Stop saying ‘atheism is a religion.’ It’s not. You can look it up.

Stop saying ‘atheism is a religion.’ It’s not. You can look it up. March 23, 2019

A meme has been floating around for quite a while that says scientists are virtually all atheists, or, if not, close enough.

marcelo gleiser science religion atheism
U.S.-based Brazilian scientist Marcelo Gleiser, above, believes the “new atheists” are disrespecting religion. (Fronteiras do Pensamento, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But it’s just not true, even if atheists like me might love it to be true.

Certainly, it would be comforting to nonbelievers to know that people who spend their lives almost entirely devoted to building scientific hypotheses with only material evidence must automatically see the lie in religion.

But, no, they don’t, I’m afraid. At least not all of them or even necessarily a majority. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center study (see “Scientists and Belief”), only about half of American scientists then believed in God, for example, whereas some 90 percent of everybody did.

Half of scientists believe

So scientists apparently aren’t all atheists, but it is true that proportionally more of them are than most nonscientific folks.

Nonetheless, exactly why scientists aren’t always atheists is a question for another day. Today I’m interested in recalibrating the nerds-are-godless meme so that it’s more accurate — and also pushing back against a related meme that’s also bogus, that atheism is a “belief,” as it is in Christianity or faith in the purported paranormal healing properties of crystals.

I was reminded of this this week while reading an interesting post in Barry Duke’s The Freethinker blog, titled “Scientist blasts ‘new atheists’ saying ‘atheism is a belief in non-belief.’”

Duke quotes Marcelo Gleiser, a U.S.-based physics and astronomy professor who apparently this week was awarded the $1.5 million Templeton Prize recognizing his outstanding contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Which is affirming a dimension to something lacking dimension. Gleiser said,

Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. Atheism is a belief in non-belief. So you categorically deny something you have no evidence against.”

That’s just word-gaming. Atheism is not “belief in non-belief.” It’s an acknowledgement that gods manifestly don’t exist, because zero material evidence exists to verify them. “Belief,” in its common use, requires the existence of something to believe in. So, you have people who believe in invisible, omnipotent deities for which no sensory evidence exists, and you have atheists who point out the lack of evidence for such beings and choose to reject the belief for being unfalsifiable. It’s not a belief; it’s a reasonable conclusion based on lack of evidence. There’s nothing reasonable about believing in things that can’t be confirmed in the real world, no matter how many people do it.

An absence of faith

In short, atheism is the absence of belief.

But the silly argument continues. People of religious faith, knowing they don’t have a prayer in producing a deity for final proof, try to discredit the naysayers with word games. They argue that atheists, just like believers (including smart scientific folks like Marcelo Gleiser), wholeheartedly believe in things they can’t materially prove, and that it’s really just a matter of imagination over matter.

Yet, atheists are no more “believers” in the nonexistence of gods than Ouija board deniers are “believers” that those moronic “talking boards” actually foretell the future. Atheists see undeniable nonsense and call BS. That’s different from belief.

Gleiser, who’s an agnostic and grew up in a Jewish community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, explains,

I’ll keep an open mind because I understand that human knowledge is limited.”

A ‘disservice to science’?

In his blog, Duke points out that Gleiser accuses the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins of “doing a disservice to science by making an enemy out of religion.” Duke says Gleiser contends that religion is more than just believing in God, that it also “provides a sense of identity and community.” Gleiser said,

At least half of the world population is that way. It’s extremely arrogant for scientists to come down from the ivory towers and make these declarations without understanding the social importance of belief systems.”

Well, even atheists acknowledge the social importance throughout history of religious belief systems, but they also acknowledge that this fact has nothing whatsoever to do with whether what believers believe is actually true. That’s a completely different debate.

Let’s then debate supernatural belief for what it is: wishful thinking not corroborated in reality. And atheism for what it is: a refusal to accept belief in invisible things without evidence.

To label the latter as “belief” is just a stalling tactic, a diversion away from actual debate.

I’m still open to evidence of gods, because, like Gleiser, I have an open mind. But I’m not holding my breath, either, or holding out much hope.

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