This is a refrain I’m hearing a lot from religious apologists – atheism is a religion. Also its equally fallacious siblings, science is a religion and evolution is a religion. It’s a sign of their desperation that the best argument they have is not that atheism is wrong, or that god does exist (supported by evidence of course), but that atheism is a religion too. A strange argument for a religious person to make on the face of it. Is it supposed to strengthen the atheist’s position or weaken the theist’s one? In reality it’s a sign they have run out of arguments.
Still, this argument is widely made, and so it needs to be addressed. Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.
That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. In addition, atheism has no sacred texts, no tenets, no ceremonies. Even theists making this argument must know all that. So they must have something else in mind when they trot this one out, but what is it? What are they really thinking? Well, if you look at various definitions of religion, the only things that could possibly apply to atheism would be something like this:
6. Something one believes in and follows devotedly
4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Obviously I don’t know if that’s what they mean – I don’t read minds. But I can’t see what else it could be. They must be referring to certain activities of atheists – writing books and blogs, financing bus ads, joining atheist groups, etc. They think atheists are “religious in their atheism” as one person put it to me – the word “religious” being used here colloquially to mean something felt very strongly, or followed enthusiastically. But this definition of religion is so broad that virtually anything people enjoy doing very much, or follow strongly or obsessively, is a religion. It’s a definition of religion that is so broad that it’s meaningless. In reality, most of the things that people follow enthusiastically, are just hobbies. And ironically, although not collecting stamps is not a hobby, getting involved in atheist activities (writing books and blogs, attending atheist meetings) might well be a hobby for some people. But it is a hobby, not a religion.
What Is Religion?
I’m sure that argument won’t convince all theists to abandon this rhetorical trope they love so much. To really address the argument, we have to define religion, and then see if atheism fits the definition. While I don’t think I can define religion completely, I think I can state the minimum that religion has to have to still be a religion. And it seems to me that there is one thing at least that is common to all religions. It’s this. In my view, religion at a minimum, has to have the following characteristic:
Religion must include something you have to accept on faith – that is, without evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the belief.
Most religions will include other things too, but they must require faith. Of course, not all things that require faith are religions, but all religions must require faith.
The minimum definition covers all the religions I’m familiar with. For example, it includes any religion that involves belief in god or gods – something you have to believe in without evidence. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism… all require you to believe in god or gods as a minimum, without evidence. The minimum definition would also include religions that don’t require belief in god, but require faith in other things. For example, I believe it would include Buddhism, which (for example) includes the belief that living beings go through a succession of lifetimes and rebirth. It would also include Scientology – no evidence for Xenu, that I’m aware of. Maybe you can think of some actual religions that would be excluded, but I haven’t been able to so far.
So religion requires belief without evidence. And by that definition atheism cannot possibly be a religion because atheists do not have to believe in anything to be an atheist – either with or without evidence. QED.
Now, some religious people may say, “but that’s not my definition of religion”. To which I say, OK, then give me your definition. Give me your definition of religion, that doesn’t require belief without evidence, that includes your religion, the others I named, and atheism. And it needs to be better than the two dictionary definitions I cited above. Give me that definition. Because here’s the thing. The problems I have with religions are:
- They are not based on fact or on any reasonable evidence commensurate with the claims they make. In many cases, the claims they make are plainly absurd and are actually contradicted by the evidence.
- Religious proponents demand respect, and adherence to their delusions by others. This despite (1) above.
Those are the aspects of religion that I object to. Clearly atheism doesn’t fit 1 (or 2) above, so it is nothing like any of the religions I object to. If your religion does not require belief without faith, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Assuming, of course, all the tenets of your religion are actually backed up by evidence extraordinary enough for the extraordinary claims your religion makes. But they never do.
In my view, theists will have their work cut out to deny this minimum requirement for religion. Come on – they even refer to their religion as “my faith”.
Evidence and Extraordinary Evidence
Some religious people will claim that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence. This is where it gets tricky, because many religious people genuinely believe their religion is rational and backed by evidence. For example, one Christian I debated cited that the evidence Christianity was real, was (and I quote), “the resurrection of Christ”. Of course, the resurrection of Christ, if it had actually happened, would be pretty good evidence for Christianity. But, unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the resurrection. Certainly, nothing close to the extraordinary evidence we would need to accept this extraordinary claim.
This needs explaining in more detail. Why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Well, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most "ordinary" claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.
So why is Jesus’ resurrection an extraordinary claim, and why is the Bible not extraordinary evidence for it? Well, the resurrection goes against all the evidence we have that people do not come back to life, spontaneously, after two days of being dead. Modern medicine can bring people back from what would have been considered in earlier years to be “dead”, but not after 2 days of being dead with no modern life support to keep the vital organs working. In fact, it is probably reasonably safe to say it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people cannot come back to life after being dead for two days without modern life support. So, extraordinary claim it is.
On the other hand, the evidence we are offered in support of this extraordinary claim consists only of accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would an atheist accept for such an extraordinary claim? And in reality, it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be any evidence good enough for us to accept the resurrection as true. Christians may claim that this is unfair, or that we are closed minded, but the fact that you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence for this event 2,000 years after the fact, is hardly the non-believer’s fault. The real question, considering the weakness of the evidence, and the wildly extraordinary nature of the claim, is why would anyone believe any of it in the first place? The truth is, they accept it on faith. In fact, the acceptance of this story on faith alone is usually considered to be essential to the true believer. And although that was just Christianity, the same lack of evidence, and belief based on faith alone, applies to the claims of all the other religions that I’m familiar with.
Religions require belief in extraordinary claims without anything close to the extraordinary evidence that is required. Atheism requires no belief in anything. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.
But the believer has one final shot – one last desperate rhetorical item to fling at the atheist. Here we go.
More Faith To Be An Atheist?
The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.
Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.
And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next - it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith. That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.
One last thing. Some theists have responded to the “if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby” argument by pointing out that non stamp collectors (aphilatelists?) don’t write books or blogs about not collecting stamps, don’t post anti stamp collecting ads on buses, don't ridicule stamp collectors, etc. This is meant to demonstrate that the “stamp collecting” analogy is weak. It actually demonstrates that the analogy is very good, since it highlights one of the main problems atheists have with many religious people.
Here’s the thing they are missing, and the real problem most atheists have with religion. If stamp collectors demanded that people who don’t collect stamps obey their stamp collecting rules, started wars with groups who collected slightly different types of stamps, denied non-stamp collectors rights or discriminated against them, bullied them in school, claimed you had to collect stamps to be a suitable person to run for public office, tried to get stamp collecting taught in schools as science in opposition to real science, demanded that people be killed for printing cartoons that made fun of stamp collectors, claimed that non-stamp collectors lacked moral judgment, made up ridiculous straw man positions they claimed non-stamp collectors took, and then argued against those straw men positions etc etc, - then non-stamp collectors probably would criticize stamp collectors in the way atheists criticize many religious people. And with good reason. Not collecting stamps would still not be a hobby. Or a religion.