Friday, May 27, 2011

Once Again...Atheism is Not a Religion

David Lose*, in his post Has Atheism Become a Religion? makes several points to try and establish atheism as a religion. Obviously I disagree.

First let’s define religion:

-a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (Random House Dictionary)

-belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny. (World English Dictionary)

OK. Here’s the article in bold quote blocks and my responses in normal font.

Before you dismiss the question out of hand (too late, but let’s go through the motions), consider these four inter-related bits of evidence:

1) As recently reported in the New York Times, military personnel who identify themselves as "Atheists" have requested chaplains to tend to their spiritual needs. As the Times article notes, "Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military." Having their own chaplains, the article explains, would give Atheists a sense of legitimacy and help validate their own system of values and beliefs.

Military Chaplains for atheists.

Lose either failed to read, misread, or misrepresented the NYT article regarding “atheist chaplains” that he cites. He also fails to realize the often extreme and constant discrimination that atheist and non-religious service members face. This is even discussed in the NYT article. The request for secular chaplains (I agree it is an oxymoron) is one of necessity due to the overwhelming Christian evangelizing within the U.S. military. Non-believers are considered spiritually unfit and in many cases this has resulted in their careers being adversely affected. They need a buffer and an advocate between them and the religious majority which are usually their superiors. An “atheist” chaplaincy is a necessary evil due to the current system (which is unconstitutional) that the military uses to provide support for the troops. There is no other mechanism within the military and its (flawed) system to organize meetings and support groups which provide a haven for non-believers. Addtionally, within the military if a service member  needs to discuss something that is personally affecting them with mental health professionals it is not protected or confidential as it is for the general public. Chaplains, in most instances, are the only recourse for those that need to talk, but are worried about repurcusisons. This works great for any of the 130+ recognized religious affilations. Where can non-believing servicemen and servicewoman turn?

2) The U.S. Government reports that in 2008 those identifying themselves specifically as "Atheist" composed the 18th largest group of 43 possible categories of "self-described religious identification." The number of persons so identifying themselves almost doubled from seven years earlier. Admittedly, "Atheist" is one of the options listed under "no religion specified," but given that other options for respondents included checking "Agnostic" or "No Religion" or not answering the question at all, it appears that identifying oneself specifically as an Atheist, as opposed to simply "not religious," is growing in appeal. This points to the utility of a distinction made by Jonathan Lanman between "non-theists," those with no particular religious belief, and "strong atheists," those who view religion not only as irrelevant but as misguided and dangerous.

Population statistics. Admittedly I don’t get his point here. Atheists have jumped in population from 2001 to 2008. OK. People are growing more comfortable with “coming out.” Lose makes a point of saying people that checked “atheist” could have just as easily checked “no religion.“ So what?  The term “atheist” is losing the negative connotations it once had. This has NOTHING to do with religion. It is bureaucratic government census data and therefore has to lump atheists, agnostics and no religions into the survey somehow.

3) Similarly, it's worth noting the degree to which Atheists routinely, strategically, and often vociferously position what is often described as their "secular-humanist" views against religious traditions. Read or listen to any of the celebrity Atheists of the past decade like Richard Dawkins,Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris and you realize that they fashion many of their arguments not against some alternative economic, political, or philosophical position but against organized religion. Religious faith is clearly their primary opponent in the contest for the intellectual allegiance of the population, which makes it hard not to conclude that they offer their views and beliefs as a viable alternative to traditional religious systems.

Anti-religious/antitheist stances of atheists.

Lose states: “Read or listen to any of the celebrity Atheists of the past decade like Richard Dawkins,Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris and you realize that they fashion many of their arguments not against some alternative economic, political, or philosophical position but against organized religion.”

Really? I can’t understand why people that oppose religion and its institution's wouldn't spend their time invalidating Market Socialist economies or Post-Structuralist philosophy.


Lose is being intellectually dishonest here. He doesn't want to introduce the idea that religion—in particular HIS religion of Christianity—is a very powerful majority in the world and here in America. While growing, atheists and non-believers are still a minority and distrusted (hated?) more than any other group. When we have public “debates“ on the merits of evolution vs. creationism in public schools, anti-science campaigns, anti-women’s rights, anti-LGBT rights, flimsy walls of separation of church and state, religious discrimination, etc. all based on religious ideals—what do you expect? I can’t speak for all atheists, but my problems with religion are largely due to its adherent's insane refusal to recognize objective reality and attempt to inflict their ancient, warped interpretations on everyone. My opinion that religion is false is irrelevant in a society with supposed religious freedoms. That freedom of religion—and in our case freedom from religion—is constantly under threat from fundamentalists and politicians who want a theocracy. Many theists should thank us. We protect them and they don’t even realize it.  

4) Finally -- and you probably knew this was coming -- consider all the comments made by self-identified Atheists on articles published in the Religion section of the Huffington Post. Seriously. Either Atheists have way more time on their hands than the rest of the population or they've got something to prove. This assertive, us-against-them tone (in this case, against established religion) is characteristic of new religions. (Think of the Christian gospels', especially Matthew and John, stance toward first-century Judaism, for example.) As Rabbi David Wolpe observed a few months ago, there is an astonishing garrulousness to the comments made by Atheists to posts about religion that suggest not simply a lack of interest in, or even disdain for, religion but a competitive anger directed against persons of traditional religious faith. (Obviously plenty of religious folk radiate the same garrulousness, but this post is about Atheists.)

The “Angry Atheist” argument. Yes, Mr. Lose I did see this coming. It’s old hat. Yes, there are nasty atheists out there. As Lose admits that there are plenty of nasty theists out there. So what’s your point? As someone who was Christian and is now an atheist I would say atheists can be snarky and downright mean bastards. However, you can save the truly hateful vitriol for the believers once you deny their faith or clash with their scriptures. I have never seen an atheist threaten someone online. That happens all the time from the other side. Oh and there is the whole hellfire thing. You do realize that Hell is a violent threat, yeah?

Again, in many ways it is “us vs. them.” As with my argument above the religious majority uses its numbers, influence and power to instill their belief(s) on everyone. If you disagree or “god” forbid refute something they claim then you are automatically labeled “angry”, “disrespectful,” and “hateful.” Religion is untouchable. Don’t you DARE criticize it!

Spirituality, religion, faith.

It’s like theists use certain buzz words to either push our buttons or because that is the only way they can frame the argument due to their spirituality, religion, and faith.

Taken together, these four elements suggest that Atheists regularly demonstrate attributes -- desire for spiritual sustenance, the importance of self-identification, offering their worldview as an alternative to other religious systems, and an assertive if not competitive style of engagement with other religious points of view -- usually exhibited by religious folk of all persuasions.

In no way does this define a religion. Even if the chaplaincy was a “desire for spiritual sustenance” (which it is not); spirituality is not equivalent to religion. In a modern sense it doesn’t even necessarily invoke the supernatural.

While Atheism as a movement doesn't have the formal structure, celebrations, or creedal dogmas of organized religions, we might at least identify Atheism as it exists today as an increasingly vibrant faith tradition. Still, when speaking of Atheists, why use the f-word (for "faith," silly) rather than speak of a worldview or personal philosophy? Three reasons suggest themselves.

So Lose concedes that atheism isn’t necessarily an organized religion (how magnanimous) he then drops the f-word: fucking “faith .“ In my opinion it is the most detestable concept there is. Without it, there would be no religion. He actually says atheists have a “vibrant faith tradition.” FFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU.

1) It conveys that both a conventional religious worldview and atheistic worldview require a measure of faith. I don't mean this simply about the rather limited question of whether God exists, but rather about whether the material, physical dimension of life immediately apparent to our senses is all there is. The question can't be reduced, as Atheists regularly have, to observing that there are many beliefs -- in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus as well as God -- that can't be proved and must be taken on faith, but rather to ask whether there is a dimension of existence that supersedes or eludes our physical senses. Ultimately, any speech about God implies such a dimension that conversation about the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus do not.

I really hate it when theists put the existence of a deity and the non-existence of deity on the table and say each has equal footing. They do not. There is no objective reason to believe in the existence of the supernatural. You have to have faith that it exists. Actually, first you have to be told that the deity exists, usually in childhood when you are highly susceptible to suggestion in your world building. These are two diametrically opposed starting points. I don’t need faith to tell me that it is highly unlikely that any deity, let alone YHWH, exists. I have no reason to believe it. The theists can claim all they want that it takes faith not to believe, but that is an artifact of their subjective claims. They cannot imagine the universe without a deity so they cannot understand our rejection of the concept. They label this rejection as “faith” so they can go about their lives thinking, yet again, that they have the correct “faith.” No one else could possibly operate without “faith!”

2) Religious faith -- and I'd argue atheistic faith -- doesn't begin and end with the question of God or a spiritual dimension to life. One needs also to construct an interpretation of life (describing its purpose, goal, worth) and set of values by which to live that life. Ethics and values are not self-evident from religious creeds -- witness, for instance, the distinct values of the varieties of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that run the gamut from liberal to fundamentalist. Similarly, there is no self-evident value system shared by Atheists and projecting such a system requires imagination, critical reflection and, yes, faith.

lol wut?

Lose has it right when he says “Ethics and values are not self-evident from religious creeds...” The rest of this is just....words. No there is no “self-evident value system shared by Atheists.” I do not see how faith plays into this at all.  

Third, characterizing both organized religion and emergent Atheism as distinct faith traditions invites a measure of mutual regard and even respect that is sorely lacking in present discourse. Professing belief in God, as well as rejecting such belief, each requires equal measures of imagination and nerve. As it turns out, doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is. For this reason, we can hold out the hope that religious and non-religious believers alike may recognize in each other similar acts of courage and together reject the cowardice of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular. Being able to disagree respectfully is a small but significant step that believers and non-believers could take as they, together, contemplate admiring, understanding, and preserving this wondrous world we share.

It does not take an equal measure of imagination and nerve to reject God. All it takes is to say “Ah fuck it. I see no reason to belief in any of it.” OK that is somewhat glib. It takes reflection and critical thought to get there, but in essence...yeah...I think that is it.  You can take all the arguments about the possibility of a deity, the morality of a deity, the power of a deity and put them aside. They are valid points, but ultimately I think there is simply no reason to believe in any of it.

Side note on fundamentalist secularism...or atheism which is what he wants to say. I discussed this in a previous post from about a month ago: Thought Experiment: Fundamentalist Atheism**. It is improbable if not impossible. See the post if you are interested, but the gist of it was this: “What claim could an atheist make that is based on observable, quantifiable evidence and would fly in the face of reason? What would be ‘crazy?’"  Nothing. At least I can’t think of anything.

Once again, theists frame things in ways they can understand. They understand fundamentalism so they assign something as threatening as that to certain atheists (antitheists) in order to belittle and dismiss them. It doesn’t work.

OK, back to the article: Lose wants to call atheism a faith tradition so atheists and theists can establish a dialogue? I do not understand why that is necessary, but I digress. At no point in the above article does Lose establish atheism as a religion. He gives very poor justifications for atheism as a “faith tradition” and his four points are barely classified as tenuous and easily refuted. I always find it funny and odd that believers feel the need to assign atheists as a religion. In one this site’s first posts called Atheism is Not a Religion** I wrote:

One of the most intellectually lazy arguments that theists and religionists have while attacking atheism is to assign it some religious status. As if making atheism a religion would somehow repulse non-believers, imply its ridiculousness and that it would magically illuminate flawed views. Aside from the fact that atheism—by definition—rejects the central theistic assertion (god) and therefore rejects worship of a god or gods (religion); this argument is proof that their logic center is broken.  In order to make this argument one would have to either a) not believe anything they are saying which implies intellectual dishonesty or b) be so deluded as to not realize that this line of reasoning is inherently flawed.

Yep. I think that fits here as well.

*I broke down one of David Lose’s articles before concerning Rob Bell in The Catch-22 of Hell.

**I am not intentionally trying to “pimp” my old posts, but as I was dissecting this article I realized David Lose just trots out the same tired points that I have touched on earlier. After awhile the arguments get repetitive.