Atheists Are Religious.

Just because one does not believe in a God, Gods, karma, reincarnation, astrology, L. Ron Hubbard, or eighteen year old “elders” who knock on your door on Sunday mornings to bring you the good news from Utah, that doesn’t mean that they are not religious. I don’t know that I’ve ever met an atheist who wasn’t religious in their own way. I certainly am. Like other atheists, I subscribe to a sort of religion that is both different and similar to what we conventionally refer to as “religion”.

How are atheists religious? Like people of conventional religious faith, atheists have beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of humans within it. I’m not concerned here with beliefs based on science (e.g., evolution, quantum physics). I do not consider these to be of a religious nature for they are held with a level of confidence that parallels the level of evidence, are vulnerable to falsification, and are not value-laden. Scientific beliefs say nothing about how humans should live, what is meaningful, and so on. In my view,

The defining characteristics of religion are the holding of unsubstantiated beliefs about the nature and meaning of reality and the purpose and moral responsibilities of sentient beings.

These attributes are surely found in our world religions. But atheists, too?

At The Level of Behaviour, We MUST Act In Accord With Unsubstantiated Principles

We are not bound to believe in a God, Gods, or any of the other religious concepts discussed at the beginning of the post. We do not have to pick a stance with regard to the inception of the universe, what happens after death, and the like. We don’t even have to take ultimate stances with regard to morality or purpose. But we have to act and live in the real world, which means that even if philosophically we cannot claim to have deciphered the moral fabric of the universe, at the level of behaviour we have to make moral choices. Analogously, just because our experience and every opinion we’ve ever heard on the matter  indicates that unsupported objects always fall down, we cannot know that they always will; nevertheless, at the level of behaviour we cannot be agnostic about this.

As an agnostic atheist, I do not know whether or not there is a God (let alone who that God would be, if there is more than one, etc.), and I do not subscribe to any particular God/supernatural theory. However, at the level of behaviour, I must choose whether or not to organize my life with reference to a supernatural belief system. I choose not to. As such, my behaviour is presumably indistinguishable from what it would be if I was an absolute atheist (i.e., someone who claims to know that there is no God).

Does This Mean That Atheism Is Religious Like Theism?

No. Agnostic atheism is not a belief; it’s a lack of belief. At most, it is associated with the claim that credible cases have not been made for actual beliefs pertaining to theism. It entails no claims about the  nature of anything, and it offers no sort of guidance as to how to live in terms of pragmatics, purpose, or morality. In this way, as has been said before, atheism is a religion in the same sense that bald is a hair colour. An agnostic atheist choosing not to live in accordance with certain religious principles is no more religious than him choosing not to live in accordance with the unsubstantiated claim that the world is going to end tomorrow. It is consistent with the general practice of basically ignoring an infinite supply of theoretical possibilities (e.g., there are Martians living 40 feet below the surface of Stockholm controlling the world) until there is reason to believe that they are more than simple what-ifs. In the case of absolute atheism, I’m not sure I would call it religious so much as just unfounded. The reason for this is that absolute atheism merely constitutes a negative stance with regard to particular theories of the universe, purpose and morality; it says little about how the universe really is and nothing about what matters, what is meaningful or what is moral.

What Sorts Of Values Do Atheists Have?

There is no one atheist value system. Atheism is not a religion. In and of itself, it’s not even a belief community. It’s a lack-of-belief community. If suddenly people started believing in the Swedish Martians mentioned above and started trying to shift public policy to reflect these beliefs (e.g., lobbying for government funding to sponsor Martian digs), an a-Martian lack-of-belief community would form in an effort to stop the wasteful spending. This community, like atheists, would be bound by nothing more than a disbelief in one thing. Its members would come from a plurality of cultural, racial, religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds.

Secular value systems are often called philosophies. These systems can span as far and wide as those of traditional religion. They include, for example, progressivism, libertarianism, utilitarianism, communism, socialism, secular humanism, and so on. Foundational beliefs include that we should have full rights to our property and not be subject to any form of external force under any conditions (as in libertarianism); that we should protect each others’ individual freedoms but also – as a matter of public policy – provide needed supports to those having difficulty (as in progressivism); that all people should be treated equally and moral decisions should be directed at maximizing flourishing and minimizing suffering (utilitarianism); everything should be publicly owned, and people should contribute to the collective insofar as they are able and receive from it insofar as they need to (communism);  etc.

The existence of many different ethical philosophies reflect the diversity of humanity’s opinions on issues of morality, purpose and politics. But amidst are differences are many points of agreement. For example, despite their many differences, progressives, atheistic libertarians and members of the religious right agree on a number of things. None of these communities endorse stealing, rape, random acts of violence, child neglect, lying, or a host of other things, and all encourage voluntary acts of charity, friendliness, and so on.

Can Any Ethical Philosophy Be Substantiated?

With regard to ethical precepts of conventional religions, substantiation can be left to God. But what about moral precepts accepted in secular arenas? Can any ethical system be substantiated without reliance on
circular reasoning or on other premises that are themselves unsubstantiated? A label of pride among many atheists is “rationalist”. Rationalists define themselves by their proclivity to arrive at beliefs through clear, honest reasoning. But reasoning is a formal process that operates on premises. Value systems come equipped with premises (e.g., treat all people equally, as this is fair and leads to the most favourable overall outcomes). But when you get down to the real bedrock foundations of human experience – be they our basic experience of the physical world or the social/moral world – reason ceases to be able to dig deeper. At a certain point, we realize that we cannot substantiate a foundational axiom of a belief system without invoking another element of the belief system itself or some other unsubstantiated claim. To do so would require us to be able to perceive more of reality than we are currently able. Sometimes we discover ways to see more (e.g., research in chemistry and physics can be advanced through the development of new technologies that allow us to see and measure smaller and smaller things). In other cases we reach an impasse. In the sciences, the impasse is often pretty clear. What’s inside an atom? I don’t know, we can’t see or measure anything that small? In the case of morality, however, it seems that we sometimes hallucinate that we know more than we do, or that our beliefs are more substantiated than they really are.

Consider The Golden Rule. I suspect that there may be no moral precept in human history that is more universally accepted than the instruction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But, why should you do this? What if the other person’s wants are unknown and/or different from what yours would be in the given situation? While it could be retorted that you could simply do your best to act in the other person’s interests, what about your interests in the here-and-now, and those of other others? Perhaps the solution is to endeavour to treat everyone – self included – equally, and from this starting point, try to do what best satisfies the personal interests and perceived rights of everyone involved. But what about when one person’s interests conflict with those of another? Furthermore, on what grounds is it your responsibility to serve the interests of others? Sure, people may judge you as a relatively good or bad person based on how you respond to the interests of others, but what if you are not particularly concerned with their opinions or if you disagree with them. What if you believe that the quality of your personhood has nothing to do with what society says it does. The mere fact that we have an evolved capacity for empathy – as found in research on a number of species – says nothing about what we objectively should or should not do; to argue this would be a case of the naturalistic fallacy. The retort that we should be considerate of each other because it promotes well-being, social stability, trust, safety, sustained peace in a nuclear era, and so on assumes that 1) these are all objectively good things, 2) that we should therefore value them, and 3) we have a responsibility to act in their favour.

If as an individual I want a society with these qualities, then I can act in their service. But what if I don’t feel this way? Can anyone prove that life and Earth are worth preserving? That a safe and stable society is better than a volatile one? Sure, the grand majority of people believe these things to be true, but who made them God? If I were to follow popular opinion, given that I was born, raised and continue to live in Canada, I’d be Christian. If popular opinion in and of itself doesn’t convince me to be Christian why would I ascribe it such power with respect to other belief systems?

Secular Assumptions of Transcendence

In reality, I do try to promote well-being of myself and others, and generally try to live in a way that contributes to a safe and trusting society. Further, I strongly advocate for reason, intellectual honesty secularism, and progressive causes (I’m also sympathetic to libertarianism). I have strong values, and I am no less judgmental when I see a moral precept violated (e.g., the telling of a malicious lie) than anyone else, religious or not . Like people of conventional faith, atheists do not simply think that telling malicious lies is wrong for themselves as individuals. We find it to be universally wrong. At least implicitly, we seem to be assuming some sort of transcendent morality that represents, at the very least, a deep sense of obligation to humanity as a whole. Our sense of obligation might even extend beyond humanity or any particular referent. Some people (e.g., people who are “spiritual but not religious”) would call this indescribable point of reverence “God”.

Secular Sects

Just about everyone wants equality. However, we don’t all mean the same thing by equality. Progressives and libertarians both believe that the law is the law and that it should be applied to everyone.  They both believe that people should be free to choose whom they associate with. But should a racist white person be forced by society to hire or serve a person of another race? While the progressive and libertarian may both have a strong distaste for racism, the libertarian is less likely to support enforced racial equality in hiring or service provision. To support this would contradict their libertarianism. And the progressive does not want to use force and has great respect for individual freedoms, but they also do not want anybody to be marginalized because of the colour of their skin. Meanwhile, the principled libertarian would defend the right of non-whites to exclude white people from their social and work circles if they wished.

What about taxpayer-funded social supports for those in need of assistance? Progressives believe that we should, as a matter of policy, provide assistance to people in their times of need. They believe that people should pay taxes to enable assistance programs. Libertarians on the other hand want no part of this. They have no problem with voluntary charity; but they are stridently against having the government or anyone else force them to do anything. “Live free or die” is a popular libertarian motto.

Why be progressive? Why should people be forced to support others? Why should people be forced to associate with others that they wish not to associate with? How can these questions be answered without resorting to other unsubstantiated value judgments (e.g., happiness, wellness, trust, safety, and cooperation are good; suffering, hate, distrust, and conflict are bad), many of which are intrinsic to progressivism, thereby making the retort a case of circular reasoning?

Why be libertarian? Who says anything objectively belongs to anybody? On what grounds can one stake a claim on something? Everything there is was there before you got there. Of the things one makes oneself, one makes them out of things that they have no claim to. If I tore down your house and built a new one, I couldn’t say that it is my house. It wasn’t my land or materials. So how is your house your house when you have no objective claim to any of the materials or space needed to make it?

God Is On My Side

As with conventional religions, progressivism, libertarianism and indeed all ethical/political philosophies and systems of meaning are unsubstantiated. Even more like conventional religions, they can be divisive and even lead to bloody conflict. The same goes for more universal moral tenets. What do we do with people who kill or rape? We lock them up or kill them. What is our opinion of people who lie? Do we not feel that they are behaving badly; that they are wronging someone, or even transgressing something bigger than any individual (e.g., the entire social order)? Even though our secular philosophies are ultimately unsubstantiated, we are just as libel to take them deeply seriously as are religious people with their ethical beliefs. And when we defend our beliefs, we will often fervently believe that we are doing the right thing. A religious person might say that God is on their side, or that they are doing God’s work. An atheist fighting a moral cause might say that they are defending truth, reason, justice, fairness, civility,  or human rights, all of which are profound universal concepts that go beyond individuals and communities, and space and time.

So, What?

What does all of this mean? Does this mean that atheists have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing beliefs such as that the world was created six to ten thousand years ago by God in six days? Absolutely not. Not all questions are the same. While our ability to learn about the world is inherently limited by our limited perceptual and conceptual abilities, some methods for discovery are more substantiated than others. The scientific method, which whose application has brought us automobiles, airplanes, space travel, wireless technologies, medicines and biotechnology, improved understanding of social systems, nature, and so on has more than a leg-up on the practice of believing that one’s interpretation of a 2000+ year old book loaded with contradictions, incessant vagueness, rank barbarism, and claims that are in stark contrast with the findings of modern science, archaeology, and anthropology, written by people who lived in a time when it was believed that evil demons brought illness, eating pig and shellfish were grave moral offenses, and that a guy who is so omnipotent that he was able to create the entire universe and the heavens in six days but needed to take a rest on Sunday? We’re supposed to believe that this God is forever everywhere – constantly monitoring and capable of affecting anything and everything – but that he for some reason was tuckered out one fine Sunday after a busy week?

I definitely think that we can and should do better than religion has when it comes to gaining honest understanding. I also think that we can and should have as keen an understanding as possible of the nature and foundations of our beliefs and those of others, especially when it comes to issues of values. As I wrote in a recent post entitled “There Will Be War”, I believe that our moral differences are a key factor underlying what I deem to be the near complete impossibility of world peace. However, I think that we would have fewer and less destructive conflicts and generally get along better if we had a better understanding of the epistemological limitations of our own beliefs and the nature and meaning of those of others. And if nothing else, as someone who has a deep appreciation for learning and trying to understand things, I think it’s simply interesting and worth thinking about.

A Parting Question For Discussion

I hope that this post has inspired people to think about why they hold the moral beliefs they do, as well as why people of differing moral views belief as they do. For anyone who still believes that their values are not of a religious nature, I ask you a question that I sometimes ask people of religious faith:

What would it take for you to not believe as you do now?


12 thoughts on “Atheists Are Religious.

  1. Pingback: We Just Don’t Think Deeply « myownideasblog

  2. Darwin,

    I haven’t read or looked into Harris’ new book, but from the few mentions of it that I’ve heard I have been very unimpressed. It seems like he has a very impoverished understanding of ethics and the prove-ability of different moral systems. However, having said this, I echo my original point which is that I haven’t read it or really looked into it; it’s entirely possible that he makes a very compelling case.

  3. “Atheism is not a religion. In and of itself, it’s not even a belief community. It’s a lack-of-belief community.”

    You have said a lot of things that are self-defeating but here is one. You cannot claim that Atheism is not a religion because it is. It is a religion if we define religion as a system of beliefs that explain ultimate reality or the world we live in. Atheism makes claims about a lot of things, but I suppose it depends on who you ask. However, all atheists share the belief that there is no cause/creator/God of the universe. If they don’t then it is by definition not Atheism but maybe agnosticism.

    Everyone has beliefs and everyone needs to see how their beliefs relate to reality. You cannot make a statement like, “Atheism is not a belief community, it is a lack thereof.” That is a belief! Do you not see that you cannot be a default position? You can’t say, “Look at me! I’m taking the ‘no position’ ground!” Atheism is taking a side! It is making a claim about reality! You are claiming there is no God! By claiming that there is no God other things follow such as materialism etc. You need to think about what you are saying and logic will reveal your error.

    The Theist or Deist has to defend their claim of a God.

    The Atheist has to do the same in regards to there being no God.

    I have a blog too. Check it out.



  4. Jamie,

    While as an atheist, I have disagreements with the original post, and you pointed one out nicely, I wanted to respond to another part of your comment.

    “The Theist or Deist has to defend their claim of a God. The Atheist has to do the same in regards to there being no God.”

    I disagree. The Theist or Deist has to defend their claims since they are making a positive claim. You claim something exists. The burden of proof falls on you, as the original claimant. The atheist does not have to prove a deity does not exist. Proving a negative is largely a futile exercise since any positive claim can be made with little or no evidence. You cannot expect the burden of proof to fall on anyone other than the claimant.

    Now atheists can provide evidence that something is unlikely to exist or that there is no proof of the original claimant’s…claim, but the burden is not on them. Therefore, atheists do not HAVE to defend their claim of no god. In this type of argument, the burden is strictly on the believer.

  5. Jamie: Not all atheists hold the position that there is no God. In addition to meaning “belief that there is no God”, “atheism” can also refer to a simple lack in belief of a God. This second position is often referred to as agnostic atheism. Agnostic atheism is different from both positive atheism (believing that there is no God) and agnosticism (simply saying “I don’t know”). Agnostic atheism goes further than simple agnosticism. Agnosticism is simply saying “I don’t know”. Agnostic atheism goes further in saying that not only do I not know, but I don’t think there’s any good reason to believe in a God.

    The agnostic atheist position is not a religious position. The singular claim an agnostic atheist makes is that he/she has yet to be presented with a good reason to believe in a God. Agnostic atheism does not itself come with an answer to the big questions (e.g., the origin of the universe, morality, etc.); it simply refers to a lack of satisfaction in the answers being offered by theists due to a perceived lack of supportive evidence.

    Now, agnostic atheists do often hold beliefs on these big questions, but these beliefs are not contained within agnostic atheism. For example, they may believe that the Big Bang Theory, evolution, and other such scientific accounts of various aspects of reality are the best accounts out there – but these beliefs are not in and of themselves contained within agnostic atheism, and furthermore, if the agnostic atheist is scientifically astute, they will recognize that any scientific theory could one day possibly be shown to be erroneous in some way.

    Secondly, an agnostic atheist may have beliefs regarding morality, ethics and purpose, but none of these beliefs are contained within agnostic atheism. All agnostic atheism is is a lack of belief in God(s) based on a perceived unpaid evidential debt; it’s a lack of belief position. When an agnostic atheist makes a belief claim, they may be deriving those beliefs from science, secular philosophies such as libertarianism or secular humanism, etc., but they are surely not extracting their beliefs from agnostic atheism itself.

    Lastly, because we do not have objective perception of reality or any sort of moral fabric of the universe, I argued in the original post that atheists are in fact religious in that they have beliefs about morality and purpose that they ultimately cannot justify epistemologically, but that their religion is not atheism. Secular philosophies can function as religions in that their core tenants often cannot be proven; positions such as all people deserve X (e.g., to be treated as equals) are ultimately a type of faith position.

  6. I am not sure my lack of belief in Santa Claus in any way binds my beliefs or values to other people who don’t believe in Santa Claus except perhaps for a common ability to separate fantasy from reality. I can come up with very logical reasons why theft, murder, intoxication and high levels of promiscuity are generally bad for the community I live in without needing the guidance of an imaginary being so I am not sure I am in any way religious.

    My personal opinion is that Atheists are better positioned to make moral and ethical judgements because they generally suffer from less cognitive biases. From a purely evolutionary point of view the believers seem more likely to survive since they generally produce more offspring and are better organised for long term survival. Having travelled in South East Asia for 15 years or so you can see the change and organisation coming to Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Southern Thailand. Where there was poverty the Muslims are organising and educating and indoctrinating.

    From an evolutionary point of view Atheists are in trouble. We need to get organised and we need to get some common values agreed.

  7. Fual has a good point, there is strength in numbers. However having a million sheep is pointless I would take a hundred educated man or woman. With biotechnology we will be able to make super-humans soon why bother with the old ways of doing things. I want my children’s children to see in the dark have stronger hearts taste and see sound etc. Our design is very flawed our engineers can improve the human condition. Numbers will not matter in the future, the application of technology will. We are do for a pandemic anyway it will thin out the population.

  8. Hi Fual: So sorry for my delay in reply. I’ve been busy and have had spotty internet access of late…

    Anyhow, you’re right: your lack of belief in Santa Claus or any other mythical being does next to nothing to unite you with other non-believers. While the post is entitled “Atheists are Religious”, as I point out in the post, atheism is not itself the religion. And, I’d also argue, even the most basic moral positions take for granted such axioms as all people are equal, social harmony and the preservation of humanity are important to protect and perpetuate, property rights, the right of each person to determine their own lives, etc. I’m not saying that these sorts of stances are wrong; but can anyone prove them without circular reasoning or arguments invoking other question-begging suppositions?

    I’ll have to address your argument about atheists being in a better position to make moral judgments than religious people when I’ve got a bit more time, but I wanted to at least begin replying to you. I’ll also reply to Tom, too.

  9. I just came cross your post after Googling “atheism” and am quite impressed. I think you’re one of the few folks I’ve come across who recognize and admit that our various moral and ethical systems inevitably have a subjective quality to them but that most of us on a practical level follow some general principles anyway. I also like the distinction between not believing in God(s) and subscribing to some particular philosophy. Very well done!

  10. Thanks, Dave!

    Sometimes some of our core moral values seem so basic and fundamental as to appear to be default settings of nature – or “natural” – or the products of immutable reason. Even if they are basic products of nature – i.e., evolution – that doesn’t make them objectively correct. None of this means that typical secular values are wrong or silly or anything or that we should change them – indeed, whatever we changed them to would be saddled by the same criticisms – but I think it’s worth being aware of the foundations of what we believe/know.

  11. Pingback: Atheists are Untraditionally Religious – and No, Atheism is not the/a Religion « Death By Trolley

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