Monday, November 11, 2013

Is Atheism a Religion?

From guest blogger, Caitlin.

Dawkin’s paper got me thinking about when people tell me that Atheism is basically a religion. Ever since I have identified as an Atheist I’ve been going back and forth about whether I think of it as religion-like or not. There’s obviously no deity involved or services I attend weekly, there’s no specific book I turn to when I have a problem I need to solve. But I do think I live my life according to my beliefs. I know that this is the only life I have so I better live it well. I want to leave the world a better place than when I entered it. However, I’m not sure if living life in compliance to one’s beliefs is adequate criteria to define a belief as a religion. I could see someone taking this idea as everyone with a shared belief is a part of the same religion, which is completely untrue, and that’s where I’m stuck.

As of right now I’m leaning towards Atheism not being like a religion in part because of Dawkin’s paper. I agree that we use science to explain similar things, like when the world began and how. And a lot of religion is explaining how the world was created. But just because a lot of religions have stories explaining the beginning of the world doesn’t mean that every religion needs to have an explanation, or that everything that explains creation is a religion. But you don’t even have to agree with evolution or science to be an Atheist so you can’t really claim that Atheism has an explanation for the beginning of the world.

I also think that a large part of religion is the emotional factor of it. Dawkins briefly talks about how religion consoles people and gives them hope. Atheism doesn’t do anything remotely like this. It kind of does the exact opposite; when you die you go in the ground or burn to ashes, that’s not very comforting. Religions tend to make you less scared of death or a little less sad about a loved one passing knowing that they are in a better place. But maybe there are exceptions to every rule, and that every religion doesn’t have to be comforting in which case Atheism could fall in that category. Or maybe Atheism is actually comforting if you look into it more. I find knowing that my beliefs are based on fact and logic is comforting. There’s not much that can disappoint me, I won’t be expecting big pearly white gates and all my deceased loved ones waiting for me when I die, so if that doesn’t happen I won’t be disappointed when I die and I really do just go in the ground (but then again I’ll be dead so I won’t be feeling anything).

In general I’ve come to the conclusion that religion is something so personal and at times so unexplainable that I think defining it doesn’t really matter. If you think what you believe is a religion then it is one, my opinion of whether your beliefs are valid doesn’t matter. Religion is what you want it to be.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

I think there is an important ambiguity in the way people use the term "atheism", and I'd like to draw that out a bit here.

As I prefer to understand it, atheism is exactly what the roots of the word suggest a-theism - i.e. not-theism. Theism is a belief in God(s). Atheism is a lack of a belief in God(s). Where theism is a positive assertion that God(s) exist, atheism is a nothing view. Thus, under this view of "atheism," it should be distinguished from a belief that God(s) does/do not exist. To draw a quick analogy, think of the difference between moral, immoral, and amoral. Amoral actions are actions which are neither moral nor immoral, they are distinct from morality. To draw out the analogy, atheism is not a belief that god does not exist, but rather the lack of belief in God. It seems quite clear that even under the most liberal definition of religion, this version of atheism could never reasonably be accused of being a religion.

Of course the term "atheism" is also used to describe the stronger view that God does not exist. Even with this stronger view, I find it difficult to see atheism as a plausible candidate for admittance to the religious club. Many atheists see wonder in science, but so do many Christians. Why do we have any reason to say that it is simply scientific awe for Christians, but a religious experience for atheists? Many atheists consider their lives important and wish to do good in the world, but it is not as if this is a result of their atheism. In contrast, many Christians will say that it is important to be good, because it is what God wills. What is the unifying principle which may allow us to say that there is a religion present when atheists wish to do good? I fail to see one other than a shared sense of humanity. Is this grounds for a religion? I doubt it. Ultimately I fail to see how atheism, even when the term is being used in the stronger sense, might be considered a religion.

Annalee Galston said...

I really like this topic because it definitely gets at the heart of what is required to identify something as a religion. My initial response was to think back to the first paper of the class: "What is Religion?" by Alston. It seems (and I am not an expert on atheism) that atheism would not be considered a religion but the absence of religion since, according to Alston, religions have certain traits ie rituals, emotions incited in persons by witnessing these rituals (and there may be some other points of criteria by him that fits your thesis).

Annalee Galston said...

I really like you thesis. Based on Alston's (the first paper we read in class) "What is Religion?", I think you can definitely make the claim that atheism is not a religion but a lack of religion. Particularly, he sets out 7 points of criteria for what might be required of a religion this includes rituals and the emotions incited in persons in witness of these rituals. While there may be other criteria that he sets out that are not fulfilled by atheism, these are the two that I remember off-hand.

Also, you might consider using the implications of claiming that atheism is a religion to bolster your argument:
First, that any beliefs about God are necessarily a religious belief, or a belief in God. It seems that in claiming atheism as a religion, the presence of a belief about God is a sufficient condition to consider such a belief as religious.

Second, everyone who has been exposed to the concept of God has questioned their existence of God whether they believe in him or not. That is everyone who has been exposed to the concept of God has necessarily had a belief about God but may not necessarily have a belief in God. If a belief about God is enough to be considered a religious belief, then that may imply that all people must necessarily have religious beliefs. And, of course, this is not true.

Stoehr said...

I think the conclusion you come to is really poignant. The distinction between being a religion or not being a religion seems inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, at least to me it does. Whether or not atheism is classified as a religion alongside Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc. is irrelevant, and maybe this is something o touch on in your paper; why is it important to classify certain belief systems as religions or not? What does that do for one's faith/belief/personal comfort? Or for the religion itself?
Like you suggested, there seems to be a more important, subjective undertone to religion that doesnt necessarily require it to be broadly defined as X or Y.

Natalie N said...

I think that Dawkins has made a clear distinction that atheism is not a religion. It seems like if atheism was allowed to be classified as a religion, then any school of thought could be classified as religion as well. I think an important aspect of any religion is dependence on something supernatural or outside of science. Atheism contains neither. There is not a common set of ethical beliefs, a deity, a concept of holiness, worship, or, what Dawkins claims is the greatest vice of religion, faith. These may not be necessary or sufficient criteria of religion, but they seem like logical things to consider when considering whether to classify something as a religion. If atheism was considered a religion, I don't think it would be a stretch to consider any school of philosophical, political, or ethical thought as well as any belief that people may have, agree upon, and base decisions on should be considered religions as well. Athiesm, it seems, is indeed the privation of a religion. This privation was given a name for the sake of convenience, but rather than making it an easier topic to address, it caused confusion.