“Atheism is a religion too!”

Doubtless you’ve heard this little nugget of inanity from more than one indignant apologist, and it’s usually the sort of thing they resort to when everything else they’ve thrown your way has been flattened. The glib response is usually something along the lines of, “Yeah, like baldness is a hair color!” Then this is followed by tortuous explanations where you find yourself trying to describe the difference between belief that there are no gods and disbelief in gods, to a mind not exactly skilled in grasping nuance.

But there’s an easier way to deal with this one, a way even Christians might understand, and it’s illustrated by a post today from PZ.

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason theism is not a religion. The terms refer solely to the disbelief or belief in gods. But religion implies a ritualized, or at least organized practice. Indeed, a person can be theistic and yet not the least bit religious. Theism is not a religion, but Christianity, Islam, et al, are.

Similarly, atheism is not a religion, but…there are atheistic religions. And they are just as irrational and lacking in evidence as theistic ones. Buddhism, on the whole, seems generally benign, though its embrace of such fantasies as reincarnation (which is something you’re encouraged to avoid) puts it squarely in the realm of delusion and woo. But then there are the Raelians, a gang of raving nitwits who reject God…only to replace him with aliens. It may be generous even to call Raelianism (if that’s the term) atheistic, since they just put God in a UFO and only reject the traditional notion of a supernatural god. But to some, and to themselves, they are considered atheistic on those grounds alone.

We at The Atheist Experience have all encountered self-proclaimed atheists who go on to voice their eager support for other irrational ideas, like 9/11 Trutherism or “alternative” medicine.

So no, atheism itself is not a religion. But there are atheist religions, and there are individual atheists just as lost to reason and confused as many theists. It isn’t enough to reject gods simply because you don’t like Pat Robertson or the Pope or the Tea Party or what have you. Skepticism and critical thinking must inform everything you do. A person can get to atheism by means other than critical thinking, but it’s possible to adopt even ideas that are right for the wrong reasons. Put critical thinking first, and atheism should not only flow naturally from that, but it will have a much more sound intellectual footing, and you’ll be better inoculated against other slippery falsehoods that sneak through the back door of your confirmation bias too.

Does the term “atheist evangelism” acknowledge that atheism is a religion?

Dale writes:

Russell,

I am 40 years an atheist and have countless communications with theists. The blogoshere has opened a deversified line of communications with theists. I have just watched your lecture series on You Tube and thoroughly enjoyed them.

I am presently debating a theist that is trying to perpetuate the myth that atheism is a religion. He is now pointing out your lectures and saying, “see, they are “evangelizing.” That proves that atheism is a religion.

My observation is that using the term “evangelizing” may not have been the best choice of words. I understand that it is meant to mean “carry the message,” but it seems that “evangelize” is strictly used in a religious connotation.

I was wondering if you you have had any other feed back on this and how you might respond to my dilemma.

I know you must be very busy but hope you have a moment to respond.

I will be supporting you and the ACA more in the future and keep up the great work that you are doing!

Best Regards,

Dale

When I titled my lecture “How atheists can be effective evangelists,” of course I was intentionally invoking the obvious religious connotation of the word.  I would say this was partly a joke — I like to use a little bit of clever wordplay in the titles of my posts and lectures whenever any occurs to me, and I picked the image of an atheist evangelist precisely because the words are so jarring together.

I recognize, though, that it’s a problem that atheists grapple with already.  Theists frequently dismiss atheism by saying it’s “just another religion” — which is hilariously ironic, since the implied irrelevance of religion makes our point for us.  But let’s tackle this question of whether atheism is really a religion.

A while ago I came up with a strategy for dealing with the “Atheism is a religion” charge on the show.  My reply can be summed up in two words: “So what?”

That’s a bit glib, sure, but let’s look at the accusation.  The problem with the charge is that “Atheism = Religion” is a huge equivocation fallacy.  It relies on the fact that “religion” is poorly defined and has many different meanings.  So when somebody tells you that atheism is a religion, the appropriate follow-up question is “What do you mean by that?”

This puts the ball more squarely in their court, and lets you evaluate the MEANING of the word rather than quibbling over the word itself.  One perfectly acceptable definition of religion is: “something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

Gosh!  Fighting prejudice is a religion!  I certainly don’t have a problem fighting prejudice, I guess I am pro-religion!

On the other hand, another definition is: “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.”  Atheism is not that.  Duh.

So you see, the active meaning is the important thing.  Not the word.  There are ways that atheists do the same things religious people do.  For instance, I like the way religions form social outlets for people to get together and discuss common interests.  I think atheists should do more of that.  If they did, they’d be more like religions.

So what?

I don’t think you should take things on faith.  I don’t think you should form major unwavering beliefs on the basis of little evidence, or in spite of contrary evidence.  In that sense, atheism should not emulate religion, and probably never will.

For the purposes of the Supreme Court, secular humanism is a religion.  So what?  Should we revile secular humanism on those grounds?  Or should we say “Yeah, I can see the relevance of the legal definition, and I’m glad that this is used to confer more rights on secular humanists that were already implicit in the legal meaning of religion”?

Next time people tell you that atheists are just as religious as Christians, ask them what they mean by that.  And if they use a definition of religion that is so broad that it really does include your concept of atheism, then just reply, “So what?”