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.


17 thoughts on “Atheism: The inverse religion?”

  1. I’m at least one so-called “atheist” who knows there is no such thing as a “religion of atheism” in so far as there is no “philosophy of atheism”, i.e., a well-defined metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics of “atheism”. I can say, however, that I do have a well-defined personal philosophy with all of the requisite principles required to call it such which, as it happens, leads me to reject the claims of theists and anyone else claiming an alleged “supernatural”. In the eyes of theists, this makes me an “atheist”, however, neither my philosophy nor my “religion” or, to put another way, the manner in which I put that philosophy into daily practice, is “atheism” although it IS naturally atheistic. Such a term is only needed when speaking of my beliefs and practices as they relate to theism. Outside of that comparison, my philosophy and religion have whatever name I choose to give it which has nothing at all to do with theists, their beliefs and practices. I might call it “rational naturalism” or “naturalism” or any number of other things. My philosophy and religion focus on the genuinely real and true in and of nature and on my human life and its abilities, talents, skills and passions in relation with it. Nothing more and nothing less than what’s real.

    Believing “atheism” to be a well-defined religion is a claim that “atheism” is a well-defined philosophy. It is not. It is merely a term relative to theist beliefs to describe those who do not believe and practice as they do. It is neither a philosophy nor a religion one can believe or practice.

  2. If you’re going to try a zinger like that, Feeno, I’d appreciate your definition of “religious”, in particular the way it differs from “enthusiastic” and “activistic”.

  3. Hola mi amigo

    I will learn to link one day? But until then…

    I wrote a post on Wed. Nov. 11 2009 titled “Congratulations you’ve made it” You actually left 5 or 6 comments. Check it out again. I think I may have conceded to you eventually?

    Later Holmes, feeno

  4. Oh yeah, that. JD and Gandolf railroaded it in the end, but the consensus we reached before that point was that it’s possible for atheists to be religious about it in some sense, but not all of them are.

    Here’s a linking tutorial for your reference, Feeno. The above link on “that” was done with the following HTML, but replace [ and ] with < and >:

    [a href=””]that[/a]

  5. 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 don’t think this is on the mark. We claim atheism is not a religion, doesn’t require faith, and so forth, differentiating ourselves from theists. The response you’re talking about is an attempt to show that we’re aloof and arrogant in making these claims. They are happy about who they are and see our attempt to distinguish ourselves as a failure for us to see what we’re really like.

    1. There are atheist religions to which don’t have God’s. However, you can’t lump “Atheism” into being a religion when all it is, is an answer or reply to the claim that a God exists. It’s really nothing more than that.

      Also, the cult of reason by the way is not Atheistic. Hence they personified “Reason” as a Goddess to which derives from religious roots surrounding “Sophia” and “Hokah” as Goddesses were often associated with “Wisdom”.. Once something is deified and worshiped as such, it can not by definition be classified as atheism. They liked to pin it on Atheism because it’s good propaganda and dogma for their religious cause because they needed a fall guy for those who sought to remove the Roman Catholic Church from power to which btw was repressing even the Jesuits by confiscating their lands and closing their churches ect. The Cult of Reason sought to replace Christianity with their own screwed up religious cult. Anyone claiming they were Atheists doesn’t know or comprehend the definition of Atheism.

  6. Yes, Flies, that is the intention. In order to point this out, however, they are forced to describe religious behaviour in our terms, and ultimately paint it as negative in some sense.

  7. I stumbled across this page while searching for something else. Sorry to revive a long dead thread, but a friend of mine is very fond of a quote by Robert Benchley.

    “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

    This quote seems quite fitting in the context of your response.

    While it is very convenient for atheists to cleanly divide the world into theists and atheists, it is nowhere near that clean a distinction in reality. I can understand why an atheist would wish to categorize it this way, since it gives an opportunity to not only automatically grow the ranks, but also add a lot of more moderate members. However, as an agnostic, I can quite definitively say, many people reject the “them or us, pick a side” mentality displayed by atheists, and in fact implicit in your entire response.

    Atheism, is a self-identification. An atheist actively chooses not to believe in gods. It is a reality tunnel that assigns significance to something that is objectively meaningless. There, by definition, will never be an objective determination of the proof or absence of some form of god, therefore there is no meaning to picking a side. It is a false dichotomy to pretend that every human on Earth either chooses to believe, or chooses not to believe. Some choose to reject the premise on its face, rather than picking a side.

    The original question the poster asked, was about the behavior of atheists. To respond that there are a lot of people, who would not identify themselves as atheists, but who you have decided to adopt as atheists, whether they agree with that designation or not, is an evasion. By choosing to impose belief or non belief in god, as the operative artificial divisor, the atheist exposes the inherent bias of their value system.

    In my value system, for example, fundamentalism is the arbitrary divisor. From my point of view, the person who is certain that there is a god, is in no way different from the person who is certain there is no god. By the same token, the person who merely hopes there is a god, but isn’t going to go out of their way for that god they hope exists, is not really any different than the person who doesn’t really believe there is a god, but wouldn’t really be willing to go to any trouble to try and convince anyone of that.

    Whether any of them believe in god or not, is as irrelevant a detail, as which god they do or don’t believe in. This is because the operative question, is the strength of their belief, and how big a leap of faith they are willing to make, not in what direction they are choosing to leap. From this point of view, I think what you should be asking, is what does it say about atheists, that so many religious people see so many parallels with themselves?

  8. Oh, and as additional food for thought, I notice that one idea expressed here is that atheism cannot be a religion, because it has no theology, philosophy or scripture. Of course, Shinto has none of those things either, being a ritualistic religion, and yet it is, nonetheless, a religion.

  9. Hi L.M. There are no dead threads here, only dormant.

    What I’d like to know is whether you’ve ever met an atheist who accepted your definition of an atheist. If not, you should ask yourself whether you’re stabbing a straw man.

    It is a false dichotomy to say that everyone chooses to believe in a god or chooses not to, because most or all of us don’t choose at all (see the other thread you’ve visited). It is not a false dichotomy to say that everyone either believes in a god or doesn’t. You might be on the fence on whether there’s one or not, but belief in either its presence or its absence is a more positive step, difficult to take halfway.

    As for your last point, Shinto’s basic theology revolves around many minor spirits such as kami, its scripture is a combination of several books such as the Kojiki and its philosophy encourages purity, hence all the purification rituals. If you don’t buy any of that, atheism lacks even the ritualism of Shinto, so as a supposed religion it’s still a poor analogue.

  10. Well, I’m not sure how to respond to that, since I at no time stated any definition of atheism, but rather made observations about it. A subject does not have to agree with the observation, for it to be valid. That said, sure, I have met plenty of people who identify themselves as atheists, who would agree that it is a self-identification. In fact, it has been my experience that only a small, but vocal, segment of the atheist community, seeks to label others as atheists, regardless of how they view themselves.

    However, you seem to either miss, or just completely reject, my primary point. You, as I find do quite a few atheists, incorrectly see agnosticism as “being on the fence.” The formulation that all human thought can be cleanly categorized as either theistic or atheistic, is a false formulation. The binary distinction of the “truth” behind a belief, is only relevant, if the subject of the belief is testable. Any one untestable belief, is just as valid (or invalid) as any other untestable belief.

    You are merely playing a rhetorical trick, in trying to couch your position as an absence of belief, when in fact your position is demonstrably belief in absence, as evidenced by your refusal to allow the possibility of something other than theism or atheism. Rationally, it is possible to not believe any number of things. Not believing something, never leads to a logical imperative to believe the opposite. To make it a binary choice, by definition means that you only allow that god either exists, or does not exist. In that ‘either or’ model, lack of belief in the existence of god, is exactly the same thing as belief in nonexistence of god, and that is what I’m saying is a false dichotomy. It is artificially restricting the conversation to two arbitrary conclusions, to force everyone who doesn’t believe in god, to accept your view that there is no god. One does not follow from the other. An absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence.

    Ontologically speaking, it is most certainly not a binary choice. Gods most certainly exist as a concept. A concept that, to this day, has profound influence on the lives of billions of people. So, from an ontological point of view, It is hard to say that god is not at least a existent as math, philosophy, science, language, or any other abstract construct, lacking physical form. No doubt, that is not existence in the way an Evangelical Christian means, when he says that god exists, but the you are not, as far as I know, claiming that anyone who disagrees with Evangelical Christians is an atheist.

    If someone walks in to a room and kills several people, because god told them to, then those people are just as dead, whether god meets your ontological requirements or not. If someone builds a beautiful cathedral, as a house for god, then that cathedral is just as real whether or not god meets your ontological requirements. If a person prays to their dead relative to bring them fortune, and another person offers them a job out of respect for that dead relative, then the semantic distinction between whether their dead relative brought them fortune, or whether the concept of their dead relative brought them fortune, is completely irrelevant. The result is the same either way, and there is no experimental way to ever prove superiority of one argument over the other.

    Every day, people take actions, and create things, that any sane person would agree are as real as we can say anything is, and all of those actions and creations are the product of a mind, or a though, or a theory, or an inspiration, that is no more or less ontologically defensible as existent, than is god. The existence of god, while perhaps an interesting exercise in ontology, is no more relevant or important than a discussion of the existence of mind, self, free will, or though. That determination is hardly “taking it halfway,” but rather going past the simple binary ‘is or is not’ and looking at the deeper complexities of perceptual reality. Now, there can certainly be an ontological debate about classes of existence, but that will probably lead to a epistemological debate over how we can know anything outside our own perceptions, and ultimately end in the conclusion that all we can ever really say about anything, is that we believe that what we perceive is representative of some objective reality, which we can only consensually agree to call real. Fun for a philosophy class, but almost certainly not going to give you the clean “I don’t believe god exists” you are looking for.

  11. As to Shinto, I don’t want to enter another giant wall of text, but I would argue that since their Kami are unascended, it lacks the divinity to be considered a theology. The texts you talk about, are folk tales, from an oral tradition, and given no claim of divine inspiration, so not really scripture. Purity is not, in and of itself, a developed philosophy, any more than any single word could be. The point of doing the ritual, is the act of doing the ritual.

    Just a cute supporting quote, translated from Japanese:

    A social philosopher from New York said to a Shinto priest, “We’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don’t get your ideology. I don’t get your theology.” The Japanese paused as though in deep thought and then slowly shook his head. “I think we don’t have ideology,” he said. “We don’t have theology. We dance.”

  12. Well, atheists don’t even dance as part of atheism, and there’s no common ritual whatsoever (or even a call to ritual), so at least I think you’ll agree that Shinto has something that atheism doesn’t. Perhaps the supernatural elements fall short of some divinity threshold, but they’re still there. Maybe the texts aren’t “scripture”, but they’re still there.

    Anyway, agnosticism isn’t about being on the fence, because people on both sides of the fence are agnostics. Gnosis is knowledge; theists and atheists alike don’t know whether a god exists, and most admit it. I’m an agnostic atheist because I don’t know and I don’t think so either. My binary idea of atheism doesn’t interfere with agnosticism, which is on a whole other axis. Some agnostics think it’s not just unknown but impossible to know, but this only moves it along the axis of knowledge and has little to do with belief.

    Anyone who believes in God only as a concept, which affects people only through the thoughts and actions of other people with the concept in mind, is not a theist by any definition I’ve ever read. A theist at bottom believes in an interventionist god, a sentient being with a will of its own. What the concept of a god makes people do cannot be equated to what a god itself wants. Of course there’s a huge variety of theist ontology, but it doesn’t stretch far enough to allow for the complete lack of a divine agent.

    Finally, math, philosophy, science and language are abstract constructs as you say, but they must be constructed from something. Mathematics codifies physical consistencies observed in the universe, for instance, and language turns thoughts into symbols that evoke the same thoughts in others. You’re free to call a given construct a god, but if it consists only of human thoughts and actions and natural mechanisms, with no intelligent agency, it will be a god in name only.

    1. Actually SmartX we can rule out certain concepts of GOD.. However the criteria for a GOD is dependent on opinion because it’s purely a concept and title of Opinion. We can say that some people still worship a Volcano, or the Sun as a “GOD”. Their God exists, but their God doesn’t meet your criteria so you thus rule it out.

      However there is specifically one religious belief to which really exposes a crippling paradox to the concept of God. The Paradox reflects on the furthest extremes you can possibly take the concept of God. Like to giant goal posts on either end of the field to which represent the furthest in which the goal posts can be moved. At one end of the field is that there is no God what-so-ever. Now the other end of the field the goal post gets far more interesting because it’s not as simple as saying “God exists”. The key word to this conundrum is the word “Exists” in which relies on “Existence”. It is the Existential Paradox here to which really exposes the fundamental problem with the concept of GOD.

      This is where I bring in the goal post at the other end of the field here to which can be noted under “Pantheism”. Pantheism is the belief by many Pantheists that it is literally Existence itself to which is GOD. Under this argument Existence is Causality and is by definition defined as the totality of all that exists. It’s literally every rule, law, process, system, function, property, state of being, place, essence, and force to cause.. Not only is that as high on the totem-pole as you can get, it also exists. The Pantheist God exists,..So who’s GOd rules the roost here? And just to pander the pantheist criteria in question:

      What is God without Existence?

      This very question outlines the very problem with the concept of GOD, and even the Christians will beg to require and need the Pantheist GOD to even have an idea, or religion based on a deity. Nor can they explain Causality without existence, or the requirement of needing existence itself. However, I have had a Christian claim GOD is existence to try and circumvent this paradox since they know they can’t logically argue that their GOD is not in and of existence since that would effectively admitting and confirming that their God doesn’t exist. It’s almost clever, but that also falls apart because existence is defined as all that exists. It’s me, you, everyone, and everything in total. It is by definition a universal set of all sets. And I am betting you are asking; why then am I an Atheist and not a Pantheist? Well, paradox breaks down the concept of Pantheism to the point of completely moot to where there is no god at all, or that everything is GOD. Hence all or nothing..Take your pick.. This to which can be noted in the following questions:

      If Existence is GOD, Then what of existence is not?
      If Existence is not GOD, Then what of existence is?

      By definition, if existence is GOD, everything and everyone is GOD to which makes the concept of God entirely moot. Thus everyone else is just kicking the ball around on the field pretending this Goal post isn’t at the end of the field.

      Then by the same definition, If existence is not GOD, then there is no GOD at all. You can not logically claim something of existence is when existence itself is not. It becomes a self-refuting idea wrong by the consequences of it’s premises.

      And an Atheist like me will agree with the Pantheist that Existence itself is the source origin and answer to literally everything. It is the totality of knowledge to be sought, it is the literal governor and essence of everything. Existence determines what is, was, or what will ever become. It even is and governs cognitive function to which allows for the emergence of consciousness and sentience. There is no being, person, place, or thing that can exist without existence. And no conscious state or being can exist without cause, and that which can not exist without cause must therefore be an emergent property of existence vs an inherent property of existence. Without the inertia of information and the processing of, there can be no thought, or conscious state.

      So the answer to why we are here has been starring at us the hole time, and we are all literally a part of it. And Existence isn’t something that can literally be created as that would be impossible. The best that can be done is for parts of itself, such as ourselves, it to have the ability to manipulate itself directly or in abstract through various means, or processes. When we build a car, it is existence itself building a Car. We are what existence is doing even if it’s just a small part of it in reflection to the broad scope of the total.

      Lastly, we can argue that existence simply exists without creation because non-existence can not by definition ever be a literal existing person, place, object, substance, or thing. This in reflection that one can not create that which one’s self requires to exist.

      Btw, in regards to your last paragraph, mathematics is an inherent part of existence itself. It’s quantized, and there can only be a quantized existence. That in a simple example means that for you to exist, you must be 1 over zero. You either positively exist or you negatively don’t.


      1. btw sorry for some of the bad grammar, I have dyslexia and the letter on my keyboard are warn off due to it being a laser etched back lit keyboard (Piece of crap). Though I think I did well enough to get the point across.


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