A Public Service Announcement, by me

Just a quick note for all of you folks out there jumping on the anti-secularism bandwagon (you know who you are). Calling atheism or secularism a religion renders religion meaningless. You might as well sincerely call football, accountancy, or being involved with a political party religion. It’s a useless, tired attempt at a metaphor and, ultimately, it doesn’t mean anything. So, just don’t. Thanks in advance.


  1. It does mean something.

    Someone choosing to believe in something (even if the belief is that there is nothing) strongly & holding that feeling dear is what religion often amounts to.

    Perhaps the metaphor could benefit from the word religion being replaced with another word though.

  2. It doesn’t mean anything; or rather, it can mean anything and, therefore, it is useless.

    Belief in something doesn’t constitute religion, nor does feeling strongly about it. They may be aspects of religious experience, but they are also aspects of fandom, political fervor, anticipation of a good meal, etc.

  3. Religion involves taking certain things on faith, so in that sense there can be such a thing as a secular religion, but to define secularism itself as a religion doesn’t really work.

  4. I still think that defines things too broadly. I take it on faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I don’t consider believing this any sort of religious undertaking.

  5. harpchil says:

    I agree with the sentiment behind this post, but something bothers me about it. I’m not sure what. So I’ll respond by trying to explain why the bandwagon exists. Maybe I’ll figure it out.

    Here’s the issue, as I see it. Here in the U.S., it has become fashionable among religious conservatives (i.e., those who want to see more religion in the public sphere – especially in government) to say that “secularism,” defined as the lack of religion in the public sphere, is really just a sneaky attempt to make atheism the cultural norm. Its own missionary work, perhaps.

    Calling secularism a religion is an attempt to ridicule the notion that religion can be separated from the state. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all, and if you remove God from the public sphere, His place will be taken by atheism – which is just another religion, since it believes in things which cannot be proven via the scientific method. Of course, believing only in what is empirically provable is its own religion too, according to this line of thinking. Now, since it has thus been proven impossible to remove religion from the public sphere, we may as well choose the true one.

  6. harpchil says:

    Nope, I didn’t figure it out. Maybe I’m just conditioned to feel bothered because I’ve had too many arguments with people saying things like “Secular Humanism is the most violent religion in the world – even worse than the Muslims – because they murder millions of babies each year at abortion clinics.”

    (Yes, that is a near-verbatim quote from a born-again roommate I once had.)

  7. The problem is that that line of reasoning defines things that expressly define themselves as areligious as being religious. Therefore, everything can be a religion. The Internet is a religion. My car is a religion. Toothpaste is a religion.

    Maybe President Kimball was right about modern idols after all…

  8. I’m overstating things. The forewarned people would (probably) never claim that toothpaste is a religion.

  9. harpchil says:

    Toothpaste, not so much. But flossing? Definitely.

  10. John C (8),
    Toothpaste is religious:

    Toothpaste For Dinner

  11. Confutus says:

    Whether atheism is a religion depends largely on how you define religion.
    In a narrow sense, contrasted with organized Abrahamic religions associated with building; regular worship services, holy works, etc, it appears obvious that atheism is not much like them and not a religion.
    But until atheists come up with incontrovertible evidence or proof that there is no God, atheism remains a belief, in competition with beliefs in one or more gods. In a broad sense it is more like other forms of religion than football, accounting, or political activity are. Careful examination of the various varieties and flavors of atheistic belief turns up morre parallels to more traditional religion than one might expect.
    Given the different possible definitions, the claim that atheism is a religion is not a particularly strong one. But that does not mean that is meaningless.

  12. I’m deeply skeptical that anything is more religious than football, including religion. That said, belief in something to do with gods doesn’t constitute a religion. I’m happy to call atheism or secularism a belief and I’m happy to say it is in competition with other beliefs.

    One clear way in which religion differs from atheism is the need for functionaries. Religions need them to explain the religion, collect the tithes, regulate the beliefs, and so forth. There isn’t a parallel in atheism. There are organizations that promote atheism, but they are better described as PACs. Really, I think atheism is more closely aligned to political belief than it is to religious belief.

  13. In the interest of clarity, I’m going to say that you can have atheistic religions. For instance, I know that some modern forms of Paganism are essentially atheistic. Also, Theravada Buddhism is clearly atheistic. If a religion can or cannot be atheistic, then it is not of the same type as atheism.

  14. John C.,
    Based on the second paragraph of your #12, it looks like you’re saying that there is no meaningful difference between “religion” and “organized religion” or, alternatively, “religion” and “church”. Is that an accurate reflection of what you’re saying?

  15. But what is a religion? This is the central problem with this post – you have declared that something cannot be called religious without taking the time to define what you think religion is. Without solid definitions to work with this discussion is pointless.

  16. My problem with conflating world-views in general with religions is that, in so doing, we make all philosophies just religions. And, in the world of philosophy religion, the two are related, but not one and the same.

  17. I tend to think that there isn’t a difference between religion and organized religion. Between church and religion, I would say that there is a difference (shamanistic religions don’t fit well with “church”), but that may be beside the point.

  18. I tell you what, T. Greer. Explain what someone may find religious in atheism, and I’ll show you why you’re wrong.

    I don’t think you can get a single clear defining set of criteria. The best I can do is to say that it will tend to have most of the following set of 4 or 5 characteristics. However, for almost every definition I’ve seen, I can think of exceptions to some of the characteristics and inappropriate inclusions based on others. I’m steadfastly against defining atheism because I don’t think the metaphor withstands scrutiny in any form.

    Important characteristics for religion would include:
    Sincere positive beliefs about the supernatural/afterlife
    Functionaries of some sort that operate within the religion
    Some organization to belief (spirituality is nice, but it ain’t religion in its own right)
    Some internal means for determining what is and isn’t spiritually true

    That’s all off the top of my head. I’m sure I’d rearrange them, change them, or expand on them if I had time to give it real thought.

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 15
    I agree with you. There real question is: What is religion? Oh I know, let’s ask Wikipedia!


  20. StephanieQ says:

    “atheism is a religion like not playing soccer is a sport”

  21. Stephanie says:

    atheism also doesn’t make claims, like religion does. its tagline is basically, show me proof. religion demands no proof of anything.

    i don’t know of any atheist that wouldn’t believe that god exists given incontrovertible proof of his existence.

  22. Mike,
    I love the half-hearted attempt to define religion in that article. It demonstrates my point nicely.

  23. Atheism does make claims (there doesn’t exist a belief system that doesn’t make claims). This doesn’t make it a religion.

  24. StephanieQ says:

    okay why don’t you tell me what claims it makes that aren’t substantiated by scientific fact?

  25. StephanieQ says:

    you must be a follower of solipsism. that’s the only argument i can see for you claiming that atheism makes claims.

  26. Stephanie,
    I’m pretty sure you can do better than that. Do you really believe that atheism makes no claims about the nature of life, the universe, and everything?

    To say that an atheist is willing to alter those claims given new evidence is not the same as saying that the atheist never made a claim in the first place.

  27. Where is Dan Weston when I need him?

  28. Confutus says:

    Beliefs about gods are generally classed as religious in nature. I don’t see such a great distinction between “many Gods” or “Only one God” on the one hand and “No gods” on the other to make the one group clearly religious and the other clearly not.

    What the absence of functionaries means is that atheism is not an *organized* religion. There are and have been such things as unorganized and weakly organized religions. Even among Christians, for example, there are believers who are unchurched, do not attend services, pay tithes, etc. The Democratic Party has functionaries, and so do GM and Harvard University, but that does not make them either religions or churches.

    To me, secularism is an even fuzzier variety of quasi-religious belief: this has to do with the notion that if God exists, he doesn’t much matter. All kinds of objects of worship substitute: One may believe in Society, the State, the Party, Man, Science, Scholarship, Nature, the Almighty Dollar, Celebrity X, Sports Team Y, Luck, the Force… This isn’t an exclusive religion: it mingles and matches with all other kinds, so that one may be an active practicing Mormon, or Catholic, or Jew, and also a practicing secularist of some kind. This is probably the idolatry that is described in D&C 1:16, or that President Kimball was talking about.

  29. Stephanie,
    Empiricism is a way of interpreting facts and it is a particularly successful one. But, it claims that we have to trust our senses for the ultimate truth. But our senses can be deceived and observation doesn’t always result in our approaching truth. A little intellectual humility would do many outspoken atheists a world of good.

  30. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

    OK, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s say the First Amendment reversed the establishment clause, but still included the free exercise clause: “Congress shall make a law respecting an establishment of religion, but shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

    Congress passes a law that establishes the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as the official religion of the United States, and requires everyone to worship the FSM, except that the requirement does not apply to someone if it would restrict the free exercise of the person’s religion.

    The monotheistic Jews, Christians, and Muslims would obviously be exempt from the requirement to worship the FSM, as their religion prohibits the worshiping of other gods.

    Polytheists who do not believe in the FSM could claim that worshiping the FSM would interfere with the free exercise of their religion, so they would be exempt.

    People in religions that do not have a deity could claim that worshiping the FSM would interfere with the free exercise of their religion, so they would be exempt.

    But, by your definition, since atheism is not a religion, atheists could not claim that worshiping the FSM would interfere with the free exercise of their religion.

    That is why, in the legal context of the Free Exercise clause, at least, atheism is considered to be a religion, and the Supreme Court has held that atheists have the right to free exercise of that religion.

  31. William James defined religion as that ‘something’ that will give you comfort and peace if everything in your life were to go terribly wrong. If you have that ‘something’ then you have religion, if not then you don’t.

    He also said that all religions have two things in common: one is the belief that there is something wrong with mankind, and two is that there is a solution.

    I don’t think atheism qualifies under either of these things.

  32. Confutus,
    First of all, you are completely misreading secularism, which doesn’t say that God doesn’t matter. It says that God doesn’t matter to secularism, which is something else entirely. Don’t make it a bogeyman.

    Do these unorganized religions of which you speak require training to understand the doctrine? Do they require distinctions between themselves and other religions? I would argue that “organized religion” is more of a throwback to imperialist thinking than it is a useful descriptor for religions. Usually it is simply used to distinguish like us from not like us. As I said above, I don’t see any significant difference between religion and organized religion, so that may explain our disconnect.

    To use worship in the manner that you are using it in your final paragraph. People only worship sports in jokes. Nobody I know has an altar to the Democratic or the Republican party. Certainly, some people have their priorities screwed up, but prioritizing doesn’t equate to worship.

    Can you tell that bad metaphor in religious discussion is kind of a pet topic for me?

  33. “in your final paragraph is to wrench its meaning”

  34. Mommie Dearest says:

    As stated in #23, why can’t we just say that atheism is a belief system and call it a day?

    (This is a serious question, btw)

  35. Maybe atheism should be referred to as an unbelief system.

    Not joking or being sarcastic here.

    I suspect a lot of atheists would be fine with that approach.

  36. Re:Explain what someone may find religious in atheism, and I’ll show you why you’re wrong

    I’ll pass on the offer. It is always easier to prove the negative, to pick holes and find exceptions, than it is to build something from the ground up.


    This thread reminds me of an experience I had a few years ago. A friend of mine objected to being called an atheist. I asked her why – she did not believe in God, after all. Her answer was succinct: “Why should I have a title for the things I don’t believe?”

    The problem, of course, was that she did believe. Agnostics say with full honesty, “I have no beliefs, I just don’t know.” The atheist has no such recourse. He or she claims that the nature of the universe and the afterlife is known. “God is fake.” “After life is death.” “Prayers are but vain repetitions.”

    Is atheism a religion? No, it probably is not. I find it useful to place it with them, however. The pattern of thought found in both is quite similar. Both make, as mentioned above, specific claims about the nature of God and the universe. Dogma is dogma, may it come through authority spiritual or secular.

    I imagine that comment will cause some controversy. I don’t see good reason for it. You mentioned earlier that atheistic beliefs are more similar to political ideologies than religious ones – I ask, why the distinction? In many places the two run thoroughly together. And many a cadre has labored with more religious fervor than most of this Earth’s Christians have mustered. In practical terms is there a great difference between the religious, philosophical, and cultural beliefs of most human beings?

    The exception to the rule is that claim nothing at all – but they are not atheists. They are Agnostics.

    Athists make positive claims about God and afterlife

  37. T. Greer is onto something with that comment.

  38. StephanieQ says:

    #36 I think you define atheists differently than I do. I have many atheist friends and not one of them is willing to say there is no god. What they do say is there is no proof of god and until there is they won’t believe in it.

    scott b–the only claims atheism makes are things that can be proved. if you are like some on this site and believe that ultimately nothing can be proved, then you are talking about another matter entirely.

    john–low blow about intellectual humility. no one has yet proved that atheism makes any claims. #36 tried to, but as I explained, i don’t know any atheists who claim that there is no god, only that there’s no proof. maybe you should try a dose yourself.

    and my comment about solipsism already explained that i understood the point you were trying to make about the fallibility of the senses. i am of assuming infallibility of basic scientific truth. otherwise we’re all just imagining this conversation.

  39. StephanieQ says:

    by the way, it’s hard to be humble when you’re right.

  40. I’m with Mommie Dearest in #34.

  41. StephanieQ says:


    that totally wouldn’t be as fun . . .

  42. Mommie Dearest says:

    lol, I’ve been accused of that before.

  43. Not counting out what Stephanie is saying – just want to say that in my experience atheists are more emphatic that there is no God and no afterlife/resurrection.

    I’ve known a lot of people who were unsure if there was a God and said so plainly – but they never seemed to embrace the word atheist to describe themselves. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to say something along the lines of “I’m not an atheist – I just don’t know.”

  44. We go through life exercizing faith. This bridge I’m driving over will not fall. The tap will provide water when I turn it. My friend who lives a thousand miles away is alive and safe. It’s not faith in God, but it is faith in something intangible: science? engineering? or just common sense? Is this religion? It certainly seems to mimic the fervor of the religious.

  45. I happen to be a Zeus Atheist. Which obviously is a religion.

    I see atheism as a stance not a belief. It has to stand in relation to claims that there exists a deity of one kind or another–hence the word a-theism. For example, on a planet where no idea of god ever existed, they would not claim themselves to be atheists. When you brought up the idea of God they would just say, ‘Huh?’ It seems to me also, that there are many kinds of atheisms and it is not a monolithic idea and range from Spinoza-like takes that the universe-in-toto is God to strict materialism. Also so call Buddhist ‘atheist’ seems wrongheaded. Atheism seems to imply something different than just the claim there is no personal deity. Buddhists have a sense of sacracy about the universe that suggests that there is something divine about existence, which seems different than the stance most atheists take. At least the atheists who are strict materialists.

  46. T. Greer,
    I tried to build something from the ground up in that same comment. Have you no comment on my attempt? Remember that negative comment are easy to make.

    “He or she claims that the nature of the universe and the afterlife is known.”
    I suppose that some atheists would make this claim, but most I know wouldn’t. They would say that there isn’t any evidence for belief in the afterlife and they don’t see any reason to believe in it. As to knowing the nature of the universe and the afterlife, not even smart theists do that. Intellectual humility, indeed. Finally, it is harder to assert dogma when you are talking about one thing (I believe that there is no God). For instance, you could believe that there is no God because you don’t believe in the supernatural. Or you could believe in no God because you think the universe is essentially random and doesn’t require an organizing principle. Or you may believe in the supernatural, but also believe that there is no personified God. And so on and so forth. Stretching dogma to cover all that requires rather undogmatic dogma. Howsabout we say that it is axiomatic that atheists don’t believe in God and set aside comparisons to religion (which have dogma). If nothing out, it helps us to see that Stephanie’s friends are, apparently, cowardly agnostics who can safely be ignored in this discussion.

    Stephanie, your friends are cowardly agnostics who can safely be ignored in this discussion. If you are an agnostic, be proud and call yourself that. Yeesh!

    Regarding proof that atheism makes a claim, atheism claims that there is no empirical evidence for God. When atheism encounters evidence that could be understood as evidence for God, atheism will tend to say that, although we don’t yet understand the mechanism, there is an empirical mechanism, and therefore whatever it is doesn’t constitute evidence for God. Provide me with an example that this same basic train of thought isn’t followed, and you’ll have an example that demonstrates that atheism doesn’t have fundamental claims.

  47. SteveP,
    Buddhism is an atheistic religion, because there’s no God there (at least, Theravada is. Other varieties differ). It’s you and the universe. I don’t think that you have to be a materialist to be an atheist (as is obvious by now). It’s only in the West where that choice is necessary.

  48. John, I disagree. Buddhists have no creator deity, but atheism as a specific meaning that carries very different connotations than what Buddhists mean when they say they have no personal deity. Buddhists don’t self describe as atheistic. The only use of the term I’ve heard has been by Christian fundamentalisms. The Theravada Buddhism that I know from Thailand is loaded with deities and other worldly beings. Loaded. Naga. Garuda. They are all over the temples there.

  49. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I take it on faith that the sun …”

    And now we have pagan sun worship on BCC. How low will the bloggernacle have to sink before God burns it to the ground?

    Let me assure you that Mr Sun is not a god. He is just a big ball of fire that God placed in the sky so that we can have daytime. Some say that he helps the plants to grow, but I don’t see any definite proof of that. ~

  50. By The Rules says:

    Secularism is NOT a religion, it is an Anti-Religion:

    13 O ye that are bound down under a afoolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can bknow of anything which is to come.
    14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
    15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not asee; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
    16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a afrenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.

    And is there also not some scriptural direction about only 2 religions?

  51. It seems to me that atheism is not one thing. There may be agnostics who say that they basically do not know but it appears that there is no God, for example. There are even believers who quietly harbor atheistic doubts – what happens if, when the curtain is drawn, the house lights never go up?

    There are atheists who never give theism a thought unless pressed and even then give short answers. There are rabid and proselytizing atheists.

    As pointed out, Buddhists are not believers in a divine being, but sort of worship the Buddha.

    The most contrasty is the religionist who has atheistic doubts. So can you say that this person is simply torn by two belief systems? The atheistic belief system is the exact opposite of his or her religious feelings.

    One is clearly a religion, the other the exact negative of that one. In logic that would be called the negative, the NOT religion. So how can a religion = NOT religion??

    Logically not possible. Unless religion is not something the believer thought he had. Or is the believer mistaken that the NOT religion is really the same as the religion?

  52. Confutus says:

    I don’t know what you mean by “throwback to imperialist thinking” when I refer to organized religion. I simply have the impression that the religious functionaries you mention have different degrees of organization in different religious traditions. Hinduism, for instance, appears to vary more from place to place than Roman Catholicism and seems to be less organized.

    Since I don’t have a good definision of worship, I’m not prepared to say exactly where pursuit of something that is supposed to bring comfort or happiness or salvation (at least as far as mortal life is concerned) ends and actual worship begins. But I don’t think it’s just a metaphor.

  53. Mormons don’t like other people describing our beliefs for us. Perhaps we should invite a few atheists to participate and describe their beliefs or nonbeliefs. And while we are at it, perhaps we should invite some secularists as well. I am not sure if their are full-time atheist or secular missionaries, but maybe they would be the best representative in describing their beliefs or unbeliefs and whether they are truly a religion (or not a religion).

  54. Stephanie says:

    Just want to mention that the Stephanie who has been commenting on this thread is not the same Stephanie as me (who comments often on BCC). Maybe I should go by something else like fmhstephanie, although I really like to just be consistent across the bloggernaccle. Maybe Stephanie could use another name? Will a BCC perma give me some guidance here? I feel like I say, “Oh, BTW, that Stephanie is not me” a lot.

  55. Oh, I have an idea. I will link my name to FMH. Problem solved.

  56. The claim that atheism or secularism is a “religion” being foisted on America is really a complaint that the nature and definition of America’s “civil religion” (in the Bellah sense) is changing.

    In the late 1800s the civil religion was generic Protestant Christianity–an “invisible church” (as distinct from a “visible” church like Catholicism or Mormonism). Konden Smith argues in a forthcoming article that the American civil religion that led the battles against the Mormon theocracy (and plural marriage) was itself a generic Protestant Christian theocracy.

    One could view the U.S. civil religion as having expanded over the years to include non-Protestant Christian faiths and Jews. I am not sure whether that civil religion umbrella yet encompasses all Abrahamic religions–I doubt it given the anti-Islamic sentiment so common in the U.S. See e.g. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/01/AR2010070104542.html

    Robert Bellah of course famously defined a version of America’s civil religion in 1967. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm

    William Swatos argues, based on various surveys, that the American civil religion consists of beliefs such as
    “America is God’s chosen nation today.”
    “A president’s authority…is from God.”
    “Social justice cannot only be based on laws; it must also come from religion.”
    “God can be known through the experiences of the American people.”
    “Holidays like the Fourth of July are religious as well as patriotic”


    Of course, all of those statements align pretty closely with deeply held beliefs of U.S. LDS.

    In my mind, many people fear secularism and atheism because they are viewed as threatening to displace or fundamentally alter the American civil religion.

  57. I will have to read the comment in more detail in the morning and I will be writing about this soon (particularly secular anti-atheism).

    For now, I just have one thing to say:

    I love John C.

  58. okay,

    cannot resist this one:

    “the only claims atheism makes are things that can be proved. ”

    I am currently heading deep into secularism (my faith is one life-support). However, one of the most freaking irritating things about the new atheism is that they are as arrogant, prone to overstatement, and as damn annoying as any religious fundamentalist. And like the fundamentalist, they also lack any serious sense of how ridiculous they are.

  59. Atheism is simply not seeing any proof for any God.

    A though experiment: How would the world be different if there was no God?

  60. Scott,

    Fear not. Dan Weston is back. Here are some inchoate thoughts on the matter:

    First, atheism is not antitheism (which is is a religion).

    Atheism is (merely) a fusion of minimalism, existentialism, empiricism, and entropy. It is the assumption that if I guess at all, I am more likely to guess wrong than right. It is well summarized by Laplace’s rebuff of Napoleon: “‘Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.’ (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”).

    Atheism is the least non-trivial concept of essence, after nihilism and solipsism. This is emotionally satisfying to me because if I am not, there’s no harm in pretending that I am, and if I alone am who am (and for whatever am walling off one part of me for some thought experiment) there is no harm in playing along with my own ruse.

    Atheism is the immanent apperception of a fixed point of perception (i.e. let x = “that I think x is true implies that I exist” in x). In other words, I perceive that I am thinking. I am aware that I just made this perception. I believe that making this judgment is the sign of sentience. Wait, did I just express a belief? This questioning must mean that I am capable of questioning (or at least believing so), and so on.

    I am aware of the passage of time and it appears to be observationally causal. Observations (whether delusional or of reality) are at least repeatable.

    Atheists do not need religion as a psychological crutch because we create their own purpose. Nor do we need it for morality, which is sufficiently justified at least as far as utilitarianism because not thinking so leads to anomie, which evidently damages our psychology and sense of purpose. In fact, the only thing that cannot be justified without religion is bigotry, which I define here very narrowly as the belief that wanting something to be true makes it more likely to be true. If atheists have any affirmative assertion to make, it is this preference for a consistent belief system over a complete one.

    I blame God for this sad state of affairs. He made me just too skeptical to believe in Him. Must be a design flaw, which would make the designer imperfect. Hmmm…

    But here I am talking to myself again. I wonder if anyone else exists…

  61. Perhaps this is too simplistic, but religion to me had always been a system of thought that attempts to explain the unknowable.

    While in practical terms religion, politics, and philosophy have similar outputs, the difference seems to be in motivation.

    Political theory attempts to explain the course of action in the future to sustain or grow prosperity. Philosophical thought attempts to explain the process of understanding unknowns. Religion attempts to explain the unknowns by structuring a world view beyond the immediate empirical/sensory input we receive in this life.

    While probably not a requirement, usually most religions have a sophisticated positive theology to explain how the universe works. You have different sects, cults, denominations, etc., that revolves around some sort of concept/doctrine or a series of them. These schools of theology then prescribe lifestyles in order to achieve maximum harmony with the universe. Atheism, as far as I know, does not really prescribe lifestyles to gain maximum harmony with the universe nor does it have a sophisticated attempt to structure the universe in an explainable way. It simply declares there is no God – and that’s that. Maybe Atheism is in its infancy as a religion and we will see denominations of Atheism spring up and argue with each other the best way to prove God doesn’t exist?

  62. Re: John C, #46-

    I tried to build something from the ground up in that same comment. Have you no comment on my attempt?

    You said yourself that you could think of objections and exceptions to the list you provide. I figured this established my point well enough and no more objections were needed.

    But as you wish. The operative definition you provide has four features. To repeat them:

    1. Sincere positive beliefs about the supernatural/afterlife
    2. Functionaries of some sort that operate within the religion
    3. Some organization to belief (spirituality is nice, but it ain’t religion in its own right)
    4. Some internal means for determining what is and isn’t spiritually true.

    Your definition, though operative, is probably better than anything I could develop. It is not without sticky points, however. Of the four features, I see potential problems with all but the second.

    I am wary of limiting the scope of belief to positive claims. Many denominations are defined one from another by their negative beliefs – to pick an example we all know, the 2nd Article of Faith is largely a negative claim.

    Mormons have a great deal of positive beliefs to along with that of course, so the example only takes us part way. But it is a good example for another reason – it shows just how hard it is to make a truly negative claim. For we do not just say that our sin “comes not from Adam’s transgression.” We confirm that sin does have a source: ourselves.

    This pattern holds true with most things. Negative contentions don’t exist. Denying something is claiming something. The closest you can get to a truly negative claim is the claim that you don’t know.

    We will return to this in a bit. But for the moment, lets get back to the list.

    The greatest problem I see with the third point (organized institutions) is that all types of beliefs and traditions generally recognized as religious break the rule. Sufi Islam is the case in point. Indeed, not only would most Sufi mystics and dervishes claim that they have a religion, but that their avoidance of institutionalization is religiously mandated.

    I like the way the fourth point is worded. It is hard to pick apart. But a question: what counts as “spiritually” true? How does that differ from regular truth? The atheistic Buddhist relies on no faith to determine truth; does he still have religion?

    I suppose that some atheists would make this claim, but most I know wouldn’t. They would say that there isn’t any evidence for belief in the afterlife and they don’t see any reason to believe in it. As to knowing the nature of the universe and the afterlife, not even smart theists do that. Intellectual humility, indeed.

    I did not mean to imply that either theists or atheists know the nature of the universe and the afterlife in its entirety. But they do claim to know some things about it. Forgive me for being unclear on this point. (And perhaps, upon reflection, the word “believe” may have been a better choice for the discussion. I find the distinction between the two to be quite small.)

    My statement regarding atheists’ beliefs finds its grounding in the standard definition of “atheist.” Here is American Heritage Dictionary’s entry:

    1. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
    2.The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

    An atheist is someone who does not believe that God does not exist. This is the definition of the term. An atheist cannot help but makes claims regarding the universe – if you ask one, “Do you believe in God” they will say “no.” If this is not a claim about God – in essence, a religious claim – what is?

    Finally, it is harder to assert dogma when you are talking about one thing…

    This is true. But the argument cuts both ways – one can believe that Jesus Christ is divine for a multitude of reasons, and to put them all under one label is just as disingenuous as it is to group all who deny God into one neat category.

    This plays into my broader point. If we define religion as you do, dogma is areligious. It describes how one believes much more than it describes what one believes. One’s political, philosophical, and personal beliefs can be dogmatic. And one’s denial of God can certainly be as dogmatic as as any Christian fundamentalist’s acceptance of it.

    Which is not to say that all atheist thought isdogmatic. Many an atheist is an atheist by reason alone. However, personal experience (that imperfect guide!) has given me no reason to think that these are in the majority, particularly in locations where atheism is culturally acceptable. In this they mirror the rest of humanity. Too few of our beliefs have their foundation in reason or revelation.

  63. Upon reflection, I was a bit unfair to you in all that. I avoided the central point of this post. While the formation of belief for both atheists and theists may not be so different, this does not mean atheism itself is a religion. And on this I agree with you – atheism really isn’t a religion.

    But then again, I do not believe many things commonly referred to as religions are truly so. I will not try and define religion – it is admittedly beyond my capabilities – but if I were to define it, I know my definition would be an incredibly narrow one. Atheism would be taken from the list, but so would the world’s dharmic religions. (SouthAsian Ideas recently had an interesting series on why Hinduism should not be considered a religion. might”> interest you.) I imagine I would keep most folk religions and pagan belief sets out as well, though I have not studied any with enough care to make such a judgment at the present.

    Give me a few days of reflection and I might be able to return with my Western-centric, exclusive definition of religion for the folks here to parse apart. ‘til then we will have to make do with parsing your own.

  64. Stephanie (of fMh),
    The hyperlink helps, but you get name rights due to an extended period of consistent, non-sucky commenting anyway.

  65. Thomas Parkin says:

    “He made me just too skeptical to believe in Him.”

    God did not make you. Welcome to a Mormon blog! ~

  66. God did not make you.

    Ah, it seems I had it backward. For the welcome thank you I.

  67. Thomas Parkin says:

    Neither that neither, nether-Dan.
    According to Joseph, we are co-eternal with God, and uncreated. ~

  68. “How would the world be different if there was no God?”
    I’d be much less inspired to put up with you?

  69. StillConfused says:

    I completely disagree with the post. I have seen many people who have many different religions. There are those where their looks/appearance is their religion. etc etc etc

  70. Fletcher says:

    Keynesian Economics is a religion; there is no proof that it really works.

  71. Fletcher,

    I have yet to encounter an economic theory that is not is some sense faith-based.

    (Scott: that was for you with love.)

  72. Fletcher says:

    Bayesian Econometrics is not faith based, especially when you use agnostic priors. :)

  73. By The Rules says:

    Now that I’ve found a minute to come back to this discussion, here it is:

    1 Ne. 14: 10
    10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.

    If secularism/atheism is a religion, the above applies.
    If secularism/atheism is not a religion, then the Anti-Christ story of Korihor applies – more from Alma 30

    17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was cno crime.
    18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

  74. Here’s how I see it. Atheists believe only what’s empirically provable. As I see it, most people, religious or not, *generally* believe only what is empirically provable. Like most people, I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster, the psychic ability of Miss Cleo, the monster my niece thinks is under her bed sometimes, or the “negees” who supposedly live in the ocean and perform witchcraft (I heard about them on NPR yesterday in a story about Liberia)–because I see no evidence for those things. I’m not agnostic about whether they exist, either–I believe they’re made up.

    Now, I am religious, so I make an exception to this evidence-requiring worldview for the claims of my religion. But I don’t think my belief that the Loch Ness monster is fake is a religion; it just doesn’t fall within the exception. Atheists just don’t make any exceptions.

  75. Thank you, Scott B. I feel honored.

  76. Who are you guys/girls that say religion has no burden of proof? Of course it does; our religion would truly be a flying spaghetti monster, which it is not.

  77. Israel is an interesting country because it has a very split citizenry. There are those who are strictly religious and those who are emphatically secular. I had not realized how serious people can be about secularism until I was in Israel. People there identify themselves and say directly “I am secular” (ani hiloni) in a way that I had never quite heard expressed before. American secularism, by comparison, is very relaxed and less thought out.

    I had a Hebrew teacher at BYU who was an Israeli citizen and she was very secular in her outlook. Her husband, a member of the church, was listening to General Conference and she told me she became very offended and turned the television off when Neil A. Maxwell used the phrase “”cold secularism” in his talk “Hope Through the Atonement.”

    I don’t think most secular-minded people would have even twitched – but to her it was a personal criticism and insulting.

  78. StephanieQ says:

    Sorry for the confusion, Stephanie. Though I have read this on and off for the last five years, I rarely comment. Thus I changed my name to StephanieQ. Hope that helps.

  79. StephanieQ says:

    I’m shaking my head in amazement. I guess John C. knows my friends and their beliefs better than they do.

  80. Thank you, StephanieQ! :)

  81. “I guess John C. knows my friends and their beliefs better than they do.”

    It has been my opinion for a while that John has certain God-like qualities. Don’t let the scruffy looks distract from his awesome-ness.

  82. “I had a Hebrew teacher at BYU who was an Israeli citizen and she was very secular in her outlook. Her husband, a member of the church, was listening to General Conference and she told me she became very offended and turned the television off when Neil A. Maxwell used the phrase “”cold secularism” in his talk “Hope Through the Atonement.”

    I don’t think most secular-minded people would have even twitched – but to her it was a personal criticism and insulting.”


    Most of my inspirations and heroes are secular philosophers and thinkers. Such comments in General Conference seem to be more and more frequent and they do make me twitch.

  83. Additionally, a lot of people seem to mean it as a put-down to call atheism a religion or to claim that disbelief is also “based on faith.” As I’ve said before, that’s not a compliment to religion or faith. It almost seems to imply that you think atheism would be more valid if it’s something other than religion/faith…

  84. Here’s a useful taxonomic key to identifying various forms of non-belief (BTW, “strong” and “weak” is a philosophic term, not a value judgment about the persons holding these beliefs):

    Theist: I believe there is a God.

    Weak atheist: I do no believe there is a God.

    Strong atheist: I believe there is no God.

    Weak agnostic: I do not know about God.

    Strong agnostic: I cannot know about God.

    Apatheist: I do not care if there is a God.

    Secularist: Religion should not be allowed to control the government so that all beliefs are safe from oppression.

    So, in those terms, I am a secularist, strong agnostic, and weak atheist (with a hint of apatheism). You may be a secularist and a theist.

    By this definition then, secularism is independent of the category of religion. It is a belief about religious power. It isn’t itself a religion.

  85. Mommie Dearest says:

    My “belief system” approach is still working for me through all these comments.

  86. I agree with John C in that to make atheism a religion strips the term religion of any general meaning (of course, his example of football doesn’t help, since lots of people do say people can be *religious* football fans).

    I agree with chanson that what often happens with this kind of charge on atheism is that the person making it is showing bad faith toward religion or faith itself.

    I agree with Jonathan Blake in that there are different definitions at play here, which are used quite particularly by different groups.

    What I would say is that atheism is not a belief system or religion or whatever else. It does not (on its own) make claims. Of course, I would take atheism as being the weak/negative variety (e.g., lack of belief). Some of you would probably say, “but that isn’t atheism. That’s agnosticism,” or whatever. But in my view, most self-proclaimed atheists themselves use this definition, for better or for worse.

    I would say that if you try to think of beliefs that atheists hold, you’re not pinpointing beliefs that are part of atheism or that are necessary to or implied by atheism.

    For example, you might say someone is an empiricist. Or you might say someone is a rationalist. Or you might say someone is a naturalist. These are all things that denote positions, beliefs, and they mesh well with atheism. But none of these things *are* atheism, nor are necessitated by atheism (nor necessitate atheism).

    I don’t think it is appropriate, say, to relate atheism to a “religion” with multiple beliefs in a system like Mormonism. Atheism relates at best to theism itself. Theism tells us very little. It is not a belief *system* — only at best, one belief. But from theism, we don’t know anything about the nature and number of deities, whether the deities interact with people, whether the deities have expectations of people (and what those are), etc., etc., Only when we start adding things (which are separate from theism itself) do we answer these questions in packages called religions…whether it’s Mormonism…Sunni Islam…or whatever.

  87. Per #84, my friend David describes himself as a militant agnostic: “I don’t know and neither do you.”

  88. :) That’s probably covered by strong agnostic: we can’t know about God.

  89. Sorry about disappearing on this thread. I know it is dead and all, but ya’ll had good comments and they deserve some response (also, I had a lovely weekend; thanks for asking).

    Eric James Stone,
    It’s an interesting analogy, but I still think that a belief about religion is different from a religion, no matter what the lawyers might say. I always assumed that the invocation of the first amendment in discussions of atheism had more to do with the clause you threw out than the clause you left in.

    Eric Neilson,
    I think most atheists would disagree with how you use James’s definition. That is to say they feel like it provides them with comfort and that it explains the universe.

    I suppose that I think your definition of atheism is too limited, although my definition of atheism may be too broad.

    By The Rules,
    It is possible to be a religious person who thinks that secularism is the appropriate mode of public square decision making (I know, because I manage it almost daily). So Korihor, while an interesting choice of model, isn’t an adequate example of approaches to secularism. Secularism isn’t anti-religion, either, but that’s a different issue than the one addressed in this post.

    You have good comments. That is all.

    Chris H.,
    Back atcha!

    Dan Weston,
    While I have several points of dispute in that (I doubt that anti-theism is a religion), I appreciate the well-written intelligent comment. I can tell it is intelligent because I didn’t follow it in places.

    I was with you until the last sentence.

    T. Greer,
    Excellent comments. Nothing to add or to respond to, because I admitted the weakness of the definition from the outset.

    Still Confused,
    There are people who believe that hair-care and make-up will provide them a better afterlife? I take it back. Toothpaste is a religion.

    Dan Weston brought up Bayesian economics in a post of mine once. I tried to drive it away with the sign of the cross, but it keeps coming back. Like Dracula.


    Why besmirch the Pastafarians? Have you truly never been touched by His noodly appendage?

    I’m just saying that if you are insisting that you don’t know that seems different to me than atheism. Insisting I don’t know I would be an agnostic. Insisting nobody can know strikes me as more atheism (although certainly people are referring to it as strong agnostic here).

    Also, I’ve been spying on you and your friends for years. You have some broccoli in your teeth.

    I think that you are right regarding what is behind this. I think most people who make the analogy are trying to say “Oh, look at those poor deluded atheists. They don’t even know that they belong to a religion.” Certainly, atheists are deluded, but that isn’t the reason why ;)

    I’m happy to reduce atheism and theism to a belief as you suggest. Like I said, there isn’t much to go on based on that idea. Also, yes, you are an agnostic. Stop hedging your bets!

  90. Hedging my bets, John C?

    I don’t quite see how that is possible. Let’s say belief in god is important. Well, you either do or you don’t. There is no “both;” there is no “half a dozen of one…six of the other,” so there is no hedge. Knowledge (or lack thereof) is a different question entirely, but professing lack of knowledge still isn’t a hedge.

  91. Oh, Andrew. Don’t take me so seriously.

  92. You serious about that last one, John?

  93. Andrew: I think his is serious, but not so serious.

%d bloggers like this: