Insisting atheism is not a religion is more important than you think

A common misconception of atheism is that it is, in effect, a religion. This oft-cited argument is dangerous in more ways than one, but as a side it is probably worthwhile to point out the argument’s flaws. Atheism in terms of “new” atheism (to define it separately from communist-based et al. atheism, which we’ll get to in a second) is not the substitution of one religion for another. It is not taking faith-based practices and replacing it with another set of faith-based practices in the same way a Christian converting to Judaism might do. It is substituting faith based for evidence based practices; ideas based on logic, reason and most importantly, science. However atheism from a behavioral perspective is merely an extension of normal rational behavior (which everyone does a lot of anyway) into areas that were previously dominated by faith belief. So if there are religious beliefs that go with child rearing, a newly confirmed atheist might look at established literature as opposed to a holy book. Proponents and supporters of atheism are not in the same boat as proponents and supporters of a religion. An atheist has no set of morals that must be abided by, although many (including myself) take humane virtues such as not hurting others. These virtues are natural and, for want of a better word, absolute. It is my natural desire not to hurt other people, bring happiness and knowledge, and strive to improve in all things. A good, social upbringing will have the same effect for practically everyone. Statistically speaking this has proven to be the case- countries with more atheists (sans Communist countries-getting there) tend to be better run with a slew of advantages such as less crime and reductions in socially, individually and economically undesirable traits such as teenage pregnancy.

But I digress. The simplest explanation for why atheism is not a religion can  be summed in a popular statement, which is “atheism is a religion in the same way not collecting stamps is a hobby”. There are a million other ways to phrase it- “atheism is a religion like not smoking is a habit”, “atheism is a religion like not driving a classic car makes you an enthusiast” and perhaps my favourite: “atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour”. These statements allude to what I mentioned previously regarding how atheism should be looked at, at most, as an extension to rationality in areas that were previously dominated by faith.

So why is the argument dangerous? Well, as I have hopefully shown, it is clearly misrepresenting what atheism does and what it entails. More dangerous than you think, it is common practice for religious commentators to lump new atheism with Communist (i.e. non-rational) atheism for this very reason and hope the confusion halts attempts to denounce faith. While an atheist friend of mine feels that the assertion that Communist dictatorships behave similarly to religion is a poor argument, unfortunately, considering the other side has brought it up, it should be addressed. Sam Harris makes a more erudite and thoughtful statement regarding the issue, but I’ll recap. Stalinism et al. is “atheism” with enforced and irrational beliefs in the mix and any reasonable atheist or indeed religious observer can clearly see its foibles. Don’t call it a religion if you must, but there are many parallels including mass hysteria, stigmas attached to the non-believing outgroup, faith without evidence and of course cults of personality. Stalin had Lysenkoism, a pseudoscience touted as science, force-fed to the USSR which did little to alleviate its hunger pangs when the supposed “double Spring” bumper crops failed to materialize. Kim Jon-il has numerous legends regarding his birth and expertise, such as playing the greatest round of golf ever witnessed, or a vision of a golden Koi that blessed his leadership. One must stand agape at what is either fake tears for fear of being shot, or genuine (and thus, even more tragic) sorrow that his constituents felt after his demise. It is clear then, that there are very clear cut lines between new atheism and the “atheism” of dictatorships past and present. As Hitchens put it, Stalin had an entire nation who had blindly followed Imperialist Russia and believed in their diety status. Why wouldn’t you exploit that?

During my undergrad years as a budding psychologist, I was exposed to the horror that was the inconsistent tetrad. I’ve mentioned it previously before, but as a recap:

1)      The mind is immaterial

2)      The body is material

3)      The mind and body interact

4)      Spirit and matter do not interact


This is the inconsistent tetrad regarding the mind-body problem. You can remove one of the four and be left with a standpoint. So someone who refutes point 2 would be something of a solipsist who believes the body is a dream. Psychologists leapt upon the issue, and initially denied the un-measurable mind and removed the 1st. The problem was not well addressed- behaviorists (bless their scientific, driven, cotton socks) pushed for decades against the simple fact that the mind did exist, as Chomsky in the 70s pointed out with more than a little incredulity. What became of this? The Golden Age of behaviourism crumbled and the school of thought (no juxtaposition intended) was bad mouthed. To take its place was some very good things, such as cognitive psychology. There was also shockingly bad things, like humanist psychology. Even the cog psych needed to be re-uplifted, much later, by behaviourism to become CBT which stands today as the most effective clinical psychology we have. But Pandora’s box was opened, and in flooded the unscientific practices of psychology that poison the well even today.

So what mistake did behaviourists and psychology make? The made the mistake of answering the tetrad. By agreeing that the terms of the tetrad would be the way the game was played, behaviourists shot themselves in the foot and stymied their own scientific enterprise. If they ignored the tetrad and favored pure science, making nods at the unknowing mind, psychology would probably be in a better state. By the way, Agnes Petocz, an old lecturer, believes psychology in some ways is still making it and I encourage you to read the material she has publish.

So how do we apply this to the current atheist question? Most atheists, eager to do discourse with believers, have accepted the field labeled “atheism is/is not a religion” and, unlike psychology, there are concerted and powerful attempts to ensure the field stays where it is. When typical Christian spokespeople state things like ““[New atheists are] like the communists who feared religion more than anything else because it was a competing truth claim” you know atheism is getting muddied down. By putting atheism on an even playing field with religion, not only does it drag atheism down but place religion higher (in this case, a “truth claim”). The question also adds doubt, the attempt to find comparisons between atheism and religion (which inevitably creates a bizarre and distorted view of atheists as some sort of mindless, unethical campaigners) as well as the most obvious and previously stated: it misses point of atheism completely. Weird comparisons are made- the moral beliefs of the religious become the opposing number to the zero moral belief an atheist has. I hope I have pointed out that the morals of an atheist are not due to similar reasons a religious person might experience, so the comparison is meaningless.

The question of “is atheism a religion” should not be a question; it should be a non-question because the assumptions it makes are meaningless and unhelpful. A religious person should not consider becoming an atheist to be a religious conversion because it inherently not the case. It is closer to casting away baggage, or enhancing one’s rationality, rather than debating whether you eat ham for Christmas or cut off your foreskin. Thoroughly answered, not that it ever needed or should have been, we now must move on to the meaningful, underlying debates between atheism and religious worship.


~ by freeze43 on January 24, 2012.

One Response to “Insisting atheism is not a religion is more important than you think”

  1. […] is that both Thinking Christian and Rosenberg have fallen into the old Cartesian Dualism trap (the inconsistent tetrad), which is especially easy when we consider that consciousness and the brain are two separate […]

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