Is atheism really a religion?

I ran across this article the other day with another person claiming that Atheism Is a Religion.  I  usually find this sort of discussion fairly useless because it is mostly semantic nonsense and because it usually seems like a form of “shut up, that’s why” argument.  I really suggest you read the article I link to there by Greta Christina.

However this article did give me pause to think.  Not because the article is more thoughtful or better written than most of the articles that make this claim.  It was full of the same poor reasoning that most of these articles are, but it did make me think so here I am writing this article.  Before I talk a bit about my thoughts on the issue I’ll take a moment to speak about my thoughts on her article.
First she starts out by saying that she first said that atheism is a religion on Real Time with Bill Maher.  I wouldn’t have known because I don’t watch Bill Maher very much since I often find him just as unreasonable as fundamentalist Christians.  However, the first thing I found funny was when she said 
 It seemed pretty unaudacious at the time, but by dropping the simple sentence “Atheism is a religion,” I opened a biblical floodgate of ridicule, name-calling, and abuse.
I did appreciate the use of the famous Monty Python God.

Now, I actually think these sorts of reactions by some atheists are fairly useless, we should be ridiculing ideas not people, but I if she really thought her claim was “unaudacious” then it seems she may well be out of touch with reality, and she is certainly out of touch with the audience of Real Time.

This is clearly a divisive issue for atheists, particularly ones like myself who became an atheist particularly because we were fed up with organized religion, and it immediately shows me that this person is fairly ignorant about the content of the arguments made by atheists if she simply didn’t realize such a statement would get a reaction from many in the atheist community.

Now, there was actually one point in the article I thought she might be doing something that would be interesting then she predictably let me down.  She starts out with talking about the rather interesting topic of neural mapping in regards to religious practice.

You see, several experiments have been done showing that certain religious practices such as prayer or meditation cause similar parts of the brain to activate. You can read about one of the experiments here.  Now if you are going to argue that atheism is a religion there is a very interesting line of science based argument you could make at this point.  If you could show that the brain activates in similar ways for atheists when we engage in certain behaviors (say arguing with a theist perhaps?) you would have an argument in favor of viewing atheism as a religion, and one that any science nerd like me could not argue with, and while eventually she does make this argument she does so without the benefit of any actual evidence to back up her claim.

This does not prove God exists, but it does show humans are wired or biologically predisposed to believe in something.

Now, this actually isn’t exactly what this evidence proves, it actually proves we are wired for certain types of behaviors that happen to be tied into certain religious beliefs, though this is perhaps a small distinction.  In any case she continues.

So, whether you make sense of the world as an atheist and don’t require the God postulate to complete your understanding, or you are a theist and your feelings and experiences tell you something greater is there, biologically speaking, that big blob of gray Jell-O in our skulls is like a giant arrow pointing us in the same direction. I believe that is delicious. And religious.  

So while she had the opportunity to explore something interesting she chooses to say something exactly 100% wrong.  Even her own statement is “predisposed to believe in something.” That something is not necessarily any sort of god.  After all the study she mentions Buddhists having the same experience even though many Buddhists do not believe in god, and theism is not really an important concept in most Buddhist philosophy.  Further, the fact we may be wired to get some sort of psychological benefit from things like prayer or meditation is not evidence that god actually exists, nor is it even remotely an argument that atheism is a religion.

When atheists rail against theists (as many did on my Facebook page), they are using the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against a secular society. By calling atheism a religion, I am not trying to craft terms or apply them out of convenience. I just see theists and atheists behaving in the same manner, approaching from opposite ends of the runway.  The entire discourse about religion stems from those who think they know more than the other guy. But what we really know is that we don’t know much. And we seem to share the same mechanisim in our brains that drives us to make claims of faith and rationalism as a way of making sense of the great unknown.

He claims here that the mechanism in our brains that drives both faith and rationalism is the same mechanism, which is a snide way of saying science is not better at understanding the world than religion.  Now I mentioned earlier that I would be interested in such a thing if it could be proven true, but at no point does she offer evidence to support this conjecture.  Nothing in the study she quoted offers any evidence that atheists, or theists for that matter, who engage in rational thought are activating the same parts of the brain, which would be the sort of evidence that would support the claim she is making.  Indeed from what I have read that is the exact opposite of what we find in neuroscience.

Now, I’ll end my critique of her article by saying while I don’t know him personally I don’t think the person writing this is so bad.  I think she is just a regular marginally religious person who doesn’t get what all the hubbub is about and doesn’t understand, really understand, why atheists object to being called religious.  She just seems genuinely confused as to why so many atheists take offense here.

If humanism is a religion, and secular humanists are atheists, then why not create more formal instructional dwellings, label them churches, and lap up the tax-free nectar your peers in Scientology, Mormonism, and Catholicism have been enjoying for years?…… Atheists should embrace their religiosity, recognize the biological component that drives them to make sense of the world like the rest of us, and church it up.

It is as if she really thinks that the only thing about religion is getting a tax free status with the government.  I am more convinced that ever that she has never really listened to the objections that atheists have to religion.

Now, putting that all aside, she argument may be bad, but is her conclusion correct?  Is atheism a religion? To me this argument mostly boils down to one of semantics.  Religion is a rather vague word because religions differ greatly in practice and thought.

If you look up the dictionary definition of religion some of those definitions would include atheists, but they might also include some sports fans or classical musicians, or just about anyone who is ardent about something.  We atheists also do lots of the same things that religious people do, one of the things I think the atheist movement had been working on in the last few years is building a better sense of community among ourselves, so we have conventions and gatherings and such.  I go hiking most Sundays with an atheist group so does that count as church for me?  It is a lot more enjoyable than sitting a pew and being told I’m evil, but is it religion?

For me it doesn’t count because for me religion is all about giving you pat answers to things we don’t know.  As an atheist I am free to admit I don’t know.  I don’t know where we came from, I don’t know with certainty if there is a god or not.  I don’t know and I am comfortable admitting when I don’t.  The thing I have rejected about religion is the faith, the belief in something without evidence.  If you think that I am still a member of a religion despite my lack of faith then you are welcome to think that, personally I think it makes more sense to take my word for it, but I won’t waste my time being offended by people who want to tell me what I “really” believe.

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  • SevenOfNine

    Agreed. I, too, was disappointed when she introduced the brain scan “data” but offered no evidence that atheists have similar brain activity when…. oh…. I don’t know….. eating babies? Be that as it may the tendency for like-minded people to organize does not constitute religion. You could get the same fervency from a staunch democrat arguing with a hard-line republican, but that doesn’t make liberalism/conservatism a religion.

    I’ve noticed that it’s only religious people who think atheism is a religion. They probably have a hard time wrapping their head around such a concept. I like to think of it as similar to the time before there was the number zero. You would think that it’s such a simple concept how could counting have ever existed without zero? But in fact, counting systems existed long before zero became a “number.” People back then had a hard time wrapping their brains around such a concept, just as people now seem to have a hard time accepting that atheism is the absence of religion.