Sunday, January 22, 2017

In what sense is atheism a religion, and what are the atheistic options?

                                      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.
Atheistic Buddhism
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.

Atheistic existentialism
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.

Marxist atheism
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.

Secular humanism

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.
Atheistic objectivism
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.
http://atlassociety.org/objectivism/atlas-university/what-is-objectivism/objectivism-101-blog/3366-what-is-objectivism





31 comments:

B. Prokop said...

“If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

The thing is.. I've never heard of non-stamp collectors trolling around numismatic websites, incessantly telling everyone there that they are deluded fools who need to quit their evil hobby, or that "Stamp collecting ruins everything!"

AdamHazzard said...

My experience is that most if not all religions make heavily-specified, complex, unverifiable metaphysical statements (i.e., statements about the ultimate nature of all reality at all times) and present these statements as truth claims.

I can only speak for myself, but it would be dishonest of me to make such claims -- I don't have reliable knowledge about the ultimate nature of all reality.

Joe Hinman said...

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.

no that is not a discretion of Buddhism, That's Christianity with another label. Buddhists are not seeking to save themselves by their own strength, they don't think in terms of damnation or salvation,

Joe Hinman said...

My experience is that most if not all religions make heavily-specified, complex, unverifiable metaphysical statements (i.e., statements about the ultimate nature of all reality at all times) and present these statements as truth claims.

so do scientists

I can only speak for myself, but it would be dishonest of me to make such claims -- I don't have reliable knowledge about the ultimate nature of all reality.

you admit you don't know yet there is a whif of disdain for those who think they do know and for the concept of metaphysics.

Joe Hinman said...

"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.

Sorry Doc i don't buy that, SN is not what makes something religious, The word is not even used in the Bible and it was coined by a guy who was already religious (pseud-Dyonisius).For my view of religion I turn to a comparative religionist who was my professor at Perkins, Dr Neil Mcfarlad (Rush Hour of the gods). Religion is about mediating between defining the human problematic a d resolving it with an transfomrative experience,

Joe Hinman said...

I don't believe atheism is a religion it;s a religion substitute. That's an important distinction because it takes the place of religion so it function like one in some ways because its being used to fill void it cant fill.

It lacks some crucial characteristics of religion while trying to step in the gap that's left when religion is taken away.

Rather than explaining the human problematic it draws upon the standard function of ideology and assigned religion the role of spoiler in its appeal to human problematic. It's not a real understand of the problems of being human it;s just shallow blaming of religion as the villain." Rather than offering a transformative experience it ties to leverage reason and feeling of relief at freedom from abusive religion in place of teh tranfomative effect,

John Moore said...

In the text it say of atheism that "Some answer to the fundamental questions that religions attempt to answer must be put in its place." This is incorrect. It's perfectly possible to admit our ignorance and also to be content with our ignorance about fundamental questions.

This contentment with ignorance about fundamental questions is a key aspect of atheism that many theists don't seem to appreciate.

Victor Reppert said...

But the questions are "What can we know," "What must I do," and "What can I hope?" Atheists invariably say that there are many things that we can know. They are not skeptics in the Pyrrhonian sense. "What must I do" have to do with decisions that have to be made every day regardless of what we know. And "What can I hope" asks whether we can hope that something is true, and live in that hope. I suppose someone who doesn't hold the belief that Christianity is true can nonetheless live in the hope that it is true, but most atheists don't like to go that way.

John Moore said...

I was thinking about fundamental questions such as whether God exists, or what there was before the Big Bang, or what happens to us after we die, or whether miracles really occur. These are questions that seem impossible to answer with merely empirical observations. The atheist can say, "We just don't know such things - and we don't need to know."

On the other hand, it's perfectly possible to have a naturalist epistemology (What can we know) and naturalist morality (What must I do). These questions don't depend on any of the fundamental questions just mentioned. Answering the third question (What can I hope) is based on answers to the first two questions.

There are plenty of other things to hope besides hoping that Christianity is true.

R.C. said...

Here is the problem: We are lacking a succinct word for a certain idea.

Borrowing from the poem Jabberwocky, we could use the term "borogove," and define it thus:

"A borogove is an action-prompting or action-limiting worldview, held by an individual, in which some defined opinions about all (or a majority) of five philosophical topics -- (1.) Cosmology (2.) Anthropology (including philosophy of mind) (3.) Ethics (4.) Metaphysics and (5.) Epistemology -- are integrated and combined with (6.) a Solution/Approach to the evils of human experience (e.g. sin, suffering, death, mishap) which is implied by (1.) through (5.), and (7.) cultic practices for reinforcing and propagating the borogove."

Now all religions are clearly borogoves.

And, clearly, so is modern Western atheism.

In the United States we currently have a First Amendment to the Constitution which describes, among others a right intrinsic to human beings: The right to the Free Exercise of religion. And alongside that is a restraint on the power of the state, that Congress shall make no law creating an established religion.

But here is the difficulty: Because "religion" is associated in our Judeo-Christian civilization as intrinsically Theistic, the borogove called Atheism is not considered a "religion." But, it is the dominant belief system and cult of Western academics: Anyone who aspires to a certain kind of cultural respectability must be one, or if not, they must practice some watery and domesticated kind of Theistic belief, like liberal Anglicanism.

Now any belief system which holds such a role in society is clearly the main threat to become an established religion. But Atheism, by not being acknowledged to be a "religion," gets a free pass: It is established, decisively so in some quarters: There are some jobs which require it in order even to apply. (Just try to get a degree in counseling or a psychotherapy practice while being a serious Christian of the non-leftist variety! And as for tenure in academia...!)


Atheism's defenders will say, "Iurs is not an established religion, of course, because it isn't a religion!" They swear up and down that it isn't, because for them, the definition of "religion" is the tendentious one from which Atheism self-excludes. They take this definition perfectly seriously, in spite of them having all of the behavioral hallmarks of the religious. (Ever notice how barnum-bunkum evangelistic the New Atheists were?)

So Atheism slipped in under the radar and became established. Buddhism, by not being Theistic, could plausibly cast itself as a philosophy and achieve the same ill-gotten gain, provided it became sufficiently popular among academics and the urbane hip.

Now why should free exercise of religion be a Natural Right, anyhow?

Well, because the soul-crushing alternatives are awful, as anyone examining the European wars of religion can see.

Ah, but there's the catch: Anyone examining those wars can clearly also see that there is nothing specifically Theistic about the kinds of wars and oppressions which occurred. On the contrary, the competing ideologies could have been any kind of borogove.

And thus the right which the U.S. Constitution declares so boldly ought not to be construed "Prohibition on Established Religion" in the sense held by Atheists; i.e., the sense which conveniently excludes them.

On the contrary, the proper understanding should be that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of borogove ...or whatever better term someone else might coin.

Of course, then the Federal Government would have to start denying federal funds to any educational institution which disproportionately rejected traditional Theists for hiring or tenure, lest the government be found to be establishing a borogove.

Joe Hinman said...

John Moore said...
I was thinking about fundamental questions such as whether God exists, or what there was before the Big Bang, or what happens to us after we die, or whether miracles really occur. These are questions that seem impossible to answer with merely empirical observations. The atheist can say, "We just don't know such things - and we don't need to know."

but they are not. you need to read The Trace of God, by me, to understand that,on amazon

On the other hand, it's perfectly possible to have a naturalist epistemology (What can we know) and naturalist morality (What must I do). These questions don't depend on any of the fundamental questions just mentioned. Answering the third question (What can I hope) is based on answers to the first two questions.

except for the possibility that if there is a big picture you will miss it or contradict with your privatized approach

There are plenty of other things to hope besides hoping that Christianity is true.

sure I can hope my dinner doesn't get cold. all of them pale in comparison to the hope in Christ

On Metacrock's blog today why there is no empirical evidence for God


Joe Hinman said...

Does pain and suffering disprove God?

Answering Jason Thibodeaus's Theodicy

David Brightly said...

Thank you, RC. Things fall into place. For me the question is one for which the answer changes nothing. So I've been speaking prose all my life? Well, that changes everything! But if the question has political and legal ramifications then I can see why it's being constantly asked.

The set of wider options for atheists is interesting: Buddhist, existentialist, Marxist, humanist, and objectivist. I'm not a Buddhist because I'm not seeking the kind of transformative enlightenment that Buddhists seek. I'm not an existentialist because I don't think reality is subjective and that there is no advantage in doing the right thing. I'm not a Marxist because I don't accept Marxist historicism and its dreadful consequences. I'm not a secular humanist because I don't want a substitute religion aiming to emancipate individuals from tradition. And I'm not an objectivist because I don't think happiness is the greatest moral goal and I'm not looking for a political party to join. Atheism is clearly a broad church.

Joe Hinman said...



David i don't mean to insult you but i find that survey too glib. you are glossing over serious ideas, at least some serious ideas, you gave existentialism short shrift, That fashionable to knock it but that just put's a gloss on a lot serious development.

Joe Hinman said...

okmy criticism of J.L.Schellenberg's Hiddenness of God idea

David Brightly said...

No offence taken, Joe. You are quite right. I merely skated over Victor's summaries highlighting where I beg to differ. I'm probably trying to indicate that I'm not attracted to systematic 'big ideas' in philosophy. They rely far too much on the frail reed of human rationality, in my view.

Stardusty Psyche said...

David Brightly said...


" The set of wider options for atheists is interesting: "
Indeed, but your list does not include what I find to be my most suitable option, no school "ist".

"Buddhist, existentialist, Marxist, humanist, and objectivist."
Why adhere to a particular school at all? I find that unacceptably constricting. Why should I bear the responsibility of defending the views of others by slapping somebody else's label on myself? No thanks.

" I'm not a Buddhist because I'm not seeking the kind of transformative enlightenment that Buddhists seek. I'm not an existentialist because I don't think reality is subjective and that there is no advantage in doing the right thing. I'm not a Marxist because I don't accept Marxist historicism and its dreadful consequences. I'm not a secular humanist because I don't want a substitute religion aiming to emancipate individuals from tradition. And I'm not an objectivist because I don't think happiness is the greatest moral goal and I'm not looking for a political party to join."
Ok.

" Atheism is clearly a broad church."
Darn, you jumped off with your last word.


January 24, 2017 3:46 AM

Joe Hinman said...

Why adhere to a particular school at all? I find that unacceptably constricting. Why should I bear the responsibility of defending the views of others by slapping somebody else's label on myself? No thanks.

that's actually what existentialists said.even though they had a label they were anti-systematic.

the topic is is atheism a religion? my theory is it's a religion substitute. What's the important thing to note is the way atheism has some of the same tendencies they eschew in religion.

Victor Reppert said...

OK, let me get to the central point I have been trying to make here. Is atheism a religion? In one sense, the answer is obviously no, but in exactly that sense theism, the belief in God, is not a religion. It is confused to conflate religion with the belief in God. Why isn't theism a religion? Because in sense of "religion" we are trying to define here, it doesn't fully answer the three questions of what can I know, what must I do, and what can I hope. Now, religions might fail to answer the first one fully, but the second and third they attempt to provide answers.

Now, consider the fact that it is possible to be a militant atheist. Not all of them are, but some are, just as some Christians are militant. This is a belief that many people care about. But why? Both theists and atheists have members of their group that are very interested in others believing as they do? It matters to how life is lived. The reason seems to be that religious belief affects how we live our lives and what our hopes should be. If belief in God were simply a neutral question of belief, it would not be supported or oppose militantly. But if affects our life choices and our hopes, and atheists as well as religious believers think, to a greater degree or a lesser degree the wrong answer on God leads to wrong answers in some other areas. I take it people don't go on the Internet to argue against religious belief in they don't think this is so. But this means that there are some right answers which in those areas which atheists think theists are likely to miss because they believe in God. Otherwise, why do they care?

BK said...

I have always contended that Atheism is a religion at the Christian Cadre blog. For those interested, see Why I believe Atheism is a Religion".

Stardusty Psyche said...

Victor Reppert said...
" I take it people don't go on the Internet to argue against religious belief in they don't think this is so. But this means that there are some right answers which in those areas which atheists think theists are likely to miss because they believe in God. Otherwise, ***why do they care?***"
I have both selfish and altruistic reasons for engaging those who disagree with me on a variety of subjects, the nature of existence being just one.

Selfishly it is a benefit to the clarity and soundness of my reasoned concepts. I simply do have a personal sensibility that I ought to hold opinions that are as close to reality as I am able to discern.

Faults in my thinking are more likely to be exposed in an open marketplace of ideas among those who vigorously contest me, as opposed to an echo chamber of agreement or mere introspection.

Altruistically I might just give somebody else a bit of insight that person can benefit from in some way.


January 25, 2017 11:36 AM

Joe Hinman said...

Faults in my thinking are more likely to be exposed in an open marketplace of ideas among those who vigorously contest me, as opposed to an echo chamber of agreement or mere introspection.

you think you are not in an atheist echo chamber? the vast majority of what i see on the net is an echo chamber.

Stardusty Psyche said...


Blogger Joe Hinman said...

" you think you are not in an atheist echo chamber? "
Not, for example, here, no, of course not. Why would you even ask?

"the vast majority of what i see on the net is an echo chamber."
You lack vision in that case.


January 25, 2017 11:21 PM

Joe Hinman said...

Blogger Joe Hinman said...

" you think you are not in an atheist echo chamber? "
Not, for example, here, no, of course not. Why would you even ask?

"the vast majority of what i see on the net is an echo chamber."
You lack vision in that case.

you lack google

Joe Hinman said...

hey Dusty i have the smarts to make my own intellectual fun that doesn't change the fact that most of what we see on the net is shallow repetition, ever been on face book?

Make a deal with you, show we one atheist blog that rivals secular outpost for depth of discussion and technical understanding in the articles? That's minus professional peer reviewed publications.

David Brightly said...

So we have an elegant symmetry: mere theism of itself doesn't constitute a religion, but it can form the basis of an elaborated belief system that offers answers to our three questions and does make a religion. Likewise mere atheism doesn't make a religion but elaborations of atheism such as the ones above can constitute a religion in so far as they offer answers to said questions. That's fine. But what about an atheism that refuses to be elaborated? That rejects the possibility of knowledge beyond the mundane, denies any obligations other than to oneself and one's fellows, treats all hopes beyond the ordinary hopes of love and work as false? I grant that this would be a faith position, but it seems to me the very antithesis of religion.

Stardusty Psyche said...

Joe Hinman said...

" hey Dusty i have the smarts to make my own intellectual fun that doesn't change the fact that most of what we see on the net is shallow repetition,"
"We" includes me, and since I see mostly engagement with others who disagree with me, or rational commentary on current events, or discussions of various intellectual or philosophical subjects your statement is factually incorrect.

The ways of Aquinas end with statements that are factually false for this sort of reason, I am part of "everybody".


January 26, 2017 8:13 AM

bmiller said...

@ David Brightly,

"That's fine. But what about an atheism that refuses to be elaborated? That rejects the possibility of knowledge beyond the mundane, denies any obligations other than to oneself and one's fellows, treats all hopes beyond the ordinary hopes of love and work as false? I grant that this would be a faith position, but it seems to me the very antithesis of religion."

From OP's definition of religion:
"What can I know? What must I do? What can I hope?"

It seems you have religion in the sense that you *know* the mundane, you have *obligations* to oneself and one's fellows, an have ordinary *hopes*.

Even if it's a shabby religion, by the definition, it is a religion none the less.

David Brightly said...

Well, we all know that Trump is president, that we should feed our kids, and that we can hope for promotion at work. We don't need a religion to tell us this. Victor's three questions are aiming at bigger fish than this, I think.

B. Prokop said...

I personally do not consider atheism to be a religion. BUT, it sure acts like one. It is an evangelical, proselytizing faith, with its own prophets (Bertrand Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens, et.al.), its own sacred texts, and its own eschatology (the singularity, transhumanism).

So, if it quacks like a duck..

(Interestingly enough, Stephen Prothero, in his wonderful book God is Not One, makes a strong case for treating atheism as a religion, even if it is not.)

David Brightly said...

Given that it has come up on a more recent thread, might we say the same of global warming, perhaps?