Up is down. Black is white. Atheism is religion.

Humpty Dumpty

If you can’t beat ’em, define ’em out of existence!

Some members of the intelligent design community seem to have a genuinely hard time understanding that non-religious people actually exist. They don’t have convincing arguments for their religion, so they attempt an end run around reason by simply declaring that everyone is religious.

I have written about a couple of examples previously. For example, David Klinghoffer claims that

In a sense, there are no atheists.

How can I convince Mr. Klinghoffer that I exist? Please, if anyone who knows him is reading this, tell him he’s welcome to come to my talk at the Evolution meeting in Rhode Island or stop by my poster at the Evolution of Complex Life conference here in Atlanta, so he can see for himself that I’m real!

Of course, I’m being facetious. I know full well that Mr. Klinghoffer knows I exist (he thinks, in fact, that I am Goliath). His argument is that I’m not really an atheist, because no one really is. He makes this argument by redefining the word ‘atheist’ to mean something with no resemblance to its commonly understood meaning:

Humans aren’t animals operating on instinct alone. We continually make choices between competing alternatives, but those choices can’t be made fresh at every turn. Instead, to guide our path, we place our faith in a construction of values. It’s not possible to operate in the world without casting your lot with some such system — just to set your priorities for the day, if nothing else. Systems like that command our loyalty in a god-like fashion even if we don’t ascribe divinity to them.

So basically, if you believe anything, you can’t be an atheist. He is literally saying that it’s not possible for a fully functional human being to be an atheist.

I have also written about John Staddon’s essay claiming that secular humanism is a religion. In my first post about Dr. Staddon’s essay, I pointed out that it fails to clear the very low bar of simply being self consistent, and I called it “a hot mess of unsupported assertions, innuendos, and self-contradictions.” In the second, I gave concrete examples of its unsupported assertions, innuendos, and self-contradictions.

Not surprisingly, a couple of luminaries from the Discovery Institute think it’s pretty good. Michael Egnor, for example, thinks that it’s

…topical, well written, and carefully reasoned.

Carefully reasoned, seriously? Staddon’s reasoning boils down to this: All religions have three elements. Secular humanism has two of them; therefore, secular humanism is a religion.

All oranges have three elements: they are round, tasty, and orange. Apples are round and tasty; therefore, apples are oranges.

All airplane have three elements: they have wheels, an engine, and they fly. Car have wheels and an engine; therefore, cars are airplanes.

I could go on in this vein for a while, but I trust you get the point. It’s worse than that, though. Dr. Egnor explicitly equates secular humanism with atheism (which is also wrong, but so be it):

“Secular humanism” is a euphemism for atheism as practiced in modern Western civilization.

So Dr. Egnor is arguing not only that secular humanism is a religion, but that atheism is. We could argue all day about how precisely to define atheism, but a fair estimate of its commonly understood meaning is a lack of religion. Defining a lack of something as that thing begs the question. It denies that the lack of the thing can exist. It’s equivalent to defining darkness as light, vacuum as air, or (as others have pointed out) not collecting stamps as a hobby.

There must be a name for the rhetorical strategy that consists of defining a term so broadly that it becomes meaningless. Staddon, Egnor, and Klinghoffer are literally arguing that it is not possible to not be religious. I object to this because I am not religious. To see just how broadly intelligent design advocates define religion, look at what Denyse O’Leary has to say about Jerry Coyne’s criticism of Staddon’s article:

If Jerry Coyne thinks he is advancing human welfare and morality at all, he is involved in some kind of religion. The word means “to tie together,” that is to tie people to the universe, to each other, to their ultimate fate, etc.

Ah, the argument from etymology. “Eukaryote” means “true nut,” so I guess all animals, plants, fungi, algae, and protists are hard-shelled seeds. “Lemur” means ghost or spirit, so I guess lemur conservation is a waste of time and resources…they’re already dead!

Seriously, though, look at how broadly O’Leary has defined religion: if you care about human welfare and morality at all, you must be religious. So everyone in the world is either religious or a complete sociopath.

He [Coyne] spends so much time attacking other people’s religion, he can only be doing it on behalf of his own; a genuinely irreligious person does not care.

I am a genuinely irreligious person, and I do care. Various members of the intelligent design community, including Egnor, O’Leary, and Klinghoffer, have recently said things about atheists that would be considered vile bigotry if they were referring to any other minority: we are “morally depraved”, unethical, and “deeply ignorant”; we can’t believe in life, love, minds, or rational thought; we can’t oppose violence, know right from wrong, or even conclude that the Holocaust was wrong (if you think I’m exaggerating any of this, please check out this post and the articles it links to). Imagine (as I do here) saying those things about an ethnic group, a sexual orientation, or a religion. Imagine trying to define them out of existence.

That’s why I care. Saying that I don’t, or that the fact that I do makes me religious, is one more example of telling me what I believe.


  1. says

    I am an atheist, and I care about other people’s religious beliefs, because those are used to justify harming other human beings, for example, slogans like “God hates fags.” Moreover, religious people tend to attempt to force their beliefs on other people, for example, religious education in public schools. Then there’s also the fact that some religious beliefs often are harmful for human wellbeing (for example, Christianity tends to declare perfectly healthy and normal behaviors as sinful).

    I wouldn’t care about other people’s religious beliefs if those didn’t influence and didn’t harm the rest of the society. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

  2. Jazzlet says

    I once spent well over an hour in a car with a young man who simply couldn’t grasp that I didn’t believe in god. He spent the whole journey raising point after point that meant I must believe in god only for me to refute his points, and he still didn’t believe me. I was very tempted to dump him at the side of the road as, I thnk genuinely without meaning to in his case, he esentially accused me of being a liar, morally depraved, unethical etc etc. It was in some ways an interesting experience as in the normal course of events I would have walked away from such a discussion, this was a younger colleague I had to continue working with, and therefore couldn’t get too vicious with. I know that by the end of the journey my attempts to remain reasonably civil in the face of his repeated unintended insults was starting to affect my driving. Several lessons learned!

  3. says

    I usually like to point out that religion as a basis for morality is, in fact, immoral because it amounts to nothing more than accepting authority. The believer has no agency; they simply and unquestioningly accept the will of god. That’s not moral; that’s just doing what a bully tells you to. Secondly, any moral system ought to be free of contradictions (or it’s not moral!) and religious morality is generally full of contradictions (e.g.: “don’t kill people. except muslims. kill the fuck outta muslims.”)

    Here’s another angle: if the believer accepts divine commands which are immoral, then the believer is not a moral being; they have abdicated their agency. Most believers are basically playing the Nuremberg defense: “god told me to do it.”

    Besides, the christian god is clearly an immoral being. Look what it did to Job, just on a bet. God doesn’t just get to pat itself on the back and forgive itself for dicking over its biggest fan. What an asshole.

  4. blf says

    Many many yonks ago on, as I now recall, a flight to the States from the UK, shortly after takeoff the individual seated next to me introduced himself (an officer in the USAF) and asked one of the standard(?) xian questions, something along the lines of “have you been saved?” I distinctly remember grimacing, fearing for the next umpity hours, and then it occurred to me… “I have the good book here! See, ‘The Turtle Moves’!”, showing them my copy of Terry Prachett’s Small Gods, which I had planned to (re?-)read on the flight anyways.

    Whilst I didn’t then and don’t now think they understood, it so flabbergasted them I had time to start furiously reading and sending out many terrabodylanguages of “feck off and go away”. Wonderful silence the rest of the flight.


Leave a Reply