By Daniel DeMarco |Copy Editor|
It’s disheartening to hear otherwise-intelligent people say stupid things.
It has come to my attention recently that a large community of people argue that atheism is a religion, or even that it’s up for debate.
To my dismay, there are even nonbelievers who make this claim.
From what I’ve experienced, this claim is usually made with some slippery maneuvering of words and defining of concepts which seem to always be based on subjective interpretations, not actual definitions.
Oddly enough, these interpretations end up quite convenient to the individual asserting the argument.
For some it is as easy as presenting some comical analogies to show them how moronic their claim is.
“Atheism is a religion like bald is a hairstyle.”
“Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sexual position.”
“Atheism is a religion like barefoot is a shoe style.”
“Atheism is a religion like off is a television channel.”
These are some of the various analogies to become popular on the Internet for this very argument, but some people remain unconvinced.
In an act of good faith (pun intended) I will share both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the word and concept, religion.
According to Merriam-Webster, religion is “the belief in a god or in a group of gods,” “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” or “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”
The full definition breakdown is as follows:
1a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion>
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, religion is:
1- belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
1.1- A particular system of faith and worship
1.2- A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
Based on these definitions provided by arguably the two most well respected dictionaries, there is but one instance where one could even attempt to construe an argument that atheism is a religion. This instance ends up failing due to semantics though.
Merriam-Webster says religion could mean “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”
It should be clear that when someone talks about Christianity or Islam being a religion, they do not mean it in this sense. This definition is more so fitted to describe someone’s hobby, their job, or maybe their status as a fan of something in that they do/enjoy this thing “religiously.”
As an example, think of the word “cool.” One could say that a film they saw was cool, and they could then walk outside and say that the air is cool or they feel like cooling off.
Certainly you would not then infer that “cool” is being used to describe these different situations in the same way and as being part of an all-inclusive group of “cool”; we know that a word can be used to different effects.
So just as Christianity and Islam are religions, one can be serious about their atheism religiously, so to say.
But one can also work religiously at their job, one can enjoy a particular band religiously, one can avoid gluten religiously; you would not then say that these are all religions. It is understood that the word is being used in a different manner and, as I mentioned, that is the only provided definition in which an argument could even be attempted—attempted unsuccessfully, of course.
By definition, atheists do not recognize any supernatural/supreme/divine beings or gods.
Atheism is not a system of any sort because the only thing which atheists have in common is their nonbelief; there are no practices, no rituals, no worship, and no beliefs which an atheist must adhere to.
And finally, atheism is not a faith position. Rather, atheism is the absence of faith.
Picture a number line. Atheism is the zero position; it does not make any positive claims or assertions about the universe, it simply sits in the default position.
Religions, in this case, would be in the positive spectrum because they make claims and assertions about the universe which have not been proven. There is added material from the default position.
Just because atheism denies the existence, or claims of existence, of a god/s does not make it a negative statement. The simple reason for this is that no one has soundly proven the existence of a god or gods, logically or empirically.
An example of a negative statement would be the claim that the Flat Earth Society makes, that the earth is actually flat. It is a negative statement because it is common knowledge in modern society that the earth is of spherical shape; we know this empirically.
The default position is that Earth is spherical, and the Flat Earth Society is rejecting this well-proven fact thus qualifying their claim as a negative statement. They’re not adding, they’re subtracting from the default position.
When one makes positive statements without proof, it does not require faith to reject those assertions, you are perfectly justified to reject them for lack of evidence and reason.
Clearly it does not require faith to not believe in unicorns, Bigfoot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster; it’s just the case that no one has proven their existence.
Also notice that people are not agnostic—that is, not committing to either the existence or nonexistence—of Zeus, Ra, or Odin. It does not require faith to dismiss these gods because there’s no proof of their existence, even though entire civilizations believed in each one in history.
Author and atheist Christopher Hitchens said it excellently: “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Atheism is the zero position, it is the default position just as zero is the default position on a number line, it is the absence of belief just as zero is the absence of numbers. Atheism is not a religion in the same way that zero is not a number.