Sunday, May 22, 2011

Atheism as a Religion

hear it on youTube
This is a response to the youTube Videos: "Atheism is a Religion"...? by BionicDance  and An Atheist Calls Atheism a Religion by GrapplingIgnorance.

When people argue about whether atheism is a religion or not, they are almost always arguing against  2 different usage (definitions) of the word atheism/atheist in society.

First off there is the classic dictionary definitions ...  namely that atheism is the lack of a belief in god, the disbelief in God, and or the belief that god does not exist. As such it gives no other restrictions on the beliefs of atheists other than to say that they share a single belief about god. Religion or religious beliefs, on the other hand, is the set of beliefs and practices by which a person or group identify themselves or by others. Reality is atheism, theism, and agnosticism are really just a way we group or categorize a broader set of beliefs which can be typically sub divided into specific religions/religious beliefs. You would not claim that theism is a specific religion or religious belief.  Even deists in general usage  has a set of beliefs and share a common identity that defines itself as a religious belief. Under this definition atheism indeed cannot be a religion.

The second usage of atheists/atheism references the collection of people that call themselves atheist. People who use this definition tend to see atheism as more than just a group that shares a single belief but instead sees a community who share a whole suite of beliefs about skepticism, naturalism, science, and rational advocacy that dominate the popular atheist movement. While I have yet to see this usage in a dictionary, some atheists, most notably PZ Myers, do tend to advocate this usage.  Moreover many atheist will chastise other atheists who stray from orthodoxy of their "atheism" especially as it relates to tolerance and support in various forms of nonsense.  Depending on your definition of religion, you could easily argue that this group would constitute a religion or at least a set of religious beliefs in that they share a common set of beliefs, doctrine, and identity; and are loosely organized (all be it in a very decentralized manner) and have established and recognizable leaders and advocates.

Beyond just the issue of a definition of atheism I think part of the problem is that many people especially atheist tend to associate religion only with the big organized theistic religions probably because they are the most visible and offensive examples to us.  As we human inevitably do, we want to assume that our beliefs are different from those we oppose on every level and  so any trait or structure attributed to them is automatically excluded from ourselves.   We tend to assume that it is the notion of religion and not the beliefs and practices of that religion that is the real problem.  Religions or religious beliefs do not have to deal with god, mysticism, super naturalism, or any specific other piece of woo. More over religions do not have to be hierarchical, rigid, homogeneous, inflexible, self centered, and ignorant; even with in the theistic religions these characteristics vary substantially.

Now, many atheist using the dictionary definition like to argue that "atheism is not a religion" like "Stamp collecting is not a hobby" or that "baldness is not a hair color or hair style". Even though the conclusion in this argument may be true, (and much like the people they arguing against), the actual argument is definitely a false dichotomy. You actually can have non-stamp collecting hobbies and baldness is generally considered a hairstyle* and hair color is an attribute of hairstyle that is not applicable to being bald (much like a weave is not applicable to a crew cut). Religions or at least religious beliefs can actually be theistic, atheistic, or agnostic.

I would like to note that this whole debate springs from theist's claiming  that "Atheism is a religion" and the atheist community's response to dismiss it out of hand with out really trying to address the claim.  Theist argue that "atheism is a religion" in order to lump all atheist (and any others group they oppose) under a single banner and to say all your criticism of our religion is false because you're just like us. Despite this fact, when theist talk about "atheism" they almost always are talking about the people that they identify as atheists and not about the dictionary definition. This is because they don't care about the specifics of our beliefs except as it relates to something they oppose.  So when we atheist give our standard "non-stamp" type argument, we appear to be playing a semantic game which does not address what they see as religious-like activities.

The other main problem influencing this debate is the whole issue of what the "atheist community" calls themselves. The reality is we call our selves atheist and lump all atheist into one group primarily because that is what theist call us and it fits nicely with our self identity as individuals and the fact that we have consisted mostly of individuals or small groups isolated within a theistic community throughout most of our history. It is only in the last 200 to 100 years with the advent of a science based out look on reality that the number of atheist have grown and only in the last few decades where we have become a distinct and visible community. The problem lies in that this distinct community of atheist although organizing under various names (atheist, skeptic, freethinker, secular humanist, etc.), the terms we use do not represent different set of beliefs and the term "atheist" is still generally considered the moniker by which we identify ourselves and our beliefs. At some point, as the numbers of atheist grow, the beliefs of the atheist community will fragment, diversify, and compete as all belief systems do and the need to differentiate ourselves will grow.
* e.g. Sinead O'Connor and if you go to get your hair styled/cut and you tell them you want it bald they will know what you mean.
Afterthought: A question for those who go by the Dictionary definition: when you think or talk about atheists do you mentally  exclude none skeptical ones (Buddhist, New-ager, purveyors of assorted woo, etc.)?

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