PM2002

On the definition of Atheism
[Note: The following originated as a contribution to an argument between a Christian and a group of atheists. As such, some of the language and arguments which I used were excessively favourable to Christianity, given the context in which it originated. However, the basic point about the ongoing redefinition of atheism is correct - ZWM]

Atheism is denial of the existence of God. Atheists claim to know for a fact, or at least with strong likelihood, that God does not exist. Those who claim not to know whether God exists, or that we can't know, are not atheists; rather they are agnostics.

Some (alleged) varieties of Atheism

Many atheists like to make a distinction between strong atheism and weak atheism. They define strong atheism as believing God does not exist, while weak atheism as neither believing nor disbelieving. However, this usage is incorrect, and has been invented by atheists to boost their numbers. If you believe God does not exist, you are an atheist. If you neither believe nor disbelieve, you aren't an atheist, you are some kind of agnostic.

Another distinction atheists like to propose is between implicit and explicit atheism. Explicit atheism means active conscious rejection of God's existence. "Implicit atheism" refers to having no belief in God, due to not being aware of the concept. Atheists use this to argue that "babies are atheists", again in order to boost their numbers. However, again, this is an abuse of terminology. "Implicit atheism" is not atheism. Babies, just because they haven't learnt the concept of "God" yet, are not atheists. To be an atheist, you must have encountered the idea of "God", and chosen to reject it. A baby isn't even an agnostic, since an agnostic has encountered the idea, and isn't personally sure whether it is right, or even thinks we'll never know if it is. A baby hasn't encountered the idea yet.

Another specious atheist argument is "Christians are atheists about all Gods but one". But this ignores that god is used in two different ways. Little-g god, refers to a limited being, like the gods of mythology, with immense but not absolute power. It is possible for multiple such limited beings to exist. Capital-G God, refers to an omnipotent being, as conceived in religions such as Judaism and Christianity. It is impossible for there to exist more than one omnipotent being - what happens if two omnipotent beings have a disagreement? So, Zeus is not comparable to the Christian God, and the Christian's disbelief in Zeus is not a form of atheism.

Also, Christians need not deny the existence of the gods of other religions, and hence can not truly be called atheists with respect to them:

  • A traditional belief in Christianity (see 1 Corinthians 10:20) is that the gods of other religions may be demons presenting themselves as gods. So, a Christian may not deny the existence of Zeus, but understand Zeus very differently from how his worshippers back in ancient times would have (as an evil demon rather than as a good spirit)
  • Another Christian belief is that other religions are distorted versions of the religion originally revealed by God. As such, they do not believe in different gods, but in the same God as the Christian; but only the Christian has an undistorted view of God, while the other religions are laboring under distorted ideas of His nature. It is like comparing a distorted rumour about a person to an accurate account; the accounts can be so different that they seem like different people, even though they are actually both about the same person (but one is accurate, the other highly inaccurate). So too may it be for the various religions and God.

Attempts to redefine atheism

The purpose of all these exercises in redefinition is to try to slant the rhetorical playing field in favor of the atheists and against believers:

  • By redefining atheism to include agnosticism, they both boost their numbers - there are many non-religious folks who will admit they aren't sure whether God exists, but far fewer who have the presumptousness to claim to know for a fact that He does not - and also make their case easier to make (an agnostic, to justify their agnosticism, need only overcome the positive evidence in favor of God's existence; an atheist, in addition to that, must also find positive evidence against God's existence)
  • By redefining atheism so that babies are atheists, they try to falsely paint atheism as some sort of natural state, despite the fact that religion is a universal across human cultures, up until modern times; there is no traditional culture which totally lacks religious beliefs, and religious belief goes back thousands of years
  • By ignoring the definition of traditional God (which refers to an omnipotent being, not a more limited being such as that found in Greek mythology), they try to claim that Christians are atheists, with respect to all the gods of mythology. However, this specious argument ignores the fact that these other supposed beings are not Gods, only gods. There can only be one God, when the definition of God includes omnipotence.

Is atheism a religion?

Atheists claim that atheism is not a religion; that "calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a hair color". But, to answer this question properly, we need to ask, what actually is a religion? Religion is a difficult concept to define precisely, given the immense variety of different religions that exist. Not all religions believe in God; a good example of this is many forms of Buddhism. So, the mere fact that atheists reject belief in God, does not necessarily imply they are not a religion.

Many of the leaders of the atheist movement (such as Richard Dawkins) argue for atheism with a religious fervor - atheism plays a role in the life of Dawkins, or other atheist leaders, similar to the role which Christianity plays in the life of a Christian minister or author.

Religion scholar Ninian Smart has identified seven dimensions which make up religion: narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. It is not necessary in Smart's model for every one of these to be present in order for something to be a religion.. However, it can be argued that all seven are present in the case of atheism:

  • narrative — this dimension is concerned with stories which explain the origin of the universe and the human life. For Christians, there is the Book of Genesis. For atheists, the Big Bang, abiogenesis, the theory of evolution, etc., play a similar role
  • experiential - this dimension is concerned with personal or spiritual experiences. Many religious believers report experiences of being near to God. Many atheists report an experience of "liberation" in the moment when they first rejected God
  • social — the social dimension of religion is concerned with religious leadership and community in congregations. Contemporary atheism has its own leadership (authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) and social gatherings (e.g. the Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne, Australia)
  • ethical — this dimension is concerned with the ethical teachings of a religion. Logically speaking, if there is no God, how can there be any objective ethics? Ethics is reduced to each person's individual whims. Despite this, the leaders of atheism are insistent that they do have ethics, and even claim to have better ethics than religious people
  • doctrinal — this dimension is concerned with the philosophical teachings of a religion, its claims about the ultimate nature of reality. Some of the central dogmas of atheism include the non-existence of God, the non-existence of afterlife or an immortal soul, that all which exists is ultimately reducible to matter (materialism), and that faith is illegitimate
  • ritual — this dimension is concerned with rituals, the celebration of rites, ceremonies or festivals. Although atheism at present has few rituals, there are explicitly atheist versions of rituals to celebrate major life events (birth, marriage, death), and some atheists have proposed annual festivals to substitute for Christmas or Easter, such as Charles Darwin's birthday
  • material — this dimension is concerned with the physical artifacts of a religion, such as buildings, monuments, art, etc., and with physical places considered sacred. Many atheists argue that all nature is sacred

In conclusion, all of these seven dimensions are present for atheism, and hence atheism is a religion under Smart's model. Although atheism possesses some of these elements more strongly than others, Smart's model does not require all of these dimensions to be present, or present equally, for the existence of religion to be established.

Atheism recognized legally as a religion

In some countries, such as the United States, atheism has been legally recognized as a religion. When religion receives constitutional protection (such as a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion), atheism has been extended protection under the same provisions, as being a religion. This is justified on the grounds that atheistic belief systems function in the lives of their adherents in a similar manner to which traditionally religious beliefs function in the lives of their adherents. See US Supreme Court held in Lee v. Weisman, 1992.

Some atheists have themselves defined atheism as religious

See for example Humanist Manifesto I.

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