By Jon Topping | April 22nd, 2022
Atheism has always been understood (until quite recently) to be the belief that there are no gods of any sort. While this seems to be more of an anti-religious sentiment than a religious one, I think there are actually religious components to atheism that need to be appreciated. Atheism has aspects of both belief and faith. A person’s atheism can also deeply affect how they view the foundational aspects of their worldview. Additionally, we even see forms of organized atheism today, which further gives the impression of atheism being treated in a religious way at times.
Atheism Affects a Person’s Worldview
It might seem quite odd to even ask if atheism can be considered a religion. I know with this sort of topic, many people immediately get angry, and dismiss the entire conversation, simply because they have such a strong opinion. However, I would argue that that sort of attitude is the opposite of free and critical thinking. A true free thinker will get excited about new ideas, and be genuinely interested to hear the arguments being presented. This is especially true when the subject seems quite impossible to argue, because it’s so ridiculous. So in this conversation, I’d recommend a healthy dose of curiosity, in order to be able to hopefully learn something, even if you disagree with me.
To start this discussion, whether you consider atheism to be a religion depends on how you define “religion”. Typically, a religion implies faith, morality, how to live life, and what the purpose of life is. It does not necessarily imply the existence of God or gods (for example, some forms of Buddhism are actually atheistic, and yet they are still considered a type of religion). In this sense, yes, there can be atheists that take their atheism as a religion, whether they admit it or not. For example, Ayn Rand had a very well-developed atheistic ethic, focusing on morality and how to live. Other atheists and existentialists argue for secular humanism and similar things, talking of issues like purpose, morality, and the value of human life – even though they believe God doesn’t exist. Realistically, a person’s atheism does impact their philosophy of life in many ways, and at times, those ways can be seen as religiously oriented. In this sense,
if a person is an atheist, their atheistic belief will help guide the person in finding answers to the most important and fundamental questions in life.
Considering that this is one of the primary goals in religion, it would seem as though atheism can have a religious aspect to it.
A big problem that arises at this point, however, is that, for many people, atheism isn’t actually a belief system. Not only have I met atheists that would say they do not “believe” anything, but they are even insulted at the notion that atheism might be a worldview. If they don’t believe anything, then their “lack of belief” cannot possibly be affecting how they live life, which leads us into our next point.
Redefinition of Atheism and Belief
There is a recent phenomenon among atheists, where they are attempting to redefine atheism. Atheism is usually understood as a belief that there is no God or gods. In conversations today, atheists are trying to redefine the term “atheism” to mean a lack of belief in any God or gods. This might sound like the same definition, but there’s a crucial difference. This could be expressed by the difference between two statements; in the one definition you “believe God does not exist”, and in the other definition you “don’t believe God exists”. Atheists make a case for the second version by saying the “a” means not, and “theism” means belief in God (which is technically correct). In other words, they are merely not theists, which means they do not have the belief that God exists, rather than having the belief that God does not exist. However, if you really want to dig into the history of atheism, we can see people in the Greek empire having the concept, and that it meant an active belief that there are no gods. We can look to the life of Socrates as a great example of this. English translations of Plato’s Apology have Socrates accused of atheism, but when it is explained, essentially what he was accused of was believing the Greek gods weren’t real, and that he was encouraging young people to disbelieve in these gods as well. As time went forward, this idea of having disbelief in God or gods has been understood as an active belief against their existence. It never meant simply a “lack” of a belief, until very, very recently.
I would argue that real atheism is when a person holds that the truth of the universe is that there is no God or gods that exist.
In terms of whether atheism is a belief, once again it just depends how you define the term. If you take the new definition, with atheism being “a lack of belief in any type of god/s”, then it’s not a belief. However, if you take the definition that the entirety of humanity has always held to, yes, it’s a belief. Now that said, “believing” something isn’t a bad thing. Some atheists feel insulted at the accusation that they believe things, but literally everyone is guilty of believing things. In philosophy, the field of epistemology studies knowledge and belief, and to believe something merely means to hold that it is true. For example, I believe I am sitting in a chair right now. Belief does not imply something like faith, nor does it imply a lack of rationality or reason. In this sense, the normal definition of atheism is a belief, because the atheist holds to the position that no gods exist. Please note that believing something in this way is not a derogatory thing, or something the atheist needs to be ashamed of.
That said, many atheists today do adopt the new definition, where atheism is merely a lack of belief, and will speak as though this has always been the definition, and if you hold the old definition then you’re wrong (or stupid/ignorant/blind/dishonest as I’ve been accused of lately). Largely, the new concept of atheism being merely a lack of belief stems from the idea of the burden of proof. Atheists like to demand evidence from the theist, and if the theist provides evidence, they usually merely demand more. They feel that they have no obligation to ever take on the burden of proof, because they merely lack a belief, so there is no belief that they hold that requires defending. However, real atheism is when someone actively believes there is no God or gods. This is how they base their philosophy.
For an example of this concept of belief, I actively believe that leprechauns do not exist, and I can provide arguments to that effect. I would consider it intellectually lazy if I avoided the debate by saying, “no, I merely lack a belief in leprechauns, so I have no burden of proof whatsoever”. This point gets further exaggerated, considering there are quite a few arguments for theism. When someone presents arguments for their position, it’s proper to respond with counters, and even to present your own arguments for what you do hold. When an atheist is not willing to say they believe there are no gods, that tells me they are not intellectually honest enough to stand behind the position they hold, likely because they don’t know how to defend it. A better situation would be if the atheist admitted they actively hold that there is no God or gods, they would respond to the arguments for theism, and present their own arguments for atheism. That would help the conversation move forward intellectually.
In this sense of how the atheist is using the word “atheism”, really what they’re referring to is “agnosticism”. When someone merely lacks a belief in any type of god/s, this then means they do not have any active beliefs about the existence of God or gods. In other words, they would admit to lacking any knowledge or position on the issue. This is what agnosticism is. It’s not having any knowledge on the issue (a-gnosis, where gnosis is the Greek for knowledge).
If a person truly holds no beliefs or positions whatsoever as to the existence of God or gods, then that person should refer to themselves as an agnostic, not an atheist.
Regardless of which definition the atheist holds to, the fact of the matter is that they live their life “as if” there are no gods. In this sense, even if they deny having an active belief, their life choices, opinions, other beliefs, and values will all reflect the fact that they do personally believe that there is no such thing as God or gods.
Does Atheism Involve Faith?
Another big issue to discuss for this topic is that fact that faith does enter the picture in atheism. In a sense, there are two different types of “faith”. For the first kind of faith, the person has no reason to believe something, and yet they believe it anyway. This could be referred to as “blind faith”. We do see examples of this in atheism at times. Recently I was involved in a discussion regarding the existence of God. The main way the atheists were arguing for atheism was by claiming there aren’t any arguments for theism. First of all, that’s just plain false; there are plenty of arguments that God exists. A person might not like the arguments, or they might think they don’t work, but the arguments are there. But secondly, it’s important to notice that they weren’t actually giving an argument for their position. In fact, atheists quite often refuse to argue for their position, because, like I said earlier, they don’t want to have the burden of proof. The atheist is holding to a position that they do not have an argument for, so it’s a blind type of faith.
Even if the atheist will accept some of the burden of proof, and attempt to argue for their position, atheism doesn’t actually have any strong arguments in its favor. There are arguments worth considering that argue against the Judeo-Christian conception of God, but nothing that shows theism in general is false. To further this point, the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler addresses this kind of blind faith for atheism. They point out that, when you survey the evidence, theism is a far more evidenced position than atheism. In this sense, someone holding to atheism, despite atheism having no good argumentation, and despite theism having good arguments, would have blind faith in atheism.
In the second meaning of faith, faith is considered to be putting your trust in your beliefs. For example, I might believe this chair can support my weight, but I might not wish to sit in it. When I do sit in it, I am putting my faith in the chair’s ability to hold me. Similarly, people have faith in God when they put trust in God (for example, Christians having faith in God’s forgiveness). In this second sense, there are many atheists that have faith, in the sense that they are trusting in their worldview. In the case of humanism, atheism is taken to the next level by developing ethics, morality, purpose, and value that is founded upon atheistic philosophy. In this way,
the atheist is putting their trust in their atheism as a coherent foundation for all the important aspects of their worldview.
Also, their beliefs about the afterlife being merely nonexistence is something they are trusting in, and could be wrong. If hell exists, and they trust in their atheism, then there will be real consequences. In this way, atheism can involve the type of faith where they put their trust in their atheism.
I recently had a discussion on this topic of the religious aspect of atheism, and there were some interesting points made, that some of you reading this article are likely thinking. One man in the discussion brought out the point that religion is typically understood as being organized, usually involving purchasing of buildings, having government recognized status, membership, leadership, etc. Additionally, religions usually involve things like ceremonies, rules, and indoctrination of some kind. While I don’t think these types of things are necessary for something to be religious, it does bring an interesting element to this discussion. When looking at atheism, these points that were just brought up actually do apply in some cases! Firstly, there are actually atheistic churches. In this sense, the people involved have a pretty explicit religious view of atheism. Secondly, there are quite a few atheistic organizations. In these cases, they are organized, can have membership, and are even recognized by the government as a legitimate non-profit charitable organization. They rally around the issues that matter to them, they have meetings, they do fund-raising, and in some ways they even have indoctrination. A good example of atheists having an organized advancement of their philosophies is found in the bus advertisements with Richard Dawkins that read, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (Watch a video here to see these buses!). In this case, we even have an actual example of atheistic evangelism. I have also personally been to a secular humanist wedding ceremony, where the happy couple were both atheists. They wanted to have a wedding, in the traditional sense, with all the things they found pleasant, but they didn’t want to have anything relating to God in it. They had what was essentially a sermon, and an officiating of the marriage, but it was done by someone from a humanist organization. With these points considered,
we have atheists that practice their atheism in nearly the exact same way, practically speaking, that many explicitly religious people practice their religions.
They have ceremonies, organizations with charitable status, weekly meetings, membership, and even evangelism.
Real atheism is an active belief that there is no such thing as God or gods. Atheistic philosophy affects the core beliefs of a person regarding what they believe about ethics, morality, purpose, value, and meaning in life. The atheist also has faith in their atheism, both in the sense of holding a position that is not well argued (blind faith), as well as faith as a form of trust, where they trust in their atheism as a philosophical foundation. We also see cases of organized atheism, where they will have ceremonies, charitable status, meetings, membership, and evangelism. While I wouldn’t go so far as calling atheism a religion in the same sense as Christianity and Hinduism, it does seem as though atheism has many religious aspects to it.
With this in mind, in many cases people really do attempt to use atheism to guide their worldview. When this happens, a rather large problem presents itself. Atheism is an ethically nihilistic philosophy, meaning there cannot be objective morality, ethics, value, meaning, or purpose in an atheistic view of life. This has led many into a dark place, where they see life as pointless. This has also led many into a search for purpose and meaning within atheism, which led to a lot of the existential philosophy we have today, where the real important things in life that we just mentioned are handled subjectively. This creates a really bad foundation for living. If you’re interested in learning more about this aspect of atheism, this will be an upcoming post, so please follow this website.
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.