CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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.

Conclusion

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.

24 comments:

Maybe someday, you'll understand the difference between strong atheism and weak atheism. Until then, your argument is a straw man, and--once again--you lose.

I believe I understand the difference quite well, thank you. Apparently, since you choose to simply suggest that it makes a difference in what I have said rather than elaborate on it, you don't.

This comment has been removed by the author.

Whoops, double-posted. Had to delete one.

bk,

Thanks for answering my question in a lengthy post.

I think the previous poster meant that strong atheist do not have a "belief" = atheism it not a religion. Same as some Christians seem to have a knowledge that Zeus is not the true god.

"Atheism answers the same questions"
I thought it only answers one single question.

"dogma, of atheism includes such ideas"

1. Wrong. Atheists do not agree on this
2. Wrong. Atheists do not agree on this; buddhist for example. If "ultimate" is a reference to god(s), then this is another version of "do you believe in god(s)?"
3. This should not be on a list. This is about the belief in god..., but then again Brane cosmology gives new dimension to this closed universe debate.
4. How does this make a atheism dogma? All atheist also believe in law of gravity
5. Anything starting to "There must be a non-theistic basis for..." is not a separate dogma in atheism. this is another version of "do you believe in god(s)?" Atheist do not agree where the morals come from.
6. "It is important to pass along to the next generation the truth that there is no God". I think you mentioned before that you do not want to meet atheists because you know their opinions from the Internet. Your comment shows that you seem to have very little knowledge of atheists. You comment is so wrong.

you can be an atheist without subscribing to 1&2, 3-6 (and maybe 2) are just an other version of "do you believe in god(s)?"

"These types of beliefs flow naturally from the belief that there is no God"
So you can have an endless list of god based "beliefs" atheist have like:
7. They don't believe that "God who created all things through Jesus Christ"
8. They don't believe that Eden used to be in modern Southern Turkey.
9. They don't believe that stoning people to death for working on Sabbath is a good idea.

I guess based on your definition most of us are members of the a-raelian religion (answers questions from the starting point that God is an alien).

Your later argument seem to lead to the conclusion that belief in democracy is a religion.

Your list seems to include ideas what Christian apologist think atheists are holding as their dogma. In all seriousness I think there are couple of ideas floating/discussed around in atheist community that I can see to be developping into dogma(s) like your list. Your list did not include those.

- Peter

Peter,

I leave your comments to stand on there own. In my opinion, you have done nothing that shows that atheism is not a religion as I argued in my post.

I see two big problems with this conceptual analysis of 'religion'.

1) To say that the rituals and practices part of a religion are neither necessary nor sufficient to its being a religion is problematic. Is there a single uncontroversial example of this?--i.e. a religion without any practice or ritual? I can't think of one.

2) To be an atheist, it suffices to disbelieve in the existence of God, where 'God' purports to refer to something like the god of the Bible, the Koran, etc. or to the god of the philosophers or probably also any sort of polytheistic god as well. There are many other beliefs that are logical entailments of that belief, but they are all of the type 'there is no x such that x grounds the existence of morality and x is God'. Being an atheist doesn't entail any specific belief about morality other than disbelief in God having any part in it. Likewise, one can be a an atheist and hold any number of views about science, including being a complete skeptic regarding it or having numerous non-standard positions.

Richard Dawkins or someone of his ilk might take you to task if you claim to be an atheist and deviate too much from the "orthodox" position, but on what grounds can he call your atheism into question? One could be an atheist and hold the position that there is a fate guiding everyone's life and giving life meaning. There's nothing wrong with that unless you're also smuggling in a number of other beliefs--about proper explanations, about ontology, about the proper starting points for a belief system--along with the disbelief in God that are not, strictly speaking, part of that belief. So I think you will have to greatly restrict your claim, though I think you still have a major problem with (1).

Keith Yandell (Christian philosopher of religion at UW-Madison) gives the following definition of a religion in his textbook, Philosophy of Religion. A religion is a belief system that diagnoses a problem with humanity and prescribes a cure. (I think he says "belief system" in the wording, but not sure.) On this definition, most brands of atheism are not religions, though some of the Dawkins type come fairly close.

BK,

I do not think atheism is a religion and take their word for it that it is an irreligion. I do this because atheism, unlike Christianity, Islam, etc. does not have fixed beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality except that God does not exist. Now to your list:

1. All atheists don't agree with this. For example Marxists believe that the objective meaning of the universe is that we ought to further the historical dialectic towards a worldwide proletarian revolution. Other atheists think that science is the only ground where objective meaning came be based. I'm not saying that these explanations or others like them are adequate but just that they don't fall neatly into your point.

2. Atheists can be moral realists. They may that they have no idea where these come from but they can affirm there existence.

3. This is the classic scientist perspective but I wouldn't say that this is a common atheist belief given the new scientific data we have.

4. Some say that even asking the question of what caused the Big Bang to be nonsensical.

5. I concur.

6. Agreed, as far as it goes.

Atheism is not a full religion because it only refers to a specific belief (or in this case a non-belief). It probably affects one's religious worldview but it is not one in and of itself.

To me, I see atheism as a crude reaction against religion, usually Christianity. I say 'crude' because it is not a religion on its own. It is only the rebellion against one. That's why people don't convert to atheism but fall into it.

It seems very easy to get confused about religion – the diversity in atheism has a parallel in the tremendous diversity among say Christian denominations where one is sometimes hard pressed to find much in common. Certainly one could say that someone who had never thought about the question of there being a God or not, who lived in an intellectual vacuum on the topic was an atheist (had no belief in God) but clearly did not subscribe to a religion. But I don’t think it is really honest to call them atheists in the sense that no choice has been made, the person has not elected to be anything.

So for a start, if atheism is a religion then it is one characterised by choice, electing to adhere to one frame of reference instead of another – superficially that would qualify as a religion to me.

Atheists, if I may generalise, appear to often be people who like to live by absolutes, black or white, no shades of grey. That is why many have left Christianity, too many apparent contradictions (Christ as BOTH God AND man) and the bible not being inerrant etc … I hope you know what I mean. So atheists will, in general, be predisposed by the need for absolutes to deny that atheism is a religion – there is too much variation:

Let’s look at some of the features of a religion:

a) Common belief – yes it is there in atheism, BUT with variations as with Christianity.

b) Seminal texts, be they Dawkins or Russell or whoever. The texts have not been brought together into a “cannon” … but if they were they would they reflect a level of coherence similar to that of the bible? Certainly they are not 100% internally consistent – some acknowledge the historic Jesus, others dispute it.

c) Ritual. It certainly is emerging. A recent article in Time http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1686828,00.html
talks about an atheist Sunday school with a quote [others]… “have church groups to help teach their kids values and to be able to lean on” plus there are celebrants for weddings etc who work to an “order of service”.

d) You need faith to believe – certainly true for strong atheists.

e) Moral code – certainly BK has presented a good argument there.

f) Evangelists out there spreading the word – no doubt about it.

Does this make atheism a religion – I would argue that at the very least it is on its way to becoming one. BUT we should not be constrained in our thinking of a religion by old ideas. The communications age has given us the internet and virtual communities, it has opened up access to a far wider “cannon” – I would not expect a religion that emerged today to look like one that emerged 6000 years ago or 2000 years ago even 200 years ago – but we tend to use existing religions as benchmarks.

Tragically I suppose the final test of a religion is to ask if another religion has ever been persecuted in its favour - and yes atheism passes that test.

Whether or not atheism is a religion depends entirely on how you define the word religion. However, it just seems unfair to claim that any position on the God question is de facto a religion. If that's what you want to argue then have at it, but such a debate over the definition of that word means nothing to those who disagree. I might as well argue that an atheist is a "Bright" person too, ya see.

hanks for answering my question in a lengthy post.

I think the previous poster meant that strong atheist do not have a "belief" = atheism it not a religion. Same as some Christians seem to have a knowledge that Zeus is not the true god.


that is a dodge. It always has been.It's a propaganda techniuqe. strong atheists have more of a unified belief atheists than weak ones. clelary and without dobut they do. I can tell you the basic beliefs they almost always share:

(1) nothing exists beyond the material realm.

(2) only empirical evidence is knoledge

(3) science is a special thing that supports atheism and debunks philosophy and metaphysics.

(4) reductionist, materilaist, deterministic, philistine, any thinking.

. Wrong. Atheists do not agree on this; buddhist for example. If "ultimate" is a reference to god(s), then this is another

Buddhism is a religion. It is not a subset of atheism. it fits every definition of religion and is classified in every major dictionary and encyclopedia and dictionary of religion as such. Eliade classified it as a religion.

atheists are always trying to inflate their stats, and their importance by claiming other groups as part of their thing. If Buddhism is a religion than atheism must be one too.

I mean to say "If Buddhism is part of atheism, and it is a religion, then that increases the evidence that atheism is a religion as well.

but I think it's misguided to argue this. I think we should say atheism is an "er zots" religion. It's not one per se, but it functions as one in the lives of those committed to it. It functions in place of having a religion.

j.l.hinman,

"that is a dodge. It always has been.It's a propaganda techniuqe. strong atheists have more of a unified belief atheists than weak ones."
I understand that some Christians have a mental issue accepting that some people have knowledge that the Christian god does not exist. It is a very scary thought (needing debunking) that someone claims to know what your belief is wrong. It is especially scary when it come from an atheist, not from a "misguided" muslim.

"I can tell you the basic beliefs they almost always share"
I somewhat to agree (science debunks philosophy??, no inductionism?? philistine??), but I listed three more "beliefs" above. The problem is that your list does not really capture atheism well, like atheist witches who claim to have spiritual powers. Your list is getting into the right direction, but needs more refining...

"Buddhism is a religion. It is not a subset of atheism."
I agree. And the logical conclusion is that atheist buddist belong to two different religions.

"atheists are always trying to inflate their stats"
Those nasty atheists, luckily Christians never do this...

""er zots" religion ... It functions in place of having a religion"
Is that ersetzt religion? Not in my opinion, most atheists just let the religion and superstition go. Most people don't need a "replacement" for beliefs in Yeti or alien abducion. You were an atheist. Do you feel that you replaced your previous religion to Christianity?

-Peter

Anon your answers are socially naive.

if you think you have real actually proof there's no God why don't you say what it is? Make wtiht he skinny so we call clam up? hmmm?

come on what is it? let's end this nonsense ok? just tell us?

No?

so then shut the cake hole. you don't have chim in with your ignorance every time God is mentioned. we know you dn't believe you don't have to pretend you know something when you don't.

you know any more than we do so shut the cake hole.

Your list of atheist "beliefs" is, at best, a gross oversimplification of some of the arguments that crop up on the internet. Sorry, I gotta call "strawman" here...

And as for the stamp collecting analogy, I happen to think it's an excellent one. Atheists are in the position of someone who doesn't collect stamps, but is surrounded on all sides by people who insist that collecting stamps is the only hobby that can bring meaning into our lives; that all other hobbies are inadequate and that any other hobby is just a weak attempt to fill the hole left by not collecting stamps...

You can imagine what a challenge it would be to be surrounded by people like that...;-)

Peter you said, "I understand that some Christians have a mental issue accepting that some people have knowledge that the Christian god does not exist. It is a very scary thought (needing debunking) that someone claims to know what your belief is wrong."

I'd just like to point out if I accepted that someone has knowledge that God doesn't exist, then I'd be accepting its being true that God doesn't exist, so yeah, I'm probably not going to accept that someone has knowledge of God's non-existence. However, I do accept that many people think they have this knowledge. I guess I used to find that disturbing, but not anymore.

So whats a strong atheist and whats a weak atheist (just out of curiousity)?

I feel atheism shares with religion the foundation of a worldview (naturalism, materialism - those provide a way to view life, similarily to how a religious faith does). If thats all it takes to be religious, then you could make a strong case for it. If you want to incorporate the supernatural as being part of religion than you can't really make the case (IMHO).

-PC.

Anonymous said...

So whats a strong atheist and whats a weak atheist (just out of curiousity)?

I feel atheism shares with religion the foundation of a worldview (naturalism, materialism - those provide a way to view life, similarily to how a religious faith does). If thats all it takes to be religious, then you could make a strong case for it. If you want to incorporate the supernatural as being part of religion than you can't really make the case (IMHO).


I thought you were going to tell us how you know there's no God so we can stop believing? As I suspected. What really meant was "I don't want there to be God." You have no actual knowledge of the situation.

what I believe makes something a religion is if it does these three things:

(1) identifies human problmeatic

(2) tries to overcome problemtic with ultimate transfromative experince

(3) tries to mediate the UTE to resolve the problematic.

atheim actually tries this but is ineffective.

And as for the stamp collecting analogy, I happen to think it's an excellent one. Atheists are in the position of someone who doesn't collect stamps, but is surrounded on all sides by people who insist that collecting stamps is the only hobby that can bring meaning into our lives; that all other hobbies are inadequate and that any other hobby is just a weak attempt to fill the hole left by not collecting stamps...

good analogy, wrong hobby

hey I'm not intolerant. I don't insist that only DC comics bring happiness and fulfillment. I know Marvel can too and Charlton. I would actually like to collect Charlton, and silver age Marvel was part of my childhood comic experience.

Of course, the JSA and LSH are the best, but I accept that others are good too.

J.L. Hinman,

I think you confused PC's and my comments. Sorry, my mistake, I should have registered earlier to avoid a confusion.

"your answers are socially naive" ... "your ignorance" ... "so shut the cake hole"
Oh, dear. You don't seem to want to address any of my comments, but rather going to insults. Sorry that you are not having a good day.

No, I don't have a proof that dodos are extinct, Socrates lived, Allah does not exist or that Model-T Fords are not manufactured any more, but once one investigates an issue sufficiently the usage of the word "know" is generally excepted. Many religious people seem to "know" that their particular deity exists. I don't think you call all of them naive and ignorant?



PC,

Wikipedia has an article about "Weak and strong atheism"


-Peter

You might want to see Bill Craig's (and my) take on weak vs strong atheism here.

J.L. Hinman,

I think you confused PC's and my comments. Sorry, my mistake, I should have registered earlier to avoid a confusion.

"your answers are socially naive" ... "your ignorance" ... "so shut the cake hole"
Oh, dear. You don't seem to want to address any of my comments, but rather going to insults. Sorry that you are not having a good day.

No, I don't have a proof that dodos are extinct, Socrates lived, Allah does not exist or that Model-T Fords are not manufactured any more, but once one investigates an issue sufficiently the usage of the word "know" is generally excepted. Many religious people seem to "know" that their particular deity exists. I don't think you call all of them naive and ignorant?


I am sorry about that. I was addressing the comment to my old buddy Anon; he and I have a long history. Because I thought that's who said what I responding to.

because religious people use language such as "I know God is real" then you can use language like "I know God isn't real?" But I think there's a big difference there. Your sociological naivety didn't come from that statement. But read back up there and see what I was referring to. I am going to address this in a blog piece soon. this issue of knowledge in relation to God talk. Essentially we do know "something is afoot in the universe" you don't' know it's not. simple enough.

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