One of these things is not like the others…

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 9.18.25 PMI’ve had multiple conversations in the last year about whether atheism is a religion. I don’t self-identify as atheist for both political and ideological reasons, but most of the critiques I see of atheism—which are usually critiques of atheists, and usually about how mean they are—only shallowly engage the ideas they critique and beg the very questions atheists are asking.

A way to get behind the question is to ask what function atheism-as-religion has for the parties who make that claim. It’s easier to deal first with those who self-identify as atheist. The closest thing I know to religious atheism is the Sunday Assembly, whose recent split seems to have been over just how much to explicitly cater to atheists as opposed to a more general humanism. (As a side note, it doesn’t seem the best tactic to argue that a “split” is evidence that atheism is a religion). They meet together, sing songs, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company. If you want to call atheism a religion in a colloquial sense based on groups like these, so be it.

I’ve found, however, that those who claim atheism is a religion are usually members of a “rival” religious tradition. The argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Christianity is defined by a belief in God (Jesus).
  2. Atheism is defined by a belief that there is no God.
  3. These are both beliefs.
  4. Therefore, an atheist critique of Christianity is invalid because the two are both belief systems.

There are many problems with this argument. Beginning with the end, if it were the case that all belief systems are structurally the same and they therefore have no ground to critique each other, this would undercut any criticism of another institution. This might be helpful if we judged systems solely on the basis of structure or organization without any evaluation of content, but we don’t, and that leads to the next point.

There is a gap between points three and four implying that all beliefs are qualitatively the same. This is a disingenuous argument because it separates belief as a thing out in the world separate from believers, those who create belief through acting in the world. Sure, a belief is a belief, just as a law is a law, but we wouldn’t likely argue that all laws are qualitatively the same. They pertain to different aspects of existence and we judge some of them effective and others not-as-effective.

What the argument is saying is that the act of believing is equivalent in both cases. Again, this is technically true, but it is disingenuous because it negates the content of the belief. It partakes in the sociological idea of rational choice, which suggests that we pick our way of being in the world as if picking a value meal at McDonalds. In truth, we are already enveloped in a world that disposes us to prefer some ways of being over others. Sincere adherents to a tradition prefer their traditions. They think their tradition is better for them than others for a variety of reasons. It may be because of potential theological consequences; it may be because of social preference. One is deceiving one’s self, however, if one both claims to be a member of a tradition and claims that his or her tradition is no better that any others. (Of course, one other option is to being to realize you don’t prefer a tradition as much as you thought you did, that realization becoming a catalyst for change. Such was my experience.)

If we look at the specific beliefs (assuming that the defining belief here is the presence or absence of God), no better case can be made. A monotheist affirms that there exists a supernatural being of higher order that interacts with humanity in some way. Those who are not monotheists do not necessarily believe that there is no God (although they may); they simply lack a belief that monotheists have. These are not the same thing. The first implies the existence of a divine being and suggests that one’s decision is whether to affirm its existence. The second denotes the presence of belief in one case, and an absence in the next.

The reason the argument is not usually made this way is, in part, because the presumption of divine beings has been prevalent in Western society for all of written history. (We may be even genetically predisposed to affirm a higher power, anthropomorphizing what we cannot explain.) The existence of God has been normalized to such an extent that is the starting point for all discussions about religion. Thus the absence of belief is characterized as a belief in itself, which from a normative stance is also seen as an attack on existing belief. This is not to say that atheists do not attack “believers.” It is to say that “believing differently” is a poor way of conceptualizing an absence of belief.

So what is a better way of conceptualizing those who, from the perspective of religious traditions, do not believe? A better way might be to look at what they affirm. Far be it from me to speak for atheism; rather I want to suggest that all ways of viewing the world are not belief systems. Or, more precisely, all are not faith systems. In discussions such as these, there is slippage between the two ideas. It is possible to justify belief, but it is not possible to justify faith. Faith is belief in the absence of—or because of the absence of—justification. Its primary criteria is not being subject to falsification. Other epistemologies are defined by their being subject to refinement, criticism, and inquiry. The substance of faith cannot be changed, and this is why it cannot be considered as an equivalent form of knowledge to any other that is subject to such falsification. One might even try to argue that faith is better than other forms of belief, but it cannot be the same.

We come full circle here. The faithful can argue, “Well I can’t prove that God exists, but you can’t prove that he doesn’t!” That is indeed the case. I can neither prove that unicorns exist. Luckily I don’t need to because very few if any think they do. The point is that when other epistemologies come to the fringes of their systemic ability, they may speculate, but they do not assume or create other forms of knowledge to compensate. This certainly does not mean a lack of desire to know the unknown. It entails a humility about our systems and abilities of perception that is in keeping with the history of humanity.

I’d be interested to hear if I am missing possibilities. Is it possible to both identify with a particular tradition and yet not think that it is qualitatively better for them to be in that tradition than others? Is it possible to view faith as an epistemology like any other?

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