Friday, January 14, 2011
Atheism is a Religion - No, Really!
Perhaps over the past few weeks you’ve seen news reports concerning the billboard posted by atheists in New Jersey telling everybody “You KNOW it’s a myth” and featuring a traditional Nativity scene.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s a copy:
Look, if you think that atheism is actually a viable world view and is true, feel free to believe whatever you want. Quod volumus facile credimus. But the irony here is palpable. Atheists have told me they don’t like religious people disparaging them for their atheism. I’m willing to bet that atheists in New Jersey feel the same way, so what makes them think they have a right to disparage religious people for not being atheists? And, clearly, their tone here is derisive. Posting their derision on a billboard is sheer hypocrisy, to say the very least. Had some sect of New Jersey Christians bothered to post a billboard reading “Atheists are in for a big surprise once they go to Hell,” I little doubt the Jersey atheists would rise up in a snit fit the likes of which haven’t been seen since Chris Matthews was asked by Michelle Bachman after the 2010 elections if he could still feel the tingle up his leg.
Worse yet is their addendum: “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” Their train of thought seems to be: We atheists, who are certain that the Nativity is a myth, have reason on our side, so those who celebrate the myth must do so for some reason other than reason, and that reason is faith. Further, reason is reliable and therefore truth, while faith is a mere illusion. Since truth is superior to illusion, we who are reasonable would do well to shock the faith-holders out of their illusory state by posting a billboard reminding them that not only is their cherished Nativity a myth, but that they really KNOW it’s a myth as well. While they may take such a declaration as an insult to their religion, it’s not, because religion is faith and faith is illusion, and so it’s impossible to insult an illusion. In fact, we’re actually doing them a FAVOR, the poor, misguided, unreasonable myth-holders, by reminding them of the error of their ways and inviting them to join us over here under the warm, convivial light of reason.
Then there’s the utterly laughable slogan at the end: “American Atheists. Reasonable since 1963.” Reasonable? Wanna bet?
Now that’s the sort of pinheaded sophistry that really raises my dander, so I penned a quick letter to the editor of my local newspaper, which was published on December 17th. If you care to read it, here’s the link:
Mind you, my local paper prescribes a limit of 250 words for letters to the editor, so I had a lot to say with very little room to say it. Fortunately, I impose no such limitation on my blog, hence this post; my intention is to explain in further detail just what’s so wrong with the billboard in Jersey, as well as to expound a bit on my contention that atheism is a religion.
First, ignoring for the moment what atheists know we know, is the Nativity really a myth? My handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary defines a myth as: “A traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world.” Though I’m hardly one to ascribe supreme definitional authority to a mere dictionary, this definition seems to encapsulate most of the right elements. Applying the definition to the Nativity, however, is not quite so cut and dried—certainly, over the past two millennia, the story of the Nativity has worked its way into tradition; and there are putatively supernatural beings involved in the tale (the angels who herald the birth of the Savior to the shepherds, as well as God, who impregnated the Virgin Mary). However, the story itself is part of tradition not simply because it has been told over and over again, but because it is believed to be true, an actual event that occurred in an actual city (Bethlehem), in actual recorded history (due to an error when the Gregorian calendar was made, Christ is believed to have been born in 4 B.C.), and was witnessed by actual people (one Joseph of Nazareth and his betrothed, as well as wise men from the East, and any number of awed shepherds). Further, the personage of Christ is well attested in historical documents, which implies the simple intuition: if he lived, and if he was human, he must have been born sometime, so the when of it all doesn’t matter.
But even if the Nativity were a myth, that’s still not to say that it’s untrue, because truth or falseness is not a defining characteristic. It’s a common misconception that a myth must by definition be untrue, though this seems to be what the Jersey atheists have in mind. However, to equate a myth with falsehood is an oversimplification. Many myths are untrue, but not all. The real question is: Did the events as ascribed to the Nativity actually take place? This implies a further question: What aspects of the Nativity are known to be true and which are known to be false?
So, let’s run down the checklist: Was there a Bethlehem in 4 BC? Yup. Was it part of the Roman Empire? Also yup. Did the Empire have an emperor, and was he called Caesar? Yup as well. And did he issue a decree that every man return to the city of his birth so he could be taxed? Another yup. These are all events and personages which can be historically verified.
However, there are a number of particulars that can’t be verified in this manner, nor than they be refuted. Our only recourse here is to identify which particulars are at least plausible. We can easily presume that in those days, babies were born in stables all the time; further, there must have been plenty of Josephs and Marys hobbling to and fro, so the Nativity can’t be considered a myth on that account.
The only events which can be argued as implausible are the ones involving the supernatural aspects of the story, but even if their implausibility can be agreed to (and, by the way, they can’t, because some people do not consider an event implausible merely because it can be cast as supernatural), this hardly means they can be considered impossible, and there is no means at our disposal for disproving them. Did a host of angels actually appear before a shocked assemblage of shepherds and begin singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo?” Was Mary really impregnated by the Almighty, and was she really a virgin when she gave birth to Christ? Did an angel speak to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take his wife and newborn son to Egypt? The simple fact is, there’s no way to answer this question definitively, either yea or nay. Both the yea as well as the nay are answers that must be taken on faith. So, unless our atheist pals in New Jersey are in possession of a time machine and have traveled back to 4 B.C. Bethlehem to lay witness to the veracity of the tale, they’re in no better position than any of us to say what’s what.
As for what atheists know about what we know: Just who are they kidding? As I stated in my letter to the editor, the Jersey atheists must possess some special clairvoyance, one that the rest of us don’t have. It must be nice, knowing what other folks “really” believe, that all of Christendom is nothing more than a bevy of chuckleheads laying claim to what they know is a lie. I wonder, if I try really, REALLY hard, I might be able to develop the kind of clairvoyance that Jersey atheists possess.
Let me give it a try: Umm… atheists are… a bunch of nincompoops so fearful of the reality of God that they claim He doesn’t exist EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW HE DOES, and, despite the fact that they are clearly in the minority in their claim (some 90% of people across the globe believe in God, or a god, or gods, or some other higher power), they’re so oblivious to their idiocy they feel compelled to make idiots out of the rest of us as well. Wow! This clairvoyance stuff is DA BOMB!
Obviously, I’m being a wee bit sarcastic here, but it’s to make a greater point: Atheists do not have a monopoly on reason, neither are they immune from making irrational claims. Further, posting their irrational claims on billboards merely displays (at best) hypocrisy or (at worst) sheer foolishness, and thus cannot exactly be construed as reason-in-action. So their advice “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” merely warrants the reply: “Hey, atheists! You first!”
But forget monopolies on reason, because, as I said in my letter, atheism is fundamentally a contradiction, the antithesis of reason. Anytime I’ve ever talked with an atheist about why he says there’s no God, the answer invariably alludes to an objection about God’s nature rather than his entelechy. God doesn’t exist, so says the atheist, because He is: uncaring, because He fails to intervene in moments of human suffering; or incompetent, because He tells His chosen people at one moment “Thou shalt not kill” and then sends them off to slaughter the Philistines the next; or stupid, because every living being He ever created has died or will die (this last objection comes from George Carlin, who was not so much an atheist as merely an unbelievably bad comedian, which, one may argue, all atheists are at heart).
Yet to examine these claims with even minimal scrutiny brings a glaring contradiction to the fore:
• God isn’t, because He is (uncaring)
• God isn’t, because He is (incompetent)
• God isn’t, because He is (stupid)
It’s a contradiction because in order to be uncaring, to be incompetent, or to be stupid, first one has TO BE. The claim therefore presumes God’s existence in attempting to deny God’s existence, so whatever objection the atheist cares to offer is in most cases simply a slightly refined way of saying “God isn’t, because He is”, or, as I put it in my letter, “God doesn’t exist because He could do a better job at being God.” At best, it is an objection to God’s character. It fails to demonstrate that God does not exist because it doesn’t even address the topic at hand, namely the ontological question of whether or not there’s a God to HAVE a character in the first place.
Now it’s certainly possible to live one’s life despite a glaring contradiction in one’s world view. People do this all the time. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, one of this nation’s founding fathers, and an outspoken proponent of democracy and libertarian government, was also a slave owner. And the atheist George Bernard Shaw once famously defended his vegetarian lifestyle by saying: “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends!” All well and good, I suppose, but I really have to wonder what that implied about what he DID eat. Were vegetables his enemies? And what exactly did they do to piss him off so?
But a contradiction is one thing; atheists wrapping it in the cloak of reason and pawning it off to the rest of us as the One True Way is downright farcical. Celebrating REASON since 1963? To this, let me proffer a short response, followed by a longer one:
Short response: Ah-Hahahahahahahaha!!!
Longer response: I’ve pointed out the contradictory foundation of atheism to as many atheists as I meet, but more often than not the only response I ever get, if I get a response at all, is an erudite “Nuh-UH!” without any qualification as to why they’re right and I’m wrong. This should hardly be surprising: Having lied to himself about the reality of God, the atheist compounds the lie by lying to himself about the contradiction barking at him at the base of his philosophy, and so despite my claim tells himself that atheism is nonetheless reasonable, and so that therefore there must be something wrong with my argument, even though what exactly is wrong with it never seems to come to mind. In other words, the atheist takes it on faith that his philosophy is on sound footing, despite my objections.
And faith is supposedly a characteristic of…? Anyone, class? Bueller? Bueller? I’ll give you the same hint they get on “Wheel of Fortune”—R, S, T, L, N, and one vowel, E:
R E L _ _ _ _ N
That’s right: religion. And that’s because—all together now—ATHEISM IS A RELIGION!
Now, this too is something the atheist vehemently denies, in the same sort of snit-fest as from the aforementioned Chris Matthews, but I’ve yet to meet an atheist who states his denial in the form of a cogent, rational chain of thought. More often the atheist responds with some blunt bit of sophistry claimed as fact, without any supporting argumentation as to why the claim should be believed.
For example, I recall a blog post in which an atheist claimed: “Atheism is not a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is not a hobby.” This was his entire argument, verbatim.
And mere sophistry. It makes for a good sound bite, I suppose, but immediately begins to unravel upon examination. Allow me to demonstrate. We can’t really say that not collecting stamps is not a hobby; it is merely the opposite of collecting stamps, which IS a hobby but is not the ONLY hobby. “Collecting stamps” is not a synonym for “hobby” but only an example of it, a subset within a larger semantic field. If not collecting stamps is not a hobby, what does that imply about, say, collecting coins? Collecting coins is ALSO not collecting stamps. And if not collecting stamps is not a hobby, and collecting coins is not collecting stamps, are we then to claim that collecting coins is therefore not a hobby?
The claim fails in this way:
1. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby.
2. To collect coins is also not to collect stamps.
3. By substitution, collecting coins is not a hobby.
4. But collecting coins IS a hobby.
We can easily understand, then, ceterus paribus, why the comparison with atheism falls apart: atheism is not the opposite of religion; it is merely a world view that attempts to answer religious questions in a way that is contrary to that of most other religious viewpoints. Atheism is the antithesis of theism; theism is a word that bears a relationship with religion but is not synonymous with religion, in exactly the same way that not collecting stamps is not synonymous with hobbies but only an example of one. So, atheism might still be a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps might still be a hobby.
A further example comes from Steve, one of my dearest friends in all the world—and best man at my wedding. After reading my letter, Steve posted this curt reply on my Facebook page: “Saying atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair color.” This, like the blog post above, was the entirety of his rebuttal to my claim that atheism is a religion. The rest of his response consisted of an irrelevant excursion into to whether or not I believe in Santa Claus. But there was absolutely nothing in his reply explaining why calling atheism a religion was akin to calling bald a hair color—only the brute assertion without any explanatory rationale as to why it might be true. And never mind, apparently, that the comparison does nothing to justify itself, nor is anything close to self-evident.
Here’s what’s wrong with his logic: To say that bald is a hair color is to commit a category fallacy; that is, “Hair color” is a term that simply has no meaning within the context of baldness, and vice versa. However, there is no such category fallacy inherent in the claim that atheism is a religion—provided it can be demonstrated that atheism bears certain characteristics commensurate with religion (and since I have done that very thing in my letter to the editor, we have the evidence in hand that such a thing can be done) . In fact, to deny as self-evident that atheism is a religion may be to commit a logical fallacy of another sort:
1. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions.
2. Atheism is not Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
3. Therefore, atheism is not a religion.
4. Fords, Chevrolets, and Hondas are automobiles.
5. An Audi is not a Ford, a Chevrolet, or a Honda.
6. Therefore, an Audi is not an automobile.
7. But an Audi IS an automobile.
8. 7 is a contradiction, and if 3 is comparable to 7, then 3 may be a contradiction as well.
SCOTTISH VERDICT: NOT PROVED
But that seems to be the atheist’s mindset: You say that atheism is a religion. I don’t agree. And that’s why you should do as I say. As usual, the atheist expects the rest of us to accept his claims at face value; they’re true because he says they’re true. Ipse dixit. To which I reply, “Keep the faith, baby.”
Yet one more example is to be found in another letter to the same newspaper, issued in response to mine, from one illustrious Thomas Mackiewicz of Chandler, Oklahoma. Here’s the link:
This is a common response. I have been accused of creating straw men many, many times. This, however, is not to say that the accusations are justified. As I said earlier, the logic that atheists often use to confront me is that because I say things they don’t like hearing, there must therefore be something wrong with my argument, even if they can’t quite identify what that something is. Under atheism, opinions rule—facts are hardly germane.
In this case, the “straw man” claim serves as a generic, all-purpose reply. When in doubt, bark “Straw man! That there’s a straw man argument you got!” A parrot could do as much. While it is true that making false claims and then beating them up is the essence of a straw man argument, note that Mr. Mackiewicz cites no examples whatsoever from my letter as to precisely which claims I have made that are supposedly false. In fact, since the arguments I used in my letter were from my own personal experiences, I know they are true, and since Mr. Mackiewicz knows absolutely nothing about me (other than I write letters with which he does not agree), and since he was never present at any of the discussions I have had with atheists, he has no means whatsoever of assessing even the accuracy of my accounts, let alone decreeing them false.
But what I said in my letter is true: I HAVE spoken with atheists. I HAVE talked with them about God’s existence. And their preferred argument HAS BEEN to say that God doesn’t exist because He does such a lousy job at being God. I know. I WAS THERE! Mr. Mackiewicz, I am quite certain, was not.
Certainly, this is not to say that the “God is stupid” argument is the atheist’s ONLY argument. Sometimes atheists do engage in the “there’s no evidence” argument that Mr. Mackiewicz alludes to, but my experience has been that the “no evidence” claim is made only infrequently; if Mr. Mackiewicz is correct that “the majority of atheists actually come to atheism by way of realizing that there's a complete lack of evidence for the existence of any gods,” why then do so many atheists feel so drawn to the “God is stupid” argument, like flies to a cow patty?
The majority? Really? Is this an empirical fact, drawn from a double-blind survey of atheists, and if so, what were the percentages? Just how many claimed to have come to atheism via the “lack of evidence” route, and how many claimed other routes, and what routes were they? How exactly did the data break down? Is there a spreadsheet available that Mr. Mackiewicz can point to, where he can say “See? Right there! Over 78.9 percent of atheists surveyed said they became atheists because of realizing there’s absolutely no evidence for God’s existence. Five percent said they became atheists because of realizing that God is stupid. Two percent said they were born that way. And the rest all became atheists because they didn’t want to be the object of derision on billboards in New Jersey.” And if such data were available, could Mr. Mackiewicz have at least cited it in his letter? After all, out of a 250 word limit, he used barely 120, leaving a good 130 words available for SOME mention of supporting data. And if he fails to supply any evidence of supporting data to his claim, does that mean such data does not exist? I mean—that IS his argument for why there’s no God, isn’t it? Or is what’s sauce for the goose somehow NOT sauce for the gander?
Otherwise that leaves open the possibility that maybe “the majority” is not a statement of fact, but of opinion, more akin to wishful thinking than any aspect of reality. But I guess it’s a good thing that atheists have a monopoly on reason.
Still, having made one unsupported assertion, he is unhesitant in making more. Per Mr. Mackiewicz, atheism is simply “a rejection of the claim that there is a God — nothing more, nothing less.” If that were so, one might ask just what compelled the New Jersey atheists to erect their billboard. That was no mere rejection of the claim that God exists; it was an assertion that God does NOT exist, and moreover that Christians “know” that the Nativity is a myth, and additionally that instead of celebrating the Nativity, they should celebrate REASON with all the enlightened minority claiming membership with the “reasonable since 1963” American Atheists organization. As is apparently his wont, Mr. Mackiewicz makes his claim about what atheism “really” is, stated as a brute fact rather than merely his opinion. Ipse dixit, end of story.
Worse yet for Mr. Mackiewicz, even if he is right that atheists come to atheism due to the realization that there’s “a complete lack of evidence” for God, once again we find the unsupported opinion stated as a brute fact. Is it true that there’s absolutely NO evidence for God’s existence?
Perhaps he does not realize that the very word “evidence” is meaningless except in the context of the very issue being debated. A bit of data is not “evidence” until it is argued as “evidence for” or “evidence against.” It is not intrinsically evidentiary, but must be interpreted as evidence in light of additional contextual details. A man is dead. A knife is found near his body. Is the knife evidence that the man was murdered? There’s no possible way of knowing without further investigation. Otherwise, all we have is the data: the dead man, the nearby knife, and nothing to show how they might be related.
Nor does he realize the great gaping hole in his logic: By what logical sequence of thought can he say a) data is available for inspection and interpretation, but b) none of the data is evidence for God, and c) the lack of evidence is absolute and complete so that d) no evidence will ever be forthcoming? For one, it is impossible to prove a negative; thus it is impossible to demonstrate the completeness of any purported “lack” of evidence. Only a positive may be proved: one might prove that evidence for God is available by alluding to it or demonstrating it; nonetheless, any failure to present such evidence (or even an inability to present it) does not prove that the evidence does not exist. It might exist but remain unknown at present . Isn’t that what evolutionists claim when they argue for the missing link? Who cares that the missing link is still missing? That doesn’t mean it won’t someday be found! And even if it’s never found, that doesn’t mean that evolution isn’t true!
For another, there IS evidence for God’s existence, a substantial and growing body of evidence that, taken together, provides ample rationale for believing in God; the atheist simply denies that the evidence is valid. Again, to the atheist, facts don’t really matter. Show him the work of astrophysicist Hugh Ross and his “Reasons to Believe” organization, and the atheists brushes him off with an easy “Aww, Ross is a lightweight.” Point to any number of articles and publications supporting the notion that God exists, and the atheist dismisses them with a quick “Aww, they weren’t peer reviewed.” (And after you demonstrate that the articles really WERE peer review, the atheist then claims “Aww, that doesn’t prove anything. The process is flawed.” Never mind that if the process is flawed, there was no reason for dismissing any articles in the first place.) Show him books by Michael Behe, or William Dembski, or Stephen C. Meyer, and he’ll only claim their work has been refuted; by someone, somewhere, at some time or other; or else it is not worth considering. And if you so much as mention the Discovery Institute, the atheist will whip around, point a crooked finger your way, and begin to screech like one of the pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
My! Isn’t reason a wonderful thing? Marvelous are its ways, its mysteries to perform.
The atheist doesn’t come to any rational conclusion that God does not exist. He begins with the idea. It is his starting point, nothing less than an article of faith: Given that God does not exist, there can be no evidence for His existence, either—not because such evidence is not real, but because it cannot be accepted without undermining the Given. Thus any data that comes the atheist’s way is immediately sub-routed to the “Can’t be evidence for God” file. A burning bush? Folktale. A pillar of fire? A metaphor of an ancient phallocentric society. The Star of Bethlehem? Myth. An ordered, lawful universe, despite ubiquitous levels of entropy? An accident. The discovery of DNA, a chemically-based code far more elaborate than any code ever devised by man, containing vast volumes of information, yet smaller than the head of a pin, when any other code we may identify is without exception the product of intelligent design? It made itself, and even if we have no idea whatsoever how it managed to do that, we can state with one hundred percent reliability that You-Know-Who was NOT involved. And if you disagree, we’ll take you to court!
From all this, I say the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that atheism is not based on reason. Its core claims are invariably faith-based, its arguments unreasonable and fundamentally flawed, and yet despite this fact are still held to be true. Further, these claims are not allowed to be questioned, which again undermines the assertion that atheism is based on reason; this is more characteristic of dogma.
No, I am quite certain, and I am more convinced now that I have ever been. Atheism is a religion.
The whole thing hinges, of course, on what we mean by “religion.” It is one of those words that is easy to identify but hard to define. For example, we return to my handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary, where we find: “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe.”
At this point, the atheist may cry “Aha! Victory!! Atheism claims that a supernatural power does NOT exist, which means that atheism is NOT a religion!” After all, nothing supports atheism better than a good excuse. (And, I would add, nothing else supports it, either.)
But reference my earlier comment about ascribing supreme definitional authority to a mere dictionary. Dictionaries are merely descriptive, not prescriptive, in their approach—the meanings they ascribe to words are only the result of general usage and are purely subjective. And sometimes, dictionaries can be flat-out wrong. In the case of the AHD, the definition seems to center on the notion that religion necessarily means belief in a supreme being. But not all religions display this characteristic. In Animism, for instance, there is no belief in any god or gods, nor even any recognition of the supernatural for that matter. An animist may recognize, for example, some particular stream or pond or rock as having in it some sort of power that other streams or ponds or rocks do not have, but whatever power these things possess, such power is closely associated with the thing in which the power resides. Thus, the distinction between natural and supernatural is never made. Further, there is nothing supreme about the thing’s power—the force resides within the thing but does not rule over all things. So, Animism does not fit the AHD definition of religion, and yet is commonly considered a religion.
Another example would be Buddhism. The Buddha is not a supreme being, nor even a god, but only an enlightened human being. And he has no power whatsoever over the universe. He doesn’t rule, decree, create, or intervene in the affairs of his fellow men—he only advises as to the path to enlightenment and serves as a model for the rest of us to emulate. Buddhism doesn’t fit the AHD definition either, yet is universally recognized as a religion. Thus, the only reasonable conclusion is that the AHD definition is faulty, perhaps too faulty to be valid.
Still, there are other venues. Recently, I had opportunity to take part in a short bit of training sanctioned by the U.S. Air Force on USAF policy concerning freedom of religion. Included in the training was a link to Air Force Instruction 36-2706, which offers this definition of religion: “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs and practices held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.”
Now this is hardly a perfect definition either (mainly because it uses the very word it is attempting to define as part of the definition itself and is thus somewhat self-referential, which is a bit like trying to stand in a bushel basket and lift yourself ten feet into the air), but it is less problematic than the one proffered from AHD. Although Animism still seems anomalous (the only applicable characteristic is faith), at least the definition doesn’t exclude Buddhism.
Nor, I would argue, does it exclude atheism.
Atheists sometime erroneously define atheism as a lack of belief in God. This is incorrect because the lack of belief in God is the claim of the agnostic. An agnostic, by definition, is “one who does not know.” He cannot say that God exists anymore than that He doesn’t. The agnostic lacks the belief. An atheist, by contrast, HAS a belief—he BELIEVES that God does not exist. So atheism is not the lack of belief in God, but rather is the belief in the lack of a God.
Defined correctly, atheism is a belief system. Seen in this light, the religious overtones of atheistic belief become clear.
The word “Religion” comes to us via the Latin religio, meaning “to bind” or “to tie back”. A religion therefore connotes a grouping together, coupled with a restriction. It is the grouping which allows us to say “We are Baptists” or “We are Muslims.” The restriction is normative in some way—it tells us how we should live our lives, so that the Baptist can insist on certain doctrines, like water baptism or eternal security, or the Muslim on duties like restraining from consuming alcohol or pork, or praying five times a day.
To say that atheism is not a religion is, first and foremost, to say that atheism is not normative.
But what, then, are we to make of the New Jersey billboard? The message was not “We atheists do not believe as you Christians believe, but that’s okay, because everyone is free to believe what he, she, or it wants.” Rather the message was “You Christians celebrate a myth even though you know it’s a myth. Instead YOU SHOULD DO AS WE DO, and that is to celebrate reason.” Such a message is clearly normative, in both its essence and in its intent.
Getting back to the AFI 36-2706 definition of religion, what religious characteristics are applicable to atheism?
A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes: Would participation in an organization with the motto “Reasonable since 1963” qualify as institutional? Does the “dot-org” domain of its website suggest at least the attempt at systematization?
Moral or ethical beliefs: Surely telling people “You KNOW it’s a myth” implies that believing myths is a bad thing. Aren’t bad things supposed to be immoral? Or, if not immoral, aren’t myths wrong things to believe? Surely the admonition “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” is an attempt at encouraging our lost brethren to turn from their wicked ways and enter into the One True Faith, namely, to abandon all this God nonsense and to join all us enlightened atheists. And surely such actions are indicative of an ethos.
Characterized by ardor: Is posting a billboard in New Jersey a sufficient example of ardor in action? After all, someone had to conceive of the idea; someone had to finance it; and someone had to commission it. Or, if one billboard is not enough, how about posting messages on the sides of 800 London buses? Arduous enough for you?
And faith: The atheist holds the belief that God does not exist. Faith tells him so. He says the Nativity is a myth. Faith, again. He says there is zero evidence for God, that any purported evidence is wrong or incorrectly identified as evidence, and that no evidence is forthcoming. Faith, faith, and more faith.
Finally, I should remind everyone that I am not the only one saying that atheism is a religion. For starters, we have this from Michael Ruse, a self-professed atheist, Darwinist, and ex-Christian: “If ‘God exists’ is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is ‘God does not exist’ not a religious claim?” (“From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 December 2010).
Per Wikipedia, “There are also online churches that have been created by atheists for purposes ranging from parody, advocacy, education, securing legal rights, to ordaining atheist clergy for atheist weddings.” These include, but are not limited to:
• Atheist Community of Austin (www.atheist-community.org)
• First Church of Atheism
• Christian Atheism
• Church of Reason
• Church of Reality
• Church of Atheism (UK)
• Free Atheist Church
• First Free Church of Atheism
• North Texas Church of Freethought
• Houston Church of Freethought
• The Church of the Apathetic Agnostic
• Church of the Rebar Jesus
• The Church of the SubGenius
• Church of the Latter Day Dude
• Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
• Church of Humanism
• Society for Humanistic Judaism
• Cult of Dusty
• Church of the Smashing Orangey Bit
• The Church of Google 35
• Church of Atheism (U.S.)
Additionally, we have the First Amendmist Church of True Science, or FACTS (surely, this acronym is more than coincidental; if intentional, it is another example of the false claim that atheism is based on reason). Its founder, Michael Newdow, holds that its members are atheists “whose religious beliefs are specifically and explicitly based on the idea that there is no god.” (See Newdow v. Lefevre, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 06-16344 D.C., No. CV-05-02339-FCD)
In 1997, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declared that atheism is protected as a religion “for First Amendment purposes” (under the “free exercise” clause). The court decided that the Orange County N.Y. Department of Probation could not force Robert Warner, an atheist, to attend religion-based alcoholic treatment programs against the dictates of his own beliefs.
In 2005, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in as well. It ruled Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion. "Atheism,” the Court said, “is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being.” (See 419 F.3d 678 (2005), James J. KAUFMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Gary R. McCAUGHTRY, et al., Defendants-Appellees, No. 04-1914, United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.) Additionally, in December 2009, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
The SCOTUS did so because it has been saying for the past 50 years that a religion is not based simply on the belief of a supreme being. In the 1961 Case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court stated that “secular humanism” was a religion. In Kaufman v. McCaughtry, the Court affirmed that the practice of atheism was protected under the free exercise clause. It did not directly declare that atheism is a religion, but the precedent has been set: If the federal government is barred from limiting the free exercise of religion, and if atheism falls under that rubric, it will be problematic if not impossible to afford to atheism the full constitutional protection of free exercise afforded to religion, while at the same time holding that atheism is not “really” a religion.
But that’s okay, because atheism “really” IS one.