Atheist Denies Atheism Is a Religion
Atheist asks, “Is atheism just another religion?” and waddles into a mess of definitions. There’s a better question to ask.
You have to hand it to New Scientist; for all their slavish submission to Darwinism, their authors do ask some good questions. Recently they’ve tackled questions that get the mind engaged: Is reality just information? Will our knowledge survive us? How can you know yourself? Graham Lawton, a confessed atheist, tackles the latest one: “Faith of the faithless: Is atheism just another religion?” We know where he will land, but the journey is an interesting one nonetheless.
“This idea turns up all the time, and it is very loaded,” says Lois Lee, who directs the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “When people say ‘atheism is just another religion’, they normally mean it in a pejorative way.” The subtext is clear: atheists are hypocrites.
But this is more than a personal slight. If atheism really is just another religion, its claim to be a superior way to run the world is fatally weakened. All the criticisms it flings at religion – of being irrational, dogmatic and intolerant – come flying back with interest, and progress towards a more rational and secular society is undermined. So is it true? Is atheism just another religion?
Lawton begins by expressing the discrimination he feels for being a member of the atheist circle: put-downs, un-electability, and “one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group.” It’s hard to feel sorry for him (and he is not complaining, he says), any more than feeling sorry for a rich banker making his way past a cluster of poor protestors on his way to the 73rd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. Atheists pretty much control Big Science (all pro-Darwin), Big Media (strongly anti-Christian), Big Law (‘separation of church and state’), and other centers of power in the modern world, including powerful NGOs like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, and others where conservative Christians need not apply. His homeland, England, is even more secular. Poor Mr. Lawton. Can’t get any respect.
Atheism is both like a religion and not like one, depending on which aspects you consider.
In the meat of his article, Lawton explores history and current trends to answer the question. He claims that the rebuttal ‘atheism is just another religion’ seems to have arisen as a response to the New Atheism about ten years ago. Richard Dawkins with his vitriolic attacks on religion invited push-back.
Journalists writing about the movement took to using religious metaphors, calling it “the church of the non-believers” and a “crusade against god”. Religious scholars joined the fray to defend their beliefs. Even some scientists took up the cause. In 2007, evolutionary biologist (and atheist) David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in New York controversially described the new atheism as a “stealth religion”. His point was that, like many religions, it portrayed itself as the only source of truth and righteousness and its enemies as “bad, bad, bad”.
To atheists, such accusations might seem easily refuted. The defining feature of religion is belief in god(s). Atheism defines itself as the absence of belief in god. How can it be a religion? That is like saying that “off” is a TV channel, or not-playing-tennis is a sport.
Most atheists would probably declare victory at that, but Lawton, honorably enough, takes seriously the possibility that “the critics were on to something” and should not be dismissed with a smug, aloof response.
The truth is that atheism is not simply an absence of belief in god, but also a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality. Even though these belief systems diverge in their content and level of fact from religious beliefs, perhaps they originate from the same underlying psychological processes, and fulfil similar psychological needs.
Exploring this line of reasoning, Lawton considers the possibility that atheists find psychological satisfaction in their credo, showing more similarity with religious people than they would like to think. Why would this be? Answer: evolution.
Evolution, they [psychologists] point out, has endowed us with a suite of cognitive tendencies that make belief in non-material beings come easily. As highly social and tribal animals, for example, we need to keep track of the thoughts and intentions of other people, even when they are not physically present. From there, it is a short step to conceiving of non-physical entities such as spirits, gods and dead ancestors who have minds and intentions of their own, know what we are thinking and have some influence over our lives. And, sure enough, there is evidence that even hardcore atheists tend to entertain quasi-religious or spiritual ideas such as there being a higher power or that everything happens for a purpose.
Lawton is not seeing his circular reasoning here. Does he have a purpose in writing his article? If his own mythology about purpose is really just an evolutionary adaptation, and not an appeal to non-physical reason, then he himself cannot make any truth claims about spiritual ideas having evolved – or even for his belonging to a group of ‘social and tribal animals,’ for that matter.
Still, Lawton draws contrasts between his evolutionary adaptations and those of the religious. He does throw one more bone to his critics:
So, despite some similarity between religious and non-religious beliefs systems, they are not equivalent. Surely that buries the claim that atheism is just another religion?
Maybe not. There is another way in which atheist beliefs make them religion-like, according to Sloan Wilson. It is the way they play fast-and-loose with scientific facts. “Atheists will say that religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaptation – which happens not to be true,” he says. “That is how atheism becomes an ideology. It is organised to motivate behaviour. If it uses counterfactual beliefs in order to do it then there’s really very little difference between atheism and a religion.”
It’s surprising that David Sloan Wilson, an atheist and staunch evolutionist eager to promote Darwinism in schools (see 9/03/11 and 12/21/05), would make these criticisms. Well, perhaps not. It would fit his scheme to make evolution palatable to the public. Perhaps he feels that the portrayal of atheists as angry, self-righteous bigots isn’t helping his program.
By calling atheism an evolutionary adaptation (note the double negative), Sloan Wilson would have to conclude from his Darwinism that religion – and atheism – are both evolutionary adaptations. How could either Sloan Wilson or Lawton extricate themselves from natural selection’s inexorable grip? (see Yoda Complex). Another article on New Scientist wonders whether atheists are caught in the grip of evolutionary forces that produced religion. Can science really study how religion evolved? How can atheists stand outside of it and consider it objectively?
The science of religion challenges core elements of the new atheism: for example, the belief that religion leads on the whole to misery and suffering. Belief-ologists say religion was the “social glue” that held early societies together. That doesn’t mean religion is required to play that role today. But simply ignoring or high-handedly dismissing its power will not abolish its sway or further the secularist cause. And given the rise of religiosity in global affairs, there is much more than a rhetorical joust at stake.
Getting back to Lawton’s article, we see that his navel-gazing is short-lived. For his final pitch, he refuses to stoop to giving a simple list of ‘false parallels’ that some atheists counter with: e.g., atheists have “no rituals, no membership rules, no sacred texts and the small percentage of atheists who belong to specifically atheist organisations are more like people who belong to interest groups like scuba divers or guitar aficionados.” And they usually don’t feel the need to proselytize (except for the ones who buy billboards and posters on buses saying ‘There probably is no God. Enjoy your life’ and other slogans).
Instead, Lawton opts for subjectivity. “Atheism is both like a religion and not like one, depending on which aspects you consider.” That’s the real problem, he says, and the reason why the answers go “around and around in circles.” It’s just a terrible question, like trying to define what a weed is. It depends on your point of view.
Without a causal connection, you can’t do science. You cannot produce a description of a social construct that distinguishes it from other things. You can’t discover what causes it, and you can’t make predictions about it. You certainly cannot answer the question “is social construct A just another instance of social construct B”. You might as well ask “are bushes just another sort of weed?”. Er, sometimes. It depends.
And so it is with atheism and religion. “We’ve been using inadequate concepts,” says Lee. “To answer the question, you’ve got to have a coherent idea of what “religion” is, as well as what “atheism” is.” And that’s not possible. You can identify beliefs and behaviours that are often part of the social construct we call religion and you can do the same for the social construct we call atheism (see “Elements of atheism“). But you can’t really compare the two, says Lanman. Neither really exists.
Lawton ends with a compromise: atheism and religion share some features, but “the content of these features are very different.” Well, if one is going to be subjective and play with definitions, let him ponder WND’s article, “Biblical Christianity is no religion.”
Before reading the rest of our commentary, see if you can find the self-refuting aspects of Lawton’s ending paragraphs. Then scroll down and compare your findings with ours.
Lawton has just used the following immaterial ideas: causal connection, science, distinction, definition, concepts, coherent ideas, deciding what is possible, and content. Each of these require the following: truth that is timeless, logic that is universal, information that is immaterial, and morality that is trustworthy. And yet he is an atheist. For him, these ideas have to reduce to mere epiphenomena of matter in motion. They must be secretions of the neurons of his brain. They must have evolved by purposeless, amoral, blind processes of natural selection (the Stuff Happens Law). As such, they could not be trustworthy or even comprehensible. Lawton basically reasoned from a position that reason is an illusion! He effectively plagiarized the God of the Bible who says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” using that foundation to deny the existence of God. There’s the self-refutation.
Though we appreciate his giving some space to critics, Lawton only wiggled out of the question “Is atheism a religion?” via subjectivity: in short, ‘in some ways atheism is like a religion, in other ways it is not.’ We suggest a better question: ‘Is atheism a worldview?’ A worldview answers the following five questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the nature of reality? What is my purpose in life? Where am I going? Atheism certainly is a worldview, because it offers answers to these questions. Asking the question this way sweeps away the mushy irrelevancies of rituals and traditions, behaviors, god-concepts and social constructs, which will only yield imprecise answers depending on the instances compared. Worldview gets to heart of the distinction: creation, or evolution? Lawton’s atheism will determine all the other questions he considers, including What is science? What are the important scientific questions? What constitutes a scientific answer? Worldview stands at the tipping point of every question, every answer, every decision.
Notice how Lawton assumed evolution to claim religion is a social construct. Nothing stops us from assuming theism to claim atheism is a rebellion against God. So there; that’s why it’s important to ask the right questions to have any hope of a rapprochement or basis for continuing the discussion, rather than a standoff.
The question ‘Is atheism a worldview’ also avoids Lawton’s complaint about people who describe ‘off as a TV channel’ or ‘not playing tennis as a sport.’ The reason is clear; worldview is a must. It cannot be evaded. Saying “I don’t have a worldview” is a worldview! It answers the five questions above—with evasion, perhaps, but one can never evade the consequences. TV and tennis are options, but life is not. We were all born and will all die, and we all have to make sense of reality every day we live. Our worldview determines our every action, whether we will dine out or find food in the frig, or take Biology rather than English literature, or choose God or atheism. It determines how we vote, how we raise our children, what we value in life. Every minor decision is worldview based, because one could always choose to stop breathing or stop eating based on the values stemming from worldview. And failing to have a good worldview affects everyone around. It’s reminiscent of what Bonhoeffer said, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Choose wisely.