Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is New Atheism a Religion?

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who is non-religious but holds no contempt for those who do happen to believe in God and religion. My friend remarked to me that he was not an atheist, because atheism is itself a religion and he holds to no religion.

There seems to be this common misunderstanding of the word atheism, such that many people in the United States and abroad believe that atheism is itself a religion, or even more common with the rise of the so called "New Atheists" that atheism is itself not a belief, rather it is a lack of belief. As the late Christopher Hitchens (one of the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism ) said in his book "god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything":"Our belief is not a belief is not a belief. Out principles are not a faith. (god is not Great pg. 5 )"

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation often says in debates that he is an atheist because there is no coherent definition of a God. He fails however to offer a coherent definition of atheism, and when pressed for one often says that he lacks a belief in a deity.

So we have two problems: 1. What is the definition of Atheism? 2. What is the definition of religion? If we understand those two ideas, we can reconcile the question as to whether or not atheism is a religion.

First, what is the definition of the word atheism? According to Oxford Dictionary, atheism is defined as "Belief that God does not exist." Notice what is different in the coherent dictionary definition than in the definitions offered by Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Barker. Atheism is, in the coherent sense, a belief. It is not a lack of belief, it is a belief.  In order for a person to call himself or herself an atheist, they must be able to state the following "I believe there is no such thing or being as God."So, truth be told, if this definition of atheism is true, then Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Barker, and a host of other people that accept their definitions are not atheists.

What Mr. Barker has described is more akin to what is known as agnosticism, which is defined in Oxford Dictionary as "Belief that the existence or nature of God cannot be proven." The problem with this definition is that it basically describes everyone. As a philosopher I am very careful with the work "know", because the truth is that humans know very little. In this case, I can be classified as an agnostic-theist; I do not know that God exists in the same way that I know that the Sun is Orange, but I do believe that there is good evidence to believe in God and accept inferences about his nature and attributes. However, I do hold that some people do know that God exists, but I am not among that group.

Next, what is the definition of religion? If we can trust Oxford Dictionary again it is "1.Belief in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship 2. Expression of this in worship 3. Particular system of faith and worship. 4. Thing that one is devoted to

From these definitions, it seems that defining atheism as a religion within the structure of a yes and no question simply will not do. Why? Because there is more than one definition of religion, and while there is some that atheism would not fit (at least on an individual level), there are some where it could be constructed that atheism is (at least in some forms) religious in nature.

On the first definition, atheism cannot possibly be a religion because it denies what the first definition affirms; atheism believes that there is no God and the first definition implies that on belief in at least one God. The second definition implies belief in the first, so that is also a defeater.

The third and fourth definition is where things become nuanced. Lets here repeat the third definition " Particular system of faith and worship" What do the words "faith" and "worship" mean? Faith is defined by Oxford Dictionary as "1. Complete trust and confidence 2. Firm belief, especially without logical proof 3. A system of religious belief; belief in religious doctrines 4. Duty or commitment to fulfill a trust, promise, etc; allegiance. Worship is defined by Oxford Dictionary as " 1. Homage reverence paid to a deity; acts, rites, or ceremonies of worship 2. Adoration or devotion."

If one combines the 3rd definition of religion (particular system of faith and worship) with the first definition of faith (complete trust and confidence) and the second definition of worship (adoration or devotion), then one could successfully argue that atheism is in fact religious in nature, at least in certain instances. For an example, lets examine the new atheists. They hold that the scientific method and empirical evidence are the only way to know truth. So there objects of faith would be the scientific method and empiricism, and there way of worship would be applying it to there own lives and encouraging others to do so, which would be like missionary work in the religious sense. So, in spite of its hatred and objection to religious faith and practice, the New Atheists are in fact a new religion. Yes, you read that correctly.

Keep in mind here that I am not suggesting that this is true of all atheists, or that atheism itself is a religion; it is not. However, the New Atheists and other forms of organized atheism could be shown to be quite religious as I have shown. If anything, it could be said that the the New Atheists would want to reconstruct religion rather than replace it entirely.

I write this to remind people that some questions are not simply a yes or no, and that beliefs have more implications than they may seem to hold on the surface. I encourage all people, whether religious or not, to look deeply into their own beliefs and to see where logic of the belief takes them.

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