Many people on the defensive against vocal atheistic criticism of religious beliefs (either because they see it as a threat to their own religiosity or because it affronts their misinterpretation of what religious tolerance should be) think they’re being clever and catching a great irony when they lazily play “gotcha!” and declare that “atheism is a religion too!” But it’s not in itself a religion any more than theism is in itself a religion. Atheism is a distinct philosophical position (or maybe the word covers a small range of distinguishable philosophical positions) just as theism is a word for some range of philosophical positions. Religions and political groups are different because they’re social institutions. Just being a theist does not entail you will even be religious. You can have theists who foreswear all religious theologies as false roads to God or find religious institutions invariably corrupt and worth rejecting in total. There’s a large contingent of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious”. Some might implicitly co-opt enough religious beliefs to be to a degree more religiously influenced than they like to imagine. But nonetheless, I think it’s valid that many of them in principle could pull off a distinctly irreligious form of life that still incorporates belief in God.
And atheists could avoid religiosity similarly. Atheism does not automatically associate someone with other atheists the way membership in a religion does. If you’re a member of a religion then you’re specifically part of a social institution with any number of recognized authority figures and texts which are treated as authoritative (and maybe even as sacred or infallible). You don’t get into a religion by simply not believing in something. It involves actually being born into a specific community and initiated into it as a member. Or it involves deliberately coming to accept some specific beliefs or practices and converting accordingly. Religions are not something you can accidentally be a part of. They’re institutions either you join or your parents enjoin you to.
Atheists usually do very little by way of engaging in religious activity and institutions. Atheists qua atheists have essentially no serious religious traditions. What’s the atheist naming ceremony called? What’s the standard script for the atheist funeral ceremony? What are all atheist marriages supposed to be like? What are the holidays all atheists know to celebrate because they’re atheists? What are the spiritual practices of meditation or prayer or worship that all atheists are supposed to engage in? What’s the specific name for the places where atheists congregate weekly? What sacred texts or divinely authoritative people are atheists to defer to, either strongly or completely? The obvious conclusion when looking at these questions is that atheism is not a religion. Atheism correlates extremely highly in fact with outright irreligiousness.
And it’s also not a religion just because there are politically active atheists who organize around their shared, atheism-enhanced commitment to the separation of church and state. Atheists protecting our shared interests as a minority perspective with respect to religion by unifying to pushback against attempts to dictate our lives by religious precepts we do not believe in are not being religious. Nor are atheists religious by virtue of shared philosophy. First of all, beyond a few philosophical beliefs that are closely related to the philosophical position of atheism, it’s quite possible for atheists to differ greatly on any number of philosophical issues. And we manifestly do differ. The idea that this one philosophical position would make every other conceptual implication about the world follow out logically and monolithically is absolutely absurd.
Countless philosophical, moral, scientific, and political issues could be resolved any of countless different ways all consistent with atheism. That doesn’t mean just any philosophical, scientific, or political stances are as good as any others. I will argue my fellow atheists should think a number of things about philosophy, morality, science, or politics–as I would argue everyone should think these things if I think they’re true–and it’s certainly helpful if someone’s being an atheist takes away certain obstacles that might be otherwise present in getting them to see a particular philosophical, scientific, moral, or political truth. That’s a good reason to appeal to fellow atheists on our common ground when trying to find an inroad to persuade them of an independently defensible truth. But for some atheists other prejudices could make some other truths harder to see and I for one find that I have to spend comparable amounts of time trying to argue my fellow atheists out of those prejudices rather than just relying on our common ground to make advances in thinking together.
And even were atheism represented a unified, comprehensive philosophy that wouldn’t make it a religion by default. There are a large number of intellectual positions that people share without turning the way they share it into a religion. It trivializes the word “religion” and turns it into a cheap political accusation to equate anyone with a philosophy with having a religion simply by virtue of that.
That’s not to say there can’t or shouldn’t be atheistic religions. I am not even denying their current existence! (They currently exist!) I actually want there to be atheistic religions! I support the existence of atheistic chaplains wherever there are religious ones. I support the creation of atheistic congregations. I have even flirted with the idea of becoming one sort or another of clergy for atheists. I’m not simply allergic to the concept of atheistic religion. I’m not afraid of some supposed hypocrisy or self-refutation were I to join an atheistic religion. Quite the opposite!
But even if some day atheist religions become ubiquitous we won’t be able to know whether a given atheist is religious or which religion they belong to just by knowing they’re an atheist, anymore than we can know whether a specific theist is religious or which religion they belong to just because they believe in God.
Right now there are many irreligious atheists and there are some religious atheists, including atheistic Universalist/Unitarians, atheistic Jews, atheistic Buddhists, atheistic Wiccans, and religious humanists (who are distinguishable from the self-consciously irreligious secular humanists).
And there are some members of the specifically atheist movement who are engaging in and developing practices and traditions that specifically try to reappropriate things associated with religion in a secular way. There are self-consciously atheistic congregations and Sunday Assemblies.
These things then get criticized by anti-atheists in a way that reveals the “damned if you do” and “damned if you don’t” way movement atheism is treated. Movement atheists will criticize the contents of religious beliefs and values and the specific corruptions in institutional form or routine behavior motivated by specific religions and have these criticisms brushed aside in favor of accusations that somehow we are actually against perfectly benign things people associate with religion, like community, emotion, ritual, charity, meditation, imagination, pluralism, and moral edification. Instead of actually answering the substance of our charges which we level against the substance of supernaturalistic religions’ beliefs, values, behaviors, and institutions (and their faulting mechanisms for deriving them all), the subject gets changed. Atheists critical of faith, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism are accused of being against all the ancillary benefits of religion that need not have anything to do with the faith-based believing, supernaturalism, or authoritarianism we criticize, but which are wholly human goods that atheistic people have as much to gain from engaging as theistic ones do.
Then when atheists show that we are perfectly happy to take responsibility for fulfilling fellow atheists’ needs for things that supernaturalistic religions claim false proprietorship over–like moral community, emotion, ritual, charity, meditation, imagination–we are accused of somehow betraying our anti-faith ideals.
This is entirely bogus. Atheists never were, nor had to be against all the parts of religions that were not specifically and irredeemably based on groundless faith, supernaturalism, or authoritarianism. We were never against something as harmless as singing. The God Delusion is not a polemic against giving to charity, forming communities, or using one’s imagination.
So, atheists can’t win. If we attack faith, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism we are accused of attacking community, charity, ritual, and moral edification, etc. And so when we go and try to create identifiably atheistic groups for community, charity, ritual, and moral edification, lazy people who ignored our real targets of criticism call out “gotcha!” and accuse us of hypocritically betraying that we understand the importance of the things we supposedly thought were evil after all! Since they pretended that we were criticizing things we weren’t actually criticizing it’s a case where the fact that we are not living down to their strawman of us is taken as proof that we were wrong and not just that their characterization of us was, in fact, a strawman like we insisted.
Meanwhile, real atheists who engage in real reclamation of perfectly human activities for self-conscious secularists are not doing anything self-contradictory in rejecting the bad parts of faith-based, supernaturalistic religions while trying to break their baseless claim to an entitled monopoly on the good parts of religion.
In short, being a rational atheist who understands that “religions are not all bad” does not mean you have to therefore accept that faith-based believing, supernaturalism, or traditional (largely authoritarian) religious institutions are themselves good-in-themselves and worth maintaining. It means that you can still reject the parts of religion that you have good reasons to think are actually bad and then take care of replicating the good parts of religion for yourself, with the bad parts left out.
There are a few final ironies in our critics’ charges that are worth mentioning.
For one thing, some of the people claiming that “atheism is a monolithic religion after all” are themselves atheists who don’t like organized atheism. They shoot themselves in the foot when they spread the meme that being an atheist somehow conscripts you into the atheist religion against your will. They of all people would do better to keep their distinctions straight so that they can continue to assert both their identities as irreligious and atheistic.
For another thing, the critics are often hypocrites who defend religion as inherently good and try to distance “true” religion from any real blame but then turn around and take the excesses of atheists as the symptoms of their supposed religiosity. In other words, if a religious person acts like a bullying authoritative intolerant absolutist that’s not “true religion”. But if an atheist does? See! Atheists are religious after all! The people saying “atheism is a religion too” conspicuously never make the claim when extolling the positives of what organized atheists do (in fact such people conspicuously never extoll our positives–we’re just the very bad mean intolerant bullies of the religious).
The most acknowledgment of our positive actual similarities to religion we get is mockery for even trying to reappropriate familiar religious forms or practices on the grounds that somehow this makes us atheists who couldn’t escape the religions we oppose after all! So, for example, when a few weeks ago I discovered the word “guideparent” and recommended it to my fellow atheists as a suitable substitute for “godparent”, in response one atheist mocked this as one of supposedly many cases of self-purported “irreligious atheism” being really just another species of Christianity. Because apparently, if you have Sunday meetings like Christians and you have “guideparents” like Christians have “godparents” and you celebrate the winter solstice while the Christians are celebrating Christmas, etc., etc. then you show you didn’t escape the clutches of Christianity after all!
There are several reasons this is wrongheaded.
For one thing, except when from enmity and laziness Christians are trying to play “Gotcha!” with atheists, no Christian in their right mind would ever say that the threshold of being a Christian can be met by simply meeting with a congregation on Sunday, designating a friend as an honorary extra parent to your child, or celebrating a holiday in late December. These sorts of practices don’t constitute Christianity in any meaningful sense. The centrality of Jesus does. And for an overwhelming majority of Christians, recognizing the divinity of Jesus, depending on him for salvation, and worshipping him makes you a Christian. It trivializes Christianity to see these reclamations of some of the ancillary stuff that Christians do that happens to be good as somehow making one “deep down” a Christian. In fact, I’ve read responses to the creation of secular equivalents to Christian practices from actual Christians that see this point and mock us for thinking that we can get the spiritual benefits of these things without actually having Christ. They baselessly assume that some supernatural extra ingredient is necessary for these things to be meaningful and effective and that makes a substantial difference between them and us.
Next, it’s worth pointing out another “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” that atheists are subjected to. We’re told we all, by default, belong to one monolithic atheistic religion that’s irrationally hostile to anything associated with Christianity whatsoever. But then when atheists are comfortable with reappropriating familiar rituals associated with Christianity we’re mocked for being imitators who want to make cheap knock offs of Christianity instead of creating something radically different than reinvents the wheel from scratch. The fact is that it would be foolish of us atheists to demand that none of us find ways to retain the things we liked from our old faiths. If we were policing each other to make sure that we never held onto things we liked from Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism, then we’d be the absolutist religious extremists we’re accused of being. If we did create new religions that bent over backwards to never do anything that overlapped with other religions then we’d be as superstitious as we were accused of. But as unsuperstitious people there’s no reason at all for us to worry about some mystical taintedness that practices with no necessary connection to worshipping Christ allegedly have.
There’s nothing at all inescapably Christ-worshipping about the idea of having a close friend honored as an auxiliary parent title. A “guideparent” need not have any role of making sure a child stays obedient to a theistic God, like a Christian godparent is supposed to do. One friend of mine amusingly told me that she wants her daughter’s “godparent” to be the woman her daughter can go to to ask her to help pick out a vibrator if one day she’s an adolescent too shy about asking her mom to do that with her. And for many a Christian, the godparent is already little more than an honorary title that creates hardly any actual sense of spiritual obligation to carry out specific responsibilities in its holders’ minds. Whether “guidemother” and “guidefather” function for specific secular people as merely honorary titles, as expressing the parents’ wishes that the guideparents be empowered in their children’s lives should anything happen to them, or as invitations to the guideparents to assume some responsibility in their kids’ moral formation in some way is all up to the specific parents and guideparents.
While yes some traditions that theistic religions have developed have structures to them that embody and perpetuate anti-humanist values and should be rejected, it shows a total lack of critical thinking to reject en toto everything that happens to be associated with, or cultivated by, a theistic religion as somehow irredeemably tainted. The very well known fact that so many Christian traditions are appropriated from the pagans in the first place proves that there’s nothing specifically monotheistic about these traditions in their basic structure or potential meanings. And as traditions that are adjustable to both polytheistic and monotheistic forms, they’re often quite capable of also being fitted to atheistic mindsets too.
If something empirically works and can be disassociated from supernaturalistic, faith-based, regressive, or authoritarian baggage to be made to work even better in a secularized and more rationalistic way by all means atheists should be willing to appropriate it into new religions.
Now, finally, the charge might be that if we were really to be creative and advance the religious game atheists and humanists would be building wholly new forms of practice and thinking from the ground up instead of doing all this reappropriation (or “plundering from the Egyptians” as the Christians used to call it when justifying their blatant practice of stealing good ideas from the pagans. This was an allusion to how God supposedly gave the Jews permission to take whatever they could from the Egyptians as they were leaving captivity).
There are two simple responses to that suggestion. I think that a visionary and creative sense would indeed be a good idea longterm. But in the meantime there are real atheists who have a hard enough time being alienated from the larger culture and from their investment of perfectly redeemable religious traditions that they grew up participating in or wanting to participate in. For better of for worse, some of the specific trappings and structures of their birth religions’ weddings are what weddings simply are supposed to look and feel like in their minds. While I would encourage them to imaginatively reinfuse those trappings and structures with humanist meanings and gut them of deference to religious authority, it’s needlessly harsh and demanding to ask them to create weddings that deliberately avoid the essentially religiously neutral aspects that can be reclaimed. If you wind up with a wedding that is too unrecognizable from what they grew up expecting, you’re needlessly harming them out of an antitheistic bent that has reached a level of irrational zealotry.
Maybe some day when atheistic people have grown enough in numbers and overcome their tendencies to not organize or associate or create alternate religious forms and are routinely participating in atheistic religions then we will see truly novel evolutions in how atheists do religion. Maybe at that point atheist religions will distinguish itself more and more in their outward forms and practices, rather than only primarily in their explicit beliefs and values. But right now we are at the level of creating even the most rudimentary infrastructure and it is only sensible to build primarily off of what is known to work and what is familiar and what is appropriatable without compromising our values. Right now it is only sensible to find ways to tell people anguished over having lost the harmless or outright positive parts of their religions that they liked that they can still have them. Right now it is sensible to appeal to the millions and millions of people who hardly believe in supernatural nonsense but enjoy the wholly secularizable benefits they get from their religion. It’s sensible to appeal to those people by founding alternatives that make them realize, “Hey, look at that! I can go there and get all these good things without the baggage! Then why exactly am I sticking with this nonsensical religion again?”
Finally, I do see some need for some secular replacements for religious forms to break the traditional molds and be more novel. Mostly it’s to meet the needs of the large contingent of former believers who feel so burned out on the negatives of Christianity that replications of even its superficial trappings bring back strongly unpleasant associations. They don’t want anything to do with anything that is structurally reminiscent of Christianity. They want something completely different in their atheistic religions or they want to avoid anything remotely religious at all. I don’t begrudge such people their emotions or consider them irrational.
The other issue is that one of the geniuses of religion is its striking ability to interweave ideas with an incredible array of mediums (from ritual to symbol to architecture to meditative practices to liturgies to songs to chants to moral codes to community structure to identity formation, etc.) which all interact in intricate ways to reinforce each other. It could be that humanism would benefit immensely if we thought creatively about what innovations in forms could do to make our ideas stronger and make our ability to inculcate our values and identities in people stronger. If we are ever to truly make people no longer dependent on supernaturalism, faith, authoritarianism, or the superstitious sides of their brains when reasoning and forming their values, it may be necessary we figure out how to more genuinely accomplish what religions do and in practices more genuinely built from the ground up out of our rationalistic and humanistic values rather than borrowed from their supernaturalistic traditions.
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