Challenging Religious Myths 2: Atheism is just another Religion
Myth 2: Atheism is just another religion.
This myth is being resurrected again by people ranging from academics trying to counter some of the influence of the recent spate of books challenging faith, to extremists wanting atheists banned from American schools by using the ruling that religion and state must be kept separate.
It was the good Catholic G.K.Chesterton who sought to tease atheists by saying ‘there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it’. Atheists would reject his categories and go on to argue that there are at least three kinds of people; the two that Chesterton mentioned and a third category who know an unhelpful and untrue dogma when they see it and are quite capable of rejecting it.
Atheism, of course, is not another religion. Although non-theistic religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism exist, most religions, are based on a belief in gods or a god, and atheists reject such a notion. Let me quote A.C.Grayling who makes the point so elegantly:
By definition a religion is something centred on belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely their existence, but their interest in human beings on the planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean or unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things, like making women invisible beneath enveloping clothing, or strapping little boxes to their foreheads, or iterating formulae by rote five time a day, and so endlessly forth; with threats of punishment for getting any of it wrong. But naturalism (atheism) does not premise such belief. (P.29 in Grayling, A.C., (2007) Against All Gods. London: Oberon Books.)
Not only are there no supernatural beings in atheism, there are a whole load of other things that aren’t there either. All religions, including non-theist ones have clearly defined sets of beliefs, rituals, and practices. However, in atheism there are: no common beliefs, no laws or regulations, no churches or rituals, no unified concept of spirituality, no scriptures, no priesthood, no founders, no holidays, no identifying clothing (or underwear), no concept of the afterlife, and no creation myth. Individual atheists are free to work things out for themselves; the only common denominators are a rejection of the supernatural as a force for organising their lives, and a lack of bodies trying to instill uniformity of belief or practice.
Ah, say the theists, you must believe in something. You have replaced god with humankind. You just worship another god.
First, there is no worship, but just an acceptance that as we rely on human beings and the knowledge that they can bring to a matter to sort out the wheel mechanism for safely landing a jumbo jet and the brake mechanism in our cars, we can also listen to what they have to say about a whole range of other matters to, without feeling the need to invoke the supernatural. There is an understanding that human beings are fallible, a willingness to engage in logical argument about premises, a willingness to examine evidence, and a willingness to change in the light of new evidence. This isn’t religious. It is just saying that for most of our lives we use reason and science and common sense to get on with things, and we see no reason to abandon that (without evidence) on other matters.
Secondly, if atheists believe in the abilities of humankind (as opposed to a supernatural being), they believe in the sense of accepting something to be true. I believe that gravity causes things to fall. I believe that if it rains I will get wet. These are not religious beliefs – they are just accepting something as true, knowing that there is really substantial evidence for their truth. A lot of religious beliefs, however, are based on no evidence, or contrary evidence, and faith without proof is seen as a religious virtue.
Thirdly, the ‘you must believe in some god if you don’t believe in mine’ argument is just specious. If I say I don’t believe that unicorns exist, that isn’t a matter of religious faith. I’m not setting up a non-unicorn religion and saying that because I don’t believe in unicorns I have created the non-unicorn god. The fact that someone may not believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean that they therefore must have religious beliefs in a non-supernatural faith. It just means that they do not have evidence which reasonably convinces them that the supernatural exists.
Another twist to the argument has been for some theists to argue that by challenging the religious status quo, atheists are becoming ‘fundamentalist’ in their atheism. Such a charge is an attempt to try to hit below the belt, and it is often brought out every time atheists question the privileged position that some faiths have – for example, government money going to support religious schooling, various tax concessions, and bishops in the House of Lords.
I remember years ago hearing about a sociological study into mixed-sex conversations. It has been known for sometime that, broadly speaking, in mixed-sex conversations, men tend to dominate – for example they choose the conversation topic more often, they talk more, and they interrupt more. The researchers trained some women to behave differently and to try to introduce more topics, to interrupt more often, and to talk for longer. When they measured the interactions they found that the women achieved a tiny fraction of more presence, but to the men, it felt like the women had taken over the conversations. It is a bit like that with atheism and religion. For thousands of years the theists have set the agenda and spoken the loudest, but now the atheists are finding their voice and refusing to be so deferential and silent. If that means that atheists occasionally get called ‘fundamentalist’, so be it. They have a lot of catching up to do.
If the theists have good evidence and good arguments, let them join the debate. An atheist has nothing to fear from honest debate and evidence. Unfortunately many theists are resorting to authoritarian and historical protectionism. Some of them try to attack, not with debate and evidence, but with laws against blasphemy, with fatwas, with thug violence, with banning this and that, with loud screaming. Sadly, it has often been thus.
And if they want to attack by throwing in a faulty red-herring and saying that atheism is just another religion, I, for one, want to seriously challenge that.
– A Thinking Man