Organized atheism is not too much like religion.

When I was speaking at UNLV, one of the questions I got after the talk was about how to address the claims that by becoming organized atheism is becoming too much like a religion.

Why does the fact that we’re getting organized make us more like religion and not, say, the women’s suffrage movement?  Or the gay rights movement?  Is it because we have an opinion about religion that we vocalize?  Ok, in that case, are biology professors too much like creationists?

Being organized is not the part of religion that is bad.  When atheists start believing crazy stuff for no good reason (looking at you all you woo-happy atheists on the west coast), then we’ve become similar to religion in the way that matters.  But organizing to say that religion is silly and that silly beliefs hinder society?  Or to go bowling?  We’re not too much like religion there, we’re too much like every other group whose members enjoy being around similar people.

It’s not like churches hold the monopoly on getting together for pancakes.

I find this “too much like religion” line generally comes from the type of person who won’t comment on a person’s religious beliefs because they’d rather not make things uncomfortable, so much so they’ll ignore the beliefs that make their friend fight against the rights of LGBT people.  Here’s a nifty idea: you can challenge your friends and remain friends with them.  Weird, right?  And if someone won’t be your friend if you respect them enough to tell them that their beliefs, and their actions that follow from them, are negatively impacting the happiness of many, then you have a pretty low standard for friends.

Criticizing someone should not mean you can’t be friends.  It just means you can be honest, which is a great quality in a friendship.  A lot of people have it in their heads that friendship and criticism about shit that matters are mutually exclusive.  Sure, religious people have done a lot to create that impression (look no further than to what happens to atheist billboards to see how many religious people tend to react to criticism), but the only way to change their minds is to get them acclimated to the fact that lending silent consent to irrationality is the mark of a person desperate for friendship, not a friend who respects you.

So enough with this idea that vocalizing your opinion about religion makes you too much like religious people.  The alternative is to sit silently while institutionalized unreason wreaks havoc on humanity – but hey, at least you didn’t make any waves, right?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • AyannaCosta

    I’m still skeptical of it. I do like the points you made about organization as far as the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, I guess there is no different. But as a newly freed person from religion, I’m not ready to congregate or be a part of anything in that sort yet. I think that is why people may feel that way. It’s not that having and alliance or place to go when things get on the level of being discriminatory because your and atheist I understand having a group to go to is helpful. I think people are just edgy when it comes to the term “organized” because you automatically think of corporate and organized religion and we have seen what that has become.

    • Art Vandelay

      It probably makes it more uncomfortable when you use words like “congregate.” When you meet up with some old friends from college for dinner and drinks, do you call it a congregation?

      • Glodson

        I do. Only to piss off people who take their religion way to seriously.

    • Anonymous

      The good thing is no one is telling you you should, if you want to be a closet atheist, then be one, but there are good, just and fair reasons why atheists want and need to get organized, even if its simply to over-come religious indoctrination and give people a choice they didnt know they had, or if its just for pancakes.

  • Improbable Joe

    Sometimes I feel like people leave religions for less-than-rational reasons, and then judge all other groups by those standards. Like “I don’t like rules, religions have too many rules. Atheist groups have rules about behavior at their get-togethers, so they are like a religion too and I’m not interested.” The problem with religions isn’t the weekly meetings, or the fact that they have moral codes, or that they hold and express strong views. The problem is that they are wrong, and believe for bad reasons, and idolize leadership to the point that they allow terrible behavior to be covered up and excused. Those are the problems that religion has, not that they are passionate or that they get together for common purpose.

    • iknklast

      I sometimes want to ask them if the American Library Association is like a religion because they get together and listen to speakers and talk about library things with what might appear to be an obsessiveness to non-librarians. What about the Society of Wetland Scientists? Are we a religion of water gods? I spent my formative years in church (mostly against my will; I wanted to spend Sunday morning curled up with a good book, anything NOT called ‘The Bible’). I’ve been a participant in atheist conferences for the last few years now. I don’t see any similarities. No ritual. No dogma. No passing the plate. Frequent singing, but Tim Minchin sounds more like a concert than a choir. The only time it’s like church is when Brother Sam Singleton shows up, and then it’s like church would be if church was fun.

  • Questionable

    “Woo-happy atheists on the west coast”?


  • baal

    I’m extremely skeptical that you can have worship services without god and woo. But until the someone starts an effective country wide movement that actually does that, we aren’t anything like a religion.

    • M

      But, baal, atheists worship Science. So obviously, if/when atheists congregate, they offer up thanks and worship to Darwin, Galileo, and Newton. I mean, you do believe in something bigger than yourself, right?

      *wide-eyed vacant stare here*

      • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

        Praise the impersonal forces of the universe! May random chance happen to favor us.

        We will now have a reading from “Physics for Seniors”, Chapter 7, Part 4, “Newton’s Optical Experiments”.

        • Loqi

          Do we get to have sub-sects that fight about which scientist was smarter?

          • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

            Of course not, because only heretics who should burn think it is anyone other than Newton.

          • Loqi

            Them’s fightin’ words. Meet me in front of the Smithsonian. High noon. Bunsen burners at 2 paces.

          • M

            Hmph, it’s Marie Curie obviously. I’ll bring the radium to this three-way!

            Seriously, 2 paces? You’ve never actually seen a bunsen burner at full strength, have you? You could easily do the 10 paces thing … we almost set the school ceiling on fire once (good times, good times).

          • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

            Oh that’s it, I’m going to split both of you into separate beams of your constituent wavelengths. Prepare to experience an equal and opposite reaction!

      • Apathostic

        No, atheists don’t “believe” in it, we accept the evidence and move on. We don’t accept fairy tales and word-of-mouth stories created by sun-baked desert dwellers 4,000 years ago to explain natural phenomenon as the gospel truth. Belief doesn’t come into it. Hypothesis does, and when the facts either explain the hypothesis or disprove it, we move on. Only the whacked out religious “believe” they have a monopoly on the truth.

  • SparkyB

    One reason people may think being organized makes it too much like a religion is that if an organized movement tries to standardize around a single, unified message, that comes a bit too close to being dogma. The point of Atheism is that you’re following your own rational deduction, not someone else’s handed-down set of facts. That said, JT is right that this is actually not the same thing, because organized Atheism shouldn’t be forcing anyone to believe on their say-so, their facts are Facts that should stand on their own as opposed to religions’ “facts”.

  • SparkyB

    I think the notion of religious tolerance and it being a value to not call out others’ beliefs you don’t agree with comes from an implicit understanding that any religious beliefs are indefensible. If you’re Christian and you went around telling all your Muslim friends that their religion was wrong things would not work out so well. They could say the same about you and neither of you really have an argument. I think religious people accept that it just comes down to whatever you believe and so you have to just let everyone believe whatever they want. Atheists, on the other hand, have reason on our side. There’s no reason to withhold the criticism when you have a real case to back it up.

    • Nate Frein

      That said, all organized Atheist groups I’ve seen haven’t been about simply “calling out believers”, but calling out and criticizing where those beliefs hurt other people, use public money, or justify legal inequalities.

  • UsingReason

    Dude, lay of the West Coast; why can’t we all just get along? We just want to go to yoga and hang out a bit at the juice bar shipping on our wheat grass before heading out to dinner at a nice vegan restaurant. No Woo here, unless Woo=Weed; in that case, there is Woo all over the place. And the Woo is good.

  • Kodie

    Atheism fills the religious “slot”, so it’s really hard to get away from being associated with religions. Like, if someone asks me what religion I am, I might first say I don’t have one and that I am an atheist. But sometimes I just say I’m an atheist. This is probably confusing, and as much as I should know better, I shouldn’t be that lazy. People who ask (me) aren’t usually trying to start a debate, but they may be going away with less information than they should have. I try not to be “that guy” depending on who is asking and why they’re asking. Most recently, just out of curiosity and a need to have conversations of some sort going on. I’m not really prepared to discuss or debate beliefs on the spot like that.

    Another thing that was hit upon upthread was the thing about facts. I don’t consider myself an organized atheist. A few things going around the movement, I guess you call it, are things I don’t fully feel on board about. They seem really important to some people, and I mouth off when I want to, and I don’t disagree in a way I could list off and counter things I disagree with, it’s just a lot of really getting involved. If it sort of rubs me the wrong way and I’m an atheist, I wonder how it seems to the religious. We do have evidence for things religion denies is true, but there is where the differences seem to end. It’s a very important difference, mind you. On the surface, there seems to be a general goal of spreading the truth. Every religious group is trying to do the same, and every religious group is convinced they have it and you do not have it. Are we not all trying to shape politics, for example? That is, if shaping is equal to preventing theocratic laws every time they sprout up.

    So how would this look from the outside?