The Religion of Atheism

atheistSunday Assembly (more casually known as “The Atheist Church”) has announced a campaign to spread itself into a global movement. The “Atheist Denomination”, as it were.

The criticism has been that these people are “turning atheism into its own sort of religion”. 

Personally, I think the criticism is unfair. The group is simply not religious in anything like a traditional sense of the term. But, I find that there are a number of interesting things about the fact that many (even many atheists) are making this complaint.

How so? Let me run though some thoughts:

1. This Assumes Atheism is a “Thing”

Atheists have recently insisted that atheism is simply a “lack of belief”. I find it odd, then, that they think that atheists gathering to share there (non-religious) beliefs turns atheism into anything. It could be a slip of the pen (or keyboard), but the same thing happened with the Atheism Plus group. This leads me to think it is more than that.

That, and the emotional force behind some of the complaining (particularly with regard to Atheism Plus).

I suspect that part of what is going on here is that there are at least two senses in which the modern, passionate atheist uses the term “atheist”. The first is used in debates: it’s simply “a lack of belief in any gods”–so no need to prove it or offer evidence in its favor. The second is this: “the socio-political beliefs of those who adamantly oppose religion”. It is this latter sense that seems to give many atheists a sense of community. And it is this sense that “Atheist Church” is most obviously threatening to “turn atheism into a religion”.

2. This Makes the Claims of Atheists More Obviously Claims

But it is also atheism, in the first sense, that may well change if this group spreads far enough. The atheist can, of course, argue that this isn’t really an “Atheist Church” but a “Secular Church”. They are teaching things that are compatible with atheism–other beliefs that their members hold, but nothing that one needs to believe in order to be an atheist.

This is all true, but misses a key point.

The very existence of this church only makes it more obvious that atheists themselves have beliefs. All people do, of course. But the New Atheist movement has adamantly declined any invitation to defend their beliefs, insisting that the entire conversation should consist of discussing theism.

And now a group of them are meeting to proclaim the common beliefs of the New Atheist crowd.

The Sunday Assembly, then, makes it harder to deny that atheists to approach life with a set of beliefs about meaning and ethics as much as anyone else. For a group of them to be publicly admitting this will almost certainly mean that theists will start asking them to defend those beliefs in debate. Even indifferent parties will be aware that they have beliefs–rather than simply “lacking belief”.

And that, of course, will be very uncomfortable for anyone used to taking the New Atheist line of attack in debate.

3. There are Already Humanist Groups in Meeting

But no one has made this complaint of them. Of course, the label “atheism” seems to be a big deal to Dawkins and his fans (who, ironically, argue that labels create tribalism). The more significant point is that these Humanist groups aren’t so intimately connected to the popular New Atheist crowd.

My main thought here is a bit of a tangent, though: Why aren’t these people attending the Humanist meetings?

In the article, the leadership says that they are “fun”, rather than “dour”. But, I suspect that there’s something else. They are a particular subculture that has a particular way of doing things, and want to do things their way.

That’s all well and good, but part of “their way” has always been a bit anti-intellectual.

To be concerned about fun, rather than truth, rather gives the game away. Sartre, Nagel, Mackie, Nietzsche, Camus… These men cared about whether or not atheism was true. Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne, Meyers… These men seem to care much more about what feels true, and rousing the crowd.

I think it’s fitting, then, that it is the fans of the latter circle that have ended up creating something like an evangelical church. After all, this is a crowd that never expresses a shadow of doubt about their views, that likes catchy phrases that communicate their beliefs, and holds rallies and meetings (which are not unlike revivals). They even quote the late Christopher Hitchens like scripture. And let’s not forget how similar “The Quotable Atheist” is to an Evangelism Explosion booklet.

Is it really so strange that some of them want to start a church?

In any sense that “they’re turning atheism into a religion” could be seen as valid, then, the reality is that atheism has already been turned into a sort of religion by Dawkins and Co. This group is simply helping the process along.

I suspect that, if we give it long enough, someone from this group will start building shrines to their dead leaders.

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15 responses to “The Religion of Atheism

  • Logan Rees

    Reblogged this on Duck rabbits and commented:
    Would love to open a discussion on this, especially to hear thoughts from some of my atheist readers. Debilis has pointed out some key questions:

    1.Does this make Atheism into a religion, where hitherto Atheists have claimed that it is simply the lack thereof?
    2. Does this set forth Atheist ‘beliefs’ as has hitherto been denied as #1? And for atheists, do you share these beliefs?
    3. Is an ‘Atheist Church’ more or less helpful to Atheists than other secular or humanist assemblies?

    Personally, I’m in favor of anything that brings people together for community fellowship and self-reflection, and if this makes it so Atheists are more comfortable doing it, then more power to ya. Though I can’t help but feel that they are merely borrowing practices of religion and simply taking God out of them. The Huffington Post aritcle states that members meditated and group-sang Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” Again there is nothing inherently wrong with doing so (though I would have preferred “Champagne Supernova”), yet an article by another (obviously biased) attendee stated that comedian Sanderson Jones’ “sermon” was more focused on bashing other religions than promoting the Assembly’s stated theme of “New Beginnings.” This seems odd for an assembly that is ” radically inclusive,” ” a place of love that is open and accepting,” and “won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do [believe in God].” As an assembly of like-minded people to reflect on their lives and minds, I support this new assembly, but if it devolves into nothing more than scheduled and organized religious bashing, I’d have to whole-heartedly withdraw that support.

  • vonleonhardt2

    I love your comment about Sartre, Nagel, Mackie, Nietzsche, Camus vrs. Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne, Meyers… that’s spot on.

    What’s most interesting is in many cases the Atheism these people choose is as sentimental as the theism they left… but then they will rail on religion for its sentimentality. Is the new atheism just the new band-aid to feel good about unquestioning acceptance of a principle so that one belongs? Or is it something deeper like the adherents are not being culturally shaped to dig deeper or fear their convictions may be shaken if they do? I see in it that the fundamentalist “cling to my truth no matter what” closed-mindedness has found a new home where people feel that their personal answer/foundation is less likely to shift. Listening to them talk is like having a dogmatic argument and it will be interesting how they handle dissent and why I think they bash other views.

    • Debilis

      Yes, they’ve definitely always struck me as a sort of fundamentalist fringe of atheism.

      I do hope that improves (on my better days, for their sake). But, either way, it will be interesting to see where they go in the future.

  • gipsika

    Atheism turned into a religion the second atheists started proselytizing. Before that, it was more a sort-of “leave me alone with your religious nonsense, I don’t buy into that, let’s talk about something else”. I learnt the difference between atheism and agnosticism not too long ago, where agnosticism is (or was? Is this still a valid definition or is it turning into a religion too?) simply an attitude of “I don’t really believe or care if there is anything out there”; atheism is definitely a specific “I don’t believe there’s a God and in particular, your God”. So, from not really being bothered about believing into definitely not believing in a God.

    I found this distinction rather funny but would have suspected that scientists and intellectuals who could not “bend their mind around” the concept of spirit stuff, would rather have opted for the more vague “I don’t particularly care if there’s something indefinable out there, as long as you can’t prove it, it’s not part of my frame”. But to formulate a definite belief structure (and yes, it’s that) around an absence of evidence, that strikes me as… well, contrary to the scientific method itself.

    • Debilis

      It strikes me that way as well.

      In fact, until the recent atheist campaigns the word atheism specifically meant the belief that God does not exist. Most secular people were agnostic, simply saying that they didn’t know.

      I suppose there are reasons why a lot of people (let mostly by scientists, it seems) are suddenly taking a stronger stance, but they seem to be emotional, rather than logical.

      Either way, I think you’re right to say that this isn’t very scientific. I do hope that more people see that point.

      • gipsika

        🙂 I’m a scientist myself but fail to see a problem. Atheists would see that as a failing on my part. Perhaps it is, who knows (but who cares?).

        There is a clear difference between belief and religion though. I firmly believe that if I park in centre of Johannesburg at night and leave my car unlocked, and walk three blocks to a pub and come back at 12 midnight, my car will be gone (and the chances are, I’ll be mugged and killed). This however is not a religion, even though I have tried to convince others to believe the same (worrying about their safety).

        To another point though: Moral highground they have none. Stalin prosecuted people for practising or confessing to Christianity (and other religions). This is no better than the Inquisition. Not that this puts the church back on a moral highground.

        Religions are open to abuse by the powerful. I’d say, all religions are, because you have a ready-made “mob” that can be influenced by their own convictions.

    • Logan Rees

      There definitely needs to be a redefining of terms here. I think to affiliate yourself with any of these terms takes a bit of conviction, so the ‘I don’t really care’ people should be categorized simply as unaffiliated. I always took agnosticism to mean a conviction that the answer can’t be known, so that’s where the line is drawn there. I think the other distinction that needs to be made is atheist vs. antitheist, and it’s a rather simple one, but one that is too often blurred. Even as I type this, the spellcheck is underlining ‘antitheist’ as not a word. But I think the simple distinction is that atheists firmly believe that there is no god and leave it at that, while the antitheists believe that the idea of god and religion in general are a detriment to society and need to be eradicated. Sadly, I don’t think everyone will instantly start implementing these terms, but so be it.

      • gipsika

        “Antitheist”. That’s actually a very accurate word.

        Yes, they do tend to argue that so much harm is being done in the name of this or that theistic religion. They do have a point too (and one could even stave that with excerpts from the religious texts, of the three Judaic-based religions). However this will not go away by eradicating religion. Power mongers will always find a way to organize themselves a mob when they need one; altogether without any deity, even. And also, that point of view disregards what good a religion does within a society.

        • Logan Rees

          Completely agree, and I’ve had that debate so many times that I don’t even bother anymore. Anyone who can’t see past the illusion that the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or terrorist acts or the current conflicts in the Middle East are actually solely caused by religion is too ignorant and simple-minded to try to persuade.

  • jdedeusbrasil

    I have engaged in a discussion with a few atheists…but they are hardened people.

    • Debilis

      Often, the most outspoken atheists can be. It is currently in fashion to be too “intelligent” to seriously doubt atheism (which is rather close-minded).

      Though, I hasten to add, there are also those who are much more thoughtful and kind.

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