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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is Atheism A Religion?

This post is a spot for our Kiva team to chat/debate (if anyone is up for it).

My initial thoughts; it heavily depends on how religion is defined. I won't venture to define religion.

I think atheists can form a religion, such as, Humanism. Not all atheists are Humanists. Many Buddhists are atheists. Is Buddhism a religion? I think so but it is also a philosophy. The teachings of the Buddha can be useful to people in the cross cultural way that the teachings of the Ancient Greek Philosophers are.

How is atheism different from agnosticism? Is Agnosticism a religion?

Your Thoughts?


Edgar Brown said...

A precondition to atheism, is open discussion, openness to ideas, and the following of scientific principles. From that point of view it cannot be a religion. That does not mean that there are atheists that cannot explain their 'beliefs' any better than any religious devout. This is not 'hard atheism' in my view.

If we follow any of "the four horsemen" this view is clear, but quoting Daniel Dennett, from his book breaking the Spell: "[A tentative definition of religion is] a social system whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." Under this definition, even 'weak atheism' would not be a religion.

Even Science has been placed into this region/non-religion question. 'Belief' in Science (if such a thing can be said) is belief in the scientific method, in natural explanations, and in the open questioning of ideas. So, even if we do not fully understand a scientific conclusion, we can easily understand (and even question) the process that led to it. Even if I can't understand the 100+ page proof to Fermat's last theorem, I can be confident that there have been enough mathematicians in the world trying to disprove it that there is no choice but for it to be true.

jeff said...

I agree that the definition of religion is going to determine what gets categorized as religion.

I haven't read Dennett's book, so I don't know how Dennett elaborates on his definition, but the quote as it stands doesn't really satisfy me. If the definition of "religion" hinges on what is "supernatural," I think some questions are going to be begged. What is supernatural? Are ghosts supernatural? I think we would all say they are, but at the same time if the existence of ghosts were scientifically proven and a purely naturalistic explanation was given, it doesn't seem that ghosts would be supernatural. I think that we can only really say that something is "supernatural" if we have a complete knowledge of what is natural, and we likely never will. Also a problem with tying religion to the supernatural is that UFO religions like the Heaven's Gate cult and the Raelians, both of which, on my understanding, posit(ed) outlandish but still "natural" beliefs.

One way in which atheism is distinct from religion is that whereas religion seems to necessarily involve positive claims (I mean claims "for" something; claims that something exists), atheism is simply a negative claim (that something does not exist). I know this is an extremely unambitious distinction since there are a lot of positive beliefs which are not religious, but it does at least provide a very clear, and I think uncontroversial, distinction separating atheism from religion. Even if this doesn't answer the much bigger question of what "religion" is, it does seem, to me, to provide a very clear-cut way of showing that whatever religion is, atheism is something else.

Tropical Pete said...

Edgar and Jeff,

I agree with what both of you have said. To me the broadest most mainstream connotation and definition of atheism is that it is not a religion.

I've read Breaking the Spell it is a great book to try and convince believers in the necessity of inquiry. It fills an important niche.

Edgar, I agree about the scientific conclusions. Even though I studied math and physics as an undergraduate there are proofs way out of my reach and deep insights about physics that take a long time to sink in. People who have earned trust are worth listening too.

Jeff, to me nothing by definition could ever be classified as super natural. Nature is what is real and what we can examine. That's why I believe that it is okay for Atheists to claim gods do not exist. There are limits in physics and some ideas do not fit within those limits and can be disregarded no matter how many people believe (The bodily assent of Christ, for example).

To me, it's important that I am clear with people (in person) that I am an atheist or that I am non-religious. Those are the labels I use for myself. I think it's good for people to know about atheism and see an atheist as a normal person.

Rationality is a comfortable defense; so we can wear our principles proudly :)

Bryan said...

Religions generally have a system of beliefs. Aside from a disbelief in god, atheism does not have any other set-in-stone beliefs. So at that level we fail as being a religion.

But subsets of atheists may qualify - your example of humanists is a good one. Shared set of beliefs and practises, and not necessarily all based on rational criteria.

As for agnostics, I don't think they qualify. They have doubts about beliefs, rather than a specific set of them.

Edgar Brown said...

Bryan, I'd go further. I have a problem when the word 'belief' is used in science (and by extension to my flavor of Atheism). 'Beliefs' in science are nothing more than proto-hypotheses that can be disproved in the blink of an eye. Beliefs can serve as rough guidelines for research but, without facts and provable hypotheses emerging from them, are not worth anything at all.

Beliefs are what religions are made of. So saying that an Atheist's non-belief is comparable in any way to a single religious belief, is already too much of a concession for me. It goes down the path of equating science with religion, and that is a path that is better torn down before it even starts.

And don't even get me started on the apparently innocuous question: 'do you believe in evolution?'.

Anonymous said...

Given that everyone is atheist, some just take it one god further than most, than I believe atheism should be considered a religion.

A religion is something one believes in and follows devotedly; a cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion. By that definition, lifting weights every day, volunteering ones time and money at an animal shelter, or being a devoted sports fan could be classified as a religious activity.

Religion is also defined as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Notice the words especially, usually and often used to include the ceremonial worship of gods, meaning that worship of a deity is not a necessary precursor of religion. If buddhism, a philosophy without a supreme being, is classified as a religion, then why not atheism or even science? Or is atheism already the religion of science, and I don't mean the crazy Tom Cruise variety!

While it is true atheism encourages inquiry, so do other religions. The very name Israel means "one who wrestles with god." Acknowledging that there is no such thing as absolute truth, religions still strive to explain the unknown, and atheism is no different, it just uses a more rational cemented in reality.

Atheists are just as morally righteous or even more so than god fearing folk, and atheism can be followed with as much fervor as any other religion, it just does so without a deity in a much more cynical and realistic manner.

Ted said...

Not believing in god is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Eric said...

One thing I think is fundamental to our common understanding of the word religion is that it's a philosophy of life, which explains how the world works and possibly why. This does not necessarily entail faith, as it could be based on what a person perceives to be observable facts. This still doesn't make atheism a religion, though, because atheism really only exists in contraposition to certain bits of faith. Of course you could then build a religion on top of that foundation.

There's no way agnosticism can be a religion, as it takes only a stance of ignorance on the way the world works.

Unknown said...

Regardless of where one is coming from, I strongly agree with Edgar. Atheism is all about openness to discussions, ideas and scientific principles (obeying nature). Basically, we are all the same matter, regardless of the diverse forms we see and find in the universe. It sounds odd to think that a being super-intelligent or else, controls life in the universe. All processes, no matter how simple or sophisticated (intricate) obey inexorable laws of Chemistry and Physics. Biological functions and/or processes are simply products of these same laws.

Unknown said...

Again, religions are all about believing. Proofing is not a crucial denominator. Atheism is factual and atheists live by its premise - proof.