I’ve been reading lots of recent discussion about why atheism is or is not a religion. These discussions have prompted me to think, which - if you read to the end - is perhaps the highest compliment I can make about them.
Most people begin the debate by defining atheism and religion, and many feel that the dictionary definitions for these terms are lackluster at best. Even Harvard Law has had trouble attempting to define just what religion is. Religions are many different things to many different groups of people. I dare say that religion is what people want it to be, which makes it difficult to define. But if we observe the preexisting major world religions, then we ought to be able to produce a list of common characteristics among them.
Some people make the assumption that atheism – the nonbelief in god –is a religion because it is a belief about god, or makes a claim about god. However, a belief about something is not a belief in something. My belief about the Easter Bunny’s existence (that it does not exist) is not the same as a child’s belief in the Easter Bunny’s existence (that it does exist). Furthermore, atheism is not a claim about god but a disbelief in the preexisting claim made by theists. French immunologist Jacques Benveniste made the claim that water is capable of retaining memories. Scientists who disbelieve this claim are not called “Benvenisterists” or “Water Memory-ists” just because they express a belief associated with Benveniste’s theory regarding water memory. They are simply nonbelievers of that particular and peculiar theory.
It can be well-argued that atheism encompasses a few of the other religious characteristics …
… and some atheists might contrive rituals and worship based around these symbols and leaders. However, no significant (if any) number of atheists engages in this type of religious behavior.
When you pause to consider these characteristics of religion you might be tempted to apply them to everything from fan clubs to football fanaticism. But when you pause to consider why a religious person might be offended by your comparison of artificial grass under the shoe of a sweaty jock to the reverence they feel from worshiping the divine, then perhaps you’ll also understand why atheists might be offended by your comparison of the futile pleadings of the pious toward an imaginary being to their rationalism and skepticism.
I can’t speak for all atheists, but it offends me when someone equates atheism with religion because religion offends the one thing I would risk declaring worthy of worship – human thought. I can think of nothing more beautiful, more sacred, more divine than human thought. Thoughts inspire. Thoughts arouse. Thoughts build, improve, motivate, create, love, connect, educate, multiply … but most importantly, thoughts exist. They are our greatest treasures, and any religious system that considers a single human thought sinful, or unworthy, or a lesser wonder than it is, is not one I wish to ever associate with.
Religions require no thought from their followers, often smothering thought into the dark quietude of an unquestioning mind. Of course religions are human thoughts themselves, but any idea that exists to end other ideas is to me a form of intellectual cannibalism, and it’s eating us alive. The moment the human race stops thinking is the moment it creates its own destruction.
This is why calling atheism a religion is offensive to me. It likens the very heart of skepticism and free-thought to the autonomatonic mindset of religion. But if you really think about it, it should offend the religious just as much.
Why would a religious person want to include atheism under the umbrella of religion when it is the very opposite belief, when it often reviles religious belief? Why consider atheism a religion when, by many religious texts, atheism is evil?
If a belief in god and a nonbelief in god are categorically identical, then a belief in god should be no more preferable than nonbelief. The belief is no more significant or worth having than the nonbelief. A relationship with god or the divine is of the same consequence as no relationship with god or the divine.
Theists (and atheists) who argue that atheism is a religion are only weakening the foundations of their own belief systems.