Is Atheism a Religion? Part 1

It would seem something like Godwin’s law applies to the vexed question of whether or not atheism is a religion: “The longer an internet conversation about the subject goes, the probability of a “new atheist” claiming that “atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position” approaches 1.” Actually, the “longer” part is more or less irrelevant. It is very often the first thing said on the matter.

Indeed, one of the most salient features of the “new atheism” (I am going to consistently use this term in order not to paint all atheists with the same brush, but you know the person on your social media feeds that I’m talking about) is its constant resort to clichéd phrases: “We’re all atheists about 99% of the gods, atheists just go one step further;” “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings;” “ . . . flying spaghetti monster . . . ;” etc. Indeed, one could articulate a general law that “the probability of a new atheist using slogan x in response to issue y approaches 1 as soon as the issue is broached.” There are certainly several reasons for this. Here are just two.

First, the “new atheism” is, to a significant degree, a product of the internet, where catch phrases and slogans are the norms of communication for almost everyone. There is probably is a bit of a chicken-egg dynamic here as with the broader cultural and political battles of our time. As we become more divided we rely more and more on sloganeering, but we are also in possession of (or perhaps dominated by) a medium simply made for sloganeering.

Second, many of the devotees of the new atheism were convinced of or confirmed in their atheism by such sloganeering, and so they repeat it, having little or no awareness that more nuanced conversations about such matters are even possible. This is, admittedly, at least partly the fault of the shallow or even fundamentalist nature of much of the Christian formation received by those “new atheists” who were raised Christians. New atheists don’t have a monopoly on lack of nuance.

But these slogans, as effective as they may be against unarmed opponents, fail in a variety of ways. They don’t define their terms (or worse, they rely on the hope that no one listening is thinking about defining terms), they make massive generalizations, and they present analogies that rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Indeed, the question of whether atheism is a religion or not, depends immensely on the definition of the terms “atheism” and “religion.” Jimmy Akin attacks the problem from this angle and concludes that, depending on what one means by the term “religion” atheism may or may not be a religion. This is, of course, perfectly defensible. But it leaves a lot more work to be done. As Akin himself intimates, the real question is whether atheism and religion have certain features in common.

Stephen Bullivant offers a further clarification that highlights that the question under consideration is actually based on a category mistake, though not the category mistake implied by the standard “new atheist” retort. While the claim that “atheism is to religion what abstinence is to sex positions” suggests that atheism is simply the absence of religion, the metaphor at work falls apart because it actually equates theism, that is, belief in God, with religion. But one can believe in God and not be religious, or one can be quite religious and reject belief in God.

As Bullivant highlights, neither theism nor atheism can be a religion. Both are simply beliefs about the existence of God that may or may not be related to a larger structure of worldview and practice that we typically call “religion.” Bullivant even highlights deliberate attempts to create atheistic religious systems to make the point that, “Even though atheism itself is not, and cannot be, a religion, it does not follow that ‘atheism’ and ‘religion’ are necessarily mutually exclusive categories.”

Both Akin and Bullivant highlight the difficulties of defining “religion.” And it is a notoriously difficult thing to define. I want to go one step further. I want to suggest that “religion,” at least as it is being used in these debates, is a dubious concept altogether.

Of course one can make any number of working definitions of religion and then straightforwardly answer whether or not atheism is a religion according to that definition, but doing so doesn’t actually advance the conversation at all (except perhaps to clear up confusion between two parties whose use of terminology had been at odds). If a religion is having a position on the existence of God and an afterlife, atheism is a religion. If a religion is believing in God and an afterlife, it is not, though neither are other things usually called “religion.” If one is a strict Aristotelian, one would say that atheism is not a religion, that is, a subvirtue of justice wherein humanity renders to God what God is due. We could go on.

But the real issue remains unaddressed as long as we ignore why the question is being asked in the first place and why different groups are beholden to different answers. Why is it that many religious believers want to insist that atheism is a religion? And why do atheists wish to deny the same? And what is the functioning definition of “religion” in the background of these desires?

It is these questions that I will take up in Part 2.

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    you ask some very interesting questions, and I am very much looking forward to your answers. But to get the ball rolling (perhaps in another direction entirely) I want to raise two points from a Zizekian perspective that I think are relevant here.

    First, as Zizek has argued, at all times and at all places there is a dominant ideology that shapes our thinking and discourse. But what (in his opinion) make the 21st century West unusual is its self-conscious assertion that we (enlightened westerners) no longer are trapped by ideology. As Fukuyama claimed, we are at the “end of history” because ideologies have collapsed, and we are left with the “truth” of market capitalism and liberal democracy.

    The New Atheists, as a particular substrand of Western liberalism, seem very much in this mold: they believe themselves to be free of any ideological blinders, dealing directly with empirical reality via reason. They see religion as an ideology of the past which must be extirpated in order to bring everyone into their post-ideological world.

    Secondly, Zizek has argued that all ideologies (acknowledged or not) function on both a rational and baser level, and that one must strive to understand the “libidinal enjoyment” that an ideology provides. In other words, ideologies are not simply adopted because they make sense on a rational level, but also (and perhaps mainly) because they provide emotional fulfillment in some way.

    The problem is that no ideology is able to successfully explain everything in the world. These gaps eat at the sense of emotional fulfillment. But rather than seek out the gaps in their ideology and modify it, those who hold it try to paper over the gaps by finding a scapegoat for this lack. In Zizek’s Lacanian turn of phrase, they attack those who have “stolen their jouissance.”

    I think this provides some insight into the reason that new atheists reject so forcefully the notion that they are a religion (at least in some sociological definitions of the term). Further, it explains their vehement attacks against religion, and in particular their almost obsessive railing against Islam (here Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens come to mind).

    To be fair, we can turn this analysis around and apply it to Christianity as well—I addressed this a couple years ago in a post:

    Traversing the Christian Fantasy

    But here I want to ask the question: what is the unacknowledged ideology that shapes new atheists and their discourse? And what are the gaps in this ideology that drive their attacks: what is the nature of their stolen jouissance?

    • Cojuanco

      The ideology is not unacknowledged: it is clearly a species of liberalism, whether of the classical or “modern” varieties, with a healthy does of modernism. It is the same spirit that animates most American politicians. The reason they do not see it as an ideology is because liberalism has been THE dominant ideology since at least 1989, if not earlier for much of the West.

    • emmasrandomthoughts

      It’s a small point, but I do want to mention that New Atheism emerged in the shadow of 9/11. Sam Harris stated that he started writing The End of Faith on September 12, 2001. That may or not be true, but “the common enemy” of the West has changed from the “godless communists” to the “Islamic fundamentalists.”

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Very true. And very much to Zizek’s point. The new atheist construction of the evil Muslim has about as much contact with reality as the Nazi’s construction of the evil Jew. But both are supposed to have stolen the jouissance.

      • LM


        While Sam Harris began his career as a public atheist responding the 9/11 attacks, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were public atheists for many years prior to that point. The New Atheism movement is not really about 9/11 or a “Clash of Civilizations” (atheists are as divided as anyone else about what 9/11 really meant in the broader scheme of things) but as a vigorous response to the idea that religion should be have a privileged status in society. What distinguishes the New Atheism from atheism of the Madelynn Murray O’Hair type or the ivory tower variety favored by figures like Bertrand Russell is the idea that atheism should be a mass movement, that religion makes claims that are empirically false (as opposed to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria) and atheists should challenge believers on said claims, that religion is completely separate from ethics and morality, and that atheists should be “out and proud” about their non-belief. I think it is the last point that many Christians find threatening, because they are accustomed to Christianity having a privileged place in society and are not accustomed to having said privilege challenged.

        • Mark VA


          What I find in the “New Atheist” narrative is scrupulous avoidance of any analysis of the atheist and “scientific” regimes, which so recently ruled over so many, with near absolute and tyrannical privilege. Rather, they obsessively focus on their current enemy, organized religion.

          It’s a pity that this recent history is so little known in the West. If it were not so, this local incarnation of materialism would be easily seen for what it currently is: grade school atheism, still in its name calling, tantrum throwing, ego-inflating, and self-absorbed stage.

          If one is truly interested in this recent history, a good place to begin is here:

          Then, to see how this reality can be filtered, one could read Slavoj Zizek, the current reigning l’enfant terrible (albeit graced with a sense of humor) of all things ideological:

        • LM


          I’m involved in the Sunday Assembly in my city, and although it’s often referred to as the “Atheist Church,” it’s not entirely accurate (this is based on my own experiences of being in various sorts of churches). The “point” of Sunday Assembly is to create secular communities that “celebrate life,” and not so much to harp on atheism as such. Each meeting has a theme like Science, Resilience, Death, Play, etc. There is a segment called “Doing My Best” where a member will give a short speech about overcoming hardship, and there is also a main platform about the topic in question. The music portions consist of popular songs sung karaoke style. We are in the process of developing a children’s program. The Sunday Assembly that I attend also has other groups that meet throughout the week based on specialized interests like secular meditation, volunteer work, philosophy, and science. Sunday Assembly is run by completely by volunteers, though donations are used to cover costs like renting room space and buying folding chairs.

          @Mark VA

          Bringing up the body count of Maoism or Soviet-style Communism would be relevant if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris advocated either of those systems, but they don’t. It would be akin to blaming Islamic terrorism on Christians (or vice versa) simply because Islam and Christianity are both expose theism. Neither China nor Russia – or any of the Soviet bloc countries for that matter – have a liberal tradition of respecting religious freedom, freedom of speech, or freedom of association. Even if the White Russians had won the Russian Civil War, twentieth century Russia still wouldn’t have ended up with a political system like Great Britain or France. A society committed to open inquiry, liberal democracy, and respect for human rights are a given with the New Atheism, and the cult of personality, disregard for empirical facts, and generalized barbarism that charactericzes communist regimes is enough to discredit them from the standpoint of a Western secular humanist.

          The history of church-state relations under the Soviet Union is actually quite interesting, although far too complicated to properly explain in a comm box. I think that because the Russian Orthodox Church was/is so used to being an appendage of the state that it was unable to launch a credible, independent opposition to the communist regime because it had no identity outside the state. Plus, the Stalin showered the church with attention and resources during World War II as a means of creating social cohesion/control. In fact, many contemporary Russians have a very favorable view of Stalin, especially if they are religious and/or patriotic:

          A relevant quote from the second link:

          “Stalin was no saint, but he was not a monster,” said Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Shumsky, accusing Stalin’s critics of exaggerating the scale of his crimes.

          He described assertions that Stalin had been in complete control a myth created by liberals and said the former leader had wanted to stop the process of repression.”

          Going back to the US, I think many religious people, especially in the South where I live, simply are not used to having religion criticized, so they dismiss said critiques out of hand. But there is no reason why religious claims should be exempt from serious inquiry, especially when said claims have a direct impact of public policy.

    • Mark VA

      A very poetic and romantic vision of the power of ideology, Mr. Cruz-Uribe. I think you got the essence of this jouissance, I mean this sincerely.

      This vision conjures up the power of the ring in the Das Rheingold – its jouissance can be had as long as love is denied – your “… those who hold it try to paper over the gaps” phrase alludes to this.

      Perhaps we should close with Erda’s warning to all those who make such chthonic bargains:

    • Tausign

      David, I have no knowledge of Zizek other than your brief explanation, nevertheless I’ll venture a response. I think the main ideology that informs the New Atheism is ‘materialism’ or the belief that all reality is contained within the material realm. I am NOT speaking of materialism as consumerist tendencies or hording, etc. but rather the need to view all of existence/reality as a structure or system capable of being investigated and manipulated. This is a realm where science has the expectation of ultimately discovering all form. The ‘eschatological hope’ in this New Atheism is that life can somehow be captured in a material form (copied or digitized) and then restarted on a new substance, all with a hope of transmitting whatever essence of live is involved. You see this in current cinema and virtual reality themes.

      For the New Atheist, experiences (as for instance ‘love’ or ‘wisdom’) need to be translated (or decoded) into some material substrate where they can be explained or examined through some physical property or characteristic. In this ‘religious’ system (if you will) the ‘common and poorly formed layperson’ accepts the notion of non-material realities such as “ideas” or “love” or “happiness” with amusement (their’ jouissance’…their gap). The ‘jouissance’ is stolen when they are confronted by opponents with the contradictions of “a non-material idea”, or are informed by influential ‘hierarchical adherents of NA’, that they must let go of such a quaint ‘non-material’ notion. The anathema in this new religion (if we think of it as such) is that science is not the arbiter of all reality(ies).

    • Tausign

      Just to correct a point: when I spoke of science investigating and manipulating ‘structures and systems’ I should have included the investigation and manipulation of ‘chaos and disorder’ also.

  • Ronald King

    Brett, I am happy to see a post from you and, not that it matters much, but, go mariners. I think that you and David hit the “jouissance” right on the head. In addition, I think there is an underlying rage, shame and isolation resulting from the history of violence in human relationships which in turn has contaminated human relationships and development. It is my belief that we are all seeking the answer to our individual crisis of being helpless and without substance and seeking the substance of ideas as a compensation.

  • dismasdolben

    I think that what David is asking and what you are asking HERE: “Why is it that many religious believers want to insist that atheism is a religion? And why do atheists wish to deny the same?” are the really important questions.

    Anyone who has taken the International Baccalaureate’s “Theory of Knowledge” course in high school knows that ANY kind of “knowledge” CAN be characterized as “justified true belief,” and that, under the most commonly accepted “way of knowing,” there is absolutely no way of proving the existence or non-existence of something called “God,” i.e. that is by using the “way of knowing” called “science.” That must mean that, if one characterizes “religion” as a “belief system,” atheism MUST be a “religion.” because “belief” in it can only be “justified” by a method other than the scientific, which is–probably unfortunately–the prevalent “way of knowing” of our culture. Folks “believe’ in “God” in ways OTHER than the prevailing “way of knowing” of our culture. (This course for high schoolers, by the way, grants legitimacy to a number of other “ways of knowing” and does, indeed, subject the “scientific method” to sharp scrutiny; there are “ethics,” “beauty/aesthetics,” “emotions/empathy,” etc.)

    Since “atheism,” then, IS a non-scientific “belief system,” just as “religion” is, what I want to know, usually, in engaging in this discussion with students in this course is WHY one chooses NOT to “believe” in the existence of “God,” because it is obviously just as much a choice as faith is. What MOTIVATES this kind of “choice”? This is similar, I think, to the questions both you and David are asking.

    Also, another matter that I think could illuminate this discussion is the question as to why so many people in the modern world have chosen NOT to “believe” in what they first came to “love”. I think that, in almost all human lives, “love” comes before any kind of “belief,” and, if religious “faith” is actually, on an ontological level (I think my use of that word may be correct, in this case),a TRUST,in “goodness” or human AND supernatural “faithfulness” (the idea, perhaps, that “all will be well” in the universe, similar to the feeling that “all” was “well” in one’s parents’ arms), then it is troubling–at least to me–that so many insist that they must rationally analyze (which is what they call “belief”) something BEFORE they may “love” it. This, I think, is a historically documentable transformation of human nature, and, I suspect, a decline of it.

  • Mark VA

    I think that many religious believers want to call atheism a “religion”, because they want to relativise its all-encompassing claims (“just one religion among many” (unfortunately, also an appeal to syncretism)). Atheists may resist this “relativisation” by claiming that the insights of science and the scientific method are the authoritative arbiters of all reality, and atheism is just the necessary conclusion of these endeavors.

    Recent history (twentieth century) suggests that in the background of this to and fro may be much more than just a scholarly debate about the correct definition of this or that word. Depending on how this issue progresses, access to some areas of higher education may become limited for those who repeatedly demonstrate their inability to evolve from the habit of “magical thinking”.

    Based on the above, I think it is unnecessary to call atheism a religion. It would be better to meet its claims on the open field of logic, rather than to play what I think are fruitless and shadowy word games.

  • LM

    In and of itself, atheism is a philosophical position, just like theism. If you want to know more about what a person actually believes, then you have to use additional descriptors like Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. However, even these words are too general, and even Catholic and Protestant don’t explain all of the diversity found in the Christian world. The same is true for the atheist world. There are objectivist/libertarian atheists, secular humanist atheists, naturalist pagans, skeptics, Buddhist atheists, Marxist atheists, and so on and so forth. The term “life stance” is probably the best descriptor for describing a non-theistic worldview:

    I think there are several reasons why more people are becoming disillusioned with theism. First, there is no relation between piety towards a deity and ethical behavior towards one’s fellow humans. Second, religion makes claims that are either demonstrably false or unverifiable. Third, many, if not most, traditional religions are highly patriarchal and hostile to the interests of women. Fourth, religion is also tends to be oppositional towards secular learning and looks down upon people who ask questions.

    This is an interesting article about an Ethiopian village that decided not to have a religion:

    The result was that by not wasting time on religious observances and by treating the sexes equally, Awra Amba was able to become the richest village in Northern Ethiopia. However, the neighboring Muslim and Christian villages have responded to Awra Amba’s success with jealous and even violence.

    • Mark VA


      The “people” can become disillusioned with theism for many reasons, but the claim that religion is “oppositional towards secular learning” is historically unsupportable – the very opposite is demonstrable. For starters, here:

      Perhaps the favorite “proof” of this type of claim is the Church’s arguable mishandling of the Galileo Galilei case. However, so much is often extrapolated from this case, it makes one wonder how such a house of wobbly claims can sustain itself on such a weak foundation (the answer is: by unwavering repetition). Also, if this claim was true, we would expect the Church to put the Theory of Evolution under a question mark, at the very least – has it?

      I wonder if the “people” know what the Church’s stand is on this, or any other, scientific issue?
      I also wonder how many “people” know anything about the atheist and “scientific” regimes that operated in the twentieth century?

      Who was it that said we’re entitled to opinions, but not to facts?

      • LM

        @Mark VA

        I wasn’t talking about the Galileo affair or even the Catholic church in particular when I mentioned hostility to secular learning (I’m actually willing to cut Galileo’s inquisitors some slack since they lived in a pre-scientific era), but rather the current situation, where charter schools and private schools that receive tax payer money and/or vouchers are allowed to teach that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden:

        Incredibly, even geocentrism is also making a comeback. You’ve probably head about how Robert Sungenis is promoting geocentrism, but this view is particularly commonplace in ultra-Orthodox Judaism:

        The problem goes beyond the issue of human origins and the age of the universe. Many conservative religious people reject psychology and psychiatry, perhaps because these fields posit alternative explanations for why humans act the way they do. Consequently, believers are encouraged to fast and pray, rather than seek professional help even if they are suffering from severe mental problems. The findings of modern archaeology and biblical scholarship are also rejected en masse because they cast doubt on the traditional reading of religious texts. In the Christian tradition in particular, there is an emphasis on the primacy of belief and in trusting in God “like a little child,” which does not encourage critical thought. The rise of religious homeschooling is borne from a desire to shelter children in a bubble where they will never have to encounter anyone or anything that is contrary to the parents’ religious views.

        • Mark VA

          L.M., thank you for your kind reply – as you’ve correctly noted, my assumption was wrong. Also, my reply to you was needlessly polemical – mea culpa.

          Regarding Creationism and the Theory of Evolution (as expounded by atheists): it seems to me that both sides have bought into a very simplistic notion:

          The Theory of Evolution is true, therefore, God does not exist.

          The corollaries that naturally follow, if one buys into this, are that humans have no souls, and that there is no afterlife.

          I think that the approach of the Catholic Church to this subject would be beneficial for both the creationists, and the atheists (at least those who sincerely believe in the above).

          A small footnote; as sometimes happens in life, unexpected developments have a way giving us all a welcome pause. For example, the 2014 recipient of the Carl Sagan award for “… outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public…” is Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., PhD :

          Go Jesuits!

        • Dante Aligheri

          To be fair, everything you just mentioned – except for the Orthodox Judaism situation, which I do not know enough about – is sectarian and not the normative view of the ancient and apostolic Churches.

          Sungenis, a lone eccentric associated with some anti-Semitic leanings, does not speak for Catholicism (classed in the same category of Michael Voris), and creationism (until recently, an Evangelical creation less than a century old before infiltrating Catholicism and posturing as tradition) is a decidedly “modern” phenomenon shorn from its historic roots. Origen and his Patristic followers, including St. Augustine but not limited to him, all allegorized Genesis far more thoroughly than modern Christians.

          As someone who was homeschooled, I concur with you concerning the “some” homeschools and charter schools with regards to creationism. I will also not disavow that some of what you describe does not occur because it most certainly does. Some parents honestly do a far better job than a lot of public schools out there. And I agree there should be more training and oversight.

          I deplore and am sickened by scientific illiteracy and anti-evolutionism fostered by fundamentalism – which especially tars religion with a bad name and makes a laughingstock of our intellectual heritage. How were we reduced from the Fathers, Eckarts, and Scotuses to this I cannot fathom. However, I will also say that scientific illiteracy is not just a Christian or religious phenomenon. There are also alternative healers, for example.

          I will equally speak to a philosophical illiteracy on the part of some scientists and science popularizers, possibly borne of overspecialization so common in higher academia, and an inability to appreciate history and philosophy.

          As for findings in archaeology, ancient history, and biblical criticism, where I am more at home, I will only say that if you mean believing that Moses wrote the Torah from Genesis through Deuteronomy word for word then, yes, more education is needed. But other than that there is much variation even in scholarship between the Jewish Studies, History, and Old Testament/New Testament Departments of universities, among maximalists such as Gary Rendsburg to minimalists like Finkelstein and Konrad Schmid [not to mention an entirely irreligious scholars like David Rohl who is best seen as eccentric], there is a wide range of scholarly opinion. Here, too, I think we see tendencies to over-pronounce and “dogmatize” on the part of scholarship due to myopic specialization in university departments.

          The worst part is, of course, that very little of the debate filters down to even high schools, public and private, and the general public so that the prevailing opinions take years to shift. At worst, certain orthodoxies are taken up, in all fields, that mask all the work that is really being done – whether in science or the humanities. Professors of mine have always said that they feel, for example, social studies teachers need to be equipped with more training in history as a discipline than they currently are.

          On this note, I will simply say that there is good thing, contra Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, in “churches” and not “sects” – namely, that “churches” have the virtue of perspective, authority, and tradition whether grounded in Luther and Calvin, Rome, Canterbury, Constantinople, Alexandria, Baghdad, or Moscow.

    • Tausign

      “In and of itself, atheism is a philosophical position, just like theism.”

      Yes. Cardinal Schonborn, in his book Chance or Purpose? does a good job is demonstrating that much of what is accepted as scientific precepts are actually philosophical conjectures instead. Here’s one example among a few he cites: Modern science directly implies that the world is organized according to strictly mechanical principles. There are in nature no principles whatever directed towards goals. There are no gods, and no powers can be rationally ascertained which devise or plan anything [English author Will Provine].

      He (Schonborn) replies: [This] Those are not actually scientific statements but philosophical ones. They might also be regarded, to some extent, as confessions of belief. Such statements, and similar ones, may be heard time and time again, and they are the reason that I said…regarding this kind of straying beyond the boundaries of competence (but not about scientific theories as such), that this is not science but ideology, a way of looking at the world. page 28

      This has its counterpart which you highlight in a later reply where you site a few examples of rejection of current understanding in evolution, psychology, archeology, etc. (‘opposition to secular thinking’.) Again its a matter of confusing a theological understanding of the world with a scientific one. To some extent I see all of this as truncated and ‘uninspired’ understanding with different ideological corners duking it out.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I forget the title, but I remember reading a book which explained that many non-Western countries do not have a concept called “religion.” Rather, what we call religion is simply an ingrained part of culture – namely, piety towards God or the gods is in roughly the same category as piety towards parents, elders, one’s community, etc. Indeed, only when cultural beliefs become exported (as happened during Roman times when Romans had the unique opportunity to pick and choose gods or mysteries – much to the chagrin of traditionalists like Cato). The whole complex of piety meant following the “ways of one’s fathers” – i.e., social cohesion. These Romans of Late Antiquity, the first religious “consumers” who could buy and sell ideologies, could suddenly imagine another way of being and new social relationships – “life stance,” “paradigm,” “worldview,” etc. We cannot go back to when one worldview is roughly normative and unquestioned, the intellectual elites expounding one system as the objective truth.

    The intellectual Roman Platonists like Celsus and Iamblichus tried a modus vivendi by saying each people should just stick with their own rites and gods. Nonetheless, the Platonists recognized they had the philosophical truth behind all of these religions, that their rites would bring them closest to the divine, etc. This is why Celsus found Origen incomprehensible. For Christians such as Origen and Jews, of course, one should only honor the truly “real” power which is Divine Providence – namely, the Ineffable and Unknowable Creator, “He Who Is.” Indeed, Philo of Alexandria said it was the extreme apophaticism of the absolute One (contra Plato himself who posited an intelligible Demiurge and Forms without a so-called “One” and contra the later Plotinus) which necessitated positive Revelation. Even 18th century Deism follows this assumption that only the Supreme Being ought to be honored positively – which was uniquely Jewish assumption based on YHWH’s incomparability and status as ‘anti-god,’ to use Jan Assman’s term. Celsus agreed with Origen about an Ineffable One. No Plotinian, including the mystery religion synthesist, Iamblichus (whom the more ‘rational’ Platonists detested), disputed that point. What Celsus could not understand was why one should worship what one does not know and could not worship what seemed both knowable and effective – namely, the minor gods of traditional religion.

    It should be noted, however, that early Yahwists did not deny that Gentiles should worship other gods (whom YHWH appointed over them) but merely that they as Yahwists should not. And, there is some debate about whether Yahwism was an ethnicity-based religion or a more voluntary association formed after the ravages of imperialist reaches of Egypt into Canaan.

    Indeed, the closest we have come was the objectivity of reason, science, and democratic liberalism. Even this has been thrown into doubt with other options like socialism and postmodernism – the logical end of tolerance, which in itself militates against the norm of reason as the objective arbiter. This is why Pope Benedict XVI wanted to ally with science and philosophy in promoting a “logos” of human truth and promote the classical theism which so many Christians have tried to destroy.

    The problem is simply we now in the post-modern world disagree about what can be known and what is accessible to all. The Platonist “concensus” philosophers of late antiquity, including Christian ones, did not doubt that the One can be known to exist by reason alone. Indeed, they derided the senses in that they merely penetrated appearances (cf. Hypatia of Alexandria’s ascetical views). Then, in the medieval period, no intellectual (Jew, Muslim, or Christian) doubted certain base principles – namely, the oneness of God (contra their Platonist predecessors) – which they believed could be shown by reason alone, an objective truth. Pope Benedict has wanted to bring us back to Late Antiquity in defense of the logos of philosophy – using the normative power of science by making science more aware of philosophy and the traits of the One which were believed to be deductible based on reason alone. This, I think, is the only way to go forward. However, let us suppose that a Christian goes through the apophatic process and then decides he cannot know “what” God is and is reduced to a Job-like state, what is the difference between him and the atheist except that the Christian acknowledges more of what can be known – namely, a mode of relations to some kind of “transcendent” (whatever that is supposed to mean in a post-Einstein cosmos) One which cannot be reduced to the creation and revealed in Jesus Christ as a relation of love and eschatological destiny. But this is precisely revealed.

    To be honest, I do not think classical theism was ever refuted. It was just never really addressed and left forgotten.

    No, atheism is not a religion. But neither do I think “religion” to be a meaningful category in this day and age where our intellectual life has run its course. After all, Buddhism does not believe in any gods at all. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam affirm “God” – namely, absolute One revealed to Abraham, but not “a god” (serially alongside other gods or creatures) in the old sense. Hinduism “believes” in the One. Does a Christian or Hindu really “believe” in the One or simply acknowledge it and then “believe” certain things about it? “Believe” would best mean “to trust.” But can a Hindu “trust” in the One as one of the Abrahamic religions might? I am not informed enough on Hinduism to make that call.

    Our real crisis, it seems, is that many people in a postmodern world have given up on the value of any kind of truth. And I’m not just talking about religious truth. I have had people tell me that they do not care whether a Big Bang happened – or not – or how it happened, how evolution happens, etc. What is the utilitarian value of string theory? Close to nil except a desire for truth. Of course, people then esteem philosophy even less. Science, theology, philosophy have been and always will be the endeavor of a curious group but nothing more. What is the utilitarian value of the One? Nothing, except the dogged belief by every generation except our own that if we model our lives and our ethics after what is in nature as unfolded by the One then we are living correctly. Asceticism became a way to human perfection because of the order in nature. Indeed, “living in Christ” is an ethical claim that the Logos which made nature by which we live our lives and the revealed Christ is the summit of human life. In this respect, evolution has thrown even this into doubt because reality cannot be normative or trustworthy in the old sense. We have reached an impasse started milennia ago by the scribes of the Axial Age – the writers of the Deuteronomic Torah, the Platonists, the Hindu philosophers, Buddha, etc. The Torah writers started apophaticism when they moved YHWH into the heavens and placed a rationale behind aniconism – namely, YHWH’s incomparability – and put a hypostasis, or less, in his place. Even here, they perhaps are to be compared with the Priestly writers who did see “YHWH-in-temple” as the blueprint for the cosmos and the natural world and our very lives. In the view of P, YHWH rites matter to right way of nature. Hindus ridded, like the Deuteronomists, their old rites of the gods and enshrined theurgic meanings in their place along with the Brahman. Of course, the Platonists worshipped at the old shrines but also reinvested their practices with new, theotic meaning made plain by Iamblichus. All of these approaches lived side by side with “ways of the fathers” approach which made religious observance a matter of cultural integrity.

    Thanks to Christianity and the “marketing” of religion as an association irrespective of national ties but actually a matter of claiming an intellectual truth, making “religion” (an assortment of cultural practices) into a philosophical claim and using that status as philosophy to win out to Late Antiquity’s elite, we left at the question:

    What happens when the “ways of the fathers” (true “religion” – that is, a set of practices associated with belonging to a certain society) dies out after secularization and the One of the Axial Age is literally too “far away,” out of the temple, to even matter at all?

  • Melody

    Apparently there are at least some atheists who long for community in the way that churches are community:
    Not to mention the “Bright” movement whose unifying belief is that there is no supernatural.
    Of course none of these things prove that atheism is a religion, just that a desire for fellowship with others of similar (non)beliefs is something they have in common with members of organized religions.

  • Mark VA

    L.M.: A few brief comments regarding your August 25, 2014 2:35 pm post:

    (a) Seems to me you lack direct experience of Communism – fair enough. But if this is true, then keep in mind that what knowledge you do possess about its atheism, has very likely been filtered;

    (b) Regarding your comment: “Neither China nor Russia – or any of the Soviet bloc countries for that matter – have a liberal tradition of respecting religious freedom, freedom of speech, or freedom of association.” With a statement of this sort, where does one begin? Well, perhaps here (in chronological order):

    © Regarding your claim to the effect: “A society committed to open inquiry, liberal democracy, and respect for human rights are a given with the New Atheism…” :

    Here is something more recent, that doesn’t seem to go along with this rosy meme:

    (d) In response to the quote you provided: “Stalin was no saint, but he was not a monster,” said Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Shumsky, accusing Stalin’s critics of exaggerating the scale of his crimes.”:

    I could go on.

    Who was it that said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” ?

    • LM

      @Mark VA

      My point in quoting that pro-Stalin priest was not to suggest that Stalin is good because some priest says so, but to show that many religious/patriotic Russians don’t see him the way you and I do. When they think of Stalin, they think of the man who turned a backward, feudal state into a world power and saved the fatherland from Hitler. That he killed millions of their compatriots while doing so doesn’t really figure into their mental calculus, because authoritarian rulers have pretty much been the norm in Russian history, before, during, and after communism. This may be hard for you to believe, but the only thing many conservative Russians don’t like about the USSR is the fact that it doesn’t exist anymore. To them, the Soviet era is the period when their country was a superpower, a leader in science and sports, and respected and feared by the West. When conservative Russians hear Westerners complain about Stalin’s human rights record, they consider that to be an attempt to smear their country and deny its place as a global power. Being an Orthodox Christian and an neo-Stalinist isn’t contradictory at all in contemporary Russia. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church even recently published a religious calendar devoted to Stalin:

      Perhaps this is because Stalin abolished the League of the Godless, reinstated some of the Orthodox Church’s traditional privileges, and allowed some churches and religious institutions to open. Perhaps this is why Metropolitan Sergei, on his elevation to the role of Patriarch in 1943, declared that Stalin was Russia’s “divinely appointed ruler.” I bring this up to show that the relationship between communism and religion isn’t as black and white as you would make it out to be. The various communist parties were willing tolerate certain religions as long as they could control it for their own purposes, and in many cases the churches that were picked out for priviledges were more than willing to cooperate.

      I’m not really sure what the Chabad movement has to do with the development (or lack thereof) of a liberal tradition in the former Soviet block countries, especially since Chabad, like most hasidic sects, is basically a personality cult. Actually, Chabad takes it even further and posits that their dead rebbe is the Messiah, which has lead other Orthodox Jews to accuse them of being heretics and crypto-Christians. That Tadeusz Kosciusko had some forward thinking ideas on a number of issues doesn’t suggest that his ideas were shared by enough of his countrymen that would have created a movement that could have lead to what we consider a liberal democratic government.

      This may also come as a surprise to you, but Richard Dawkins isn’t the atheist pope. When Dawkins speaks, he’s only representing himself, and many atheists disagreed with his recent comments on abortion and Down’s Syndrome. As I said earlier in this thread, atheism is a philosophical stance, as is theism. Neither atheism nor theism in and of themselves can tell you what a person’s values or ethics are. This is why it is nessesary to use other qualifiers like secular humanist, objectivist, Christian, Muslim, etc and even within these categories is a lot of diversity. Now, obviously I don’t agree with the conservative Catholic position on abortion, but I also don’t agree with the idea that there is a moral obligation to get an abortion if the fetus has a certain disability. The choice whether to abort a pregnancy of any sort should be up to the woman who is experiencing it, not me, Dawkins, the pope, or any other third party. I think that the best way to prevent fetuses with Down’s Syndrome from being aborted is to increase the level of educational and social services so that it becomes easier to raise a child with Down’s syndrome and hopefully allow them to have some measure of independence as an adult. I actually have a disability myself, and I was initially drawn in by the pro-life idea of helping prevent bias against disabled fetuses. But I eventually became turned off by the idea that disabled children are “given” to Christians so they can be better people, rather than appreciating them on their own terms. Disabled people were not put on this earth to make “normal” people feel good about themselves, any more than the purpose of blacks is to serve whites.

      One big problem with modern Christian discourse on disability is that it focuses on being alive to the exclusion of quality of life issues. Many of the same pro-lifers who are horrified by Dawkins’ comments have no problem with making it difficult for the disabled to lead independent lives, from opposing scientific research into stem cell research, opposing a single-payer health system that would help disabled people lead healthier lives, or opposing mass transit expansions that would increase the employment opportunities disabled adults. Many pro-lifers on the libertarian end are even opposed to the Americans with Disabilities Act, presumably because it oppresses business owners too much to require a handicapped bathroom. Now, I’m not suggesting that you have this attitude, but I live in a very conservative state and I feel like there are a ton of roadblocks in place for disabled adults who desire to assert their autonomy, even though many of my state’s elected officials would claim to be “pro-life.”

  • Mark VA

    L.M.: Several observations:

    (a) It wasn’t clear in the original post what your point was w.r.t. Stalin – you’ve clarified this ambiguity, thank you;

    (b) Your construct of the histories of the “Soviet block countries” regarding religious issues diverges from much of their pasts. Also, you paint with such a broad brush (lumping China, Russia, and the Soviet bloc countries into one undifferentiated mass), that any subsequent discussion will likely meander toward dilution;

    (c) The point that Lubavitchers had their start in Eastern Europe (as did many other religious sects, btw) contradicted your contention about the “lack of respect” for religious freedom in that place. On this issue, you veered toward a beside the point discussion of Lubavitcher’s “personality cult”. Why?

    (d) Perhaps a better approach would be to dispense with broad categories, since they tend toward stereotyping. Rather, let’s focus on one example at a time, and then use the emerging mosaic to develop better historical “graininess”. For example, the below (Norman Davies describes this as “the first constitution of its type in Europe”):,_1791

    (e) Your apparent reluctance or inability to place “New Atheism” in its objective historical perspective can be overcome by reading primary source information, most of it from the twentieth century.

    In summary:

    Much of the above is exactly the point of many discussions regarding our contemporary, American issues – more empathy toward “the other”, without the interference of stereotypes.

    • LM

      During the inter-war period, much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans fell under the sway of fascist regimes: Romania was ruled by the Iron Guard, Croatia by the Ustase, parts of Serbia by the Serbian State Guard, which was a Nazi puppet government (although the anti-Nazi Chetniks were also fascist and employed genocidal tactics), while Hungary gradually drifted towards more extreme forms of fascism as the Great Depression worsened and as it fell under the sway of Nazi Germany. Mao’s model for governance was the first Qin emperor who successfully united China into a single, powerful country, while simontaneously burning books and executing intellectuals. His Nationalist opponent, Chiang Kai-Shek was opposed to communism, liberal democracy, and the kind of democratic socialism favored by Sun Yat-sen in favor of a sort of “fascist Confucianism.” As with Russia, I don’t think that these countries would have ended up with a liberal democracy after WWII, regardless of the outcome of the war, because the ideological and institutional framework to make it happen just wasn’t there.

      I think that you automatically associate atheism of any type with communism because of the Cold War era propaganda that juxtaposed “God Bless America” with “godless communist Russia.” However, as I have said before, most communist countries were willing to tolerate certain religions if doing so helped further their political goals. The Russian Orthodox Church was tolerated in the Soviet Union because it could be used as a symbol of patriotism and cultural pride, whereas American-style Baptist churches or Catholic churches, were not tolerated because they were considered alien faiths operating under suspicious motives. A better example might be the modern day People’s Republic of China, where there are five officially recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Confucianism, once derided by Chinese intellectuals as a moribund ideology that was retarding China’s growth, is being rehabilitated because it emphasizes respect for authority, something the CCP is in desparate need of, given the rising number of what the government euphemestically refers to as “mass incidents.” The situation with Catholicism is a bit tricky, since there is an “official” Catholic church that is controlled by the CCP (the Chinese Patriotic Association of Catholics) and an “underground” Catholic church that gets its marching orders from Rome. The problem that the CCP has with Catholicism has less to do with objecting to the actual doctrines of the Church (which I doubt that very many cadres understand or care about) and more to do with China’s traditional dislike of Western missionary activity and the desire for the Chinese government to control religious expression in general, both of which are aspects of Chinese political culture that go back to the first Qin emperor.

      Automatically equating the New Atheism with Soviet state atheism also mistakenly assumes that 1. a direct relationship between the rising interest in atheism in the West and Soviet atheism 2. there was no independent Western atheist tradition. A naturalistic strain in Western thought can be traced back to the Epicurian and Stoic schools of thought, as outlined by the recently deceased Victor Stenger in his book “God and the Atom.” This trend disappeared with the spread of Christianity, but then reappeared during the Renaissance with the rediscovery of ancient texts like Lucretius’ “De Natura Rerum.” Enlightenment era writers like Spinoza, Diderot, Hume, and Voltaire play a much bigger role in the intellectual development of the Western atheistic tradition than anything Lenin or Stalin said or did. I guess I’m trying to say that I do believe that the New Atheism has a historical context, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

      Ayn Rand’s school of thought, Objectivism, actually arose as a protest against Christianity (particularly in its Eastern Orthodox iteration) and Soviet Communism. Her staunch atheism stemmed from anti-semitic attacks that she faced as a Jewish girl in Tsarist Russia, which caused her to have a lifelong dislike of “mysticism” and meta-physics. Later on, Rand’s family was disenfranchised by the Bolsheviks, which led her to flee to the US, where she would eventually rail against the state in all its forms. Rand’s atheism is crucial to her Objectivist philosophy (see the famous “A is A” statement), so much so, that I can’t figure out why supposedly “orthodox Catholics” like Paul Ryan are so enamored of it.

      Like all Hasidic sects, Chabad traces its root to the Baal Shem Tov, a radical mystic and reformer who believed that Jews should worship God through estatic worship, rather than by studying the Torah. Since by definition, only a small elite of Jewish men could ever aspire to be Torah scholars, the Baal Shem Tov’s egalitarian teachers were extremely appealing and very threatening to the status quo. To make a long story short, the more excessive aspects of Hasidic were eventually toned down, but the main difference between Hasidic sects and the “yeshivish” Orthodox Jews is the belief in a tzadik or holy man who is in constant communication with God, a belief that mysticism can be understood by anyone (men, at least), and the role of emotions in worshipping God. The figure of the tzadik became institutionalized in rabbinic dynasties, each of which has a “charism” that makes it a bit different from the other sects. Chabad has distinguished itself by its outreach to secular Jews and the curious case of the once and future messiah, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

      As you probably know, Orthodox Jews are still waiting for the messiah. What you may not know is that the Chabad movement believes that its own rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the messiah. While treating their particular rebbe as a living saint and God’s mouthpiece is the norm in Hasidism, the Chabadniks take this one step further by proclaiming him as the messiah the Jews have been waiting for for the past 2,000+ plus years. The problem is that Schneerson died back in the 1990s and the Jewish tradition has been quite univocal on the fact that the true messiah will not die before finishing his work of redeeming the world. Chabad has managed to find ways around this, to the point that some of the more hard-core messianists believe that Schneerson was really God inhabiting a human body. More mainstream Orthodox Jews are understandably upset that the most visible Hasidic sect seems to be becoming adopting ideas that are dangerously close to Christianity, which would put Chabad outside of mainstream Judaism.

      Despite the diversity of Jewish religious sects operating in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, I think it would be a stretch to say that they enjoyed anything but the bare minimum of toleration. During imperial Russia, there were a great many restrictions where Jews could travel, work, and live, with most of them being confined to the Pale of Settlement. Blood libel related pogroms were occurring well into the twentieth century. As the Tsarist government fought against revolutionary agitators, it whipped up anti-semitism to deflect attention away from its own incompetence. The chaos following WWI lead to another wave of serious pogroms occur. When many Holocaust survivors tried to return to their homes in Eastern Europe, they were met with pogroms as well. The viciousness of the post-Holocaust pogroms is what lead the survivors of European Jewry leave the continent altogether to go to Israel or the United States.

  • Mark VA


    I enjoyed reading your reply, it’s certainly more “grainy” than your previous references on this subject. I did notice, however, that you seem less inclined to engage with those of my references, which don’t exactly fit with your meta-narrative. Oh well…

    Now, regarding your statement:

    “I think that you automatically associate atheism of any type with communism because of the Cold War era propaganda that juxtaposed “God Bless America” with “godless communist Russia.”,

    allow me to make some fun at my own expense, with third rate doggerel (btw – thank Mr. Cruz-Uribe, for learning me this kooll ward):

    “English my second language is,
    To learn good from well well, was a terrible quiz,
    And where would be I without spellcheckers,
    I think, one of the English language wreckers”