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.

  • GreatSkeptic

    Let’s stick with using dictionaries to provide our definitions.

    • aidanakelly

      Not a good idea if the dictionary definitions are inadequateto begin with.

      • GordonHide

        The trouble with adding additional requirements to qualify as atheist is that every time you do you will reduce the number of atheists in the world. Why would you want to do that? The world would be an extremely boring place if we all conformed to somebody’s idea of what we ought to think.

        Did you apply to Atheist Central for the authority to change the definition of atheism?

  • Bret Zeller

    Yea, this is more blah blah. We attack religion, so they redefine religion in such a loose sense as to include every human by default. The point is that we make no supernatural claims, and agree with science in every regard, every time. They do not.

    As far as Atheists having non-disprovable hypotheses; that is completely false. The reason is that we do not assume our positions to be correct, we simply create values based on our ideas and intuition. I don’t believe you should kill people without justification, but I’m not terribly aggrieved if you do, as long as it isn’t someone I’m concerned with. I could easily be convinced in the legitimacy of exterminating people should it be useful.

    That’s the difference, I have no moral absolutes, at all. I’m not even certain I would consider someone killing me to be wrong. People have choices to make, and so we make them, that does not make a religion, and there is no faith involved.

    On a different note, I’ve about had it with philosophers deciding what is necessary for an ethical system. They have no more insight than anyone else, and anyone can disagree quite legitimately. I don’t believe life is infinitely valuable, and I don’t respect the idea that it is. This is not simply an issue of non-disprovable hypotheses, they are opinions that are as unique as the correct color. It’s not a statement of fact at all to talk about morality, morality is always completely relative and subjective, and there is never any possibility that it is more than a personal preference. That’s why Science doesn’t speak to it, while it does speak to everything in the empirical universe. Science does speak to the causes of morality and altruism, which is evolutionary benefit for social species, and nothing else.

    • GordonHide

      It’s not necessary to agree with science to be an atheist. You can be a supernaturalist as long as you don’t believe your supernatural space is inhabited by gods.

  • shwsrs

    Nope, you’re just defining religion on your own terms and since it obvious you feel yours is the only opinion that matters, then there’s no point in arguing with you, but I will point out that your OPINION and what a dictionary defines as a religion differs. So basically all your doing is dishing out some self-serving hog wash.

    Atheists don’t accept the existence of a god or gods, they don’t participate in any ceremonies or rites, there is no indoctrination into atheism. Atheism is a personal opinion, a listening to words spoken by religious leaders and coming to the opinion that what these leaders are saying has no value or holds no interest in how we see ourselves and the world around us. Seeing religious speakers trying to credit a person’s personal ethics and morals to religion is amusing though.

    If you want to try and argue that all humane behavior, all altruistic behavior comes from religious beliefs, then so must the actions of ‘highly devoted to the cloth’, pedophile priests and con artist cardinals. You see, unlike ‘religion’, atheism attributes both bad and good behavior to the person and not to the influence of any gods or demons.

    If your going to try and claim Atheism as a ‘religion’, then you must also claim hockey, football, shopping and being a foodie as a religion too, because they all meet some sort of idol worshiping, ritualistic ceremony criteria too.

  • Michelle McBride

    wow really? atheism is a conclusion not a Religion! Buddhism is not a Religion, it is a philosophy! I read this piece three times – are you just doing a project for a logic class? There is no logic in Religion

  • benjdm

    Even if one accepts your definition of religion….atheism doesn’t provide values. Atheists have values but they don’t come from atheism any more than theists’ values come from a-Spiderman-ism.

    • aidanakelly

      If you value truth, as you obviously do, that is a nondisprovable hypothesis and enables you to make viable life decisions, as an objective anthropologist could observe. .

      • KateGladstone

        As I see it (please show me where I’m wrong), the hypothesis that “Humans should value truth” (I’ll call it “Hypothesis T”) CAN be tested for accuracy: taking it out of the category of “non-disprovable hypotheses.” Here’s why I think that:
        /1/ To value something (such as truth) how must — at a minimum — be able to perceive the difference in the effects of having that “something” and of not having that “something.” (For example: if a plant is conscious — a question I don’t propose to settle here — a plant that depends on chlorophyll would value being in a lighted environment over being in a completely and permanently lightless environment: because of the two possible environments’ differing effects on the plant.)
        /2/ If humans could not perceive the difference between the effects of knowing the truth on some matter & not knowing the truth on any matter, that would be one way to disprove the claim that “Hypothesis T is non-disprovable.”
        /3/ But, evidently, humans CAN perceive a difference between knowing the truth (on some matter) and not knowing it: no human gets through the day without making, and testing, thousands of truth-claims (anything from “Is this chair-leg edible?” on the part of a crawling infant, to “Is this employee embezzling millions” on the part of a bank-manager, to “Is our universe expanding

        • KateGladstone

          … [continued] to “Is our universe expanding?” on the part of an astronomer, to “Is it valuable to know the truth?” on the part of Aidan Kelly and others.

          /4/ There is every evidence that a human being who asks a question, or who asserts an answer, not only sees the difference between one answer and another, but values one answer over another. Even the occasional human being who SAYS “There is no difference between a truth and a falsehood” or “The difference between a truth and a falsehood, if it exists, is not to be valued” is valuing the truth of that very assertion! (In other words: if another person comes along and contradicts his/her assertion — says, “Oh, yes, there IS a difference and it DOES matter” — the person who claimed it didn’t exist, or didn’t matter, will immediately dispute the second person’s claim! People who claim “truth isn’t to be valued” can’t even maintain that claim for long enough to stop valuing what THEY, at any rate, suppose to be true.)

          • KateGladstone

            /5/ Since humans cannot NOT value at least some truth or some perceived-to-be-true belief (even the “there-is-no-truth” people think that THAT is a truth & that it is therefore to be valued), we must conclude that humans are so constituted that they cannot absolutely eliminate “truth-valuing” from their lives (any more than a plant dependent on chlorophyll can absolutely eliminate photosynthesis from its own life, if some mad biologist came along and somehow convinced the plant that “Light does not exist, or should not be valued by you even if it DOES exist.”)

            /6/ If humans are so constituted that they cannot live without (at least somewhat) valuing at least some truth(s) over falsehood, then — as I see it — valuing human life involves and requires valuing truth.

  • Steve Greene

    First – just dealing with the first paragraph – it’s always incredibly amusing when Christians want to talk about the “touchiness” of atheists. Do keep in mind that there are huge segments of the Christian population who have a deep love of being “offended” that anyone would dare to actually open his mouth and express any criticism about some irrational aspect or factually false point regarding their religious beliefs. Atheists are constantly having to defend their being open about being an atheist in the first place, because of Christian offendedness. Comparing the “touchiness” of atheists to the touchiness of these Christians is like comparing a pebble in a creek to Mount St. Helens. And atheists certainly do not make the error of considering religious belief as “merely” false. The religious beliefs that a god actually spoke to Muhammad and that he was a “messenger of god” are certainly false beliefs – and a lot of people possess life-related motivations based on such false beliefs, which doesn’t change the falseness of the beliefs in the slightest.

    Second, atheism does not provide a “system of values”. Atheism is a concomitant conclusion of a “system of values”, namely, using reason and critical thinking and relying on credible evidence about reality. Religious belief relies on faith in religious traditions along various cultural streams. (Take away the historical contingencies of the religious/cultural traditions, and the entirely subjective nature of the religious beliefs are seen for what they are.) The conclusion of atheism is merely that there isn’t any credible evidence for any of the hundreds (thousands?) of gods of any of the religious traditions. Atheism is built on both the lack of evidence for any god, as well as the contrary evidence which falsifies all manner of religious beliefs.

    Third, while the fact that I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla or strawberry or butter pecan is subjective, that doesn’t make it religion, and the fact that anyone would try to pretend it does is merely a demonstration of the fallacy of metaphorical equivocation.

  • Drew Harris

    For someone espousing your credentials and education repeatedly I’m astounded that you can’t accept a simple reality; that a lack of a belief in something is just that. It is an absence and nothing more and certainly nothing less. Your desire to envelope people who do not live in your religious world view is unjustified and absurd and is probably offensive to many people who know that for this atheist at least, my supposed version of your imported religion on me is akin to a T.V. turned to off. The screen is blank. There is no truth to justify because there is a vacancy where you want to input your fallacies. Terrible piece of writing. Yes, offensive (you would be touchy too if you had to constantly put up with people labeling you all the time in ways that are totally false and insulting) and misleading. Again for someone who wants to flaunt their education as if they are making up for a lack of other decent qualities of the self, your attempt to label atheists as something they aren’t is misguided at best. I want the time back wasted reading this drivel.

  • Brian Green Adams

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I once asked a panel of Religious studied grad students at an atheist conference what they defined religious as. I was met with eye-rolling and given the impression that I had asked an impossible questions. While these academics might find it okay to seek PhDs in a field they cannot even classify, it does draw out the difficulty of defining this term. It is not an academic issue as courts and tribunals have to distinguish religion from non religion to apply freedom of religion and discrimination protections.

    I think you are on to something here but you seem to make the mistake that atheism in general has values. Some may use the term that way but a gaining usage is that it is simply a position on the existence of gods. Other that not believing in any gods an atheist could hold any other value, morality or philosophy.

    I think the best way of distinguishing religion from non religion is that in a religious point of view the importance of tenets will vary indirectly with the verifiability of the factual basis of the tenet.

    For example, a Mormon accepts that native Americans predate Europeans in America. This is verifiable, but mundane to Mormonism. She will however insist that these natives are actually lost tribes of Israel. This is not verifiable but much more important to Mormonism.

    We often hear that if we use such expansive definitions of religion, we will include absurd things like football fandom as religion. But I think this might actually be okay. We would not call a football fan who watches from time to time religious, even if some of his values derive from this. However, if a fan were to skip an important surgery to watch the superbowl a religious devotion to the sport and lifestyle of his fandom.

    I think this starts to be a much more workable way to understand how we use the term, and what we mean by “religious”. I would the agree that atheists whose devotion to the position of no gods makes him act in ways on the basis of unverifiable claims and these become more important to him than the verifiable ones. Yes that doesn’t do violence to the term religion. For example someone whose lack of a belief in a god made him forgo life saving treatment because the nearest emergency room was in a Catholic hospital I would call a religious atheist, or maybe better non-theist. But you see what I mean.

    However, I think this raises difficulties in applying the term legally. Do we want to impose freedom of religion for crazy football fans? Maybe not. But thats another question.

    • aidanakelly

      Thank you, Brian. I’m glad at least one person can start to see what I’m getting at. It’s not easy.

      • aidanakelly

        Getting feedback does help me write more clearly, and I’m grateful for that But a lot of what I’m seeing here is that I’ve proposed a definition that I’m pretty sure fits the facts better, but some people argue with me without paying attention to that definition, so we end up not discussing the same issues at all.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    Redefining the definition of religion is a straw man tactic, and a weak one. Thanks for another pointless argument by false definition.

  • gcomeau

    I’m going to go with a classic here… Atheism is religion the way *not* stamp collecting is a hobby.

    You can’t call simply not believing something exists, which is the *sum total* of what atheism entails, a religion. If it is then I have billions of religions. Not believing in elves (a-elfism!). Not believing in bridge trolls (atrollism!). Not believing in interdimensional gremlins that steal my socks out of the laundry (asockgremlinism!). Not believing in tiny invisible flying unicorns that saturate the universe and are REALLY responsible for gravitational attraction through pushing all massive bodies together by prodding them with their tiny invisible horns. (agravityunicornism!).

    Just give it up with the desperate need to call atheism a religion too. It’s not. It’s just a basic acceptance of reality.

  • indorri

    The statement “all human lives have infinite value” is disprovable, in principle. You just have to find a human life with finite value.

    The issue is, how do you determine the value of a human life? That’s the contention. Many statements like this have hidden bundles that elude a lot of people. This is why atheist conversation about morality is confuddled in a lot of ways: you get people asking if atheists don’t believe in the supernatural, how can we be moral, because morality is automatically bundled up with metaphysics, an implicit assertion. It takes a lot of care, and frankly an exhausting examination of preconceptions, to actually be talking on the same page.

    Edit 1: I should note that given your way of defining religion (which I’m not going to dispute since I don’t care about definitional purity [see the above talk about morality] unless it confuses dialogue) atheism might be a religion, but I think you should watch your categories more closely. Rejecting a particular religious beliefs confers certain behaviours, yes, but that is also based on exposure to said beliefs. The base lack of belief in itself doesn’t seem to be causal.

    Edit 2: I think you should be considerate of why atheists are touchy on this subject. It’s not arbitrary.

  • Matt Kovach

    atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color

  • Giraffe-Junk

    I’m okay with calling Atheism a religion. Now, when Atheist want to put up a statue right next to the Ten Commandments the Christians won’t be getting their panties in a bunch, will they? Equal time for everyone on public property. Your religion is just as equal in the government’s eyes as my religion is. You will, of course, quit being disrespectful of my religion, by telling me that I will burn in Hell forever, won’t you? Oh, and during the Holiday season every Winter Solstice, you won’t mind if my Winter Solstice celebration paraphernalia sits right next to that Jesus crèche, on the opposite side can be Jewish Star of David (on public property, of course).

  • KateGladstone

    If each human life is of “infinite value,” what happens when two or more “infinite values” irreconcilably collide? — what decision could be made, that would NOT amount to an ANIMAL-FARM-ish “Yeah, all human lives possess infinite value, but SOME of those lives have an even MORE infinite value than do others.”

    I agree entirely that each human life has an infinite value — to the human who IS that life. In any other context, as I see it, positing “value” requires asking “value to/for whom? For what?”

    If I’m wrong here, Aidan, please show me where and how.

    • aidanakelly

      You’re quite right. Kate. That is the ethical dilemma every human (and probably self-aware individuals of other species) faces every day. I think perhaps my concept that divinity comprises an infinity of unique infinities might provide some possibilities for coping with this.

      • KateGladstone

        I do not know what “an infinity of unique infinities” would _mean_ — what observable phenomenon/a would the phrase stand for/point to? Without knowing that, I cannot conclude that it would make sense /a/ to posit the existence of any such thing, or /b/ to decide that such a thing (if it exists) is to be worshiped.

        • aidanakelly

          Well, it’s a matter of logic, of doing theology in the sort of hypothetical way one does math. Does the square root of 2 have an objective existence? Plato thought it did, and Roger Penrose suspects that Plato may have been right. And that sort of simulation model does lead to some practical implications. For example, leaving out copious steps, I doubt that real Gods would give a damn about whether they are worshipped or not; they would have a very different agenda.

  • Andy Mansfield

    You can tell with the replies that all the atheists have had a secular/materialist indoctrination or are simply lifting quotes from dawkins. –

    No one who hasn’t doesn’t use words like strawman or atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color

    • KateGladstone

      Your second sentence doesn’t make sense unless either /a/ you were using the word “doesn’t” to mean “does,” or /b/ you were actually saying that all those who are devout/quote-lifting secularists DON’T use words like “strawman,” “atheism,” “religion,” or “baldness.”

      Even if the sentence could be changed to make sense, of course that wouldn’t guarantee that it was true.

  • Anton

    I have to agree with the nonbelievers that the word religion doesn’t accurately characterize atheism. There’s just not the requisite belief in the divine aspect of humanity or the supernatural that typifies religious belief. I realize that you’ve broadened the definition of religion to include any belief system that involves human values, but I still don’t think atheism necessarily qualifies even under that definition. The lack of belief in deities and the supernatural in itself doesn’t form a basis for human values.

    That said, I think atheists do display behavior that pretty closely resembles that of religious believers. One of the things atheism has been able to replicate to attract deconverts is the certainty-for-free that religious belief often promises. Look at how many of the naysayers here have appealed to Science and reality as the basis for their nonbelief, as if they have some sort of unmediated knowledge of how reality is. What could be more religious? The human condition is one wherein we’re estranged from our sources of meaning and have to establish a conceptual framework that bridges the chasm between the grounds for our beliefs and the content of the beliefs. But to hear certain nonbelievers tell it, there’s no gap whatsoever: the content of their beliefs is reality itself, so any other grounds for belief are folly and delusion! This hyper-rationality betrays a severe philosophical blind spot, a denial of subjective human experience that lacks empathy in the same degree that dogmatic religious belief does.

    Atheists need not consider their nonbelief a religion. But they should at least admit that their nonbelief derives every bit as much from opinion and emotion as the belief of a religious person. Reason and rationality don’t lead someone to nonbelief any more often than they lead someone to religious faith.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Some do, many don’t. You don’t get to cherrypick only those expressions of atheism that justify your claims.

      • Anton

        I didn’t mean all atheists do this, I was just just pointing out a similarity I’ve noticed in my discussions with both atheists and believers. Even a couple of people who’ve responded here have invoked capital-S Science and reality as support for their positions. Can I help it if I hear echoes of God and truth in such presumptuous rhetoric?

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          I suspect these discussions would go more smoothly without general claims made of a limited reading from an inherently biased source of data.

          • Anton

            Welcome to an internet message board. Did you get lost on your way to the Doctoral Dissertation Committee?

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I left that life over a lifetime ago. But, for the most part, attempts to discuss other people’s religion or philosophy strikes me as rather like the book reviewers who dispense with reading books, and build their discussions around what may or may not be written on the shelves.

    • KateGladstone

      “But to hear certain nonbelievers tell it, there’s no gap whatsoever: the content of their beliefs is reality itself, so any other grounds for belief are folly and delusion!”
      Are you saying that it is “religious” to reject (on any ground) a statement that someone else claims to be true? If so, then arithmetic is a religion, and everyone engages in an act of worship when s/he understands that 2+2=4 and rejects any assertion that 2+2=5.

      • Anton

        Are you saying that it is “religious” to reject (on any ground) a statement that someone else claims to be true?

        It will astonish you to learn that, no, in fact, that’s not what I’m saying.

        I’m just wondering whether it’s okay to be skeptical of the notion that Science and reality are truly the basis for someone’s claims. Ordinarily we describe a complex but valid process of reasoning involved in what we believe, and we recognize that our knowledge of “reality” comes with a lot of philosophical baggage. Just invoking the terms Science and reality seems like a major short cut in establishing the relevance of someone’s opinion. Are we not supposed to question when someone says he uses capital-S Science to validate his prejudices?

        • KateGladstone

          Certainly, we MUST check whether anyone who invokes reality has any _real_ support for the claim. What evidence, if it existed and if you had it, would you regard as adequate support for the claim that a given assertion was supported by reality?

    • aidanakelly

      Thank you, Anton. You do also see what the issues are that I’m thinking about. And I will be going on to point out that there is other, new territory to explore.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    It’s interesting to me that people who can’t decide whether “paganism” is one religion or a dozen are nevertheless entirely certain that an idea that’s been expressed in multiple forms, in multiple religious traditions, across multiple cultures, in multiple centuries is “a religion.”

  • Alex

    Atheism cannot be a religion by definition; religions, however, can be atheistic. Many religions do not have deities of the sort espoused by those in the Judaic family of faiths, that is, omnipotent beings that created the universe and preside over it. One can well be an atheist and believe in reincarnation and karma, for example, as there is no contraction. One can also be a buddhist and an atheist, or a Scientologist and an atheist for that matter. Atheism is the lack of belief in deities, or rather the lack of belief in that which the majority of religions define as a deity. It says nothing of any other quality or belief.