Is Atheism a Religion?
by Paul Hazelden


I have been thinking about this subject for a long time, but the program on Channel 4 on 18 December, The Trouble with Atheism, has finally prompted me to write.

The Positions

The positions people adopt on this subject are not always what you might expect.

Of course, in general, Christians and other believers see atheism as a religion - a slightly odd religion, but clearly a religion based on a massive leap of faith - while atheists tend to deny that it has any similarities to a religion at all.

However, other believers do not recognise atheism as a religion, and a surprising number of atheists are quite happy to describe their position as a religion, or at least, as 'religious in nature' or some such phrase. So the lines of argument here are not between the believer and the atheist, but between people with different understandings of the nature of religion and the nature of atheism. Which is what makes it interesting.

Yes, it is

Atheism is a belief-system dealing with matters of faith: it makes statements about supernatural realities, and affirms things as certain which can never be proved or demonstrated.

Even the dictionary definition makes it clear: atheism is the belief that God does not exist. It is every bit as much a step of faith as the believer's faith that God does not exist - in some ways, a much larger step, given that it is possible to talk about the evidence that could convince you of God's existence, while there is nothing that could begin to count as evidence for God's non-existence.

No, it's not

The atheists who reject the idea that atheism is (or is, at least, a key component of) a belief system will generally reject the idea of belief systems as a whole.

They tend to say things like: religion is founded on faith, while science is founded on fact and experimental evidence. They draw an absolute, and completely unfounded, division between the 'real' world of science and the 'imaginary' world of religion, or some other similar distinction.

Interestingly, for people who seem so committed to facts and evidence, they are always very happy to ignore the facts and the evidence which does not support their belief. If you point to scientists arguing with each other about their belief in some scientific principle or other, these people will say that these scientists are not behaving scientifically, and thus what they are doing does not count as science. So anything which would seem to be evidence against this position can be discounted... which is hardly a scientific way of winning an argument.

Moving Beyond

I have never known this argument achieve anything. Some people hold fast to the "Yes, it is" position, and some to the "No, it's not" position. They are so far apart in so many ways, it is hard to even talk to each other, let alone convince the other of the error of their ways.

But the truth is that both positions are too simplistic. While atheism is a faith position, the people who hold it do not, in general, feel or perceive this to be the case. And those who hold to the "No, it's not" position can only do so if they ignore the vast role played by faith, in many different ways, in the continuing development of science.

After all, people hold to a religion because they are convinced by the evidence for it, and they understand that the facts support their position. Nobody, of any religion, actually says "It must be true because I believe it to be true" - they always say: "I believe it to be true because the evidence has convinced me."

And people follow science because they believe it to be the best way of acheiving certain ends, and because they believe those ends to be good and worthwhile. I think, in general, they are right.

Both scientists and believers are engaged in a process of trying to make sense of the world around them. Both have a range of beliefs, from those they are very certain about (the things they will often say they 'know' to be true), through to those they think are, on balance, more likely to be true than not, but which they would not be at all surprised to discover are false after all.

You will find atheists at every point along this spectrum: from those who 'know' there is no God, through to those who think, on balance, that the evidence is against there being a God, but who are quite open to the possibility of new evidence swinging the balance of probability in the other direction.

Is atheism a religion? It seems reasonable to suggest that, for the atheists at the first of these extreme positions, it does function very much as a religion. But for the atheists at the other extreme, it is not.

I know this conclusion will upset most of the atheists who 'know' there is no God, but if a thing looks like a religion and tastes like a religion and acts like a religion, it probably doesn't matter too much what label you use. If a belief system you use to make sense of the world around you is not a religion, then neither are Buddism, Hinduism or Christianity.

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Copyright © 2008 Paul Hazelden was last updated 3 September 2008
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