Atheism: The inverse religion?

“Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms…”

Question from Virginia:
I’m a first year college student, and right now I’m up at 3am working on a paper on atheism for a class about Religion, Ethnocentrism, and Terrorism. My question is this: what do you have to say in response to those who would point out that certain branches of atheism resemble a sort of inverse/dark matter religion? Allow me to explain.

History has given us several examples of this phenomenon, most notably the Cult of Reason forcibly instituted during the French Revolution and the secular ‘religion’ that was spread during the early years of the USSR (and I use the word religion quite literally– they had hymnals singing the praises of the state and the proletariat). Recently, I’ve noticed a trend that I’ve labeled evangelical atheism whereby very strong atheists gather together to celebrate their mutual ‘enlightenment’ and seek to convert all the poor slobs still following the delusion of religion. They base their group identity on intellectual and moral superiority, citing their adherence to the scientific method and their tolerance of others.

And while you may be nodding and going, “Yeah, so?”, allow me to further point out the similarities between these actions and American Christianity. Historically, Christians have staged mass (and sometimes bloody) takeovers (think inquisition) in the same way large groups of atheists have staged takeovers. Christians define themselves by their belief in the bible and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe; atheists are defined by their fervent belief that there ISN’T a god and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe. Christian fundamentalists are intolerant of people who aren’t christian; evangelical atheists are intolerant of people who aren’t tolerant (though they claim to be open to all ideas). Christians seek converts; atheists seek converts. You see where I’m going with this?

Now I realize that not all atheists are like this, but I’ve had personal interactions with enough who are to know that they are not a minority. Do you agree with this interpretation of events, or do you think it’s just complete non-sense? Any input I could get from a genuine atheist on this matter would be great. Thanks for listening.

Well, it’s not complete nonsense, since at least some of what you say is true. No offence but it’s also somewhat cliched in places; “evangelical atheism” isn’t just your word for it. Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms: “evangelical”, “zealous”, Dawkins as the “high priest” and so on. What amuses me is that so many religious folks choose to deride us by saying we’re just like them. What does that say about them?

I’ve used the Cult of Reason before to demonstrate the difference between what atheism might look like if it were a religion, and what it is now. It actually personified Reason as a goddess, so whether it was strictly atheistic is debatable. It was physically violently anti-religious, something which wasn’t seen again until Communism. And of course Robespierre shut it down within a year, and no one seems to have even tried to revive it. Call it a failed experiment.

From what you say about the USSR, it’s clear that you don’t see religion as necessarily based on belief in the supernatural. Generally that is one criterion, and a major reason why atheism doesn’t qualify.

What the Cult and Communism had in common was the main problem with both, really: they were pseudo-religious all-encompassing ideologies, which happened to not only be superficially atheistic but see themselves as incompatible with even the existence of nearby religion. Atheism itself isn’t an ideology, a philosophy or even a worldview. It’s a position on one specific issue, which allows for the existence of contrary positions in the same room. It just doesn’t have the same drive behind it.

You start getting a bit broad when you compare atheism to American Christianity. How do you define a religion, as a group of people with a common opinion who wants to convince others that it’s correct? If so, then every political party or action group is a religion. So is every labour union, and the fan following of every football team (and some of those can get very violent). So are Amway and Avon. If you define it that broadly, then atheism probably is a religion too, but it doesn’t mean much.

One other specific issue with your descriptions of atheism: it isn’t a belief that there isn’t a god, though some atheists might believe that (they’re called strong atheists). It’s just a lack of belief in gods, usually accompanied by the acceptance that they are at least possible, though unlikely. Even Richard Dawkins, who invented a scale of total belief to total belief-in-absence from 1 to 7, only rates himself a 6.

I’d have to say that the most likely reason why you think the majority of atheists you’ve met are the aggressive, convert-hungry type is that those are just the ones who’ve bothered to identify themselves as atheists in public. Most atheists in religious countries don’t speak out about it at all, except to criticise the “evangelical” “New Atheists” for being so loud.

I hope this helps you out, Virginia, and reaches you before you fall asleep at your desk.