How Religious Can Atheists Be?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: How religious can atheists be?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Denis Robert

    Some atheists can be quite religious indeed. There is a not insignificant number of so-called “Objectivists”, who believe in a complete dogmatic corpus without so much as a shred of evidence, based entirely on the teachings of a (not so) charistmatic leader. That’s religion, to me. And during the 20th century, there were Communists who did the same. That’s also religion. The unwavering faith, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, this attachment to dogma over truth, is probably the very core of what a religion is about. So yes, atheists can be religious, although most aren’t.

    • C Peterson

      Personally, I would choose a different word than religious for an atheist who demonstrates that sort of dogmatism (“dogmatic”, maybe?). IMO you simply can’t have religion without theism. It destroys the value of the very word if you apply it to every passionate, dogmatic, and wrong philosophical viewpoint.

      Religion is a body of beliefs based on a theistic core.

      • 3lemenope

        IMO you simply can’t have religion without theism.

        This would be news indeed to a great number of religious people.

        • C Peterson

          I don’t think so. Although it would perhaps be more accurate to replace the word “theism” with “superstition”.

    • McAtheist

      “Some atheists can be quite religious indeed”.

      If one unilaterally changes the definition of a word or words then yes, you are correct.

      But we both know that’s not true, don’t we?

      I don’t think ‘religious’ means what you think (or have decided) it means.

      • Heretic

        So Buddhists aren’t religious?

  • quest

    many of the Unitarian Universalist societies are a good fit for atheists who like a community of friendly people.

    • GCT

      Just be careful of the UU leadership which seems to hold atheists in disdain.

      • Heretic

        (citation needed)

  • Thomas Bennett

    Whether or not you agree with the philosophy, and that’s what it is, Laveyan Satanism is exactly that. Religion without a belief in the supernatural. A Laveyan Satanist, as opposed to the scores of idiots claiming to be devil worshipers for shock value and attention, is a person who recognizes that human beings have an innate need for ritual. It’s all self administered psychodrama and they know it. In fact, they embrace it.

    The amusing thing is that many atheists might shun it out of ignorance or a misperception of what it really is.

    Regardless of what you may think of the man or the philosophy there is no denying that Anton Szandor LaVey was clear on the fact that most religions prey on their believers natural tendency to seek ritual, patterns, and purpose in their lives.

    Look past the facade and you’ll find a philosophy that is essentially humanist and values individual freedom, self determination, personal accountability, disdain for claimed authority, joie de vivre, and respect for others that is a freely given as it is vigorously demanded in kind.

    I have often said, given the contents of the Abrahamic religions, that if god did exist I would actively oppose it at every turn. Were I to meet my supposed maker my words would surely be “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

    Rather Luciferian I think…

    • Art_Vandelay

      If it’s religion without a belief in the supernatural, why name it after a supernatural being?

      • Matt

        Art, I find it funny that I’m replying to this because I remember about 15 years ago finding Anton’s website and I still remember it ( Clicking my own link I see that it no longer exists. I haven’t looked into it in 15 years!
        Anyway, the answer to the question is simply shock value, to paraphrase my memory of Anton’s reasoning that many years ago. Satan was the dude that opposed the big G and his religion opposes same.
        That website was probably the first organized set of information that really fit with my internal knowledge that the bible is full of poop. Of course, he also promoted things like lighting black candles and chanting, which is just as full of poop, but his philosophies were a spectacularly gelled version of my own thoughts on the matter of religions.
        If it hasn’t changed much in 15 years, i’d say give it a good read-over, you may at least find it interesting.

    • Mitch

      I still remember doing a research report on Satanism (at a Christian high school, no less). It was (and still kind of is) a fascinating look at what you said, “Religion without a belief in the supernatural.” Maybe I’ll go find my books and do some reacquainting with them.

  • C Peterson

    Anthropologists have been writing about the power of ritual in societies for a century or more. Recently, work has been done relating ritual to psychological and neurological effects. It seems clear that ritual is a powerful element of human psychology and society. It probably explains why placebos work even when people know they are placebos.

    All very interesting, of course. But ritual is not religion. Religion is an organized form of political control that is based on supernatural (and therefore undemonstratable) concepts and which exploits the innate human sense of spirituality, and which exploits the innate human need for ritual.

    Call it what you will, but people who get together for singing, community, and ritual, but with no supernatural component, are not engaging in anything that can remotely be called a “religious” activity.

    • resipisence

      Would you call these people ritualistic atheists then?

      It would be worth your while to take a quick look into the medical benefits of being religious, also of mindfulness meditation as practiced in a secular context.

      Sam Harris has some work on this, but basically there are well-developed practices in religious traditions that are used to hack one’s brain to encourage powerful feelings of awe and well-being, and such practices work with or without the religious dogma attached. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, there is nothing supernatural about it and it’s well on its way to being empirically verified.

      • C Peterson

        I’d call them atheists. I don’t know that they are any more “ritualistic” than anybody else, atheists included.

        Just because a practice is found in some religious tradition, that doesn’t automatically make it religious, and it doesn’t automatically make somebody who practices it religious. It’s all a matter of intent.

        • resipisence

          With all do respect, that obscures the point. That’s like saying that all dogs are the same species so we shouldn’t differentiate between breeds.

          What makes these atheists stand out is the fact that they still partake in religious practices, and we need a way of talking about these people as separate from atheists who dogmatically oppose every single aspect of religion rather than just the doctrine.

          Religious atheists is good enough for me, but if you disagree we do need an alternative.

          • C Peterson

            I don’t think atheists partake in religious practices, so I don’t understand the need for any term to describe a nonexistent thing.

            • resipisence

              Did you watch the video? Prayer, singing songs praising God, attending a Christian church, observing Jewish rituals, all practices lifted directly from religions. What are these people doing if not taking part in religious practices?

              Would you call these people practicing atheists then, or are they the exact same as the people who disagree with their partaking in such practices?

              • C Peterson

                If they are atheists, what they are participating in is some sort of social ritual. To them, it isn’t religious, because by any reasonable definition it cannot be.

                I find it no more necessary to create a term to describe them than I do to create a term to describe atheists who celebrate Christmas or Easter. People like ritual, and they like tradition. Some more than others.

  • WallofSleep

    I consume caffeine and nicotine religiously, does that count?

  • Mick

    I religiously avoid anything that smacks of religion.

  • Joan

    I religiously sleep in late, every Sunday.

  • busterggi

    That’s why its advantageous to be a worshipper of the Great Old Ones – the safest thing to do is to be as non-religious as possible so they won’t notice you and kill you for disturbing them.

  • L.Long

    Words and meaning it gets more people in trouble then anything.
    Yes an atheist can be religious. If you go to church and follow the rules you are religious. I was an alter-boy and did not really believe most of the dogma. I was as ‘religious’ as most there. Who is more religious? the one who goes to church and to the social gatherings? or the one who does not do so but believes in gawd?
    To me faith is your personal beliefs, religion is a gathering of bigots usually for mutual support.