Nobody’s angry at me and I’m bored. So here’s a controversial opinion: atheism is a religion.
I’ve been wanting to make this post for a long time. I hear almost daily all about how atheism is not a religion–it’s special, and unique, and boldly escapes categorization as an intellectual school. An atheist will tell you that “atheism” is not a philosophy, a set of beliefs, or an algorithm. Instead, it’s the absence of one; its adherents are those of us who’ve taken the proper-colored Matrix pill and concluded, a la Matthew Broderick, that the only way to win is not to play.
Actually, I think War Games makes a perfect metaphor. Back when I was an atheist, I would have been sympathetic to the supposition that religious people are playing a “game,” as it were, and I was on the sidelines. This wouldn’t have been an inherently negative view. If I knew any philosophy back then, I would have said people of different faiths are playing a type of tic-tac-toe in which their metaphysical, empirical, ontological, and teleological precepts are the respective X’s and O’s–and that rather than subscribing to different machinery (“W’s” rather than “O’s”), I chose not to play at all.
But atheists are wrong about this. The claim “atheism is not a religion” collapses when examined. For starters, most atheists don’t even care if it’s true or try to prove it. It’s mostly stated as a point of pride, along the lines of “Atheism is nothing like other religions.” But even that weaker claim isn’t true, as I’ll endeavor to show here. After the Averroes style, I’m going to argue against the “atheism is not a religion” thing on two fronts:
- If “atheism” as a concept isn’t sufficiently well-defined, then to say “atheism isn’t a religion” misunderstands what is meant by the phrase “X is/isn’t a Y” and can’t be evaluated via the predicate-in-subject principle. It would be comparing apples and oranges. But if atheism is sufficiently defined in a way that makes the statement true, then the statement is vacuous.
- Even if “atheism isn’t a religion” were true in the abstract, the thing most people mean when they say “atheism” is not “lack of belief in a deity or ordered universe” but “subscription to one of three particular philosophical schools shorthanded as ‘atheism,’ which provide principles regarding the order of the universe.”
Types of Things and the Predicate-in-Subject Principle
There are two kinds of philosophical questions: the ones that never get conclusively answered, and the ones that can be answered in tautologies.
This isn’t to say that tautologies are stupid. I find tautologies fascinating; I wrote my thesis on them. There’s a great quote–I can’t recall to whom I ought attribute it–that if four sets of three lions walked into the forest, and eleven lions walked out, then you shouldn’t enter the forest, and the tautology “four times three is twelve” is an important step in that argument.
It turns out that pretty much anything verifiable is a tautology, because of one of the major axioms of early modern philosophy: a claim is true iff the predicate is a property of the subject. As simple as it seems, this is actually making a fairly rigorous claim: if it can be verified that the thing said to be true of X is a property of X–a fact that would appear in a list of all facts about X–then voila, the claim is true. Now we have machinery for evaluating sentences. Tautologies like “All bachelors are unmarried” can be easily verified because the predicate is a property of the subject. Bachelors are definitionally unmarried, so the claim is true.
When we look at a claim like “Atheism is a religion,” we can evaluate it based on whether “is a religion” is a property of “atheism.” This is to say: is “religion” something that can be attributed to “atheism”? Consider the following example of a false claim:
“Atheism is a fruit.”
Being a fruit is pretty transparently not a property of atheism. Neither is fluffiness or three-sidedness. Wait–hold on–are these things properties of atheism? We need to define atheism first. According to Wikipedia, atheism is “in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.” It seems, then, that there is an argument that atheism is “three-sided”: it consists in “the broadest sense,” the “less broad” sense, and the narrowest sense.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the level of analysis that ought to go into verifying “X is/is not Y” claims in the form “Is Y something that can be said of X?” I will make the following claims:
- A bachelor is unmarried.
- Christianity is a religion. I say this because I know many things about Christianity; I can list these things as “attributes,” and a replacement of Christianity with the predicate “contains belief in a deity” matches the reduction of religion to “belief in a deity.”
- Skepticism is a philosophy. It makes claims about methodologies that should be used to evaluate the surrounding world (“retain doubt, suspend judgment”); this matches a definition of “philosophy.”
- Suspension of judgment is a doxastic attitude. This one’s obvious and definitional.
All right, how about this one:
5. Suspension of judgment is a judgment.
This seems true too. If I choose to suspend judgment, I am judging that my current informational state is insufficient; therefore Y is a predicate of X. But now I’ve blatantly cut my own legs off. It doesn’t make any sense to regard “suspense of judgment” as a judgment in the way we mean when we say “suspense of judgment.” It has become apparent that this entire exercise is meaningless. I have played the old switcheroo game and replaced concepts like “skepticism” and “suspense of judgment” with corollaries that are true in some sense, but not a doxastic sense. This is exactly what I think atheists are doing in claiming “atheism is not a religion” is true.
Think about it this way. “Suspension of judgment is a judgment” defeats the purpose of the subject. But then again, “suspension of judgment is not a judgment” makes equally little sense. The problem is that “suspension of judgment” in the subject refers to a doxastic attitude, and “judgment” in the predicate refers to a philosophical concept. This is the problem that “skepticism is a philosophy” has, and also the problem that “atheism isn’t a religion” has.
Attitudes are not philosophies, so “skepticism” parsed as an attitude is not a “philosophy.” But “Skepticism” can be parsed as a philosophy, in which case the claim is true. When atheists say “atheism is not a religion,” they refer to atheism as an attitude–not a school, not a philosophy, but a point of view from which to regard a precept held by certain schools and philosophies. And they’re right: “atheism,” parsed as an attitude, is not a “religion” because attitudes are not religions.
But that is a stupid reason for why atheism is not a religion. It’s a technicality. It belies the point atheists are trying to make when they say “Atheism is not a religion.” It’s a statement in the same spirit as “Bicycles are not a religion”–it isn’t worth saying aloud because it’s trivial. “Walking is not a fruit” is true, but it’s vacuous; it doesn’t have the same weight behind it as the claim “A tomato is not a fruit.” Similarly, the phrase “atheism isn’t a religion” can be evaluated as meaningfully true or false only if more is established about what, beyond a doxastic attitude toward one thing, atheism means.
I’ll go even further: “atheism isn’t a religion” is evaluable in a meaningful way only if enough is established about atheism that it might as well be a religion because it lacks the noncommittal propositional stance its proponents want.
Even if atheists are content with “Atheism is not a religion” being true only in that silly sense, I argue they should want more out of the term atheism.
Maybe atheists are fine, in theory, with “atheism” being restricted to the “attitude”-kind of thing I’ve described above. But “atheism” as an attitude is very, very weak. If atheism is merely a way to view one precept, it doesn’t deserve the kind of scholarly categorization it has. Atheists want to retain both the lack of positive content atheism possesses, and its prominent position in discourse. But this can’t be done. There are few books about skepticism (regarding one precept); there are a lot of books about Skepticism, or even “general skepticism” towards many or all precepts (because of a positive reason why not to believe said precepts). To regard those books as Skeptic requires that we accept “skepticism” as containing some content rather than a negation of one principle. I have never seen a book by any notable atheist that is entirely concerned with the lack of substance of atheism. A strengthening of the notion “atheism” will make it a more considerable concept in this regard, but a new problem arises here. The natural way of strengthening the subject “atheism” is by viewing it as a worldview rather than as a doxastic attitude. There are two ways to interpret this steelmanned “school of atheism”: either as a “religion”-type subject, or as a “philosophy”-type subject. Both of these strengthened notions of “atheism” make the statement “atheism is a religion” very compelling.
“Okay, okay,” says Alice the Atheist. “What if atheism is a set of doxastic attitudes toward many related principles? Then atheism still isn’t comparable to a religion, but it deserves mainstream coverage.”
How many principles, Alice? A philosophical school based solely upon the precept “Walking doesn’t exist” is no philosophical school at all, but adding both “Cars don’t exist” and “The RTA doesn’t exist” comes close to making a powerful positive claim: “The set of modes of transportation is restricted to running and biking.” Strengthening “There’s no higher power in the universe” to “There’s no general order to the universe” (which requires some additional negations) implies the corollary “There’s complete general disorder on Earth.”
Alice: “What if I just suspend judgment about those things? I believe there’s no general order, and I believe that we should suspend judgment about whether there’s complete general disorder on Earth.”
But Alice, “p implies q,” “not q” and “suspend judgment about p” cannot be held simultaneously. And if you’re about to tell me you don’t strongly believe “not q,” then why give the fact that you don’t believe something strongly so much airtime?
“Wait,” cries Alice the Atheist. “I’m fine with atheism being a doxastic attitude about only one claim.”
Okay, so atheism makes no positive claims? What about modern science? Most atheists are believers in the Inductive Method (asterisk about this below). It seems reasonable that they believe in scientific conclusions at least somewhat because of atheism. If “atheism” is a principle–a razor, if you will–used to justify belief in a positive claim of this sort, then it’s not a religion, but only for a dumb categorical reason.
“Tessa, that’s just because rational people tend to come to a set of true beliefs! Atheism isn’t a principle I use to justify my metaphysical claims!”
Are you trying to tell me that mainstream atheist philosophers believe in things like evolution, induction, and logical positivism for reasons completely unrelated to their atheism? I’ve heard defenses of this before and I think they’re self-defeating. The three modern “atheist” schools of reasoning make positive claims that are at least in part based upon their atheism. This is obviously true, because the existence of God is an alternate explanation of various real-world facts. A scientist seeking an explanation for real-world facts needs to discard the theories he finds implausible, and he needs a reason to discard them–some defense of why he finds them unlikely. Do you believe in evolution, Alice? Well, intelligent design is a rebuttal to evolution–the possibility of a different cause of observed phenomena. On what basis do you discard the theory of intelligent design, if not on the basis of your atheism? (Don’t even try to claim Occam’s Razor.) Atheists lean on their atheist precepts simply in order to defend their other beliefs. We now have two choices:
- Atheism is a principle used to defend (insert X philosophy here).
- Atheism is a school encompassing (insert X philosophy here).
Alice: “I’ll take 1; I’ll settle for ‘atheism is not a religion’ being true for a dumb reason, as long as it’s true at all. I’m fine with atheism being just one claim.”
But your contemporaries aren’t, Alice. This is where I talk about the Three Schools of Modern Atheism.
The Three Schools of Modern Atheism
This is the section in which I discuss what I see as an emphatic, trifold division in modern atheism. I’m going to skip a long intro about the Four Horsemen because, well, why.
Probably the most important atheist-qua-atheist on the planet is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent books The Selfish Gene, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality, and An Appetite for Wonder. The first school of what I term “atheism” is Dawkins’s brainchild. Essentially, Dawkins’s brand of atheism–the one I’m most amenable to–constitutes a profound respect for the natural order, physical laws, and the conclusions of modern science. Reality, Dawkins claims, is mystical in some sense, by sheer dint of being so remarkable. Dawkins indicates that the absence of God makes the existence of the beauty surrounding us even more important. He emphasizes that lack of belief in God should not motivate depression about the apparent lack of meaning in the universe, because the biological basis of life imbues it with a meaning just as sacred as if it were divine. At the risk of sounding trite, Dawkins’s view is not altogether dissimilar from the notion “God is science,” or, in particular, “God is the biological interactions in the universe.”
Okay. To be fair, I am giving Dawkins a very charitable, Catholic-Lite read here. But the point, I think, stands. If he would disagree with anything I’ve said about him, it’s in large part because I’ve used Christian language (but the context, I think, makes it forgivable). The general claim I am making is that Dawkins elevates the meaning contained within biological interactions to a realm which–to a religious observer–resembles our divine.
On the whole, I find this to be pretty healthy. It is a productive atheism–an atheism that motivates action, is clear about goals, and supports at least some framework of morality (the good of the gene [cf. Selfish Gene] or more generally of the species, perhaps, being the basis). But it is definitely a religion–a way of looking at the universe in which a certain force or property guides and reigns supreme.
The second school of “atheism” is “rationalism.” Out of the three, rationalism is the school I attribute most strongly with the now-ironically-outdated moniker “New Atheism” (which is what “cool kid atheism” was before it underwent this trifurcation). Eliezer Yudkowsky and Sam Harris come to mind. Dawkins is often (erroneously, in my opinion) affiliated with this school, but his is very different. Dawkins thinks the supreme force is biology. Rationalists think the supreme force is rationality, “science” (whatever that means), or sometimes psychology. Dawkins views himself as within a closed, operating system. Rationalists view the human brain–imbued with logic and philosophical precepts–as the system. Dawkins is on the outside, looking in; rationalists are on the inside, looking out. A Christian might say of a rationalist that his mind is his God.
Rationalism has some redeeming qualities, although I regard it with increasing distaste. I left the EA movement over what I perceived to be bizarre incongruities in its moral framework. I have known rationalists to make absurd, libertine moral claims of all sorts regarding the value of humans of various abilities, races, and genders. (To be fair, Dawkins does this too, but his reasons are different–he comes at it from a biological basis; his morality, though also wrong, is more consistent.) On the bright side, rationalism is action-oriented to a laudable extent (even if I find the actions chosen to be not the most useful ones). Still a religion, though.
The final school of “atheism” is the most dangerous. I call it Humeanism, which is a joke at the expense of Humanism and a reference to the school’s founder: David Hume, who rejected science, the Socratic method, and induction. Humeanism is Greek polytheism, on steroids, minus the gods: ATOMS CLASHING IN A VOID WITH NO DISCERNIBLE ORDER. Extremely Willem Dafoe voice: “CHAOS REIGNS!”
I don’t want to waste much time describing what I call Humeanism, because–thankfully–it is going out of style, and also because it is incomprehensible. It is heavily influenced by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and by Nietzsche. Plato wrote, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger”; a Humean might say, “Justice is whatever happens,” or perhaps “Justice will never be attained,” or maybe “Justice is a nonsense concept.”
I’m not actually sure Humeanism is a religion. The Void is God, sure, but while radical skepticism is a philosophy, it isn’t really a worldview. It buries its head in the sand and refuses to even evaluate the world. However, I don’t think any self-respecting atheists are Humeans, so I don’t have to prove it’s a religion to make my point.
The upshot, essentially, is that anyone who really thinks about being atheist–who identifies with being atheist in more than the casual way that would be better described as “agnosticism”–has to take one of the following options:
- Be a pariah in the literature by reducing atheism to “disbelief in God or gods,” in which case his atheism is truly not a religion, but also not anything worth writing home about. His atheism must be one single precept; he cannot expand it to any conclusions regarding “order” or “meaning,” affiliate with any of the schools referenced above, or acknowledge the existence of an “atheist movement.”
- Concede that atheism is a religion.
All right. The argument is now complete. I look forward to all the holes my one subscriber–here’s looking at you, beloved, proud Dawkinsian Mom–can poke in it.