Yes, Atheism Is a Genuine Religion

I can already hear my atheist friends screaming. Atheists can be awfully touchy. But what I want to do here is to propose an adequate definition of the word “religion.” If one considers the term “religious” to be virtually synonymous with “false,” and if one is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, as every atheist I have ever known has been, then one will of course not want to call one’s beliefs or conclusions “religious.” However, to consider all religion to be merely false is not adequate; that simply ignores too many facts about human experience.

My own period of militant agnosticism, which began at age 14, simultaneously with my discovery of the existence of the Craft as a religion, ended in about 1963, when I learned from my cultural anthropology major that all humans have a religion, which is as essential for human survival as food. “But why?” I wondered. “What is it that religion supplies for people?” My helping found the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn as an unauthorized variant of Gardnerian Wicca was in part an experiment intended to help answer that question.

Taking the social-science viewpoint that “religion” is a label for a category of human behavior, I began to ask what all religions have in common, which is, in fact, very little. Theism immediately falls off the list. Theravada Buddhism is obviously a major religion, but is absolutely nontheistic; the existence or nonexistence of any divine reality is simply irrelevant to the teachings of the Buddha.

Similarly, none of the varieties of secular Judaism are based on theism. The variety I know most about is the Humanistic Judaism founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, one of the most truly remarkable persons I have ever known. As he said to me, Judaism was actually polytheistic when it was founded in 621 BCE. Monotheism was not invented until about 550 BCE, simultaneously by the Second Isaiah and the pre-Socratic philosophers living a few hundred miles north of Judea. That is, the value system of Judaism is based on the cultural identity of the Jewish people, not on monotheism. Wine created a gorgeous liturgy based on the Mishnah, especially the Sayings of the Fathers, the primary document of the House of Hillel.

I think it was during my doctoral program in the 1970s that I hit upon a promising hypothesis: the one trait all religions have in common is their primary function of supplying a system of values, which humans must have in order to make important decisions, such as, “What should I do with my life?” The inverse of this hypothesis is that each person’s system of values is what serves as the functional equivalent of a religion—and it does not matter whether or not that system is labeled as a “religion.”

The borderlands between faith and knowledge, between religion and science, have always been a war zone. One of the most promising attempts at introducing a truce was Gurdjieff’s Partition, which he based on the distinction between disprovable and nondisprovable statements. He proposed that science must be based on the former, religion on the latter. Specifically, he said, if a statement could be proven false by any conceivable fact, whether such fact is already known or not, then that statement falls in the province of science. In contrast, a statement of value is always inherently nondisprovable and thus falls in the province of religion. (However, statements of value can be evaluated. Some values are bad.)

For example, a universal statement, such as, “All crows are black,” can be negated by the existence of a single white crow, but it can never be verified; it remains always in a condition of having not yet been disproven, the condition of all scientific theories. In contrast, the existence of a single black crow verifies the particular statement that “Some crows are black.” (Such matters are clearer after one has survived three semesters of symbolic logic.)

Religion supplies statements of value in the form of nondisprovable hypotheses, such as, “Every human life is infinitely valuable,” which I think is the one statement essential for any viable ethical system. Such a statement is not deduced from facts and cannot be negated by any conceivable fact; it is self-evident and a priori—to the person who believes it to be true. (Obviously the world contains many people who place a much lower value on life.)

Given this definition, religion does not need to be social, shared, a church; a person’s religion can be individual, singular, unique. Further, the infinite value of a life depends on only its own existence, not on that of any other being; a human life remains infinitely valuable whether any other being, divine or physical, exists or not. There is a Jewish saying: To take a life is to destroy the entire universe.

Let me throw in here a fact: belief in the value of truth, dedication to the pursuit of truth, is itself a religious value, the one that underlies science. It is the value I had conferred on me after my Awakening experience at age 14.

Now we come to a fork in the road. One path leads to a discussion of why a belief in the infinite value of every human life is not the basis for human social ethics, because that would not explain altruistic behavior. I’ll pursue that later. Instead, in my next installment, I will continue along the path that deals with the crisis of the teenaged atheist in our society.

Just for irony, let me note that applying Gurdjieff’s partition to the Pastoral Constitution of the Church promulgated by Vatican II reveals that the Roman Catholic Church does not have any doctrines (i.e., nondisprovable hypotheses) about sexuality at this time.

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