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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Is Atheism a Religion?

3 April 2009. In any polemical arena, all participants eventually reach a level of frustration with their opponents' inability to grasp the subtlety and beauty of the Truth. The only weapon left in the rhetorical arsenal is ridicule, particularly the kind usually characterized as name-calling. After repeated failure to convince the other side of the wisdom of your position, nothing feels quite so right and righteous as a good blast of irrelevant mud thrown in the face of your dimwitted, though tireless, enemy. A good polemical brawl always ends in the muck, much to the delight of onlookers. The fight between theists and atheists, I am here to report, is no different. Richard Dawkins has called creationists who reject evolution "stupid," "ignorant," and "insane." A review of Jerry Coyne's highly praised book on evolution quotes Dawkins as saying: "Anybody who doesn't believe in evolution is stupid, insane, or hasn't read Jerry Coyne." It is perfectly good English to say one " believes in evolution" (meaning one accepts evolution as true),  but in the polemical arena with a mob of desperate creationists who clutch at any straw, I'd rather say that I accept evolution as a fact and I accept natural selection as one of the more powerful explanations of how evolution occurs. I'd rather not say that I believe in evolution any more than I would say that I believe in gravity or electricity.

Which brings me to the point of this polemical piece. It has become accepted belief in some quarters of theism that atheism is a religion. Careful arguers might refer to atheism as a quasi-religion, just to protect themselves against the criticism of referring to something as religion that is clearly not religion. The following is an example of one of the quasi-attackers of atheism:

Atheism is not, as many will tell you, the absence of religion. Atheism is itself a quasi-religion that has a set dogma, a theology and most important its own demonology. For the Atheist the believer, of any faith, is like a character from the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. We who believe are all similar beings that need be controlled and feared by rational people lest we spread our corruption throughout their pristine and random creation. The Atheist does not simply disbelieve in some form of divinity in the world, he or she seeks the total annihilation of religion and the religious.*

The above was written in response to someone who referred to Bobby Jindal as a "creationist governor." The point of referring to Jindal as a creationist was apparently to indicate to the reader than Jindal is a moron who can't be trusted with any important ideas. (Jindal is a Catholic who seems to support teaching creationism in science classes.) After all, if he rejects evolution and believes in some fairy tale about the creation of the universe by some invisible guy in the sky with great powers and an evil sense of humor, then he can't be trusted in any position of political power. Calling Jindal a creationist is akin to calling him a fool who may justifiably be dismissed on any subject.

Jindal's defender, on the other hand, picks up the glove that has slapped Jindal in the face without his even knowing it, and defends not only the governor but all religious believers against the evil-breathing dragon called Atheism. Let the games begin! But while the righteous atheists and creationists mud wrestle for style points in the public arena, let's look at this claim that atheism is a religion.

The first thing to say about the claim that atheism is a religion is that it is patently false. But let's not let that fact get in the way of a good analysis of another pointless idea. Did you know that there are atheistic religions? Yes, Jainism has no gods and Buddhism has no personal gods. But neither Jains nor Buddhists align themselves with atheists. Furthermore, the majority of the world's atheists reject Jainism and Buddhism along with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all the other religions that have been created by humans over the course of history.

Does atheism have a dogma? No, but many atheists do accept a lovely narrative involving some very wild and beautiful notions about a Big Bang, universe formation, evolution of species, and so on. But our scientific narrative is not dogma. The story is always "the story so far." It keeps changing as we discover more about the nature of the universe we find ourselves in.

I won't belabor the point, but humans love to create and tell stories. No. We don't just love it, we are compelled to do it. It's what makes us what we are. Science is one of our stories or collections of stories. Perhaps, it is our best story. In the debate over what it is that separates humans from the rest of the animals I vote for this story-telling drive, this love of narrative that strives to connect disparate items into some sort of satisfying, coherent whole. In the never-ending argument over what makes us special, I go for that ancient human pastime of sitting around the campfire and telling tales.

A book I recently read makes the argument that religion issues from this brain-driven need to create stories (The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God by David J. Linden). I have no reason to doubt it. But the kinds of stories religions tell resemble dreams, fantasies, fables, legends, and fairy tales. The kinds of stories science creates are unique. They are fallible, revisable, testable, modifiable, and ultimately falsifiable. Science changes its stories to fit with our growing knowledge of the universe. Creationism doesn't do that. Creationism, in fact, is dogmatic in its assertion that some desert nomads got it right a few thousand years ago and anyone who discovers anything that contradicts what these ancient savants said is a fool. Rather than modify its beliefs to fit with our expanding knowledge of the world, creationists reject science a priori and try to construct a new narrative that fits science with their biblical beliefs. The only way to do this is to declare that all scientists and scientific methods are in error. To be blunt: young Earth creationism is one of the stupidest stories humans have ever told.

For a religionist to compare science to theology is either hypocrisy or ignorance. To say atheism has a demonology because some atheists demonize creationists and other buffoons as stupid, insane, or unworthy of consideration in the marketplace of ideas, may be metaphorical but at least it is a narrative that makes sense. To say that atheists think that religious believers "are all similar beings that need [to] be controlled and feared by rational people lest we spread our corruption throughout their pristine and random creation" may be true (except for the bit about being pristine, random, and a creation) but it's irrelevant to the issue of whether atheism is a religion. Likewise, it is true that some atheists would like to see the end of all religion, but this desire is also irrelevant to the issue of atheism as a religion. If this defender of the faith has shown anything, he has shown that atheism is an enemy of religion. Though it wasn't his aim, he may have inadvertently proved that science is a religion in the sense that it is a competitor with creationism and other stories for those of us sitting around the human campfire wondering what the hell we're doing here. Even that wouldn't be true, though. We might say that science was a religion back in the day when its narrative might have been considered a competitor of stories like creationism. Creationists who have abandoned science are no longer allowed to sit at the camp fire. They have to go to another forest and tell stories to each other. The rest of us will listen to religious stories, but only those that don't reject science out of hand. Atheists might not accept the religious stories of scientists who believe in gods, but most atheists will not be so arrogant or stupid as to deny all those who believe and tell religious stories a place around the fire. If the religious story is consistent with the narratives of science, no matter how implausible the religious story might seem, it still has a right to be told, argued about, modified, and ultimately accepted or rejected as the participants see fit.

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