Atheism Is Not A Religion

This week I have been trying to defend my lack of religious belief against an onslaught from various believers who seem to think it impossible to be without religion. I admit it, I usually start the discussions but it seems that the very concept of religious belief and all it entails are so ingrained in the psyche of some people that they cannot comprehend that non-belief in any divine power means anything other than just that. First you get all the one-liners (if atheism is a religion, abstinence is a sexual position etc) but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter or indeed explain the fundamental differences between belief and non-belief.

I think I need to define what is meant by religion, the dictionary I have to hand describes it as:

  1.  belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny
  2. any formal or institutionalized expression of such belief: the Christian religion
  3. the attitude and feeling of one who believes in a transcendent controlling power or powers
  4. chiefly RC Church the way of life determined by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience entered upon by monks, friars, and nuns: to enter religion
  5. something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion
  6. the practice of sacred ritual observances
  7. sacred rites and ceremonies

Have a look at that list and I think you can discount 1,3,6 & 7 without any discussion, now for the others.

No. 2, is there a formal or institutionalised expression of disbelief? I’m not sure is that even makes sense as a sentence, let alone a concept. “I solemnly swear on this book which means nothing to me that I believe none of its contents” doesn’t really work, there is no basic or fundamental belief system lurking behind the facade of atheism, despite the similar opinions of those who call themselves atheists (more on that later).

No.4, I’m not aware of any way of life only open to those who reject any notion of a divine power. One may find that the ‘life scientific’ is more often chosen by those who have no religious belief but one is not excluded from any scientific position on the basis of religion, even if there is a clear conflict between the tasks of the scientist and the belief in question. It is up to the believer to decide what he or she can/will and/or  cannot/won’t do and whether or not the role is suitable for him or her, not the faculty or institution of employ. There have been cases in this country of registrars refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnerships and shop assistants refusing to sell alcohol, purely for religious reasons. Public opinion has very much been on the side of common sense in these cases. If you can’t or won’t do the job and all it entails for religious (or moral) reasons, don’t take it, it’s not up to your employer to be your moral compass, they’re there to assess if you are capable to fulfilling the role, not to check if you feel ok about it. Going back to original point however, I think it unlikely that a self-professed atheist (or indeed Muslim) would be able to find work as a vicar or imam, no matter what qualifications were held, or what previous experience acquired.

No.5 could really go in the category of quasi-religion, as it really qualifies its use when the subject in question is not really a religion at all but is being treated like one in a purely obsessive sense. One could make a case for come of the modern-day so-called ‘new’ atheists coming under this category but to say that ‘atheism is like a religion to me’, only shows that it clearly is not a religion and the term is only useful in explaining some of the behaviours exhibited around the atheist in question.

Thats the dictionary definitions out of the way, now on to the more abstract meanings. There is a sense in which all believers and non-believers are atheists, in that atheism in itself doesn’t distinguish between any particular god, gods or spirits. In believing one system to be true or real one must of course reject the validity of all others, one cannot be both a Christian while also believing in Zeus or Odin (despite our month & week names and our dating of religious festivals). The main reason the early Christian church was persecuted by the Roman empire was because of its apparent ‘atheism’ evidenced by its refusal to acknowledge the state-recognised gods of the classical world. This was also the reason why Judea was seen as a ‘troublesome province’ as opposed to the pagan tribes who had little difficulty reconciling their own beliefs with a system based upon similar lines.

Now on to the point I raised earlier and promised to return to. Any believer who has read this far may well be thinking something along the lines of: “yes, but you atheists all think abortion and gay rights are ok” or “every atheist I speak to sounds like a fundamentalist to me”. It may seem like that but it is certainly not the case. There is no fundamental or core system of beliefs that being an atheist requires. It may seem that there is a liberal bias in the atheist community but that is really rooted in the concept that empirical scientific evidence is required (not just anecdotal hearsay or opinion) before anything can be truly accepted as fact. Scientific data rarely back up bigoted opinions about race or sexual orientation and a rejection of any hypothesis that cannot be independently verified, rather than it ‘just feeling right’ is often at the heart of an atheist’s world view. Many atheists may come across in a condescending or patronising manner because there is as much evidence for and adult’s belief in god as for a child’s belief in the tooth fairy (tooth at night – money in the morning, all the other children in class have the same, parents tell of a tooth fairy, why would a child not believe?). Just as the child in class with the older sibling tells all his or her classmates of the fairy fiction espoused by all their parents, so too the atheist feels the need to explain his or her revelation to all the naive believers who will listen. It is not surprising that many believers will be offended by the certainty or persistence of the atheist but this should not be mistaken for fundamentalism. A fundamentalist will continue to believe whatever her or she believes no matter what opposing evidence or argument is presented to them, the term ‘blind faith’ becomes appropriate here. A questioning mindset is often what brought an atheist to their gnosis, hard evidence to the contrary should never be dismissed.

One may be able to infer certain character traits, opinions and behaviours from a person’s religion. Catholics don’t generally like condoms, Muslims aren’t too hot on homosexuals and Zen Buddhists aren’t inclined towards procrastination. These are not merely traits that are common among populations adhering to one set of beliefs or another, these are actually enshrined in the teachings of the religions themselves. This cannot be said of atheism, which has no teachings, sacred texts, belief system, tenet or dogma.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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13 Responses to Atheism Is Not A Religion

  1. jack says:

    Christianity is not a religion. Your definition for a religion may be correct but it is not correct concerning Christianity. Christianity literaly means, a follower of Chist. Khrē-stē-ä-no’s is the Greek word in the Bible for Christian. It is a proper masculine noun translated Christianos and means, a follower of Christ. The modern day pronouniation is Christian. Christianity is not a religion, but a follower of Christ, which means your definition is not acceptable to those of us who are not religious, but followers of Christ.

    Religions are made up of rules, laws, customs, ways to act to get to a better place, and so on. Christians are those who were baptized into Christ Jesus, baptized into His death? And were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we should walk in newness of life. Because we have been united together in the likeness of His death, so we will also be like Him in His resurrection. We know that our old person was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, so we should no longer be slaves of sin. For we who have died have been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise we also, reckon ourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    Please understand I am not talking physical death, that will come soon enough for all of us. I also know that many Atheist believe only empirical scientific evidence is acceptable, but I am telling you what a Christian believes, not a religious or church going person.

    A dictionary may be fine, but to know the real meaning of words, when talking about the Bible, requires the need for one to know what the original meaning really is.

    Is this definition of Atheist suitable to you? The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among atheists is quite simply “not believing in any gods.” No claims or denials are made — an atheist is just a person who does not happen to be a theist. Please let me know, as I talk to Atheists as much as I can, and would really like to understand what your and their beliefs, if beliefs is the correct word, really are.

    • Your explanation of a Christian would seem to fall into definition 1 from the dictionary I used. Following or worshipping Christ who you believe to be divine or supernatural.
      Without being fluent in classical Greek it’s difficult for me to know what the ‘original meaning’ really was but then Jesus himself didn’t speak Greek so even the original versions of the gospels were translations.
      I’d define atheist not just as someone who is ‘not a theist’ (that could include agnostics) but as someone who believes that there is nothing divine or supernatural anywhere. However, that’s just me, other people who also call themselves atheists may have differing opinions.

    • aynway says:

      Some Christians have a difficult time admitting that their religion is indeed a religion. They hide behind platitudes like “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship!” then pretend that traditions, rules and customs do not DEFINE the relationship. It is a semantic game, and it is complete and utter nonsense. In fact, every Christian looks to his/her version of the holy book to understand the rules of the relationship.

      If I were gay and yet wished to be a “follower of Christ, those same Christians who emphasize the “relationship” undoubtedly would refer me to the description of homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27 as “dishonorable,” “shameful” and an “error,” and require me either to change or leave their church.

      And if I wished to be a follower of Christ and yet alter my consciousness with alcohol now and again, I am certain that those same Christians would urge me not to do so (or, more likely, simply gossip about me and shun me), because to get drunk is “debauchery” (Ephesians 5:18).

      And if I wished to be a follower of Christ and refused to attend church (Why? Because my relationship with Christ can’t be confined to a building!), those same Christians likely would refer me to the rule in Hebrews 10, an admonition to not forsake assembling together. Also, I could expect a half-dozen phone calls every week: “Hey, buddy, we missed you in church yesterday! I hope we see you next Sunday! Pastor Brad is planning a really cool sermon on…blah, blah, blah…”

      I know all this to be true because I played my own version of that game for over 20 years.

  2. jacksrap says:

    Thank you rowanwphillips for your reply, and your definition of an Atheist. I hope the following will provide you with more clarity, of the difference between Christianity and religions. I would also like Aynway to consider the following.

    With all respect, as I read your comments Aynway, it sounds like so many others I know that found the church and religion, to be very hurtful. Unfortunately, most people love to say they are Christians, but really have no idea what Christianity really is. I am not a church goer, because I have met people, many people, who played their own version of that game, you played, for twenty years and more. I am a biker, and share my faith mostly with other bikers. Unlike religious people, they do not judge me, and I do not judge them. I am no different, in the flesh, than anyone else. It is because of Christ, and only Christ, that I am no longer condemned by my sinful flesh.

    Unfortunately, like most religious people, it seems, by your comments, that you may have missed what the Bible says about Christ, Christians, and caring about others. I say this in humility, not trying to belittle, anger, nor accuse you. If I am incorrect, or misunderstood your comments, I truly ask your forgiveness.

    Religious people judge, they love the law, but Christians are not under the law, there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

    Paul had to remind the Galatians in Galatians 1:6-9 of the following – I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

    Paul was talking about those legalist, who were trying to get the new Christians to obey the law of circumcism, as well as other laws, always for their (legalist) own gratification. Religion loves to look at others, and when they find something to accuse someone with, gratification is their reward. Chirst said to get the log out your own eye, before you tell someone that they have a splinter in their eye.

    Paul describes the Gospel in the following verses – 1Corinthians 15:1-4 Moreover brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand. By which also you are saved, if you keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all, that which I also received, “how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” Hopefully you see in these verses what the Gospel really is.

    Christians are to have a life style, not allowing sin to reign in their mortal bodies, nor to obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:12-14.
    Accusing others of sin, unrighteousness, immoral life styles, opinions, and so on are just not there.

    He tells the Christians in Galatians 6:10 – As we have opportunity, “do good to all men,” especially those who have your faith. Ephesians 4:2 & 15- Speaking the truth with humility and love. Eph. 5:2 – Walk in the same way Christ did.

    Christ tell his disciples just before He left? A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. John 13:34; This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. John 15:12

    Christians, according to Christ are to love others, religious people judge, remember it was religious people who judged Christ.

    • As a ‘Christain’ I’m surprised that you quote so little of Jesus’ own teachings in the explanations of your beliefs, the last one from John is really just a variation of the ‘golden rule’ which can be traced back to Leviticus. If I was to really believe in the divinity of Jesus, why would I give 2 hoots about what Paul or any other later commentator had to say about him, Paul new nothing of Jesus in life and, as far as can be ascertained, was very much against the early church as was established by Jesus’ brother, James. Paul was really nothing more than a cult leader who thought he could tell people how to live, even if his own beliefs were never expressed by Jesus in any of the gospels, he speaks about them as if they were (Jesus never mentions homosexuality). Paul is, in my opinion, the reason the Christianity is such a hateful & judgmental religion. Despite teaching little that was new at the time, the Jesus of the gospels, although there is little or no historical evidence of his existence, seems to have been a fairly reasonable guy by the standards of the time. Paul was a man who may have been suffering from metal illness and who seems to have disregarded most of the teachings of his teacher in order to appeal to the gentiles. You say the Christians do not judge, yet it is the teachings of Paul that have done the most to make the Christian church one of the most judgmental of all religions.

      • cgosling says:

        Well said – I always define atheism and agnosticism as “not believing in a god or gods.” Agnostics can’t possibly believe in a god if they don’t know he/it/she exists, therefore they can be defined under the same definition as an atheist. Although all the atheists I know are good honest people, those attributes don’t really have anything to do with the description of an atheism.

    • aynway says:

      Jack, your reply supports exactly what I said in my earlier post. You quote scripture to define your “relationship” with Christ. So how else do you know how to behave in that relationship except to read scripture? Rules, rules, rules. You can’t do whatever you want in your “relationship” with Christ. For the Bible tells you so.

  3. jack says:

    I have explained what a follower of Christ is according to the Bible, and believe that I can say nothing more to convince you that a Christian is not religious. The theology of Jesus Christ is Love.

    So if I may, I would like to know if Atheism has a value system. If so, would you be kind enough to share some of those values with me? I ask this, because in an earlier blog you stated that there is no fundamental or core system of beliefs that being an atheist requires. My question is, do Atheist believe in anything, other than, or in addition to emperirical scientific evidence? Or as you have already stated, Atheistism has no belief system, and if so, would that include emperirical scientific evidence?

  4. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you Jack, if you believe that Jesus was divine or in any ‘above’ humanity, I think most people with an understanding of English would class you as religious. You can try to change the meaning of the word but the use of semantics doesn’t alter the fact that you are religious.
    All I can tell you about is my own set of beliefs, the only thing I have in common with any other atheist is a lack of belief in god, no more. One doesn’t have to believe in the validity of science or anything else to be an atheist, the whole point of this piece is that there is no belief system, that atheism is not a religion, we’re just individuals who don’t believe in god.

  5. jack says:

    I want to thank you for your personal definition of Atheism. “The only thing I have in common with any other atheist is a lack of belief in god, no more. One doesn’t have to believe in the validity of science or anything else to be an atheist, the whole point of this piece is that there is no belief system, that atheism is not a religion, we’re just individuals who don’t believe in god.”

    So I will leave you with this thought, The law of non-contradiction states that any contradiction is false.You can’t have A and -A at the same time, in the same relationship.

    So if we as rational people accept this law, then there is either a God, or there is not a God. Being that we are a very limited in our knowledge of all things, not even knowing what will happen tomorrow. It is my hope that you would be open to this thought.

    Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, I wish you a joyous, healthy, and fruitful life.

  6. cgosling says:

    Many people have claimed atheism is a religion and Rowan has replied as I would. Depends upon your definition of religion. I don’t argue the point, I just dismiss it as being silly or ignorant.

    When asked “What are you? I reply “I answer to atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, non theist, and sometime I’ll admit to being a Unitarian (atheistic variety).

  7. Felix O'Shea says:

    Very good points, all of them, really. I’ve found that a religious person ‘needs’ their religion, and as such, is incapable of understanding a lack thereof that someone might possess. It’s because of this that they try to categorise atheism as a religion… Because they feel everyone ‘needs’ a religion. Atheism isn’t about belief, or faith, or religion. None of those words are relevant in describing atheism. Atheism is not a belief; it is a lack of a belief. I don’t pray to Richard Dawkins or take life lessons from science text books. I live my life by my own moral compass, the moral compass of treating people with respect and decency, to ‘do unto others as [I] would have others do unto [me]”. This is a bible quote, yes… But it is a principle and a concept that existed long before the bible was written, and it irritates me that religions try to claim it as their own concept. To say “Of course religion is good, because without it, people would have no reason to be good.”

    No, that’s bullshit. People are good. We aren’t born into sin. We all have a moral compass that we can choose to follow or ignore, and it has nothing to do with the recycled words of an ancient fabrication. I choose to be a good person, because that’s who I am, and yet I know ‘Christians’ who drink and smoke and beat their wives and children and treat people badly, and yet have the nerve to tell me that I’m the one who is going to “burn in hell”.

    Anyway! Sorry! I got a bit carried away, but thanks, great post!

    • I think a lot of religious people get it the wrong way round. When they say ‘it’s right because it’s in the book’, what they don’t understand is that those who wrote the book put it in because they thought it was right at the time. There’s nothing particularly special or sacred about any of them.

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