WWROD: So is atheism a belief system or not?

WWROD: So is atheism a belief system or not? April 3, 2013

It’s time for another GetReligion visit to the online domain of the Ridgewood Religion Guy, as in the weblog of former Time and Associated Press religion-beat maestro Richard Ostling.

This time around, he’s digging into a classic question from the church-state wars of the past few decades, care of a reader named Tyler:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?

The minute I read that question I thought of a scene in one of my all-time favorite episodes of “Northern Exposure,” called “Seoul Mates (check out the “may your dog talk” clip).”

That was the Christmas story in year three that focused on the cultural and personal roots of faith. At one point, the town’s crusty old storekeeper informs the Jewish Dr. Joel Fleischman that, while everyone else in town seems to really dig the Native American Raven pageant at Christmas time, she remains an atheist (though she retains a belief in a female divine force of some kind that has never taken human form). The doctor replies, as I recall the quote: I’ve always admired people who are atheists. I think it takes a lot of faith.

There’s a similar line, if I recall, in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the part where the Woody Allen character faces his own mortality and begins to doubt his doubts. Right?

Anyway, Ostling replies that the key question is:

… What is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that. …

Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. … Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.”

The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.

But there are some interesting complications, notes Ostling.

For example, what does one do with the those “creepily ‘religious’ … shrines that display the embalmed corpses of totalitarian atheists like Lenin, Mao, Ho, North Korea’s first two Kims, and (temporarily) Stalin”? Are these, in fact, secular shrines that contain atheistic relics with emotional power for followers?

Also, where is the line between an ordinary atheist and an atheist who is active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation or, perhaps, a Reform Jewish temple? What is the tax status of an atheist minister ordained through the Universal Life Church’s “Instant Online Ordination” option, which is open to all no matter their beliefs or lack of same?

More from the Religion Guy:

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles state that it draws from “religions” and teachings that “call us to respond to God’s love.” But note that adherents don’t need to actually believe in any god. The denomination says “atheists and agnostics are welcome in Unitarian Universalism and can find a welcoming, supportive faith community” and a godless “spiritual path.” Leaders of Ethical Culture (a.k.a. Ethical Humanism) depict it as “a religion” that likewise involves “faith” but do not mention any sort of deity. Scientology, which refers to a “Supreme Being” as the vaguely impersonal “urge toward existence as infinity,” won a long campaign for government tax exemption as a “religion” rather than a secular therapy business.

And what happened when a question related to this reached the U.S. Supreme Court?

Read it all.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • tmatt

    WOW. It’s hard to write a post on atheism and get total silence.


  • Brian Westley

    I’ve posted this elsewhere on the same subject:

    I think it’s better to consider atheism to be: not holding the creed “god(s) exist.”

    In my opinion, it makes comparisons more logical, because you are comparing at the level of creeds instead of religions, which tend to have sets of creeds.

    For example, atheists can also be members of religions that don’t have “god exists/gods exist” as a creedal requirement. They can be UUs, Jews, or Buddhists, because you don’t have to believe a god exists to be accepted as a member of these religions. There are even a few religions that require atheism, such as the Raelians, or F.A.C.T.

    Consider someone who eats pork; this would be a violation of some religious creeds, but not all religions have creeds against eating pork (or meat). It wouldn’t make much sense to routinely divide people into “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, 7th Day Adventists, and pork-eaters” because pork-eaters can still belong to a wide range of various religions. The same is true (to a much lesser degree) of atheists.

    In some cases, it might be useful to divide people into pork-eaters and non-pork-eaters, just as it might be useful to divide people into atheists/theists, or atheists/monotheists/polytheists. At least there you’re using the same metric to sort people into groups.

    This also helps legal situations. If you can’t legally promote the idea that god exists in situation X, you can’t legally promote the opposing creed that god does not exist in situation X, either. Either both are legal or both are illegal. This would also avoid problems with creeds that are not religions in themselves, such as trinitarianism. Trinitarianism isn’t a religion, it’s a creed of some religions. But saying it isn’t a religion doesn’t make, say, promoting trinitarianism in public schools suddenly legal (or the inverse, stating that trinitarianism is false in public schools). Just like atheism, trinitarianism or opposition to trinitarianism is arguing over creeds, so it would have the same legal standing in situation X. Finally, this also shows why removing an illegal sign such as the ten commandments from a public school is not promoting atheism, since a blank wall does not promote any sort of creedal stance.

  • Dale

    I’ll bite.

    Atheism, strictly construed, is a negation. Like any other negation, it has cognitive content only by exclusion, only by identifying what it is not.

    Saying “I’m an atheist” is like saying “I’m not six foot tall”.

    When you posit attributes to atheism, you’re constructing a belief system that is more than atheism.

    A lot of what is presented as “atheism” is another positive belief system, like materialism or scientism. Like any other belief system, materialism and scientism begin with presuppositions from which a certain logic and worldview is derived. To the extent that they rely on presuppositions, you might describe these belief systems as faiths.

  • cvg

    I quite like the posts that explore atheism…. Lumping atheists into a single belief group stretches things even more than lumping all religions into one group. Its a topic that I suspect religion reports will have to wade into more and more.

    While I agree with Dale that atheism is properly a negative not positive position, it seems like that sort of purity doesn’t exist in practice. For example, strident atheists like Dennett’s and Dawkins fall more into scientism than atheism. However, I doubt very much they would tolerate exclusion from the atheist camp. Therefore it seems old formal definitions have expired. However, never having got very deep into Nietzsche, I’ll have to plead ignorance on the viability of negative logic.

    I am really surprised (and disappointed) Ostling didn’t show more insight into the camps that exist within atheism. Poor form. When in doubt, quote some quasi-religion scholars….

  • ibnt

    I think there’s a pretty good case it’s a belief system — whether one can go further and call it a religion is a fascinating question. I enjoyed “The Scandinavian Skeptic (or Why Atheism Is a Belief System”) here — http://bit.ly/is_atheism_a_belief