Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

For years the new atheist movement has been saying in various forms that “Atheism is not a religion.”  That in fact it wasn’t even the opposite of religion in that atheism believed in “nothing at all.”

This is often looked at as a way of taking the debate “high ground,” in that theists are said to be making a positive claim, therefore the burden of proof is on them.  Atheists on the other hand, asserting an absence, did not have to disprove the existence of god.  This is great for scoring points in a debate, but otherwise can cause problems.

For example this outlook often leads to many in the atheist community feeling that atheists are “logical and smart” while theists are “illogical and silly.”  The latter attitude can be counter productive as we are insulting the very people we want to win over eventually.  There is another reason I feel that we have to re-think our attitude that somehow atheism has nothing to do with religion:  that is the crazy idea that the Supreme Court has about religious thought.

In the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court recognized a new(ish?) reason for people to object to complying with laws they disagree with, a “sincerely held religious belief.”

For the record, let me say that I have huge issues with this construction.  Psychology tells us that it is fiendishly difficult to determine what a person “sincerely believes.”  Perhaps the Court felt this way as well as they did not require any evidence of the sincerity of anyone’s beliefs.  No one had to swear on the stand that they really believed one thing or another.  That they said so was enough.

To further confuse things, no one was even asked about the “religious” part either.  The Hobby Lobby people obviously had a bee in their bonnet about abortion and by extension contraception, but was this a “religious” belief.  The Catholic church (for example) is quite clear about its opposition to both abortion and contraception.  But many Protestant churches oppose only abortion.  Some do not even oppose most abortion practices.  Most Jewish groups think that the bible actually allows abortion, which could be used as evidence against Christians who claim the bible forbids it.  But none of this was even brought up.  The Greens basically got to say they opposed abortion, “because Jesus,” and that became that.

So we have a two part test that requires no evidence for either part.  This is obviously very dangerous, and I would hope the court would change course on this, at least requiring people to demonstrate (in some way) the “sincerity” of their beliefs and the religious origin of same.  But I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon.  So what are we atheists supposed to do about these “sincerely held religious beliefs?”

I say it is time we embrace them.

Not believing in God is a religious belief.  I can’t eliminate the possibility of the existence of God through evidence and logic, but I can certainly say I don’t believe in such a being.  In the same way we like to say that we just go one step further than theists, both groups don’t believe in Thor, Baal and Vishnu, and I also don’t believe in Yahweh.  But I will say that my non-belief in Yahweh is every bit as religious belief as a Christian denying Baal.

Often in discussions with theists, we say something like, “What is your evidence for God?”  And they say something like, “Look all around you, the beauty and order of the world, God must have created it.”  When I look at the world, I see no god, competent or otherwise.  This is a religious belief.  And I embrace it.

I was convinced of this idea by listening to Seth Andrews of the Thinking Atheist interview Lucien Greaves, co-founder of The Satanic Temple.  The Temple is doing great work being the “other side” of religious display cases.  Some city or government entity wants to put up a Christian symbol of some kind and they provide legal cover by saying that all religions are welcome (not thinking that there are really any other religions) and the Satanic Temple shows up with a statue of Baphomet they want to put up.

The Satanic Temple has gained IRS recognition as a “church.”  Greaves said in his interview that the temple represents a “non-theistic” religion, in that they do not actually believe in a supernatural devil.  Or a supernatural anything for that matter.  They do have beliefs about freethought and the importance of opposition to some ideas — and they consider these to be religious beliefs.

Non-theistic churches or religions are not that strange.  Many sects of Buddhism are non-theistic and arguably several originally Christian denominations have essentially become non-theistic such as the Unitarians.  Pointless aside, when I attended for a UU church for a while, the minister and director of religious education were both declared atheists.  Animism such as practiced by many Native Americans is recognized as a religion, even though there is no deity as such.

When we move beyond our cultural norms that “religion is worship of god,” or something like that we quickly run into trouble.  Anthropologists have struggled with how to define “religion” in such a way as to capture it’s essence across time and geographical boundaries.  Struggled so much that they have given up.

Despite a keen and enduring interest in religion, there is no single, uniform anthropological theory of religion or a common methodology for the study of religious beliefs and rituals. Researchers in the area cannot agree as to exactly how “religion” should be defined or what the term religion should encompass. Efforts at defining religion—ranging from Tylor’s 1871 definition of religion as “the belief in spirit beings” to the more complex definitions offered by Clifford Geertz and Melford E. Spiro—have met with considerable resistance (Morris 1987, Klass 1995, Saler 1993). Nevertheless, Geertz’s definition by far has been the most influential anthropological definition of religion in the twentieth century. (Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Science)

So, let’s take a look at what Geertz had to say about what a “religion” is:

Geertz (1973:90) defined religion as (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [and women] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

No mention of a deity there at all.  The Supreme Court (to my knowledge) did not define what a “religious belief” actually is.  Apparently, “I believe god exists and think therefore that  I should adhere maniacally to some bumper sticker summary of the bible,” is perfectly acceptable as a “religious belief.”  If that counts as a “sincerely held religious belief,” then my belief that “there is no god and the bible sucks as a moral guide,” should also qualify.

One reason that we, as atheists, have avoided the idea that our ideas are “religious” is to avoid the idea that, say teaching evolution in schools, that it is somehow a “religious” idea and therefore is subject to challenge.  I don’t actually think this will be too much a problem.

For example, evolution is the scientific consensus.  People of all kinds of religious beliefs support evolutionary theory.  It can easily be shown to be the organizing principle of scientific biology.  Creationism should first be rejected as being unscientific (rather than religious).  If that first line of defense fails, it can also be pretty easily shown that it is a form of religious indoctrination.

An indoctrination that goes against my sincerely held religious beliefs that there is no god and he, she or it didn’t create anything.  No matter how much some theists might say otherwise, the theory of evolution has nothing to do with religion, any more than the theory of relativity.  Relativity says nothing about the existence or non-existence of god, neither does evolution.  Creationism presupposes the existence of god, therefore is a religious teaching.  Pretty simple.

Well, OK, not so simple with the judiciary stuffed with idiotic Trumpist judges.  But those folks are such ideological zealots they will probably rule creationism as legitimate science.  Or flat out say it is OK to teach religious doctrine in public schools.  But that is another battle.

But for me, atheism is a religious belief.  Evolution doesn’t prove that god doesn’t exist.  I believe god doesn’t exist.  The failure of Kalam as one of the crappiest arguments ever doesn’t prove god doesn’t exist.  But I believe that god doesn’t exist anyway.  Christians and Jews believe that the Bible provides profound moral guidance because it is the word of God.  I believe it to be the barely comprehensible scribblings of barely literate people.  This is a religious belief, in exactly the same way that many Christians dismiss the Koran for exactly the same reasons.  Religious reasons, because of what they believe.

I realize that many atheists are uncomfortable with this line of thinking, we like to feel that, like the Four Horseman, we reasoned our way into atheism, that science is the opposite of theism.  I hate to burst your bubble, but science is not the opposite of theism.  Some atheists seem to smugly think that science and logic have killed off god.  Which simply is not true.  There is no valid proof of the non-existence of god.  Many scientists at all levels are theists.  There are more than a few atheists who believe shit that seems pretty illogical to me.

Yes, there are many atheists who have “converted” to atheism and a big part of their story is that they reasoned their way out of religion.  But there are many others who were raised in non-religious or in my case, less religious households.   What we share is the belief that there is no god.

We atheists sometimes get defensive when a theist challenges us by saying something like, “You never really gave Jesus a chance.”  Some of our leading lights will (Seth Andrews, Jerry DeWitt, Matt Dillahunty) appropriately point to their past deeply religious background.  Many others of us point at people like them.  But we don’t have to.  We don’t have to be embarrassed about what we believe.  It is what we believe.

For example, I used to follow the mythicist debate.  A part of me was hoping that Carrier (I know, a bad word) and Price would prove that Jesus didn’t even exist.  But Ehrman keeps hanging in there and seems like a pretty smart guy.  Finally I realized that it didn’t really matter.  Neither group believes that Jesus is up in heaven answering our prayers and “saving” us.  The academic debate might be interesting, but in the end (for the purposes of being an atheist) it is belief that counts.

In response to a theist, I can say that I sort of have a creed.  I don’t believe in a god, an afterlife or a soul.  I don’t believe that we are going to have a Deus Ex Machina ending where some deity comes in and makes everything right.  I believe we have to solve our own problems, personally and as a society and that when death comes, my consciousness, existence and chances end.

I like to think that my beliefs are “well reasoned and insightful” as Michael Feldman used to say.  But they might not be.  And they might be wrong.  But they are my beliefs and they are what make me an atheist.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Here’s my take, as someone who used to believe but stopped.
    You can believe in something for two reasons: because you have evidence, or despite the fact that you have no evidence.
    All religions fall into the second category. They may claim until they’re blue in the face that a newborn baby or a sunset or some such is all the evidence they need, but if you push them, they’ll always come back to the central importance of this thing called “faith.” And faith is just another term for “believing in something without evidence,” or in Mark Twain’s words, “believing something you know ain’t so.”
    If I ever got into an argument with a Christian about this, I’d point to the definition of faith in their own book: “The substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.”
    So yeah, I do think that evidence is the opposite of faith. Because when you ask a scientist “What would it take for you to stop believing in X,” they will usually come up with a very specific answer. And if you ask an atheist, “What would it take for you to start believing in God,” any atheist could probably list dozens of events that could do it. But when you ask a religious person, “What would it take for you to stop believing in God,” they will usually say “Nothing.”
    THAT’S the difference.

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