers.) did things like that regularly.

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    I also think the whole religion vs atheism debate is a stupid one. I have come to this argument after reading the above article. I am astounded that many scientist wage this debate at all as it is so ridiculous. We should stop labelling terrorist muslim extremists and treat them as murderers. I don’t believe in creationism but what is the problem with it being taught in schools under religious belief I have no problem with people teaching evolution as a theory not as a fact as tha

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    sorry got cut off in the middle of that one. and i feel I ought to clarify what looks like quite a dodgy statement. what I was trying to say was I went to catholic school (and we weren’t catholics, boy was that tough) when I was a child and was taught god created the world and all the rest of it I was also taught evolution and natural selection. as I got to my teenage years I rejected religion completely and studied biology at university and now work in a plant research institute. I was given the space to make my own mind up. However, I feel now we are telling our children that it has to be one or the other and this comes from creationists (and other religous types) and from atheists ( Richard Dawkins et al) so the atheism vs religous debate is important (but ridiculous). I am sorry if people get offended by being labelled atheist but I feel a lot of damage could be being done to education in the name of atheism (in the guise of science). I feel religion has been a very important part of our history and I personally feel it has outlived its use for me and it will take many centurys to ween the world off of it if indeed that is what is going to happen. I also believe there is no harm in it whatsoever we should live in a free world where one can believe whatever nonsense one wants. However, people who kill people in the name of martyrdom are murderers and I wouldn’t call them religous – misguided and psychotic perhaps but not religous. People who force the teaching of creationism as fact have totally missed the boat and I wouldn’t consider creationism particularly christian as there are many christians including the catholic church incidently who accept evolution. but also people who push the theory of evolution as an absolute truth are guilty of the same thing as the creationists also stuck in their belief so much so they cannot see the wood for the trees. I believe in evolution but I am fully prepared to change my mind when we find it is not as simple as we first thought. I was reading the other day that it is possible the gene is not the uber-daddy of the biomolecular world and may be just a part of something more complicated – this to me is very exciting as it means more insights into how life works and what would its implications be for evolution(probably none). I feel that you could not mount a challenge to evolution without being labelled as some sort of religous nut. This is not scientific and stifles free-thinking. So I cannot see why it is so important to disbelieve in god instead of being agnostic to god or to the tooth fairy or to what we accept now as scientific fact. einstein once said Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. spoken like a true agnostic

  • avatar

    AnnoyedOne

    The question of whether there exists a sentient, omnipotent, omniscient being which created the universe is a legitimate question for scientific investigation.

    Let’s examine two statements.

    “There’s an invisible gorilla behind you.”

    “There is an invisible gorilla behind you, and that gorilla is God.”

    Why is the first statement open to investigation (and prompt dismissal) while the second is not? The core of the issue is that investigating the second will OFFEND those who cling to belief that there really is an invisible God-gorilla behind them, because they know that any investigation will promptly show that there isn’t one there no matter what powers they invent for the invisible Gorilla in order for it to be able to escape detection. (We know the Gorilla has those powers, because if he didn’t have them, he would have been detected by the tests, and since no tests can detect him, and we know he IS there, he must have all sorts of fantastic powers.) If you make statements about the nature of the universe, we are entitled to investigate those claims. PERIOD.

    I hate to burst the collective bubble of so many, (well, not really, I actually love it dearly) but the measure of truth is in evidence, not in how much you want something to be true, or how much of a hissy-fit you’ll throw when people show it isn’t. If we didn’t violate peoples’ sense of offense in the pursuit of truth, then most of you armchair theologians would be dead right now, because most of the advancements we’ve made that have kept you alive have offended someone at some time or another. (Most especially in the field of medicine, where superstition and magical thinking has resulted in the deaths, or at the least prevented the prevention of the early deaths of BILLIONS of people.)

  • avatar

    AnnoyedOne

    @Di Agnostic:

    You could absolutely mount a challenge to evolution without being labeled a religious nut. However, you would have to mount that challenge without being a religious nut, which is a situation that has not been forthcoming.

    The fact is that evolution is such a robust, elegant theory which has been confirmed again and again experimentally and observationally, that the only people who *want* to challenge it right now *are* religious nuts.

    Science is full of instances where we’ve had to fundamentally rethink ways we think the universe works. That’s what separates science from religious dogma: science goes where the evidence is in pursuit of truth. People point out these reverses – things like the abandoning of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, for instance – as circumstances where science has been wrong and they say “gee, well maybe science is wrong this time.” And they’re right, maybe science is wrong this time – but it’s by far the best we have. Their problem is that they immediately go on to say “well, since there’s a slim chance they’re wrong despite all this observable evidence, maybe this thing I made up is right, despite it bring contrary to all this observable evidence.” That’s just dishonest, and that’s the religious nuttery that has been behind every major attack on evolution in recent memory.

    The foolish thing about Agnosticism is that they say “because you can’t know X for certain, for absolutely certain, then we can’t know anything, and all beliefs are equally probably to be true,” That’s simply wrong. We can’t know ANYTHING AT ALL for absolutely certain, and if Agnosticism wasn’t just an intellectual cop-out to avoid the tough questions, a true Agnostic could happily do things like step off the edge of a 20 story building, because they of course can’t know for CERTAIN, absolutely CERTAIN that they’ll fall to their deaths, and therefore the probability of them falling or magically growing wings is equal.

    And creationism is already taught in schools. It’s studied in various literary and bible-study courses, and in classes on ancient myths, etc. The problem is that they want it to be taught in science class, whose job is to teach people what’s real, and what can be proven. Public schools teaching kids that magic exists, and if they really want something to be true it is is tantamount to child abuse. If you want to study religion, go ahead, but call it religion, and teach it as “this group of people believe X.” Bold-faced lies to people in an environment where they expect to be taught truth to the best of human knowledge is disgusting, irresponsible, and runs contrary to the fundamental purposes of both science and the public school system.

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    @AnnoyedOne
    I see why you are called ‘AnnoyedOne’ I see all your frustration in my questioning but I feel you have missed my point. with risking making you the even more annoyed one I think creationism taught in science class is ridiculous as it isn’t science by any means as there is no evidence to support it. creationism should be taught in religous class as some obscure byproduct of American Christianity. What I am saying is by bringing science and atheism together we are in danger of stifling the truth. It is my opinion that atheists are kidding themselves if they do not believe atheism is not a belief system, look at richard dawkins website it makes him look like some guru here to save the world from ignorance (just to clarify I was once a massive fan of richard dawkins until he stopped writing about science and became a religion botherer then I lost interest I mean who cares about religion). I believe being agnostic is a cop out only to the extent that it lets one get on with science without having to worry about constantly having to defend oneself from religious types or for that matter when one dares to question the sacredness of evolution or any other scientific theory from atheists. I mean if a question is unanswerable what is the point of studying it. I believe in evolution totally and would defend its integrity to anyone but if you dare question it in scientific circles you run the risk of being shouted at see above. Evolution is the sole reason I went into biology after reading the selfish gene when I was seventeen. I do however, reserve the right to challenge even the most sacred of cows if new evidence came to light not because it throws doubt into the whole atheism thing or gives hope to the faithful because I don’t care what either side makes of the truth. This is the beauty of being agnostic. anyway I must step of a twenty foot building just to check out if gravity is real

  • avatar

    AnnoyedOne

    “It is my opinion that atheists are kidding themselves if they do not believe atheism is not a belief system”

    Atheism isn’t a belief system. It’s a belief: just one. Guys like Dawkins have their own, and quite well developed belief systems based around Atheism, but Atheism is no more a “belief system” than “polytheism” is a belief system: you can form a belief system around it, but its definition is too simple and too broad to make a system out of.

    Take Buddhists, for example. They’re atheists, but you’d be hard pressed to say they subscribe to the same belief system as Richard Dawkins.

    “I believe being agnostic is a cop out only to the extent that it lets one get on with science without having to worry about constantly having to defend oneself from religious types or for that matter when one dares to question the sacredness of evolution or any other scientific theory from atheists.”

    The strong showing of Atheism right now from people like Richard Dawkins is largely a response to the threat from religious nutters, be it the ID/Creationism people trying to push that nonsense into science class, or the extreme religious right doing what they always do. Being quiet about defending empirical truth from superstition and magical thinking doesn’t make you less vulnerable, it just means western civilization will fall without a fight. Dawkins can be tactless: I think on an individual basis, it’s unwise to attack peoples beliefs openly, it just makes them cling more stubbornly to them. The nice part about science is because its beliefs are self-evident, logical and repeatable, it stands on its own. Someone willing to give it consideration will end up there eventually, and those who aren’t willing to consider things like reason and evidence are so far gone that there’s no use in talking to them anyway. However, picking apart such belief systems in a public forum does more good than harm, I think: the individual you’re savaging with your fancy reasoning and logic and observable phenomenon may become more entrenched, but it gives an opportunity to tear open the lies-masquerading-as-science the fundamentalists throw around to trick people who just haven’t heard better into thinking there’s basis for their beliefs, or at least evidence against the ones the fundamentalists find offensive. I want as many people to know that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has precisely ZILCH to do with the evolution of complex organisms, for example. These things need to be out there and accessible, and put in front of the people who don’t know about them.

    “I do however, reserve the right to challenge even the most sacred of cows if new evidence came to light not because it throws doubt into the whole atheism thing or gives hope to the faithful because I don’t care what either side makes of the truth.”

    As you should. The problem is that in some cases, such as with the ID crowd, they keep trying to come up with problems, each of which needs to be individually addressed. I mean, how many “irreducably complex” systems have they come up with to “disprove” evolution, ALL of which have been shown not to actually be reducible? The eye, the wing, the flagellal motor, blood chemistry, etc etc etc. They bring up the nonsense, it’s bashed by someone who know what they’re talking about, and they come up with something else. That’s not debate and discussion, that’s intellectual whack-a-mole, and eventually you just have to ignore the asshats and get back to discovering NEW things rather than explaining old discovering to people who don’t WANT to listen to them. These guys make theories like evolution unapproachable precisely because they associate attacks on it with idiots like them.

    “I mean if a question is unanswerable what is the point of studying it. ”

    How do you know if a question is unanswerable unless you study it? Every time there’s been some great mystery which has supposedly been unanswerable: from the origins of the universe to how Egyptians managed to get blocks up the pyramid, given enough time and enough smart people examining it and reexamining it, we’ve pretty much always been able to answer the unanswerable questions. There have always been people who have said “no, you can’t look at this, it’s sacred and secret and a mystery,” and thankfully, we’ve always ignored them (eventually, and when they stop killing you for trying) and have always discovered something far more amazing, beautiful and awesome than the fables and fabrications that used to be told about it. These things are all the more incredible because they’re REAL.

    It would be a horrible irony if there really was a supremely wise, eminently powerful being in the universe, but we didn’t find it because of religious nutters, wouldn’t it? If you’re RIGHT, then science will only variate your beliefs. It’s only if you’re wrong that you have cause to fear reason and investigation.

  • avatar

    Di Agnostic

    @AnnoyedOne
    ok annoyedone I see we agree about most things. and i agree atheism is not a religion it is more of an opting out of religion, so one can think free of such things which is also how I see agnosticism. I will say this about ID though its great that they pick holes in evolution because it gives us the ability to show how robust a theory it is and despite all of its criticism it is still very much in tact (theory of evolution I mean). I would be concerned though, if I was a religous nut and I had come up with new evidence that REALLY challenged evolution or the non-existence of god I would but shouted down by dare I say it atheistic dogma not because of what I found but because I was a religous nut. In Britain Richard Dawkins i think is beginning to be seen as an embarassment to science as he may be doing more harm than good to sciences reputation because of his atheism, but we haven’t yet got the problem of ID/creationism. anyhoo when I jumped of the twenty foot building you were right I didn’t grow wings but strangely enough a giant bird came down and grabbed me and flew me to safety what are the chances of that ;-))

  • avatar

    Joanna

    Religion refers to “a set of beliefs and practices that pertain to sacred things among a community of believers” (according to my old Sociology textbook).

    So the 3 components are there: 1)a supernatural belief system to explain the natural world and human suffering; 2) a community to create the social order and to control behavior;
    and 3) the sacred or “spiritual” and emotional level which explains the range of religious faith within individuals (from weak to strong…sorta like coffee).

    Atheists (or secular humanists, like me) do not belong in the religious box…and I would argue that atheism is not a “social movement” in isolation but instead an outcome of modernization, secularization, and liberal, Progressive economic and political philosophies.

    I would like to think of us as a community of freethinkers but we certainly don’t have aspects of “sacred objects, beliefs, and rituals” which define religion and the religiously faithful. Therefore, atheism is not a religion. (Though I have heard disparaging terms like “evolutionists” and “Darwinists” and the like from religious opponents over the years. As if Charles Darwin is our Jesus….ha. )

    Karl Marx considered religion a “false pursuit”. In Marxist terms, religion functions to keep the powerful in power and to keep the powerless oppressed. It makes promises of a better life in the afterlife. But Marx failed to take into account how religions can also promote universal brotherhood and human rights….he underestimated the strength of populism combined with humanitarian values. Like when Catholic bishops in Latin America fight against political repression or Latino Churches in the U.S. provide a legitimate path for citizenship and a better life for new arrivals to our cities and towns. The only welcoming face in a strange and hostile town becomes the priest! The comfort of the ritual kicks in. The sense of belonging.
    And the civil rights movement in America depended on faith-based activism….walking the walk, not just talking the talk of conservative and moderate Christians.

    As for the criticism I’ve heard toward Richard Dawkins, I have to disagree with Di Agnostic…love that screen name, by the way….I think Dawkin has legitimized atheism. Taken it out of the closet, so to speak. I really admire him and his efforts to show that atheists are not immoral, unethical, or hateful. He is a great spokesperson…not an embarrassment, in my opinion. Why shouldn’t we debate and discuss the existence of religion? Why can’t we criticize it openly?

  • avatar

    Ray

    What’s wrong with the word atheist?
    I have spoken with many non-believers in North Texas and have heard some express concern with the terms atheist, freethinker, non-theist, agnostic, skeptic, pagan, deist, non religious, and even humanist.
    After diligent research I have discovered a word that seems, to me at least, to encompass what we conceive to be rational, without explaining what we do not.
    In the early seventeenth century, Ben Johnson (1572-1637) coined the word nullifidian which Webster’s Dictionary defines thusly, n. nul li fid ian a person who has no faith or religion. A straightforward word explaining a simple concept.
    Webster’s defines atheist as a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings. So I defer to Mr. Jonson, who wrote:
    ‘Twas only fear first in the world made gods.
    As a point of interest; the antonym of nullifidian is solifidian n. A belief that faith alone brings salvation.

  • avatar

    Tomi

    There is no way to prove nonexistence of God as long as the concept of God is very abstract and not limited by certain definitions. Different religions however do define God and give detailed descriptions what God is like. In my opinion, many of these individual definitions can be proven wrong. If I ponder the question “If God exists, what could he be like?”, I find many answers from science and in the light of those answers the definition of God is not really anymore what the word means to people. That’s why I choose to call myself Atheist instead of Agnostic.

  • avatar

    CharlesP

    As a person raised in a very conservative religion who is moving toward agnosticism, I must say that the philosophical view expressed in the main article ignores some of the definition of religion. It addresses how religions have functioned, but not the dictionary definition of a religion. So let’s start there.

    re•li•gion
    –noun 1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
    2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
    3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
    4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
    5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
    6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
    7. religions, Archaic. religious rites.
    8. Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion: a religion to one’s vow.
    —Idiom9. get religion, Informal. a. to acquire a deep conviction of the validity of religious beliefs and practices.
    b. to resolve to mend one’s errant ways: The company got religion and stopped making dangerous products.

    OK, let’s look at the definitions above… (pulled from Dictionary.com)
    #1 – The “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe” could certainly apply to atheism, except that atheism doesn’t deal with the purpose per se, and it isn’t especially concerned with supernatural being… so I’d say by the primary definition of religion atheism wouldn’t qualify.

    #2 & 3 are actually more suited to atheism, as they both speak to a set of beliefs and practices (belief in evolution and scientific method of testing would be considered belief and practices would they not? just because you have evidence for something doesn’t mean it isn’t belief).

    #4,5,7,8, & 9 are all not applicable to atheism

    #6 however, “something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience” describes an awful lot of atheists (*cough*Dawkins*cough*). Which is where I think my conclusion is going to come from.

    Atheism isn’t a religion, but neither of theism, they’re just a belief. But, the groups of people which comprise those who hold both beliefs (in an existence or non-existence of a god) contain religions. Listening to Dawkins speak annoys me nearly as much as Falwell and his ilk because he comes across an evangelizing preacher for evolution and athiesm (complete with the same smug self-righteous “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude, no matter how well or ill founded that attitude might be). I find the “we’re just fighting to not be snuffed out by” arguements interesting, because as AnnoyedOne points out when he used it, the Dawkins crowd feels the religious “nutters” are trying to snuff out science, and the religious “nutters” use it because they feel science is trying to snuff them out. And to be fair, there are a few recent books that basically say “religion is evil, athiesm is good, we should do away with all religion”… just like there have been religious books for ages saying that science was trying to kill god and their religions.

    For my part, I think what TheGoodAthiest concludes with is the salient point. Humans have a sociological need for community (and CS Lewis would say it comes from God, and evolution would say it comes from those people who worked well in communal groups having a better chance at surviving over the mellinia). Because of that need there will almost certainly be religions for a long time to come. There is no church of athiesm per se, and because there isn’t some ritual (we’re all a little OCD in that we like ritual) and community involved within the “athiest movement” it’s going to primarily draw people who don’t have as high a dose of that socializing gene. So if you’ve got people who need people going to church in higher numbers than not… I think there’s a pretty good chance those people are going to breed (and breed more) than those who are discussing man-sized scorpion claws being discovered over the internet.

  • avatar

    Cintoast

    The definition of religion I found was that it is a viewpoint on god. Aheists technically have a viewpoint on god (the denial of its existence) but you could also argue that by denying the existence of god you are denying the fact that there is anything to have a viewpoint on. So you could really argue it either way, personally I’m an atheist and don’t believe it classes as a religion.

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