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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

27 May 2011

Has Atheism Become a Religion? A Response to David Lose

 In short, no.

   Lose makes his non-argument (this is an oft-recycled canard more than anything else) based on what he considers four pieces of evidence. In the interest of fairness, we'll consider them.

As recently reported in the New York Times, military personnel who identify themselves as "Atheists" have requested chaplains to tend to their spiritual needs. 

   This is the only thing he states that makes me question, and it doesn't make me question long. Demanding equal representation under the law, even in the military, isn't the same thing as being religious. I do wonder what the 'spiritual needs' of other atheists might be, but this seems more a play to legitimize a position that isn't accepted in military doctrine than anything else.

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."

   Where else are we supposed to self-identify? The question deals with religious belief, and our lack of it. I'm not going to write 'atheist' under my profession, age, or other demographic questions. As Lose grants, this is also one of the options listed under the 'none' response. So you ask religion, we say we have none, we're atheist, and you say we're religious? Spectacular reasoning there.

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.

      Vocally speaking out for rational thought, and aligning it against magical thinking, doesn't make rational thought a religion. It's offering an alternative to that religion. Some that espouse secular humanism couple that with a set of what they consider core values, but having an ethical philosophy is likewise not a religion. If you take the magical thought out of, say, Buddhism, you're left with something that still isn't religious despite it's roots. We'll get to why shortly.

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.

    Yes, we certainly have something to prove, in the sense that we're a denigrated minority in much of the world, as well as a minority that has been expected to sit quietly and pretend that we don't exist. The assertion that being assertive in an us-against-them fashion is a feature of new religions ignores that it is also a feature of civil rights movements and tribalism in general. We're loud and resistant to religious thought because that religious thought is an all pervasive feature of the societies in which we live, and often based solely in one religion. Thus we speak not only for ourselves, but for the numerous religious minorities that also don't want your faith installed as an official part of public life. Granted, those minorities may want their faith installed instead, but seeing to it that all are excluded levels the playing field.

    To advance an argument of my own, atheism isn't a religion because it lacks certain features that are essential to religion: ritual, a dogmatic creed, and faith. Lose grants the first two points, and then attempts to explain why atheists have a faith of their own:
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.

    Mr. Lose seems to think that requiring evidence that there is something beyond what our physical senses can detect, even when extended by instrumentation, requires faith. Yet this is the exact opposite. We're not stating a positive belief that there is nothing beyond our physical world, we're stating that you have no convincing evidence to the contrary. 

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.

     So you're arguing that atheism involves faith because atheistic faith involves constructing an interpretation of life and values? Beyond the obvious circularity of that argument, it is possible to construct values and a view of life of components that are evidence-based, and therefore not rooted in faith.

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.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.

  Ahhh... the actual point of your article. Lose wants us to have more respect for religious ideas because we share some of the features (according to him). Well, my arguments on this blog share features with Lose's argument; both arguments are constructed of words in the English language, for example, and both will be openly available on the internet. This doesn't suggest that I should respect an argument made without a shred of credible evidence simply because it has things in common with mine. Religious thought is indeed thought, it simply lacks a basis in reality, but it is the differences between that thought and secular, rational reasoning that create the disparity, not the similarities. I'm sorry, David Lose, but if this is the best you can come up with, then I'm not buying either of your arguments, or the final one from consequence. Your article is tone-trolling at it's best, and if your main concern is that we're not being respectful of your beliefs rather than your inability to justify them rationally, then you've completely missed the point.


  1. Is atheism a religion? Well, of course not, as it lacks anything resembling a common code or common aspirations among its "adherents." (As an aside, PZ Myers keeps making the spectacularly stupid assertion that atheism requires something other than disbelief in gods, saying that he "hates" these "dictionary atheists" like me for pointing out that other people don't know a thing about you as an atheist besides that you don't rate the probability of gods very highly.)

    But what I find a much more interesting question is this: is science a religion? This is not, lest you blanch in terror, a question about the validity of its methods, conclusions, accuracy, or utility. It is, however, an observation that science does, in fact, have rituals, folklore, and an overall culture of belief and identification that in many ways appears to align closely with the structure of traditional religions.


  2. The initial portion of my discussion, post cringe, would be to ask to what rituals and folklore you are referring? There is to some degree a common culture, and a presupposition of materialist/naturalistic worldview that is necessary for something to be labeled as 'science', or at least a reliance upon material evidence. This, in fact, renders my first argument against considering science a religion: there is no element of the supernatural, no 'faith', involved. I would argue that this is a key element of something being a religion rather than better termed a 'belief system' (or some other variant on epistemology if you choose). I also anticipate that you have a canned answer to that particular argument, so I'll await it.