Is Atheism a Religion?
Penn Jillette is famous for saying, “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.” Now there is an obvious difficulty involved here, in that this statement identifies religion with belief in God. Buddhists, for example, are, strictly speaking, atheists, but they are nevertheless part of a religion.
This gets down to the whole issue of what constitutes a religion.
On one account, religion indicates aspects of aspects of reality which are supernatural. But what does “supernatural” mean? The natural sciences operate and understand the world from the perspective of prediction and control. We are going to study the world from the standpoint of what will be helpful to us from the perspective of prediction and control. Religions, we might argue, appeal to the existence of things we can’t predict and control, and if you don’t think anything like that exists, then you are without religion. So believing in a law of karma, which is impersonal but nevertheless won’t be discovered by science, is something religious, as is belief in a cycle of birth and rebirth, which looks like something science won’t find. Something might be called supernatural if it is something we won’t find if we restrict our investigation of the world to finding those aspects of it we can predict and control.
At the same time, it is probably the case that a Buddhist would not divide natural and supernatural in this way.
As one Buddhist source writes:
A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the law of Karma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on him for his own emancipation. Instead of making any self-surrender, or calling on any supernatural agency, he relies on his own will power, and works incessantly for the well-being and happiness of all. This belief in Karma validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasm, because it teaches individual responsibility.
However, the sciences do not confirm the existence of a law of Karma, and the world as it appears to us suggests that there is no karma.
Another problem with the Jillette’s statement is that when we cease collecting stamps, there is no other occupant of that role that needs to replace it. In the case of religion, not so. Some answer to the fundamental questions that religions attempt to answer must be put in its place. If one becomes vegetarian, we have ask what replaces meat in a person’s diet.
However, religion has another sense. In our society we have immunized religion from coercive operations of government. The idea behind this is that people are bound to differ about ultimate reality, and we need to allow people who differ about ultimate reality to operate freely, since society is not going to agree about these things. If this is the context in which we are asking this question, then all comprehensive perspectives on ultimate reality are religions.
Religions are there to ask three fundamental questions indicated by Immanuel Kant: What can I know? What must I do? What can I hope?
Let’s look at evangelical Christianity’s answer to these questions. What do I know? I know that God has a plan for my life, that I am a sinner, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus died for my sins, that I must receive Christ in order to be saved.
What must I do? I must receive Christ as my personal savior, I must obey his commandments, and engage in public worship, prayer, and Bible study.
What can I hope? I can hope for everlasting communion with God through Christ.
Buddhism? I know that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that if craving is stopped the suffering is stopped, and that I can stop my craving by following the noble eightfold path. That tells us what I must do, but there are a number of other ethical requirements as well. I can hope enlightenment, and a cessation of the cycle of samsara, or the cycle of birth and rebirth.
What if I am a naturalistic atheist? What can I know? I might claim to know that God does not exist. But what else do I know? Atheists are bound to differ on the other stuff. Once God is denied, there are several ways to go not only with respect to what else is true, but also with respect to what we should do and what we can hope. But theists . Neither theism nor atheism are religions on this view, since both it answers only one of the ultimate questions. If we go theist, then there are some options: Judaism (several versions), Christianity (several versions) and Islam (several versions), Deism (different versions there), etc.
If we go atheist, then there are a bunch of options also.
Buddhism is not about either believing or not believing in God or gods. Rather, the historical Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment. In other words, God is unnecessary in Buddhism. For this reason, Buddhism is more accurately called nontheistic than atheistic. But it is an alternative available to atheists.
Existentialism is generally an atheistic philosophy though some theists have attempted to adopt it into their individual theistic paradigms. “Although many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, [Søren] Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.
Existentialism, for most of its adherents, can be understood as atheistic. In order to see this, it helps to look at the philosophy of existentialism as it contrasts with that of theism. Theists generally believe in an ultimate transcendent reality. Existentialists believe each person’s experience is unique and truly known only by that person. In other words, theists point to an objective reality, while existentialists see only a subjective one.
There is no truth about what we ought to do, and no purpose for human existence. We must find meaning wherever we can, and there are no right answers.
Albert Camus, a existentialist novelist, offers three responses to the absurdity of human life. First, one can commit suicide. As he puts it, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3). The second option, reflected by his character Rieux in The Plague, is to fight for humanity as best one can even though there is no conviction that ultimate success is even attainable. The third, adopted by the title character of his play Caligula, is to take whatever benefits are available for oneself, since the absurdity of life will triumph in the end.
Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors reflects an existentialist form of atheism. In that movie, and ophthalmologist is involved in an extramarital affair and wants to end it, but his mistress threatens him with exposure if he tries to end the affair. Son he contacts his mobster brother and has her murdered. He is at first stricken with shame and talks to his rabbi about confessing, but in the end he concludes that God is a luxury he can’t afford and stops feeling guilty. From an atheistic perspective there is no advantage to doing the right thing and confessing, and leaving the crime under the rug.
Religious beliefs are false, and these beliefs are used by defenders of counter-revolutionary ideologies as a basis for keeping people away from serious efforts to improve their condition. The inevitable dialectic of history is headed toward a classless and stateless society, but religion stands in the way.
In a way, this reconstitutes religion-like doctrines of a glorious future, although the individual will cease to exist before it is ushered in.
Atheist communist regimes have been guilty of mass murder, of religious suppression, and unjustly creating an oligarch of members of the Party. What began as a combination of secularism with a strong motive to help the oppressed workers ended up creating one of the movements in history that has done the most damage. Its death toll dwarfs the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials by an enormous margin.
The belief that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God.
Secular humanism is comprehensive, touching every aspect of life including issues of values, meaning, and identity. Thus it is broader than atheism, which concerns only the nonexistence of god or the supernatural. Important as that may be, there’s a lot more to life … and secular humanism addresses it.
Secular humanism is nonreligious, espousing no belief in a realm or beings imagined to transcend ordinary experience.
Secular humanism is a lifestance, or what Council for Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz has termed a eupraxsophy: a body of principles suitable for orienting a complete human life. As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.
Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person's rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.