Atheism is Not a Religion

This is the script to my video, Atheism is Not a Religion. As always, it was written to be listened to when I read it aloud, but it should be pretty readable as text, too.

Today we’re going to look at a topic which a casual survey of atheist youtube channels and twitter feeds suggests is of importance to many atheists: that atheism is not a religion. Now, since the one thing you can’t convict internet atheists of is originality, I assume that this is because there are Christians who claim that atheism is a religion. Of course what they probably mean by this that atheism entails a set of metaphysical beliefs. And this is true enough, at least as a practical assumption if some atheists will scream at you until they’re blue in the face that it’s not what they believe in theory. But merely having metaphysical beliefs does not make something a religion; it makes it a philosophy or in more modern terms, a world-view. But a religion is far more than merely a world-view or a set of beliefs. As Saint James noted, the demons believe in God.

The first and most obvious thing which atheism lacks is: worship. Atheists do not worship anything. I know that Auguste Comte tried to remedy this with his calendar of secular holidays, but that went nowhere and has been mostly forgotten except perhaps in a joke G. K. Chesterton made about it. A few atheists have made a half-hearted go of trying to worship science. And if that had any lasting power, Sunday services might include playing a clip from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But the would-be science worshippers haven’t gotten that far, and it is highly doubtful they ever will.

Secular Humanism is sometimes brought up as something like a religious substitute, but so far it only appears to be a name, a logo, some manifestos no one cares about, and the belief that maybe it’s possible to have morality without religion. And humanity is not a workable object of worship anyway. First, because it’s too amorphous to worship—as Chesterton noted, a god composed of seven billion persons neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons is hard to believe in. The other reason is that worshipping humanity involves worshipping Hitler and Stalin and Mao and so forth.

Which brings us to Marxism, which is perhaps the closest thing to a secular religion so far devised. But while Marxism does focus the believer’s attention on a utopia which will someday arrive, and certainly gets people to be willing to shed an awful lot of innocent blood to make it happen sooner, I don’t think that this really constitutes worship. It’s a goal, and men will kill and die for goals, but they can’t really worship goals. Goals only really exist in the people who have them, and you can only worship what you believe actually exists.

It is sometimes argued that within a marxist utopia people worship the state, but while this is something put on propaganda posters, the people who lived in marxist nations don’t report anyone actually engaging in this sort of worship, at least not sincerely.

And I know that some people will say that atheists worship themselves—I suspect because almost all atheists define morality as nothing more than a personal preference—but, at least I’ve never seen that as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to answer the question of “what is the ground of morality”, rather than any sort of motivating belief. And in any event, it is inherently impossible to worship oneself. Worshipping something is recognizing something as above oneself, and it is not possible to place oneself above oneself. I think the physical metaphor suffices: if you are kneeling, you can’t look up and see your own feet. You might be able to see an image of yourself in a mirror, but that is not the same, and whatever fascination it might have is still not worship. So no, atheism does not worship anything.

The second reason why atheism is not a religion is that atheism gives you no one to pray to. Prayer is a very interesting phenomenon, and is much misunderstood by those who are not religious and, frankly, many who are, but it is, at its core, talking with someone who actually understands what is said. People do not ever truly understand each other because the mediation of words always strips some of the meaning away and the fact that every word means multiple things always introduces ambiguity. Like all good things in religion this reaches its crescendo in Christianity, but even in the public prayers said over pagan altars, there is the experience of real communication, in its etymological sense. Com—together unication—being one. It is in prayer—and only in prayer—that we are not alone. Atheists may decry this as talking with our imaginary friends if they like—and many of them certainly seem to like to—but in any event they are left where all men who are not praying are left: alone in the crowd of humanity, never really understood and so only ever loved very imperfectly at best. (I will note that this point will be lost on people who have never taken the trouble to find out what somebody else really means, and so assumes that everyone else means exactly the same things that he would mean by those words, and so assumes that all communication goes perfectly. You can usually identify such people by the way they think that everyone around them who doesn’t entirely agree with them is stupid. It’s the only conclusion left open to them.)

The third reason why atheism is not a religion is that it does not, in any way, serve the primary purpose of religion. The thing you find common to all religions—the thing at the center of all religions—is putting man into his proper relation with all that is; with the cosmos, in the Greek sense of the word. Anyone who looks at the world sees that there is a hierarchy of being; that plants are more than dust and beasts are more than plants and human beings are more than beasts. But if you spend any time with human beings—and I mean literally any time—you will immediately know that human beings are not the most that can be. All that we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch in this world forms an arrow which does not point at us but does run through us, pointing at something else. The primary purpose of a religion is to acknowledge that and to get it right. Of course various religions get it right to various degrees; those who understand that it points to an uncreated creator who loved the world in existence out of nothing get it far more right than those who merely believe in powerful intelligences which are beyond ours. Though if you look carefully, even those who apparently don’t, seem to often have their suspicions that here’s something important they don’t know about. But be that as it may, all religions know that there is something more than man, and give its adherents a way of putting themselves below what they are below; of standing in a right relation to that which is above them. In short, the primary purpose of all religion is humility.

And this, atheism most certainly does not have. It doesn’t matter whether you define atheism as a positive denial or a passive lack; either way atheism gives you absolutely no way to be in a right relationship to anything above you, because it doesn’t believe in anything above you. Even worse, atheism as a strong tendency, at least in the west, to collapse the hierarchy of being in the other direction, too. It is no accident that pets are acquiring human rights and there are some fringe groups trying to sue for the release of zoo animals under the theory of habeus corpus. Without someone who intended to make something out of the constituent particles which make us up, there is ultimately no reason why any particular configuration of quarks and electrons should mean anything more than any other one; human beings are simply the cleverest of the beasts that crawl the earth, and the beasts are simply the most active of the dust which is imprisoned on the earth.

We each have our preferences, of course, but anyone with any wide experience of human beings knows that we don’t all have the same preferences, and since the misanthropes are dangerous and have good reason to lie to us those who don’t look out for themselves quickly become the victims of those who do. Call it foreigners or racists or patriarchy or gynocentrism or rape culture or the disposable male or communism or capitalism or call it nature red in tooth and claw, if you want to be more poetic about it, but sooner or later you will find out that human beings, like the rest of the world, are dangerous.

Religious people know very well that other human beings are dangerous; there is no way in this world to get rid of temptation and sin. But religion gives the possibility of overcoming the collapsing in upon ourselves for which atheism gives no escape.

For some reason we always talk about pride puffing someone up, but this is almost the exact opposite of what it actually does. It’s an understandable mistake, but it is a mistake. Pride doesn’t puff the self up, it shrinks it down. It just shrinks the rest of the world down first.

In conclusion, I can see why my co-religionists would be tempted to say that atheism is a religion. There are atheist leaders who look for all the world like charismatic preachers and atheist organizations that serve no discernible secular purpose. Though not all atheists believe the same things, still, most believe such extremely similar things that they could identify on that basis. Individual atheists almost invariably hold unprovable dogmas with a blind certainty that makes the average Christian look like a skeptic. And so on; one could go on at length about how atheism looks like a religion. But all these are mere external trappings. Atheism is not a religion, which is a great pity because atheists would be far better off if it was.

4 thoughts on “Atheism is Not a Religion

    1. It varies with the individual. Some popular ones are that there is no evidence for any religion, that atheists have no duty to prove anything, or that they don’t have any beliefs they purely lack beliefs, or that “life has the meaning you give it” isn’t saying that life is meaningless, that they now exactly how much suffering is compatible with achieving a greater good. There are plenty more; as I said, the particulars vary with the individual.


      1. It’s easy to show that there is no evidence for the essential claims of religions and I would never say I don’t have to support my statements. It is most curious that you say that you know better than an atheist does that they don’t have any beliefs. How do you feel you know that? Now, I will say that I have no beliefs based on unsupported claims. I do have beliefs based on trust which comes from knowing facts.

        The sentence “life has the meaning you give it” is not the same as “life is meaningless”; if they were the same, they wouldn’t say completely contradictory things. The first states the humans give meaning to life e.g. by their actions, and the second is a rather silly nihilistic bit of nonsense. If I said “life is only meaningful with god” and then insisted that it also mean “life is meaningless”, you would find that peculiar, would you not since the two sentences do not mean the same thing?

        If I were an omnipotent being, there should be no suffering needed to achieve a greater good. And I do wonder where you heard any atheist say that they know exactly how much suffering is compatible with the greater good. What do you mean by that? I have heard theists, including Christians make the claim that they know exactly how much suffering is compatible with a greater good, that being the best of all possible worlds argument for a god’s existence.

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