I was surprised quite how irritated I found myself getting over Kennedy’s spontaneous argument with Bill Maher on a recent edition of his show, and her insistence that atheism is a religion. That follow-up piece she wrote for Reason is more measured and less infuriating, but I still take issue with a good deal of what she says.
I wasn’t planning to rehash any of the aeons-old argument on here, though, until I realised what a fine opportunity it was to practise some of what I’ve learnt from Eliezer Yudkowsky‘s playbook, and to dissolve the question.
When we argue about whether or not it’s a religion, what is there about atheism that we’re trying to describe?
Do atheists believe in a god? Are they angry with him? Do they acknowledge his existence but refuse to praise or respect him? Do they worship instead some evil supernatural force, such as Satan? These can all be answered with a straightforward no, based simply on the empirical data about the opinions of the overwhelming majority of people who identify as atheists, of the general category of people usually described by that term.
Do atheists have a worldview that attempts to answer questions about the purpose and origin of human life? Well, a lot of them do in some way or another, and a lot of them probably just don’t think about it that much.
Do atheists gather regularly in sacred places, or hold in reverence certain texts which they believe supersede human wisdom? Generally, no. Some individuals and small groups may have habits, informal rituals, or places of congregation that mean a lot to them. But not even the most ardent Dawkinsian would claim that The God Delusion is anything more than a book written by a guy.
Do atheists dogmatically believe that God cannot possibly exist, as an unwavering article of faith? Again, generally, no. It’s not like it’s written in a holy book. Most will at least claim that they’re willing to be persuaded by evidence. If you think there are particular beliefs many atheists hold that are unsupported by evidence, we can look at those individually without getting bogged down in “religion”.
Can atheists be intense, passionate, fanatical, and fundamentalist in their beliefs and the way they express them? Absolutely. Some atheists are each of those things, some aren’t, and I don’t care to guess at the frequencies right now.
Can atheists be prejudiced and bigoted against people with opposing philosophical views, and try to convert those who disagree with them? Sure. Again, not getting into frequencies.
And so on. Most questions about what constitutes atheism, what atheists believe, and how they act, I’m fairly sure I could take a good stab at answering here. Feel free to try and stump me. (I’ve left out the least interesting question: Does any given dictionary define “religion” in such a way that atheism constitutes a valid example of one?)
So, we know a lot about atheism and atheists. We’ve answered a lot of questions similar in nature to the troublesome one we started with.
But the point of this isn’t to identify exactly what distinguishes atheism from any given religion, or from religion in general, and thus establish the extent to which it does or doesn’t fit that category. The point is, if you understand sufficient detail about atheism, and about what people who call themselves atheists tend to believe, there’s nothing left that needs asking.
When someone asserts that atheism is or isn’t a religion, you’re probably better off looking for the disguised query they’re actually addressing. If there isn’t one, then your argument’s going to be entirely about terminology. And good luck coming to a satisfactory resolution on one of those.