Editor’s Note: “Always Puzzled” commented on our most recent blog post that atheism was a “philosophy” and was quickly corrected. In this post, a former preacher ponders the meaning of atheism and his changing reactions to his non-belief. Reprinted with permission.
By Jim Mulholland
Occasionally, friends and acquaintances suggest atheism is simply my new religion. They argue my disbelief has many of the same characteristics as my previous religious life:
- evangelical passion
- adherence to certain principles or beliefs
- a tendency toward superiority
- a diminishment of those who are less enlightened
Since there is some truth to their accusation, I’ve tried not to reject it out of hand. Whether atheism is a religion or not, the way people approach it can often look religious, especially in the lives of those of us raised in religion. Old habits die hard.
Yet I’d argue atheism cannot be a religion. Nearly every definition of religion includes “a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, usually a God or gods.” Religions are systems of faith and religious folk are commonly called believers. Disbelief is not a type of faith. It is the absence of faith. Even the Bible argues, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Atheists question the substance and the evidence. Atheism fails nearly every sociological or theological definition for what constitutes a religion. It is merely an opinion – though one with wide ranging ramifications – about the existence of god.
My personal experience also suggests atheism fails as a religion. As a post-religious person, I know the void I experienced when I left. I didn’t shift my faith. I lost it. Becoming atheist was not like divorcing one person and marrying another. It was like the death of a spouse. It was not something I chose or initially welcomed. It was frightening and lonely. Atheism was not my replacement for religion. Disbelief was the cause of my departure.
Of course, critics are seldom aware of this internal conflict. All they see is the odd behavior of those who leave religion. Initially, we’re at loose ends, uncertain of how to be and act. We often seek the familiar in this strange new land. The phenomenon of the Sunday Assembly – where non-religious people gather on Sundays to sing, meditate and hear a speech – is one such example. Many who no longer believe in a deity still miss the religious forms and community. While I have not chosen that specific accommodation, I understand it. This very blog was one of the ways I’ve eased my transition out of religion. After twenty-five years of writing a sermon every week, penning this blog has allowed me to explore the unfamiliar in a very familiar form.
However, the similarity between the behaviors of non-believers and of believers doesn’t make disbelief a religion. These similarities are more reflective of basic human needs – purpose, community, ethical direction, understanding and stability – than some deep seated religious compulsion. The success of religion was built on its ability to address these needs. What is daunting about becoming a non-believer is discovering how many of your needs were met in a single human institution.
Christianity was the Walmart of my existence – meeting all my needs under a single roof. One of the challenges in leaving religion is meeting these needs in a variety of new places and people, of recognizing our responsibility to meet our own needs.
One of these basic needs is for equality. Sometimes what religious people identify as atheist religion is simply rebellion against religious privilege. Consider the recent rash of atheist groups demanding the right to create atheist displays on public property or seeking the right to offer words of invocation at government meetings. From a religious perspective, these might seem like attempts to establish atheism as a religion with all the rights and protections thereof. After all, why would an atheist want to give an invocation unless they were religious?
Yet such behaviors are more about equality than atheist fervor. The intent is not to convince people that God doesn’t exist, but to challenge the right of any group – religious or otherwise – to special treatment by the governing authorities. Unbelievers aren’t seeking recognition of atheism as a religion, but acknowledgment of the present bias toward faith in our government and culture. Of course, in challenging this injustice, some act in ways that may be confusing to religious people.
Ironically, when atheists are accused of being religious, it usually an accusation that atheism is fraught with the same flaws and ugliness as religion. Atheists are not being accused of being as kind and generous as religious folk. We are being accused of exhibiting many of the same negative behaviors that plague religion. There is some truth to this accusation. Though atheism is not a religion, some who identify as atheist are angry and bitter. Some are more anti-theist than atheist.
One of my early surprises was discovering some atheists sounded remarkably like the fundamentalists I’d so disliked when I was a Christian. On atheist blogs and Facebook pages, I’ve encountered some atheists who are as arrogant and obnoxious as the most conservative Christian. Hearing their rhetoric is a healthy reminder that there is no correlation between one’s opinion about the existence of god and being a decent human being.
While I am no longer believe in god, I offer my apologies to those who found my initial atheism overwhelming. As with all new ideas, we initially obsess on them. Rest assured, I do not need you to share my disbelief in order to validate it. I do not think my opinion on god’s existence definitive and final. I do not think atheists morally superior. I do not mean to diminish the genuine and compassionate religious expressions of others. Nor do I offer atheism as an alternative to religion.
For me, atheism is not a destination, a movement or even a worldview. It is simply a new starting line. I’m revisiting all the existential questions of life without the assumption that there is a god with all the answers. Sometimes I find myself in agreement with religious ideas and practices; often I don’t. Whatever approach I develop to life, I need no disciples. I no longer need to follow or be followed. I’m simply seeking my own way.
**Editor’s Questions: For those who no longer believe — How did you initially react to accepting/realizing your lack of belief? How have you adjusted to non-belief?**
Jim Mulholland spent twenty-five years as a pastor. He wrote several best selling Christian books and spoke nationally. In 2008, he resigned when his faith faltered. After several years of transition, Jim published the book Leaving Your Religion and began writing a blog on becoming post-religious. You can read more of Jim’s story and reflections at LeavingYourReligion.com.
By Brandonrush – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23262727