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Not a Religion

Entry 1578, on 2013-10-09 at 22:05:34 (Rating 3, Religion)

There are certain subjects which appear over and over again in atheism/science/rationality versus religion debates, and one of the most persistent (and therefore annoying) is the idea that atheism is just another religion. So I think I should cover the subject here and maybe refer those who disagree to this instead of just repeating the same thing over and over.

The usual problem with these discussions is defining what the words specifically mean, so I will do that and make my case based on that technical argument. But I will also make a second case based on a more tenuous argument which is more related to the usual meaning of the question.

So to the definition: religion noun (mass noun). Definition 1: "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods" and 2: "a particular system of faith and worship" and 3: "a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion: [for example] consumerism is the new religion." (Source: Oxford Dictionary of English 3rd edition)

Clearly atheism doesn't fit into definition 1 because atheism specifically rejects the idea of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god (from the same dictionary: "atheism: disbelief in the existence of God or gods."). Some people try to bypass this by saying "science is your god" or "evolution is your god" or something similar, but this is nonsense. A god must be a supernatural entity, not just some natural force or phenomenon. Twist the words enough and you can make anything mean anything else.

A similar argument applies to definition 2 which is really just a slightly different grammatical use of 1 which refers to the establishment or system supporting the pure religious phenomenon. Again the essential element is the supernatural which atheism rejects.

Definition 3 is a bit more problematic though. The problem is that this is really an imprecise use of the word and could almost be seen as a metaphor. Religions are followed with devotion so anything else which also involves great devotion is like a religion. But no one really thinks it is a religion. In the example consumerism is said to be a religion and maybe science or atheism could be used in that context as well. But there is no supernatural element here and that is the key difference.

So anyone who thinks atheism is a religion based on that definition would also have to accept that watching certain TV shows, or listening to a particular pop band, or drinking beer, or playing a computer game is also a religion and I think that shows how ridiculous that suggestion really is.

Looking at the dictionary definition then, atheism clearly isn't a religion unless you want to extend the definition of the word to a point where it loses its real intent. And if you want to start pushing into that sort of area you could say that a [put any noun here] is a type of [insert any noun here which can be used to categorise things] and that really doesn't prove a thing.

There are a couple of other points I want to make here beyond the dictionary definitions.

First, religion usually involves faith. I know some people might deny this but it does seem like a common statement and it is often the ultimate retreat for those who have been shown that there is really no other reason to take their belief system seriously.

Some apologists will claim that atheism and science also involve faith but I disagree. These involve confidence and practical philosophical insight. Think about it. Science has given us antibiotics, and computers, and a space program, and a million other things. What has religion given us? An amusing myth? A social construct which has been useful on occasions? The two aren't really equivalent and that's why atheists have confidence in science instead of faith in religion.

And second, atheists are rarely emotionally attached to their worldview. Unlike religious people who get comfort or closure or an easily understood explanation of the world from their belief, atheists tend to be atheists simply because there's no good reason to believe anything else (there is absolutely zero good empirical evidence of a god existing).

It must be so easy if you can convince yourself that there is a supernatural entity controlling the world and looking after you. There is no need to try to understand the real origin of the universe because you just have to believe a childishly simple myth instead. You don't have to spend time thinking about what is right and wrong because it's all spelled out in an old book instead. And you avoid having to be responsible for helping yourself because god will look after you.

So atheism is the more difficult approach because it involves a lot more moral strength and independent thought. In many ways religion is just the easy way out: it involves no original thought, no difficult examination of individual moral codes, and no understanding of difficult scientific concepts. It just involves remembering some childish myths from an old book. What could be easier?

In summary, it seems to be that by any reasonable definition atheism is not a religion. Anyone who makes the claim that it is will probably also try to say that god exists because the laws of physics are like a god, or that the Bible is just a metaphorical version of the real history of the universe, or that all religions are the same attempts at describing a true spiritual force present in the universe, or some other total nonsense. But that's all it is: nonsense. It's playing with words to the point that there is no meaning left. Atheism is most definitely not a religion.


Comment 12 (3658) by Rich on 2013-10-25 at 21:30:31: (view earlier comments)

Hi Owen. You are quite right - it has moved far from original topic hasn't it. Reading back will show that I have perhaps made a mistake when actually trying to honestly and fairly respond to the numerous additional (mostly off-topic) comments and attacks on Christianity you have injected into your replies. And although you clearly love to take every opportunity to attack Christianity (and BTW you are of course at liberty to do so - this is your blog after all, and I am but a guest), it does get a little tiresome because you seem to have missed the point of my replies in this post. They have little to do with a defense of whether Christianity is true or not - they are responses to your 'moral claims' about it. So the constant injection of baseless truth assertions don't help this discussion at all. I already know that the atheists assertion is that 'there is no deeper meaning'.

For example, the assertion that there is 'no truth' because there are lots of different opinions out there is of course untrue. Would applying the same reasoning to differences in scientific opinion mean that there is 'no scientific truth'? Of course not. Similarly, I have already tried to explain that while people do indeed try to 'pick and choose any meaning they like' from the bible, that does NOT make every meaning equally valid, and not any & every interpretation is defensible as 'the authors original intention'. That's equally true of any ancient document, like the Treaty of Waitangi for example and a simple enough idea - surely that's not controversial?

The trouble is tho, you repeatedly make unfair charges against both Christianity, and me personally, and it's not easy to let those go unchallenged. Such as:

1 - "Atheists are more moral than believers imo because 'your morality' is based on well considered rules of behaviour, and thousands of years of civilisation". This is nonsense when you consider that theism has been a huge influence in almost every civilisation for all those years, and still is, and so you simply cannot remove it's impact and lay claim that it's 'our morality'. And theists don't 'Not Steal' (as you wrongly claim) simply because it's 'imposed in an old book'. It's written in an old book, because that 'not stealing' is 'moral' i.e an 'ought to do' is a true feature of reality. The question of WHY it's demonstrably a true feature of reality (as you rightly acknowledged) is in fact the biggest problem for atheism.

2 - Ooh - the Bigot word used multiple times here - Uncool. Usual accepted definition includes something like 'Intolerance of a different opinion etc'. Debating truth claims about a subject has nothing to do with bigotry or intolerance, and you know it. Similarly... "Trying to impose your baseless beliefs on someone else is clearly unfair" - Come on Owen - really?! I don't have a blog site, dedicated to trying to impose my beliefs on someone else. You don't really believe that statement for a second. We both know that you don't like the idea that people (like me) might have 'wrong beliefs about reality', and you have dedicated multiple websites to resolving the 'problem'. Unless you are prepared to shut your blog down, then don't unfairly pull that one out of the bag LOL. Of course there is nothing morally wrong with your site - in case there's any confusion.

BTW - WRT Homosexuality. A reasoned and 'tolerant' examination of the subject will show that the charge of bigotry and intolerance laid against Christianity and Churches to homosexuality is by in large a fallacy. Absolutely NOWHERE am I or the HUGE majority of people claiming to be 'Christian' trying to 'force ANYONE into following my worldview' in that regard, and I must object to that accusation Owen. WRT to Westboro - Ask a specific qn and I will try to be specific - it is too easy to make wrong assumptions Owen, when the topic is multi-faceted. Yes - you won't like some of my answers I suspect and I am totally fine with that, but I am in no way not prepared to be open and honest. Qn is - Are you prepared to be tolerant of a different view?

Twisted arguemtn? I wasn't actually making any argument about the truth of claims being related to whether they were liked or not - I was asking you why you appeared to be trying to suggest that. Otherwise why post as you did? Stop doing it and I won't ask the qn.

Your last sentence again distorts the truth. Of course we agree that believing in absurdities can/could lead to atrocities. History clearly shows though that believing in Christianity (in particular) has resulted in far less atrocities that believing in atheism, and it has produced far greater 'good' - (again irrespective of any truth claim on it). That is precisely because it's overall message is far more moral, than immoral.

But anyway - Athiesm is NOT a Religion. LOL


Comment 13 (3659) by OJB on 2013-10-26 at 17:29:21:

I would say that the topic has drifted as a result of both of us pursuing slightly different areas of debate. That can be a problem but since we agreed on the original primary idea of the post (atheism isn't a religion) it might have got a bit boring otherwise!

As I said earlier, the truth of Christianity is a critical part of its moral relevance. If there really is a god and he created us and everything else some people would say he has the right to make the rules. If he doesn't exist at all then any moral rules attributed to him have no greater standing than any others.

I would say any belief system which has been around 2000 years and gets more split and in greater disagreement between its internal divisions rather than becoming more consolidated would cause a certain amount of suspicion, don't you think?

If you think I have made errors or unfair claims I would expect you to challenge them, just like I challenge your claims. That's what this discussion is about... well, that and scoring cheap points for my own amusement! :)

1. I believe I have said on many occasions that there is good morality in the Bible. I believe I have also said that treating the Bible as being fallible and being prepared to reject its bad rules is important. If you believe it's the word of God you can't really do that. I don't think that "not stealing" is a demonstrable objective moral truth. It (like everything) depends on the circumstances.

2. I have no problem with presenting and debating any view. It's when a group tries to impose is views through law, social pressure, and hate speech that I get concerned. Religion has a very bad history of this. Atheism hasn't.

Just an anecdotal view, not a statistical one, but when I see people objecting to same sex marriage and other similar issues they are almost always basing their views on a religious belief. They can't say why they object, just that "they are a Christian, so of course they object". I agree their are progressive Christians out there who are more tolerant but the moderate ones in some ways justify the extremists.

Christianity has resulted in far less atrocities than atheism? Really? What planet are you on? Do we have to start a list... really ... wow, I can't believe you said that.


Comment 14 (3661) by Richard on 2013-10-31 at 21:11:33:

Thanks Owen. Before I move on to comment on your 'Absurd' post, we need to finish this stream huh.

I understand (and agree in principle with) what you are saying in your 2nd paragraph regarding Christian truth and moral relevance, but with a few clarifications. IF 'God' exists, then by definition He (she/it?) absolutely has the right to make the rules - no question. That is the definition of a 'God' status. You might say that something other than God exists, that 'maybe' has some rights, but that's a far more tricky qn - could be hundreds of 'em! None are 'God' tho - they would all be something else. Hence the more obvious rejection of polytheistic religions.

You are absolutely right tho on the 2nd part - if NO god exists, then NO moral rules have any greater standing than any others (and that applies whether the rules are attributed to the non existent him/her/it or not). That was of course my point earlier - appreciate your honesty in agreeing.

Therefore quite clearly - under either your world view or mine there is no sound logical basis for any complaining about an 'Evil God'.

As mentioned earlier, this is your blog, so I quite understand and accept the desire and amusement from 'scoring cheap points'. As a theist of course, my morality won't allow me to do that sort of thing! - Ha ha! Please anyone don't take that seriously - and it's a bit of a shame I have to add that disclaimer. :-)

It is also a shame that I have to clarify every statement, i.e. you are not allowing for a bit of mutual trust and understanding in our discussion. Yes of course I get and agree that 'not stealing' is (of itself) objectively a moral absolute - like everything (including killing other human beings btw) is not always wrong. The commandment is 'Do not commit Murder', not 'Do not Kill', and the difference is obvious. The commandment regarding what we call 'stealing' actually uses the term 'coveting' - which leaves open those times when 'taking something from your neighbour', like a dangerous weapon when there is reasonable justification for believing they are about to use it for harm, IS perfectly moral. One good way to make the distinction is that all these 'negative' things are not moral to do 'just for fun or personal gain'. Applying that rule is very defendably the single overall message of the bible (purely wrt moral behaviour I mean).

This is also precisely what I mean when I claim that a thorough and careful reading of the Bible (with the inherent notion that it is intending to convey a single 'overall moral message'), helps to deal with verses that out of that context do cause you (and us all) legitimate concern. I do agree this is not always easy, but the concept here is not illogical, or unreasoned. In fact is it ONLY reasonable to apply this method of interpretation to any form of 'communication' from one intelligent mind to another (whatever the media). Whether the mind being referred to here is 'God' or that of the biblical writers, is not relevant to this particular point.

Given your acknowledgement of the truth regarding relative morality, I do not understand your claim to 'getting concerned' in Point 2. But read your statement carefully, and then examine the same sex marriage issue honestly (acknowledging that there are minority exceptions - on both sides) which group by and large is the one 'trying to impose it's own views thru law (you mean change the law), social pressure, and hate speech (against those of the opposing view)'.

As you correctly state, your next claim is not an argument born out by the stats - it is not fair to generalize and say just because (sadly) some religious people use only their religious belief as argument to oppose 'same sex marriage and other similar issues' that this is the basis used by all who oppose it. There are plenty of non religious people who oppose it too.

I (along with a huge number of others) do NOT oppose same sex marriage purely on the basis of religious belief - tho to deny that it plays a role would of course be dishonest. No, I oppose it because of an evidence based examination of the facts surrounding the idea of changing the law in this specific way. Of course, my religious beliefs line up with this evidence as would be expected if it were a sound view of reality. That evidence and reasoning is of course is a huge topic & not for this post, and as stated earlier I am happy to defend it, knowing already that this not not in line with popular (atheistic) thinking on the topic. Another blog item maybe?

What is interesting though, is that you seem to think that even IF it WAS true that ALL religious people DID object to this SOLEY on the basis of their religious belief - that this would invalidate their right to make a public declaration on the topic, and and deploy their 'democratic' vote on the topic! On what basis do you make a claim that religious people are somehow not eligible to participate in discussions and voting on issues of public law, yet atheists are somehow 'inherently eligible'?!

Don't think for a minute I am relying on that notion to give the 'conservative' viewpoint on this issue a 'leg to stand on' - as above I am happy to defend it without even invoking religion at all, but the point above still stands - whether you like it or not. As you said above, under your world view 'any moral rules have no greater standing than any others', and you have no basis to dismiss their right to participate in the 'public democracy'.

Yep I do stand by that last claim too, and again am happy to defend it - by all means make a list - another blog item? I think we have actually done that before too though? Surely you know this has been looked at by lots of independent researchers, who acknowledge that whether you are looking at wars, (some might call them atrocities, but imo not necessarily so) OR other types of atrocities, the percentage attributed directly to 'people influenced by theism' (yes they do exist in history) pale in comparison to those attributed to 'people influenced by the inherent conclusions of atheism'. Yes - it is a complex topic, and again there is room for lots of varied interpretations that alter the statistics a bit, but this still holds well in favour of theism. Funnily enough - it almost brings us back to the same point of this post - as it is likely you will claim, that because atheism is a 'non-belief' - it cannot be held responsible for any of the 'non-religious' atrocities. That line of thinking however is flawed.

Enjoyable discussion Owen - again this is your blog - I will leave you the last word, as this topic has indeed concluded. Cheers.


Comment 15 (3662) by Richard on 2013-10-31 at 21:13:57:

Sorry - one last thing - I had the words 'wink wink' directly after the 'Absurd' post line above - it was in angle brackets and got stripped out by the blog software. Was important to me that you know that this intended as humour. LOL


Comment 16 (3666) by OJB on 2013-11-02 at 09:55:35:

You think if god exists there is no question that he (I'll stick with the traditional pronoun) can make the moral rules. There is a problem with that. Saying that god has the right to make the moral rules is itself a moral rule. So you are saying the moral rules include the moral rule that the moral rules are true. Can you see the problem here? Even when you invent god as a source of rules you get back to the same old problem of there being no ultimate objective source, just like atheists.

The "scoring cheap points" thing was just me being smart (as you no doubt realise). I do enjoy debating, which includes winning points, but I would never want to win a point on a subject if I don't think that point is true (unless I was engaging in irony or sarcasm).

Regarding the exact meaning of the Commandments. Exodus 20:13 says "You shall not murder" in the NIV but "Thou shalt not kill" in the KJV. 15 is "You shall not steal" or "Thou shalt not steal". This doesn't seem to support your claims.

If you are reading the Bible with the thought that it contains a single underlying message then you are really just seeing what you want to see because no serious scholar thinks it has a single message (especially considering both Testaments).

Making a law which gives one group the privileges that other groups already have is not really imposing your views, it is undoing a previously held oppressive view.

It would be interesting to get some stats and history on the origin of general bias and laws against social issues of that type. Until we do it's just my anecdotes and general conclusions against yours. I would be interested to know what these "facts" which lead you to opposing the law actually are.

Religious people can get involved with any discussion they want but there opinions need to be treated with caution because they are based on fantasy, plus their religion tells them what they must believe. In many ways their opinions aren't worth much when this is taken into account - harsh, I know!

I have never said that all rules are equally moral, just that atheists say the source of morality is a social one (a source which actually exists) rather than supernatural (a pretend source).

I think I know the line of argument you are going to take regarding the atrocities attributed to religion versus atheism. Naturally, I think you are completely wrong, but there's no room here for that. As you said, maybe another blog post.


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