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The Persistent And Incorrect Belief That Atheism Is A Religion
I wrote an article a while back that debunks the myth that Atheism is a religion. The topic has come up frequently as of late, especially in light of some of my more recent writing, and it was one of the topics of discussion on the October 4th edition of Pennsylvania State Director Ernest Perce's television show "Atheist Perspectives," which I guest host from time to time. Over the past several weeks I have received numerous requests to "reprint" it here on the No God Blog, so without further adieu...
It is suggested by many people that atheism is a religion. Before we can examine why atheism is sometimes defined as a belief, it is important to understand who defines it as such. Rarely, if ever, will you find another atheist, agnostic, freethinker, humanist, secularist, etc., putting the definition of religion in the context of atheism. Almost without exception, it is the religious who do so. The reason is simple. The religious are are so caught up in their own beliefs that imagining another person without having any religious beliefs is largely incomprehensible. Those who claim that atheism is a religion do not only lack a clear understanding of what atheism is, they also tend to use religious terms to describe atheism.
There exists only one definition of atheism, and that is simply the lack of a belief in a deity. There is a philosophical aspect to atheism, but it is not part of the definition, but an extension of the individual. Atheism, in of itself, cannot be described as religious because it takes mental gymnastics to attach the narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material aspects of religion to atheism because it is not a structured system with defined rules. It has no uniform beliefs and is not a means of understanding our existence.
With respect to the philosophical, atheism is not a philosophy. Unbelief in Santa Claus is not a philosophy and thus unbelief in deity is not. There does exist within the individual atheist a philosophy that is an extension of their atheism. The philosophical aspects of atheism are germane only to the individual. They do not surround their lack of belief, but are an extension of their experiences that have been affected by their unbelief. Whereas religion is a shared experience that is directly dependent on and pertinent to specific dogma, doctrine and superstitions, the atheist experience is dependent on nothing and pertinent only to the effect that unbelief has on how the atheist can effectively integrate in a religious society.
Thus, any comparisons that put atheism in the same context of religion are dishonest dialogue. Atheism includes nothing even remotely similar to the religious. Atheists can and do adopt a wide variety of points of view that can include anything except the belief in gods and still fit the definition of atheism. Even those who are outspoken, widely read and well known cannot be intelligently compared to religious leaders, and atheist organizations cannot be compared to religious congregations. There exists none of the aspects that command such designations.
Inasmuch as the religious have a propensity to change the definition of words to suit their propaganda, atheism has no “preachers” nor “congregations.” Atheist groups have leaders and agendas, much in the way as groups such as the United Way. To suggest that atheist groups are religious in nature is not only preposterous, but shows a lack of intellectual savvy that is common found in very young children. The lack of “faithful believers” and the other inherent characteristics of religion do not allow for anything parallel between the two other than the assembly of human beings in one place. The religious leader has a goal of uniting his congregation under one dogmatic banner where there is no room for congregational interaction, skepticism or free thought. The atheist organization may or may not have the same speaker at their events, usually not, and the membership is encouraged to interact, discuss and be skeptical, and free thought and expression of opinion is accepted as the norm.
The fact that atheism has a literal definition and completely separate, individualized philosophical extension that is not connected to a common belief also separates it from religion. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an article on Religion, includes characteristics that in no way reflect someone who lacks the belief in supernatural beings, nor anything that unites atheists on a dogmatic level. Atheism does not include any distinctions between sacred and profane objects. There are no ritual acts or a moral code believed to be sanctioned by god(s), or any characteristically religious feelings such as awe, a sense of mystery, guilt or adoration. Atheism includes nothing even remotely similar to prayer or other forms of communication with the supernatural.
Religion is a system of belief and atheism cannot be classified as a system of belief because there is no belief and there is no system. No rituals, practices, rules, doctrines or dogma. Atheism does not concern itself with gods and it is definitely not a “faith” that includes unquestioning belief requiring no proof. Atheists live according to reason and do not apply a reference to a higher power. Atheism is a scientific approach to theistic belief systems. It is not a theory, requires no faith and has no hidden agenda. While an indivudal atheist may seek to contradict theism by using rational thinking and scientific theory to debunk the dubious and irrational assertions of religion, atheism merely awaits evidence to confirm the existence of god.
Defining atheism as a religion is embellishment and bad philosophy. Atheism has no dogma, no rites, no holy books, no places of worship and no clergy of any description. It offers no moral guidance, no political opinions and no world view.
Atheism is a religion like “off” is a channel on your television or bald being a hair color.
Al Stefanelli - Georgia State Director, American Atheists, Inc.