“Is Atheism A Religion Too?” My Succinct Answer.

A producer for a show I almost got to appear on sent me questions to feel out my positions on issues related to atheism. I am reposting my answers, edited, on the blog.

Agree of disagree: While atheism is the rejection of faith and religion, but in many ways itself has become a religion. It too has a set of beliefs. 

Atheism is not a religion any more than theism by itself amounts to a religion. Just as different theists are adherents of different religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., and just as some theists reject organized religion altogether, so there are atheists who participate in different religions (like Universalism/Unitarianism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism, and some forms of Humanism, etc.) And a great number of atheists have no religion and are outright hostile to religiosity. Finally, a great many atheists, regardless of their place on the spectrum of religiosity to irreligiosity are so disconnected from any formal community or coordination with other atheists that it is completely implausible to impute to them a shared religion with other atheists.

Even to the extent that a majority of atheists might agree on any beliefs, or to the extent to which an anti-supernaturalistic view of the world philosophically might entail certain other philosophical conclusions, none of this amounts to having faith commitments. People can have systems of knowledge and belief claims without those, by themselves, making for a religion. If their beliefs are grounded in attempts to proportion their believing to evidence and if their beliefs are the result of rational scrutiny rather than dogmatic commitments, then these are not “faith-based” or inherently religious. And if their beliefs and knowledge claims are not intertwined with rituals, community, identity, or numerous other aspects of religiosity, then they remain just a philosophy and do not amount to religiosity at all.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • sean samis

    Although I am not an atheist (I call myself a doubter, for reasons that don’t matter here.) I have to agree with your comments. At most, atheism would be a category of religious beliefs (if it were at all religious) so it is certainly not A Religion. There are atheists who exhibit behaviors often associated with religiosity, but that is because those behaviors are exhibited by many people regardless of religion or belief.

    I am glad you distinguish faith from belief; they are different things.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    Here’s my take on “a system of beliefs”. If different groups of people in different parts of the world all look for the answer to a question about reality, say for instance “What is the speed of light?” the fact that they have independently, and using different methods, come to the same conclusion about the right answer does not lead us to conclude that they have created a religion. And the fact that these groups of people also happen to agree about the boiling point of water, the acceleration of gravity, or the size of the moon, does not turn this “set of beliefs” into a religion.

    Likewise, the fact that many people have decided that the answer to “Does a god exist?” is “No.”, and many of those same people likewise have converged on similar answers to questions about ethics, or equality, or human rights, does not a religion make.

    • ACN

      Hear, hear.

  • Brian Westley

    A very good and thorough answer, though I would also distinguish between religions that don’t require a belief in god(s) for membership (Universalism/Unitarianism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism) vs. religions that explicitly reject theism (Raelianism, Michael Newdow’s F.A.C.T). Not many of the latter.

  • http://pilotlightonline.com Marvin Morrison

    All religions are based on belief. It’s the number one factor of religion. Atheists too are locked into the same belief corral as the believers in God are. Agnosticism is a better choice in that it may not give the believer certainty but does not need defending or proving.. So, atheism is fine in my viewpoint if you ask the question: What are the odds that there is a judgmental and all-powerful, and all-knowing god out there that keeps records on every human that ever lived and will live in the future so that it can reward or punish them forever? The odds are so extremely small in my judgment that it would require an electron microscope to see the odds in favor of the existence of such a god.

    • http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/ Editor B

      I’m not certain that all religions are based on belief. I think we might say that some are based on practice.

    • josh

      Whether or not all religions are based on belief, belief per se doesn’t make something a religion. I don’t belong to the pi-is-irrational religion. (And agnosticism needs defending since it may not be the most reasonable position to hold, in the same way that ‘I can’t decide if pi is irrational’ isn’t a defensible position. )

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com Shira

      I disagree with Marvin Morrison and agree with Editor B. MOST religions are based on practice. Christianity is in fact an outlier in the degree of stress it places on belief. Sadly, many people (including quite a few atheists) seem to know little about religions other than Christianity, and therefore assume that other religions are like Christianity.

      (Fwiw, the belief in one or more gods is ALSO not a defining characteristic of religion. Usually there are supernatural agents, but among the world’s religions, ancestors have been at least as important as gods, and witches are pretty common as well.)

  • http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/ Editor B

    Right on — well said. Huge terms like theism and atheism encompass so much, only a sprawling answer like this is honest. It’s truly unfortunate that most of us (most of humanity) seem to prefer short, easy-to-digest soundbites.

    I’m especially glad that, while mentioning faith, you don’t equate faith with religion. The two may often go hand-in-hand, but they are not the same thing, and you can certainly have either one without the other.

  • Bob Jase

    That’s a lot of words when just saying “no” would have sufficed and been accurate.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      That’s a lot of words when just saying “no” would have sufficed and been accurate.

      Apparently it wouldn’t suffice to the people who think it’s a question in the first place. What is the point of answering questions if you’re not going to actually teach or persuade people of anything.

    • Bob Jase

      Somehow I doubt that anyone that ignorant or in denial is going to be persuaded or taught anything.

      Besides – what’s wrong with a simple honest answer?

    • sean samis

      Bob, I think the problem with a “simple honest answer” is that it will just lead to the request for more info, for a fuller explanation. Why put off the inevitable?

    • http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/ Editor B

      Wouldn’t make for a very interesting radio program, would it?

      Here’s our special expert guest. Let’s ask him a question we think is good and complicated. (One-word reply.) Gee, thanks, our listeners sure appreciated that. That settles it. Show’s over.

    • BabyRaptor

      People are more likely to believe an answer that is thoroughly explained than an answer that is not, especially if they lack any knowledge on the topic themselves.

  • baal

    It’s somewhat orthogonal but I’d like the answer to be longer to include that atheism should still be legally protected under religious discrimination clauses. You don’t really have a freedom unless you can also choose ‘none’.
    Famously (to me anyway), my mother got smart and offered me a choice of going to church one Sunday or staying home. I said, wow a choice! and replied that I’d be staying home. Her reply was, “Get in the car.” I then inquired about what my choice? Not missing a moment, my mother replied, you made the wrong choice and that question is over. Now are being ordered into the car.

  • David

    I don’t know how to answer whether atheism is a religion without first defining religion, and defining atheism. All atheists have in common the absence of belief in a deity. There is probably no other commonality, so absence of belief is the greatest common denominator. It’s much harder to define religion, though: is it enough to say that a religion involves belief in a specific supernatural power? Then maybe you could say that “religion” is a choice of what you believe about whether a deity exists (and is nothing more than that), in which case atheism is indeed a religion. But that neglects the essential act of worship. All religions involve worship of the chosen deity. Atheism doesn’t involve worship, and so it seems to miss what is an essential element of religion. Also it seems to me that all religions also involve a set of creation and afterlife myths (I know of no religion that does not involve both of these) and possibly also adherence to a set of practices or traditions. If you include those universal elements of religion in your definition, then atheism is very far removed from being a religion.

    • http://celebrationofgaia.wordpress.com/ Editor B

      David, I’d respectfully disagree with your assertion that all religions involve worship of a chosen deity. As Shira notes above, belief in one or more gods is not a defining characteristic of religion. Various versions of Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism are the most prominent, but there’s also Religious Naturalism, all manner of nature religions, and a slew of others. See also Loyal Rue’s book, Religion Is Not About God.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com Shira

    It occurred to me this morning that only a Christian — or someone raised in a culture imbued with Christian assumptions — could actually ask this question. The implicit assumption underlying the question is that a religion is, first and foremost, a system of beliefs. This definition of religion is peculiarly Christian and perhaps self-servingly so. If religion is a system of belief, and if most non-Christian religions are not (or are not primarily) systems of belief, then Christianity is the only real religion. So convenient, that.

    A better version of the question would have been “Does atheism include or create dogma?” (By dogma I mean, roughly, any received idea which serves as a curb to limit free thought. That is, one can exercise free thought about many things, but one must ACCEPT a dogma without subjecting it to inquiry.)

    I do think that atheists are sometimes dogmatic, by the way.

    • amanda

      Shira- I believe that’s why the question was asked although it was apparently posed broadly. To believe that atheism itself in the broad sense could be a religion is really just well, kind of dumb. When the question is asked I’m pretty sure it’s typically in reference to the dogmatic atheists you’re talking about. Maybe a new term needs to be developed specifically for them.
      The author completely avoided the question if that was its intended scope, but to be fair it was not exactly phrased that way.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com Shira

      Hmmm — I’m not sure what you mean by “not exactly phrased that way” since the original question ended by observing that atheism, like religion, “has a set of beliefs”. But whatever.

      As an interesting contrast, one of my blogs recently had a link to a weird (to me) little opinion piece in the Guardian (UK) newspaper. (http://m.guardian.co.uk//commentisfree/2013/mar/01/science-science-policy)

      That writer seems to be criticizing atheism as being too much like religion because scientists (who are “mostly atheists”) spend too much time trying to lure people with talk about the wonders of the universe. I am having a hard time parsing her critique — she seems to feel that scientists are too influential (they encourage public worship of themselves) and/or that they are engaging in a sort of intellectual bait and switch (because everyday science isn’t about “the wonders of the universe”) and/or that they put us off-balance psychologically with their “troubling combination of humility and hubris”. As I say, it’s kind of a confusing critique, but at least it isn’t based on the old, chauvinist equation of religion with a set of beliefs!