Friday, October 04, 2013

Thoughts on Improved Discussions: Is Atheism a Religion?

By Gary Berg-Cross

Over the summer I attended some meetups where the role of religion is society was discussed.  Occasionally the discussion drifted into a topic that people were hot about and one of these was the perennial question of “Is Atheism a Religion?”  It’s a topic which can be discussed from practical, personal and philosophical perspectives. You can start by focus on clarifying what is meant by Atheism and its practice. But you also need to delve into definitions of religion and how it is practiced, then do some analytic comparisons.

You can for example, just take the simple semantics of atheism as “no belief in a god.” Then if to be a religion there must be belief in a god (a debatable point), then a narrow view of atheism doesn’t qualify.  That would make for a short discussion, but there is more to say about what is involved in atheist organization or secular,/non-faith groups expressing social beliefs as well the definition of religion. After all, the practice of atheism beyond a philosophical position allies with secular beliefs and organizes to become effective in countering religious influence as well as expressing its own values.  Often these may be packaged in practices that seem religious.

To point to just one way that so called organized atheism/non-belief acts like a religion take the London-based” The Sunday Assembly a so called “Atheist Church  -a godless congregation that meets to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. They have regular services in London and have launched what they call a “global missionary tour.” Indeed an Assembly event is planned in DC on Wed, Nov. 6, 2012 Center for Inquiry-DC. So an organizational form of godlessness is on the march.  If this march includes bands and songs within some physical infrastructure analogous to a temple holding some ceremonial events and ministered to by a hierarchical “leader” with stories of scientific and philosophical heroes, well maybe it should qualify for tax-free benefits. That seems OK to many. Why should these human ways of expressing ourselves be shut off to us? Religions have grabbed and are occupying ground that might be part of our humanness.  Let's take it back, especially if it helps a secular story compete with the religious stories on more of an equal footing.  This trappings of the traditional religions behave is just part of a practical-tactical decision to operate effectively within a social system in order to change it for the better.

Another perspective is to just to focus on religion as something that has a set of committed beliefs.  So if atheists, free thinkers (or scientists) start expressing beliefs in things like evolution, well then it’s their religion. The counter, of course, is that religion is organized about superstitious not scientific beliefs.  The essential religious beliefs seems to be involve an unchangeable idea of a higher or supernatural power, which is often expressed as some type of god. Religion puts beliefs in a range of super-natural phenomena and powers that aren’t testable, but relies on faith. It is not regular & practical belief, but faith-based.  The power of prayer is one example. 

Religions also proposes quality concepts and judgments like 'good' or 'evil' that are measured and defined by non-human entities, but must be bought into.  Sorry these are nothing like my natural beliefs in gravity and a physical cosmos.  Sure, I commit to them in some practical way every day, but my understanding of gravity is open to allow a Higgs boson to enter that understanding and expand and refine it. But that understanding comes without the idea of something beyond the natural. As Robert G. Ingersoll said in What is Religion” (his last public speech delivered in Boston, Massachusetts the evening of June 2, 1899):

“Religion rests on the idea that Nature has a master and that this master will listen to prayer; that this master punishes and rewards; that he loves praise and flattery and hates the brave and the free.”

No such system of beliefs for free thinkers.  For us it is more like what Ingersoll expressed in what was labeled his "Creed" including - Justice is the only worship and Love is the only priest. If you accept my "praise" of justice as a form of religious worship, then OK I'm that kind of religious, but not the one that expects some hidden master's punishment if I stray.
But perhaps love of love and such should qualify as something larger that society recognizes as worth supporting in the way that it does traditional religion which gets beaucoup benefits as studies have shown -see the figure alongside for examples.
One source that I often consult on issues like “what is religion” where a deeper perspective is needed is Tom Flynn’s “The New Encyclopedia of UNBELIEF.”  (BTW Tom will be speaking at WASH's MDC chapter Dec. 14 in the Rockville library from 2-4).
 Opportunisitc conversations on such things can be better grounded by consulting its pages which are tripped up or hung up discussing colloquially ideas of “religious”.  We run into these things is the loose semantics of conversation, such as when we describe a friend that is “religiously adhering to a diet”. Sure it is a type of commitment, but not what gets fully to the ideas of religion which Tom's Encyclopedia explores more systematically. Perhaps I can put on my wish list an online version of this to be consulted at Meetups!  
Under the Religion entry, for example, the Encyclopedia, starts by quoting from the International Humanist and Ethical Union statement on the use of the term religion.  Here is what they said which clarifies the Humanist position quite a bit with 3 ideas that people may hold about religion and whether there is one definition we can agree on:
Being concerned about the confusion and contention sometimes caused by the words "religion" and "religious",
This board wishes to place on record the following points which can be agreed by all humanists:
1. Some humanists use the word "religion" as roughly equivalent to "life stance"; others take it to imply some theistic or non-naturalistic reality.
2. Those humanists who use the word "religious" to describe themselves or their organisations do not imply that their humanism accepts any theistic or non-naturalist realities.
3. In the sense of the word "religion" which implies "accepting a god", humanism is not a religion; in the sense of "religion" meaning "life stance", humanism is a religion.
4. There is disagreement among humanists about which is the "true" or "appropriate" meaning of the word "religion".
From the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)  site and its 1989 resolution on Use of the word "religion"

Which brings me back to the occasional conversation on this question of Is X a religion (take your pick on X as atheism, Humanism, Secular Humanism etc.). If you want to use religion as a life style well then, yes, but you may not be talking tax benefits style religion recognized in legal codes.  Should we have to believe in some non-natural power to be considered a religion?  I may disagree, but society may draw some lines to advantage such beliefs. I think that a mistake, but it is something to be discussed more broadly than just at Meetups.  

I guess that one other thing one might inject into these conversations after the depth of Tom’s Encyclopedia is a little bit of modern, edgy humor that ignores some nuanced differences between belief and faith to make its point.  Bill Maher backhands the idea that atheism is a religion with stinging putdowns:

"Idiots must stop claiming that atheism is a religion…..religion is defined as the belief in a “superhuman controlling power” (god), and atheism is precisely not that. Indeed, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a god or gods. It is not a world view, a philosophy, or a religion. It is simply the absence of belief. To be without a belief in god, is to be an atheist….Treating atheism like a religion would be like saying “abstinence is a sex position.” After all, when was the last time a non-believer ever claimed to see the silhouette of Christopher Hitchens on the side of a tree?"

1 comment:

Don Wharton said...

Excellent post Gary. The comments by Bill Maher are especially excellent. I think our readers will delight in seeing the original video of those comments posted on youtude here: