Saturday, July 6, 2013

"Atheism is a Religion" and Other Fallacious Criticisms by Believers

As someone who is fairly open about being a strongly not-religious person, it often happens that I get into discussions (they start out that way, at least) with people who disagree with my worldview (or lack thereof). As any non-believer can tell you, there aren't very many criticisms of disbelief; there are actually only a few, and they inevitably come up in any discussion about belief and non-belief, and I'd like to point out why they're silly. 

The first is that atheism is a religion. The second, that "militant" or "extreme" atheism is just as bad as religious fundamentalism. The third, that blind faith in science is the same as blind faith in God. Lastly, that believing things based on evidence rather than faith is "arrogant." I've chosen these particular sentiments because they've all been lobbed at me by people I know, many of them more than once, and because they're all nonsense.

1. Atheism is a Religion

This is a very common retort, and perhaps the most easily dismissed. One need only look at a dictionary definition of the word religion to end the argument, I should think. says:
  1.  a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.
Atheism in no way fits either of these definitions. That's because there is no dogma in atheism; there's nothing you must believe in order to be an atheist. It's not even a set of beliefs - it's simply the rejection of other belief systems. It's saying to the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, et cetera that you simply don't think their beliefs are true. [If you can't understand the difference between the statements "I don't believe that x is true" and "I believe that x is not true," please stop reading and come back when you can.] If you ask an atheist what they think about these things, namely the "cause, nature, and purpose of the universe," you'll get many different answers, with a common one likely being "I don't know."

As somebody once cleverly noted, if atheism is a religion, then "off" is a TV channel. Actually, atheists can't even agree on what word best describes themselves. Various suggestions come into and go out of fashion: atheist, non-theist, non-religious, free-thinker, humanist, bright, agnostic - the point is that it's really just "none of the above" on the religion list. The only thing that atheists are united by is simply what the word means: a (not) + theism (belief in god.) The reasons for not believing, and the explanations or answers to the questions to which religion generally provides answers, will be different for everyone. Atheism is not a religion, it's the absence of religion. 

2. Militant and Extreme Atheism

I like this one a lot, because it is self-evidently nonsensical after about 30 seconds of contemplation. Hijacking these adjectives which are generally reserved for religious fundamentalists and applying them to atheism is an exercise in utter futility. When someone is labeled a religious "extremist," for example, it's generally because this person has either killed other people because of his beliefs, or he at least judges it perfectly acceptable to do so. Religious extremists tend to be quite dangerous and frightening, as these are the most devout and hard-core followers of the literal word of their holy text.

What is a militant atheist? An extreme atheist? How often do you read a news report about someone who has violently murdered someone else in the name of atheism? There are degrees of the seriousness of one's religious convictions; there are no degrees of atheism. A casual atheist says "I don't believe in god." An extreme atheist says "I don't believe in god." Does the extreme one say it louder? Does he write it on a sign maybe? Write blog posts about it?

Generally I've found that anyone who is vocal about his atheism or openly critical of other peoples' beliefs gets labeled as "militant" or "fundamentalist," simply because people really don't like to be told that their entire worldview is based on lies. These are complete misuses of those negatively-charged words, and the comparison is laughable at best and offensive at worst. Nobody in the world is rioting in the streets and slaughtering innocent people because of atheism. While thousands of people in the Muslim world chant "death to the atheist bloggers," people at free-thinking rallies hold up signs like "What do we want? Evidence-based change! When do we want it? After peer-review!" People who are vocal about their atheism and critical of others' absurd beliefs are not dangerous, so stop throwing around these awful words as if they're apt.

3. Faith in Science and Faith in God

Religious people try as hard as they can to assert (and they all think they're clever, as if they're the first to do it) that atheists simply replace God with Science and worship it in the same way, so at the end of the day it's really the same thing. This is a woefully irresponsible comparison. First of all, "science" is (if I may use my good friend the dictionary again) systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Most important in that definition is what's missing, not what's included. There are certain fundamental questions, such as the meaning of life, or what happens after you die, or what sort of moral code we should all adopt, which science does not try to answer. Science is fine with not having an answer to some questions; it's perfectly fine to say "I don't know," or "I don't care" about these sorts of questions.

The scientific method, for example, is an empirically testable and productive process of finding the truth about the world in which we live. It allows for independent verification, actively tries to eliminate bias, and is perfectly happy with getting results that prove hypotheses wrong. There is no need to use the word "faith" when talking about scientific observation. We needn't simply have faith that gravity exists, or that the world is a sphere, or that the sun will come up tomorrow. We can go find out all of that for ourselves and prove it to be true, and understand why it's true. It's easy to trust the scientific method because it produces verifiable results. Using it cures disease and develops new technologies and explains phenomena in the world around us.

Faith is a particularly nasty attribute of religion, and it amounts to nothing more than claiming to believe something to be true when you have absolutely no evidence that it is. Christians, for example, have faith that they will go to heaven when they die. They have absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever, but assert it as if it's fact, even though they couldn't possibly prove it. This is a nice way to transition to the last complaint about atheism, namely...

4. Atheism (or Science) is Arrogant

This sentiment is the most irritating to me personally, because it's so inherently contradictory that it's baffling that religious people can possibly think this way. Again, I think the dictionary will help us sort this out quite succinctly: making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement. 

Let's just take some commonly-held beliefs among Christians, since this is the belief system with which I'm the most familiar. Christians believe that God created the universe for the sole purpose of the existence of human beings, and that he loves us and watches/cares about what we do. We now know that our planet is only one of several in our solar system, that our solar system is one of many in our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of many in the universe. With each increasingly powerful telescope we create, we reveal just how completely insignificant and unremarkable our existence is, and yet this completely self-centered belief that it's all for us persists among believers. This sort of thinking is both bafflingly ignorant and tenaciously arrogant. Many people of faith also deny the truth of evolution simply on the grounds that humans are somehow above having evolved from primates, so it's just not possible. 

The scientific worldview, on the other hand, is one of extreme humility: human existence in the grand scheme of the universe is staggeringly insignificant, and our time on the Earth is but a blink in the massive extent of geological time. Science admits when it's wrong, even after it thought it was right for a long time. I've collected a few catchy little epigrams about religion to make the point:

"Science has questions which may never be answered. Religion has answers which may never be questioned."

"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings."

"Morality is doing what's right regardless of what you're told. Religion is doing what you're told regardless of what's right."

The Point

The only reason atheists even have to call themselves something is because irrational people invented gods; there wouldn't be any need for such a word otherwise. If you're a believer in some sort of god and have faith that a bunch of extremely unlikely things are true, fine. But don't try to bring us non-believers down by insinuating that we're just like religious people in any way. We define ourselves by not being like you at all.

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