A couple of weeks ago, I posted part II of unintended series on the cult-like culture of atheism (part I can be read here). I did so because the overblown Sam Harris, author of such unmemorable books as Letter to a Christian Nation, noted "there is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety."
One of the contributors to the comments, Peter, posted two comments that I thought deserved some attention. He wrote:
Just out of interest why do apologist try to insist that atheism is a religion? All atheists seem to deny this claim saying the[y] don't have common beliefs, statement of faith, practices, ritual[s] or laws, but why do apologist want to insist it?
Actually what is (where do you get) your definition of a cult and a religion? Once you define it is easier to discuss about it.
I think that these are legitimate questions. Why do I consider atheism a religion? After all, as a reader (it may also have been Peter) claimed in an earlier comment, atheism is to religion as stamp collecting is to hobbie, isn’t it? You don’t call not collecting stamps a hobby and by analogy you wouldn’t call not recognizing God a religion. I thought that this was an interesting challenge, and I do want to take up the question of why many Christians see atheism as a religion. While I write only for myself, I think that the views that I put in this point express the unconsious thoughts of at least a few Christians.
The Starting Place
First, I start at a different place than others typically do. I think that we need to first examine what constitutes a religious belief in order to identify a religion. The reason I start here rather than with religion is because it seems to me that religion is simply what naturally follows from an underlying religious belief. Judaism, for example, is the religion that follows from the religious belief that the monotheistic God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one and only God. Because that God is believed to exist and is believed to have passed down the Torah as a command to His chosen people, then those who believe in the Jewish God (without accepting that Jesus is also the same God) generally follow the Torah as one of the main components of their religion since God has commanded them to do so. In other words, the actions that constitute the religion and which sociologists study follow naturally from the religious beliefs at the core of the system.
Several dictionaries recognize that this approach is one path towards defining "religion". For example, Dictionary.com gives as one of the definitions of religion, "the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith." In other words, religion has two aspects: (1) the practice of religious beliefs, and (2) the observance of faith in ritual. But are both really necessary? What if the religious belief demands no ritual? It seems to me that the second part of the definition is superfluous, and instead the key to understanding religion is simply to recognize that religion is the practice of a religious belief. Thus, it seems appropriate to begin by identifying what constitutes a religious belief.
It seems to me that any religious belief begins with a belief about the existence of God, a god or gods (hereinafter shortened to just "God" unless the context clearly indicates otherwise). The belief that God exists and that Jesus is his only Son is undoubtedly a religious belief because it is one possible answer to the question about the existence and nature of God, and I know of no one who would disagree. A belief in the existence of the Hindu pantheon of gods is also a religious belief -- again, it provides a possible answer to the question about the existence and nature of God. I think it should be largely uncontroversial that atheism also starts with a belief about the existence and nature of God -- there is no God and therefore God has no nature. To me, and to many like me, this is a religious belief, i.e., it is a belief about God and therefore religious at heart.
Many would object that a religious belief is only an affirmation of the existence of God. I don’t know any reason that it should be limited in such a fashion. Buddhism makes no positive assertions that God exists yet it is still generally considered (appropriately, in my opinion) a religion. I think it is considered a religion largely because it answers the larger questions about life, morality and other matters of spirit. In other words, it doesn't matter how the questions are answered for the belief system to be a religion, but rather that the belief system addresses the questions at all.
For those who would insist that only a belief that affirms the existence of God is religious, the obvious question arises: why isn’t the denial of the existence of God equally a religious belief? After all, it concerns the existence and nature of God, doesn’t it? Atheism answers the same questions as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and all of the other known religions, it simply answers those questions from the starting point that God doesn't exist. To me (and to others), that is as clearly a religious belief as the belief that there is a God. I think that it is incumbent upon those who claim that only beliefs that affirm the existence of God are religious to justify that limitation.
The Atheist Belief System
Atheism, then, starts with a religious belief (there is no God), and forms a belief system that is based on that initial religious belief. The belief system is as fully developed as most easter religions which generally don't have a centralized theology. The belief system, aka dogma, of atheism includes such ideas as the following:
1. There is no meaning to the universe. Any meaning that exists is made by ourselves.
2. There is no ultimate right or wrong. What is right or wrong is dependent upon each individual or society to work out for themselves. Hence, there is no real evil, but there are things that societies will collectively identify as evil, and that concept is evolving.
3. The universe is a closed system, and there is no intervention into the affairs of the unvierse from any type of intelligence outside of our materialistic universe. To that end, any suggestion that the evidence suggests otherwise must be dismissed because they are inappropriate attempts by theists to put their beliefs system into science.
4. If the universe began with the big bang (as most cosmologists believe) then there has to be a natural reason for the big bang.
5. There must be a non-theistic basis for the moral beliefs generally held by people. It is likely that it has been handed down in the genes from our ape-ancestors.
6. There is no revealed truth, but only truth that can be arrived at by reason. It is important to pass along to the next generation the truth that there is no God so that they are not taken captive by false theologies which cannot teach truth.
These types of beliefs flow naturally from the belief that there is no God (at least, if I were an atheist, I would believe each of these things because they are the only alternatives that I am aware that would follow from the fact that reality is God-free). In fact, most atheists that I have ever met and with whom I have discussed beliefs at length have believed each of the foregoing to one degree or another. Hence, I think that it is fair to say that these six beliefs -- together with other beliefs not mentioned -- make up part of the framework of atheistic religious belief because they all follow naturally from the starting point that there is no God.
Atheists do not have to fully accept each of the six to be following a belief system. In that way the beliefs are like many beliefs within Christianity that vary slightly from denomination to denomination. But the fact is that each of these points appear to me to be part of the atheist orthodoxy from which atheists cannot stray and still be considered good atheists.
The Importance of Belief in a Good Analogy
As mentioned above, one reader said that saying atheism is a religion is like calling not collecting stamps a hobby. I don’t believe that the stamp collector analogy presented makes the case that atheism is not a religion because of a significant difference: stamp collecting is an activity and not a belief. If one collects stamp, that person is a stamp collector. If one doesn’t collect stamps, then she is not a stamp collector. I would agree that not collecting stamps is not a hobby as I would likewise agree that not playing the piano is not a musical talent. But then, these are simply activities. Activities are defined by and limited to the act. Belief does not really enter the picture.
But what about a belief? For example, suppose the question is whether UFOs exist? Is not believing that UFOs exist not a belief? Of course it is a belief -- it is the belief in the non-existence of UFOs. It is answering the question about the existence of UFOs negatively, but it is still a belief about UFOs.
An analogy which I think is more accurate than the stamp collector analogy can be found in the area of politics. Politics is, at heart, a belief system which (like religious belief) affects the day-to-day life of virtually everyone. At a basic level, people believe in a variety of different types of governments: republics, democracies, aristocracies, theocracies and communist systems are just some of the potential governmental systems. The people who believe in one or the other of these types of governmental systems can be compared to theists since they have beliefs that a particular form of government is best. Ordinarily, their other political beliefs (e.g., beliefs about policies) follow from that initial view. One would not believe that monarchies are the best form of government and then fight for the creation of a legislature -- one doesn't follow from the other.
Now, in political thought, there are people who believe that no government at all is the best government. They are called anarchists. Is the belief that no government is the best type of government a political belief? Of course it is. Believing that no governmental system is the best for society is as much a political belief as believing in a democratic or monarchical system. Moreover, the belief in anarchy leads to various "doctrines" or "policy beliefs" which naturally arise out of and follow from the political belief that there should be no government. In every sense of the word, favoring anarchy is a political belief.
The Not Collecting Stamps Position in Religion
Can a person opt out? What is the "not collecting stamps" position that could exist in this analogy? The answer is to not take a position at all. The only way to not participate is to not believe any form of government or non-government is the best form of government, i.e., to be completely, wholly and utterly apathetic. I think that the same is true in religion. The only "not collecting stamps" position is to not make a decision about the existence of God or his attributes. This is not the same as active agnosticism where a person has studied and rejected one or more views about God. Saying "I don't know the answer, but I know that these are wrong" is as much a religious belief as holding to one particular form of religion. After all, a person does not need to arrive at an answer to the question of whether a republic or a democracy is the best form of government to have a political view -- rejecting democracies as bad is a political belief.
The only way to opt out of the system is to ignore it altogether -- to make it clear that one doesn't know nor care about God and whether He really exists. That is the "not collecting stamps" position in the area of religion.
Again, I speak only for myself although I suspect that I am voicing opinions held by others. I also recognize the weaknesses of analogies which are necessarily imperfect (the only perfect analogy is an identity, but identities don't really help advance understanding). The bottom line is that there is no reason to exclude a belief in no God from being a religious belief, and to the extent that the religious belief (of atheism in this case) leads to a belief system, it is a religion.