Why atheism looks religious, but isn’t

As a teenager, the last thing I wanted to be was my parents. I didn’t want to dress like them, eat like them or, Ra forbid, think like them. After all, like most teenagers, I experienced the urge to rebel. Today, I wonder how much of that teenager remains when I assert, with great indignation, that atheism is not a religion.

To be fair to those who level the charge, I probably need to first consider the definition of the word “religion”:

“A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practice.” (Merriam Webster)

With definition in hand, I need to then ask, “Does the modern atheist movement, in practice, posses any of these attributes?”

Question 1: Do atheists tend share a common attitude?

Solely within the four corners of the most vocal atheists of the day, the answer is maybe.

The new atheists are confident – strident even – about their views, and tend to view the religious with palpable contempt. Atheists are now describing their process of sharing their lack of religious beliefs as “coming out.” One wonders, as we look at an image from the Reason Rally, how close it parallels a gay pride parade in its almost defiant revelation of self.

We’re here, we’re clear (of religion), get used to it!

Question 2: Do atheists tend to share a common belief?

Yes, but their lack of belief in gods is irrelevant.

Atheists do share a common belief: that the ideas that manifest in our minds essentially represent reality as it truly exists. There are other potential conclusions. Plato’s world of forms, if we look to antiquity; or Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, which theorizes that we may all simply be computer simulations that are running on the hard drives of advanced humans of the future.

However, the young, sign-waving atheists tend to be rationalists in practical terms. Thus, while other options exist, atheists tend to share a common belief regarding the metaphysical questions.

That which I observe tends to be that which, in fact, exists.

Does this qualify as a “belief” system? Again, maybe. But I tend to lean toward “no.” My take is that seeing the world as WYSIWYG is the default setting. Any introduction of additional explanations puts the burden of proof on the new theory.

Question 3: Do atheists tend to share any practices?

Broadly, this may be a difficult question to answer. Susan Jacoby, author and program director for the NY Center for Inquiry, asserts that her research has shown that atheists fall into a wide political spectrum, from progressive collectivists to Randian individualists. One might make the leap of connecting belief to practices. Thus, it may be difficult to attach to atheists, as a whole, any shared practices, except, perhaps, the practice of critical analysis itself.

However, if we constrain our view to the more vocal new atheist movement, there does appear to be some evidence for a desire for shared practice. Some secular humanists have declared May 3 as a National Day of Reason (in response to it being declared a National Day of Prayer). Suggested activities include blood drives and other charitable endeavors. Some secularists even want an official proclamation of the day and are petitioning the mayor of San Francisco to get it.

If it walks like a duck

In the end, I think that I can say – for the moment – that the new atheist movement falls outside the strict definition of religion.

At the same time, though, I think we all could benefit from a little humility here. Sure, these similarities to religion might be non-new-age crystal clear to someone immersed in the movement. But, it should come to no surprise that many people outside of the subtleties and in-jokes of the new atheist movement notice some similarities, and thus, have trouble distinguishing “Atheism” from other religions.

If I walk like a duck and talk like a duck, I probably shouldn’t be surprised at being mistaken for a duck.


About SWIRLosopher

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

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