How should we define — and assess — atheism?

DANIEL ASKS:

Is it becoming possible to be religious without believing in god? (the lower-case “god” is Daniel’s usage)

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This is partially a repeat from March 22, 2013, when The Guy posted “Is atheism a ‘religion’? Is the Pope Protestant?” That headline indicated the idea seems ludicrous on its face. Yet, as the item explained, things are actually somewhat complicated.

The Guy won’t repeat that material here. Meanwhile there’s intense interest not only in definitions but in atheism’s role in society, to judge from the 69 lively comments posted in response to The Guy’s June 21 item on the unhappy “track record when atheists wield political power.” As an admitted theist, The Guy would like to thank all atheists who responded. These matters obviously deserve another look.

First, can people be “religious” without belief in God, or a god, or gods? Yes, absolutely. This is not “becoming possible” now but has long been true. The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam. The Buddha Dharma Education Association, among others, states flatly that true Buddhists do not “believe in a god.” Yet teachers like Kusala Bhikshu tell us “a lot of Buddhists believe in God” while others don’t.

Or consider the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, self-defined as a “religion” yet creedless. It explicitly welcomes atheists as members in good standing alongside those with a God-concept. Humanistic Judaism likewise designates itself as a “religion” but eliminates the Jewish God.

However, those are obvious exceptions. Most atheists have no involvement with “religious” groups, don’t consider themselves “religious,” and may feel the label is a slur.

One comment distinguished between ordinary atheists with a live-and-let-live attitude toward belief versus atheists who turn “religious” in their zeal to oppose “religion.” This referred to the recent “new atheist” authors and activists who not only argue against God but may demean religion and religionists as stupid or evil, or seek limitations on religious rights commonly recognized by democracies.

Since devout religion and convinced atheism wrestle with the same issues, The Guy suggests everyone call a truce and speak of atheism not as “religious” but as a “philosophy” or “ideology” or “worldview” or “metaphysical stance.” Comments?

On to the June question and answer about the historical facts when atheists exercise political power, which were calculated to provoke discussion and certainly succeeded!

Political atheism first became a reality with 20th Century Communism and raises such questions as: Is it fair to blame atheism for Communism’s atrocities? Was political atheism superior to, as bad as, or worse than, political Christendom? Has political atheism been unusually vile? Should atheists apologize for the behavior of atheistic regimes the way Christians have for past belieers’ sins? Has any devoutly atheistic regime respected human rights? Oh, and was The Religion Guy a “dishonest” journalist in attempting to compare notable Christian and Communist death tolls? (As The Guy noted, atheists argue that Communism’s stupendous slaughter reflects the past century’s larger populations and modern technology.)

Some comments sought to pretend that atheism is incidental to Communism rather than central. But this global movement demands rigid materialism and godlessness, relentlessly propagandizes against religion, shows intolerance toward believers, and otherwise employs state power to foster what’s considered the inevitable disappearance of this “scourge.” However, Communists do differ on how much religion’s demise should be pushed forward by imprisonment, torture, and murder of clergy and lay believers in various world religions.

As The Guy noted, it’s important that although all (good) Communists are atheists, most atheists aren’t Communists. Thus atheists tend to absolve their worldview of any responsibility for Communist atrocities and see no need to apologize for them. Some atheists say Communism is the “religious” brand of atheism, seeking to make “religion” rather than atheism to blame for Communist horrors.

Fairly applying that approach to world religions would mean, for instance, that German anti-Semitism was a particular version (or, better, perversion) of Christianity not embraced by Christians today. It would also mean believers collectively don’t bear blame for the current mayhem from certain Muslim factions. But atheistic propaganda is apt to blame “religion” in general for any and all misdeeds by any religionists past or present.

For further exploration, see “Doubt: A History” (2003) by poet-author Jennifer Michael Hecht, and “The Twilight of Atheism” (2006) by Alister McGrath. He’s especially interesting as a onetime atheist and Oxford professor with doctorates in both science and religion. McGrath thinks Communist evils fostered atheism’s alleged loss of credibility but says atheism’s challenge helped cleanse the church.

Another Brit, Nick Spencer, is just out with another history, “Atheists: The Origin of the Species.” Spencer, research director of the Theos think tank and University of London fellow, contends that though atheists see non-belief as the inevitable result of philosophy and science, the atheistic movement actually arose largely in response to socio-political developments in Europe.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR THE GUY?

Please leave your questions for Richard Ostling in our comments pages or go to his site and leave them there!

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Brian Westley

    Atheism, like theism, isn’t a religion. It can be a tenet of a religion — specific forms of theism are part of many religions, and there are even a few religions like Raelianism and F.A.C.T. that have atheism as a tenet (there are also a number of religions where theism isn’t a requirement).

    I think the most precise way to describe atheism is someone who doesn’t hold the creed “god(s) exist”, or, just someone who is not a theist.

  • fredx2

    Thanks for exposing the rampant non-intellectualism of much of the New Atheist stuff. The more I come into contact with those people, the more I understand that they are not in the least ruled by an examination of the evidence. Rather, they act more as polemicists, who twist and distort any event in history they can. They are not about examining ALL the evidence, they are about examining only the negative evidence. Their High Poo-bah, after all, was Christopher Hitchens who made his career by being a Trotskyite Polemicist.

    Certainly individual atheists can be wonderful people. So no one should be belittled simply for being an atheist. It is an honorable position to take. But when atheism includes a broad brush, no-thinking-allowed attack on those who don’t share their views, then they have crossed one of the lines of common decency, and need not be taken seriously.

    Atheism, whenever it has been adopted as the operating principle behind a society, has produced disastrous results. That is the long and short of it.

    As to the excuse that is given: “atheists argue that Communism’s stupendous slaughter reflects the past century’s larger populations and modern technology.”

    This is obviously false. First, they claim religion is far more dangerous to man than atheism. Religious societies had the same technology available to it and yet they have not murdered millions. Only the atheist societies have done this.
    Also, the French Revolution did not have these technological advantages – yet atheism promptly proceeded to murder thousands upon thousands, (40-100,000, in one country, over a period of a few years) and they promptly declared that some pigs are better than others, and generally engaged in a reign of terror.

    • Ray Ingles

      Their High Poo-bah, after all, was Christopher Hitchens who made his career by being a Trotskyite Polemicist.

      Funny how the supposed “leader” of atheism, or New Atheism, depends on which theist is attacking atheism. Most frequently it’s supposed to be Dawkins. In any case, I might humbly suggest checking out the actual words of these supposed fire-breathers.

      Religious societies had the same technology available to it and yet they have not murdered millions.

      One word: Hitler. Well, OK, a few more: Rwanda. Armenia. Bosnia-Herzegovina.

      • wlinden

        Or Ditchkins, the frumious bandersnatch of atheism.

    • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

      For someone who fulminates against “non-intellectualism,” you’re getting your arguments awfully muddled.

      First you say atheism is “an honorable position to take,” then you turn around and blame atheism for destroying societies and murdering millions? What is it about the lack of belief in God that causes such wanton destruction? And if there’s something so inherently murderous about this lack of belief, why would it be an honorable position?

      Religious societies had the same technology available to it and yet they have not murdered millions.

      They haven’t? Am I to believe that Nazi Germany —whose government had a cozy relationship with the Catholic Church and whose soldiers wore belt buckles that read GOTT MIT UNS— was a hotbed of atheism and freethought? Or do you not believe that they mudered millions?

  • Ray Ingles

    As The Guy noted, it’s important that although all (good) Communists are atheists, most atheists aren’t Communists… Fairly applying that approach to world religions would mean, for instance, that German anti-Semitism was a particular version (or, better, perversion) of Christianity not embraced by Christians today.

    How odd that I actually said exactly that. “The significant contribution of things like Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” to the Holocaust cannot be denied. (Happily, modern Lutheranism has quite abandoned this aspect of their history.)”

  • Ray Ingles

    Some comments sought to pretend that atheism is incidental to Communism rather than central.

    Monotheism is central to Islam as well as Christianity. Therefore Christians have to apologize for the atrocities of Muslims?

    No?

    That bit about “most atheists aren’t Communists” really is important, then.

  • Ray Ingles

    The Buddha lived perhaps 26 centuries ago and everyone agrees Buddhism is as much a religion as, say, Islam.

    Ahem. Well, actually

    The Guy suggests everyone call a truce and speak of atheism not as “religious” but as a “philosophy” or “ideology” or “worldview” or “metaphysical stance.” Comments?

    Now this I can get behind. All religions are philosophies or worldviews, but not all philosophies or worldviews are religions.

  • Donalbain

    Wow.. what an amazingly stupid article.

    Political atheism first became a reality with 20th Century Communism

    Strange.. I suppose the French Revolution never happened.

    As The Guy noted, it’s important that although all (good) Communists are atheists, most atheists aren’t Communists.

    All the believers were together and had everything in common. – Some book or other..

    Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_communism


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