Why do you think its Atheism vs. Religion?
Atheism itself is a religion. A morally relative religion of metaphysical naturalism.
Atheism is the belief that there is no god. According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief.” (Rowe 1998)
This is a broad belief that covers several religions including Buddhism and Jainism. Atheism in the western sense excludes these religions and adherents claim that it is not a religion. One Atheist said
“Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color” (Don Hirschberg)
In this essay Atheism will be defined in the contemporary western sense: not just the lack of belief in a god, but the assertion about the non-existence any gods, spirits, or divine or supernatural beings. Atheists in this sense are metaphysical naturalists. The purpose of this essay is to dispute their claim that Atheism is not a religion.
To define religion, I will use the framework set forth by Ninian Smart (1996).
According to Smart, there are seven dimensions, or aspects that occur in most religions: Narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, philosophical, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion. Smart even argues that the “secularisation” of western society is actually a shift of focus from the doctrinal and ritual to the experiential.
Almost all religions have stories explaining where the universe came from and what humanity’s part in it is. This is referred to by Smart as Narrative.
The narrative is a particularly important aspect of western Atheism. As the famous Atheist Richard Dawkins said, referring to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution:
“Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Atheist.” (Dawkins, 1986)
Evolution is an explanation of where everything came from: the cosmos (came out of nothing at the big bang literally, nothing exploded and became everything); humans evolved from non-human creatures and hence humanity’s place in the cosmos is being just another species of animal. Some have gone so far as to say that humanity is a parasite on earth, and advocate for killing up to 90% of humanity (Pianka, 2006). I am making a large generalization in saying that Atheists are evolutionists because not all Atheists are, nor are all evolutionists Atheists. There are some who attempt to combine a belief in god with belief in evolution, hence the development of belief in theistic evolution (Alexander 2002). This is somewhat analogous to indigenous Africans practicing both traditional religions and Christianity, despite seemingly large contradictions. It is enough to say that evolution is widely believed by western Atheists. Belief in evolution requires faith that at some point in time, the laws of chemistry, physics and biology were contravened and life arose from non-life.
Many people feel certain emotions when they participate in certain religious ceremonies. Atheists often believe that Atheism is freedom from religion, and some Atheists have reported feeling liberated after converting (Colbeck 2006). Karl Marx said that the removal of the illusion of happiness by the removal of religion was a step towards true happiness. Atheistic denial of the divine entails denial of an afterlife. If there is no afterlife (Provine 1994), the ultimate is no higher purpose in life for Atheists than to be happy. According to the Humanist Manifesto II, the only meaning in life is what the liver gives it. In the Humanist Manifesto III, this was changed to finding meaning in relationships. Belief in evolution also causes people to aim for self-preservation and to spread their own genes. (Dawkins 2006)
The institutional aspect of religion is essentially the fact that the belief system is shared by more than one person. Communist countries often made the state religion Atheism, often to the point of persecuting (other) religions (Sinishta 1976). This followed from Karl Marx’ statement:
“It [religion] is the opiate of the masses. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.” (English translation by O’Malley 1970)
Marxists saw the removal of religion as a step toward true happiness for the common people, although in practice this did not occur, and many contemporary critics see Marxism itself as a religion. (I would contend that Marxism is a sect of a larger religion: Atheism). Atheism is also taught to children in many schools in science classes as evolution. As shown before, evolution is the mythic dimension of Atheism, so teaching evolution is teaching Atheism. Several Atheists even support teaching fallacies, as long as the end result is more children believing evolution (Zivkovic 2008).
Atheism has no objective method of deciding what is right or wrong, although many have been proposed, such as utilitarianism. Secular humanism, a sect of Atheism, recognizes that because there is no higher power, humans must be the highest power in the universe, and humanity must solve all its own problems. Therefore Humanists are moral relativists: what most people think is right is right. A lot of discussion goes on in Atheist circles on issues such as euthanasia; where other religions (for example Christianity) would simply say all murder is wrong. The point made about children being taught Atheism in science classes is restated here. Atheism being a morally relative religion, adherents don’t see a problem with teaching lies (Zivkovic 2008).
Contemporary Atheism gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, after the renaissance. By 1933 there were enough Atheists realizing the effect that not having divinely inspired ethics would have on the public.
So some Atheists got together to write out a new set of regulations that they would follow: The Humanist Manifesto. This document fulfills the doctrinal dimension of religion. It has also been updated twice, in 1973 and 2003, manifesting the relativist ethics of an Atheistic worldview.
Ritual is the only dimension that is totally absent from the religion of Atheism. In some religions, rituals have meanings attached to them, such as Passover commemorating the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Because Atheism is a relatively recent movement, it doesn’t have much of a history to commemorate. In other religions, rituals such as sacrifices and dances are done to appease the gods or the spirits. Because Atheism denies the existence of gods and spirits, it doesn’t have the second type of ritual either. Many Atheists do practice “secular rituals” such as birthday celebrations, or the rituals of other religions such as Christmas and Easter, but this is usually to keep with tradition, and the original meaning of the celebrations are not remembered.
The material dimension of religion, says Smart, includes all the physical things created by a religion such as art and buildings, and also natural features and places treated as sacred by adherents. While Atheism by its nature of denying the divine can’t have objects that represent the divine (such as icons or idols), nature is treated as sacred by some Atheists in and of itself. There are two extremes on the range of ideas held by evolution believing Atheists on the material’: natural resources are here to be exploited because of “survival of the fittest” and we are obviously the fittest species; or we should respect all of nature, particularly living things because to kill them is tantamount to murdering a cousin. This second view essentially holds that all life is sacred.
Contemporary, Western Atheism has six of the seven dimensions of religion set forth by Smart. Perhaps Hirschberg was wrong when he said “Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color”. Perhaps a better analogy would be calling bald a hairstyle. Other than a lack of rituals and the denial of the divine, there is little difference between Atheism and other worldviews typically labeled as religions. The lack of belief in a god is irrelevant because otherwise Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism would also not be religions. Atheism should not be taught at schools where other religions are banned, and those scientists who choose to disbelieve evolution because of its metaphysical implications should not be discriminated against.