Atheism as Religion 3

As the first two pieces I’ve written on religion have caused such wide controversy and intense debate, I thought I’d better write a third piece to explain and clarify some of the issues. It’s fair to say a lot of people have questioned and intensely resented the suggestion that certain forms of atheism will fulfil the same sociological and ideological functions as religion. The two are supposed to be antithetical, and for those who look to secular philosophies and ideologies for meaning and value, against what they perceive as the evils and irrationality of religion, clearly the statement that atheism can act as a kind of religion itself is intensely repugnant. However, the difficulty of defining ‘religion’, and the varied sociological and ideological roles it can fulfil, as a well as the intensely varied forms it may take, means that the category of ‘religion’ itself may be so nebulous and difficult to define that many definitions of religion will fit certain forms of organised atheism.

Definition of Secular Alternatives to Religion

Scholars of religion consider that

‘Secular alternatives are not themselves religions but must share enough in common with religions to present themselves as options that exclude religious adherence. Someone who adopted a theoretical standpoint which, for him, excluded religious belief need not accept any alternative to religion. There need not be anything which plays an analogous role in his life to that of religion in the life of a believer. But there are those whose theoretical standpoint is secular but for whom certain commitments perform the same function as does adherence to a religion.’ 1

Thus, for secular, atheist ideologies to compete with religion, they must share certain features with religion, which can make the distinction between an atheist ideology and a religion difficult. Karl Marx and the American sociologist, Peter Berger, consider religion to be ideology. 2 Processual archaeologists like Lewis Binford have similarly regarded religion as a form of ideology, referring to ‘ideological sub-systems’ and ‘ideotechnic artefacts’. 3 Some atheists may regard other atheistic systems of belief as religions. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued that Marxism was a religion through the parallels he perceived with Christianity. God in Marxism, according to Russell, corresponded to Dialectical Materialism, Marx was the Messiah, the proletariat were the elect, the church was the Communist Party, the Second Coming was the Revolution, Hell the punishment of the capitalists and the Millenium the Communist Commonwealth. 4 Russell undoubtedly meant this as an unflattering criticism of Communism. Nevertheless, there was an element of truth in that Communism did indeed possess a strongly religious aspect that saw Stalin structure his funeral oration for Lenin on the Orthodox liturgy, complete with a response ‘We shall be faithful to thy precepts, O Lenin’ and the establishment of Lenin’s mausoleum as a Marxist shrine.

Furthermore, certain atheist ideologies themselves have styled themselves as religions. Auguste Comte declared the gaol of his ‘Positive Philosophy’ to be the worship of humanity, rather than a supernatural personal deity. 5 The founder of the theory that God was merely an alienated projection of humanity’s own nature, Ludwig Feuerbach, demanded a new ‘religion of humanity’. Moreover, certain forms of atheist Humanism describe themselves as religious. For example, Herbert W. Schneider, one of the contributors to Paul Kurtz’s The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism recognised that there were religious forms of Humanism which were ‘an effort to free religious faith and devotion from the dogmas of theistic theologies and supernaturalist psychologies.’ 6 Dewey, one of the founders of modern rationalism, defined and defended what he saw as ‘the religious in experience which stands over and against both ‘religion’ and the religions’. 7 However counterintuitive it appears, it is not hypocritical to state that there are forms of organised atheism that have seen themselves either as a religion, or the due successor to religion. And if all talk about God is considered to be about humanity’s own alienated nature, then those forms of Humanism that assert and affirm human dignity and values may be rightly considered religious.

Problems of Defining Religion

Furthermore, philosophers and scholars of religion have recognised the difficulty in forming an adequate definition of what indeed constitutes religion. Philosophers of religion have attempted

‘to bring out just what it is that distinguishes religion properly so called from other beliefs and activities- from moral codes, for example, or customs, attempts at magic, and the beginnings of science or philosophy. Such analyses have yielded some brave attempts at a comprehensive definition, usually in terms of belief in, together with the worship and service of, some supreme or absolute Being. They have also yielded some valuable, even if partial, insights, like those expressed in Schleiermacher’s dictum, “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence”, or Whitehead’s “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” It seems likely, however, that there is in fact no single feature or set of features belonging to all those, and only those, things which we should ordinarily call religions, but rather that they form what Wittgenstein called a “family”, with a complex network of resemblances and interrelations – so that a satisfactory answer to the question “What is religion?” would be more like an encyclopedia than a one-sentence definition.’ 8

Commonsense definitions of what constitutes religion, such as a belief in gods and the supernatural, are also problematic. ‘Dictionary definitions [of religion] (e.g. ‘human recognition of superhuman power’, ‘belief in God’, ‘any system of faith and worship’) are often circular, prejudiced, or so general as to be useless.’ 9 As a result, some scholars attempting to define religion have suggested that religion in general may be defined as

‘(a) the class of all religions; (b) the supposed common essence of all genuinely religious phenomena; (c) that ideal of which all actual religions are taken to be imperfect manifestations; (d) human religiousness, expressed not only in systems and traditions (explicit religion) but also in ways of life where it is hidden (implicit)…The sciences of religion often employ a functional definition. For example, J.M. Yinger defined religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life.’ 10

Scholars of religion further observe that ‘definers of religion are prone to the error of reification (misplaced concreteness). It is well to remember that to be religious pertains to persons, but not necessarily only those who profess religious beliefs or engage in religious practices.’ 11

Mary Midgeley, in her exploration of the religious nature of some of the metaphysical claims made about evolution, Evolution as a Religion, has stated that the presence of gods within a system of belief is not necessarily a defining feature of religion.

‘It is certainly not enough to say that they do not involve belief in God. Taoism does not do this either, nor does Buddhism in its original form. And the question whether the Buddha is now ‘a god’ is not a simple one at all. He is, after all, to be sought and found within us. Moreover, where there are ‘gods’, their nature varies enormously. They certainly need not be creators. The world is often held to be timeless, or to have some other origin.’ 12

Other scholars have also noted the difficulty in effectively defining religion. One archaeology textbook, for example, recommends the definition of religion provided by the sociologist Anthony Giddens: ‘a set of symbols, invoking feelings of reverence or awe … linked to rituals or ceremonials practised by a community of believers.’ 13 It further considers that ‘these symbols may be of gods and goddesses, ancestral or nature spirits, or impersonal powers… People often use them [rituals] to try to influence supernatural powers and beings to their advantage and to deal with problems that cannot be solved through the application of technology. However, there are some religions without objects of worship. In Confucianism and Taoism, for example, the individual attempts to attain a higher level through correctly following specified principles.’ 14 As a result of this, archaeologists, for example, try to avoid using the term religion except when referring to a particular known religion. ‘Outside of these contexts archaeologists have tended to use the term ‘ritual’ to describe material that might often be better described as religious. ‘Ritual’ is again a problematical term and one also subject to debate as to its definition. Ritual can be both sacred and secular in intent, but this distinction is often blurred and the term is used to describe anything which is not fully understood.’ 15 Thus there is the problem that in archaeology the problem of defining religion have resulted in merely one aspect of religion being used as a descriptor for the whole of it. 16

Additionally, it has to be admitted that Buddhism and Taoism both have a number of gods, spirits and other supernatural entities, whose existence may come as a shock to westerners who know of Taoism only from a reading of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu. There is a tendency amongst westerners attracted to Buddhism to see it very much in terms of an atheist faith. Indeed, during the controversy over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the 1980s and 1990s in Britain, the Western Buddhist Order in the city of Bristol responded to calls for the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover Islam by the Muslim community by declaring that, as an atheist faith, Buddhists wished to see the blasphemy laws scrapped altogether. Yet the Dalai Lama recently admonished Western Buddhists not to see Buddhism as simply another form of atheism.

Problems of Defining ‘God’

There is, however, a real problem regarding the definition of a ‘god’. Elsewhere in her book Midgeley notes that Chinese has no word for ‘god’, despite the existence of an elaborate pantheon of deities. Many African languages don’t have a special term for ‘god’ either, referring to such supernatural entities as ‘spirits’. A similar problem occurs in Shintoism. The kami, the deities worshipped in Shintoism, are immensely varied in their character and may include ‘sacred objects, divine beings, natural phenomena or venerated images.’ 17 Indeed, the kami are so varied, that some western scholars prefer to describe them as a soul, rather than a god, to express their essentially animistic nature. ‘The idea that everything, animate or inanimate, has a kami or soul is of Shinto origin’. 18 Their nature is indeed so diverse that one of the earliest definitions of them, that of Motoori Norinaga in the 18th century, was that they were extraordinary, endowed with high virtuousity and inspired awe. 19 The Quechua word huaca similarly has a plurality of meanings. It means simply ‘holy place or thing’, and the huacas so venerated may include anything out of the ordinary. 20 ‘The Incas regarded with awe, and even worshiped, everything out of the ordinary – a hunchback, twinned ears of corn, a curiously shaped rock, the brilliant planet Venus.’ 21 The ambiguity regarding the definitive traits of divinity also affects the great figures of Celtic legend and mythology. It has been stated that ‘there is no pantheon in Celtic mythology. The very use of the English words ‘god’ or ‘goddess’, denoting a superhuman, immortal entity who is venerated and propitiated and who has power over human affairs, misrepresents surviving records. … Escaping death is not sufficient to be considered divine; the Tuatha De Danann of the pseudo-history Lebor Gabal [Book of Invasions] are usually seen as immortals but not as gods.’ 22

Problems of ‘Supernatural’ as Conceptual Category

Even the nature of the supernatural as a category is questionable. It has been observed that tribal religions regard themselves and their gods as part of nature, not above or outside it. 23 Similarly the gods of ancient Greece, although worshipped as superior beings endowed with power over the elements and humanity, were not necessarily supernatural. They were considered to be like humans, except that they were more rarified and celestial in nature than mortals. Instead of blood, for example, they had ichor. A similar, materialistic conception of God informed Stoic pantheism. ‘The Stoics were materialists, denying fully existence to anything without a body. They believed that the world is a living intelligent Being.’ 24 God, the rational, active cause in the universe, acted on matter through ‘artistic fire’ or intelligent pneuma, a mixture of air and fire. The presence of this fire in certain ratios caused the presence of growth in plants, and soul in humans. The term used for this ratio, phusis, means ‘growth’ and is the root of the English word ‘physics’. The Romans translated the term ‘natura’, hence the English word ‘nature’. 25 Thus Stoic pantheism conceived God as quintessential natural. In the 9th century, the Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena similarly defined God as ‘nature uncreated and creating’. 26 Thus God was considered to be natural, even perhaps superlatively natural, as the author of the rest of nature, rather than supernatural.

Problem of ‘Magic’ as Concept

On the other side of the supposed dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, even magic – often cited as an obvious paradigm of the supernatural – is ambiguous as a category. Although it is now used almost synonymously with the supernatural, it has historically included a variety of concepts and definitions that don’t fit that definition, and paradoxically align it with science. Medieval philosophers and theologians distinguished two types of magic – demonic and natural. Demonic magic clearly worked through the agency of demons. Natural magic, however, referred to occult powers in nature that operated independently of demons. Natural magic referred to powers or properties of objects or herbs that derived not from their own structure, but from emanations from the stars or planets.

‘These latter powers were technically known as occult, and natural magic was the science of such powers. The properties in question were strictly within the realm of nature, but the natural world that could account for them was a broad one: instead of examining the inner structure of a plant to determine its effects, one had to posit influences that flowed from the distant reaches of the cosmos.’ 27

My point here is not that magic itself is scientific, though clearly the technical sense in which ‘natural magic’ was used made it part of the nascent medieval scientific enterprise, even if by today’s level of scientific knowledge it is utterly wrong. It is merely that the modern conception of a radical dichotomy between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ is the product of post-Enlightenment, Western culture and does not conform to the models of the cosmos in pre-Enlightenment Europe nor in other, non-Western cultures today.

Scientific’ Mysticism: The Surrealists

The collapse of a distinction between ‘scientific’ and ‘mystical’ can be seen in contemporary cultural movements. In art, the Surrealists strongly viewed themselves as scientific atheists. They were ardent Marxists, who based their views of art on Freud’s theory of the unconscious. They referred to the somnambulistic séances during which they composed their literary works through automatic writing ‘experiments’. And they were vehemently anti-religious and anti-Christian. In 1949, for example, a group of young Parisians caused a scandal by storming Notre Dame Cathedral, proclaiming that the church was ‘diverting man’s vital energy to the service of a corpse’. Their leader, Michel Mourre, wearing a Dominican cassock, began reading ‘God is dead’. In the ensuing storm of controversy, the leader of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, declared in a letter to the newspaper Combat that ‘a thoroughly wholesome act has been accomplished at Notre Dame’, and the movement as a whole considered it particularly apt ‘that the blow should have been struck there, at the very heart of the octopus that is still strangling the universe’. 28 Indeed, the Surrealists saw themselves as firmly and defiantly acting against religion through their espousal of the irrational:

‘In its running confrontation with religion, for example, surrealism refuses to confine itself to the arena of rational criticism; it adopts the more vigorous methods of humour and eroticism, unleashing defiant and irresistible mages of concrete irrationality which penetrate the surface of false consciousness, so that the dehumanising notions of God, prayer, afterlife, etc., are replaced by liberating images of desire. Such an effort does not contradict but rather complements other revolutionary antireligious efforts.’ 29

Yet Surrealism clearly owed much to the supernatural. The sessions of automatic writing were modelled on Spiritualist séances, and leading surrealists like Breton, Mary Ann Atwood and Ethan Allen Hitchcock were fascinated by Hermeticism and alchemy. 30 In their attempts to penetrate to the core of irrational states, and use this to create a new, and in their eyes more moral, order, it is difficult not to agree with Surrealism’s Stalinist critics who denounced it as a form of mysticism. 31 If religion is defined as about ‘ultimate concerns’, a totalising worldview into which other, subordinate beliefs are fitted, and in which sacrifices are considered entirely appropriate, then despite their loud protestations on this matter, Surrealism by its own definition is strongly religious:

‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly: Surrealism, a unitary project of total revolution, is above all a method of knowledge and a way of life; it is lived far more than it is written, or written about, or drawn. Surrealism is the most exhilarating adventure of the mind, an unparalleled means of pursuing the fervent quest for freedom and true life beyond the veil of ideological appearances.’32

Thus Surrealism is both a way of life, a method of knowledge, and a path to truth and value beyond the rational. Clearly this is religious, even if, as an atheist ideology, it is quite distinct from supernatural religion. Thus it is fair to say that Surrealism was a form of occultism, because ‘the very name of the movement – surrealism – shows that the artists involved were seeking a ‘super-reality, a ‘different’ reality, an invisible reality. They wanted to explore this reality, and to succeed where their predecessors had failed; they wanted to ‘change life’ by writing it into their revolutionary agenda.’ 33 Surrealism thus also includes social reform as well as personal conversion. This religious theme within Surrealism expressed itself in the creation of personal mythologies, such as that of Victor Brauner, or the strange ‘epiphanies’ painted by Leonora Carrington.

Adoption of Religious Functions by Secular Activities

This points to another problem in defining ‘religion’ apart from ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’. In traditional societies, religion may inform and provide social cohesion and a sense of moral community through every activity, from art to sport. As traditional religious faith in the West has declined, these functions have been dispersed from religion elsewhere in society, so that those scholars who adopt a functionalist definition of religion ‘have then argued that whatever supplied these functions was, by virtue of that fact, religion. Hence the idea is aired that religion is the celebration of the civic society, or even of the state.’ 34

J.M. Yinger, the great scholar of secular alternatives to religion, considered that the deep human needs that religion sought to answer still existed, and as religion declined, so the secular alternatives to religion became invested with religious meaning for those who pursued them.

‘Almost every need that we have mentioned in connection with religion finds expression in a wide variety of secular movements. This is particularly true in modern society, in which traditional religious symbols and forms have lost force and appeal. The needs with which religion is connected are still with us. If we are not trained to look to a religious system in our attempts to satisfy them, we will tend to infuse secular patterns with a religious quality. We may seek to overcome a sense of aloneness by joining a lodge, rather than (or in addition to) joining a church congregation. We may struggle with a feeling of powerlessness by imbuing our nation with an absolute quality, rather than identifying with an all-powerful God. We may attempt to rid ourselves of guilt by projecting our weakness onto a minority group, instead of going to confession. We may try to reduce a sense of confusion and doubt by adopting rigid ‘all-knowing’ secular formulas to explain the world’s ills, holding to them with a desperation born more of uncertainty than of conviction. We may attempt to reduce our sense of meaninglessness in life, of boredom in our job, by avid pursuit of entertainment or by alcohol, trying to capture on a weekend what is denied us in the course of our work.’ 35

Gods as UFOs and in SETI

In this sense, there may be considerable overlap between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, and the distinction become extremely nebulous. If gods or spirits are defined as ‘celestial non-human intelligences’, then the aliens reported by those who have experienced UFO encounters are effectively gods or spirits. This is relatively uncontroversial, as there are UFO religions, like the UNARIUS religion of Ruth ‘Spaceship Ruthie’ Norman, the Aetherius Society, and the Raelians. It may also, more controversially, include SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Now fans of Carl Sagan, a firm believer in the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations and an ardent and articulate advocate of the scientific search for them, may be shocked by this, as well as the other scientists and laymen interested in their discovery. Yet the benefits expected from such contact by the scientists involved in the search closely conform to traditional concepts of revelation. Carl Sagan considered that it ‘illuminates the approach to central questions of our being: the search for who we are. Are we the most intelligent beings in the universe or are we just a cosmic commonplace?’ 36 These benefits will include information ‘on curing diseases in carbon-based lifeforms, new sources of energy, how to transmute waste products into any desired element, popular spaceship designs.’ 37 This is remarkably like the theme in various mythologies around the world of humanity being taught scientific, medical and social discoveries by gods, spirits or angels. Sagan himself stated that alien contact would make humans ‘more religious, as well as more scientific’, noting that ‘the word ‘religion means ‘to relate yourself to something,’ that’s all the word means. It’s based on the old Latin term religio, to bind together, the binding of sticks, of taking separate facts and binding them together with a theory or a law, and the bundle of sticks that represented ancient Rome was exactly that.’ 38 Thus, in the view of one of the great leaders of SETI, the search for alien life is itself a kind of religious quest. It is therefore probably not an accident that the aliens in Sagan’s book, Contact, give the heroine information that suggests that the universe itself is designed from a message contained in pi. Within the context of the narrative, one can see the aliens here performing the function as science fictional angels pointing the way to a transcendent God.

Sport and Music as Religion Secular and Theistic

One can also note the way other, secular pursuits are informed by religious terminology and discourse, from music to sport. Great popular musicians are called ‘Rock gods’, and while I disagree with Rich’s suggestion that football can be considered a religion in the same way as certain forms of organised atheism may be so considered, it is true that sport can take on an intensely religious mood amongst some of its supporters. A few years ago in Britain the posters for either the soccer or rugby championship matches carried the slogan ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, taken from the Gospels. Now it might suggest the elite nature of the sportsmen involved, but it also points to the projection onto them of superhuman, even divine qualities as extraordinary athletes conveying transcendental values.

This quasi-deification of musicians, sportsmen and other celebrities is part of a general pattern in which societies have invested music and sport with religious and mythopoeic qualities. Orpheus was the great musician hero in Greek mythology, and the object of a mystery cult. In German and Scandinavian folklore, the music of the trolls had the power to cause even objects to dance. Elvis for many in the West has become the epitome of rock stardom, and the intense devotion to him, manifesting in post-mortem sightings, shrines set up by his fans and pilgrimages made to his home, all partake of religious sensibility, even if the Church of Elvis itself is a self-conscious parody of religion along the lines of the Church of the Subgenius. Elvis, as one of the greatest exponents of popular music, becomes a personification of the transcendental power of music itself and partakes of something of the character of Orpheus and the other musician gods of ancient mythology.

One can see the same mythopoeic projection in sport. Many societies included sport as a part of their religion. The Meso-American Indian societies of the Aztecs, Maya and other peoples played ball games as a formal part of the worship of their gods, which culminated in the sacrifice of the winner. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece were held in honour of the gods, and similar games were held at the funerals of the Roman emperors. The gladiatorial contests of the Roman arena had their origin in Etruscan funeral rituals, before they were secularised as a mass human blood sport. Now clearly there are very few, if any people, in the West who regard their sportsmen as being in anyway literally divine, and a very much doubt that the next Superbowl, baseball world series or soccer world cup will end in the ritual sacrifice of the winners. Yet there is an element of truth in the statement that some sportsmen and women are literally idolised by their fans because of the intense devotion they give to these athletes as superhuman individuals possessed of personal awe and charisma.

Religious Character in Popular Science

The adoption of religious terminology and metaphysical concerns have even affected and informed contemporary science publishing. The atheist journalist Andrew Brown has remarked that

‘the extraordinary thing about the pop-science-book market is that it is not driven by scientific curiosity at all. What people want is science which appears to answer religious questions. This means physics, cosmology and biology. There are no works of popular chemistry. Successful science publishers know this perfectly well: a noticeable theme in science books is that they should take religious titles, though these had better not be too explicit. The God Particle bombed. Does God Play Dice and God and the New Physics did better; Dawkins is unable to resist titles that give a religious reverberation to his pronouncements: River out of Eden, Immortal Coils’. 39

This statement isn’t quite as true as it was nine years ago. There have been popular science books published on chemistry. There is one currently on the shelf of the local bookshop here in my hometown on the science of strong materials. Nevertheless, there is a crisis in chemistry in Britain with falling numbers of students enrolling for degrees, threatening the closure of chemistry departments at university. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including general changes in the attractiveness of certain professions and the perceived difficulty of the hard sciences. However, chemistry does suffer in that it doesn’t have the cachet of offering cosmic insight that physics, cosmology or biology offer.

Now part of the function of religion is to provide an account of humanity’s place in the universe and an ethical system in which to guide their actions and ground their society. While academic scientific textbooks may talk disinterestedly about scientific fact without discussing the wider, metaphysical dimensions, it is the metaphysical dimensions that occupy popular science, shaping the way science itself has become almost a religious faith. ‘For science to spread as an explanation through society, it must become tanged with, perhaps animated by an ethical theory and an account of our place in the universe. Pure science may know about facts quite free of values, but pop science is a matter of facts and values all tangled together until the make some kind of common sense.’ 40

Atheism, Religion and Atheist Religiosity

So, what is the difference between atheism and religion, and is it possible for atheism to be considered a religion? The distinction between religion and ideology is therefore by no means simple, and the subject of much debate. Commonsense states that it should involve the worship of gods or other supernatural entities, and although this clearly fits much that may be considered religious, scholars have also find it inadequate because of the extremely diverse nature of the gods conceived and worshipped across time in human cultures. Indeed, the concept of the supernatural itself is problematic, and is the product of medieval Western culture and may not adequately describe the worldviews of ancient Western culture and contemporary non-Western religions. The best approach is indeed to see it as a system of symbols approached with reverence or awe and linked to rituals by a community of believers. These symbols provide the function of answering deep, metaphysical questions of the nature of existence and its meaning. They are ‘ultimate concerns’ in the phrase of Paul Tillich, which marshal and organise subordinate beliefs.

Now it has to be admitted that while atheism per se may not do this, and there are atheists who clearly are not religious, there are forms of organised atheist ideology that do act in a manner analogous to conventional religion. The person who regularly attends meetings of their Ethical Church, or Humanist or Brights group, in order to hear more about the scientific explanation for their place in nature, and affirm the existence of value and morality through inspirational readings and song, is doing something deeply religious, even if, as Dewey observed, this stands apart from religion and religions. The same is also true of the Surrealists, whose exploration of irrational states of consciousness, occultism and creation of fictional mythologies links them powerfully with mysticism, even if this is a mysticism of the human subconscious rather than a separate, transcendent Otherworld. The members of these secular groups may vehemently deny that they are religious, like the Surrealists and certain Humanists, but this does not mean that they are not acting in a religious manner. Some atheists groups, such as the religious Humanists, members of the Ethical Church and the Positivists, may indeed consider their ideologies to be religious in a broad, non-theistic sense.

This situation may be complicated further by the adoption of quasi-religious attitudes and terminology by secular activities that confer a numinous awe and superhuman status on their practitioners, such as popular music and sport. Yet however much of a personal cult particular pop stars or sportsmen and women may acquire, this remains mostly on the level of metaphor. The British TV chef, Nigella Lawson, may be described as a ‘domestic goddess’, but this is clearly a metaphor to describe her status as a celebrity exponent of feminine domestic skills, rather than a literal deity of hearth and home like Hera or the Norse goddess Sif.

Sport, and the cult of celebrities may provide an alternative to religion, but the closest secular parallels are those ideologies of ‘ultimate concern’ such as Humanism, Positivism, Surrealism and the Brights movement that see themselves as competing with religion and share certain metaphysical concerns and organisational and ritual features with it. These secular ideologies may develop other, quasi-religious features as part of their campaign against religion, such as rituals modelled on religion, as in the Positivists, or the composition of ideological material after religious models, like the catechisms written by the Baron de Grimm in the 18th century.

Conclusion: Atheism as a Religion

As a result, while atheism is not a religion, some ideologies can be described as atheism as religion, because certain forms of organised atheism do indeed partake of a strongly religiously character. This is a cause of concern to some atheists. Sam Harris caused a furore earlier this year when he stated during the atheist conference in Washington, D.C., that atheists should not be a self-identified group with a distinct corporate identity, preferring instead that atheism should be seen as a sub-group of rationalism or science. The Canadian SF author, Robert J. Sawyer, also made a similar point in the pages of a Canadian Humanist magazine, criticising contemporary atheism for adopting many of the features of a religion – such as a distinct symbol for their beliefs in the shape of the scarlet letter – and so conforming, despite their denials, to the image of atheism as a religion by people of faith.

Thus, while atheism, as a complete absence of transcendental belief and practice, clearly does not equal religion, there are ideological forms of self-confessed atheism that share certain features of religion, may consider themselves to be religions and may thus rightly be described, albeit paradoxically, as atheist religions. Hence my original point that the nursery school opened by a group of American Humanists, rather than being a remarkable indication of the innately religious nature of atheism, really was part of a long tradition of religious-like organised atheism.


  1. ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in John R. Hinnells, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London, Penguin Books 1984), p.290.
  2. ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 290.
  3. Timothy Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, eds., Archaeology: The Key Concepts (London, Routledge 2005), p. 47.
  4. John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 12.
  5. ‘Positivism’ in Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. J40-41.
  6. Herbert W. Schneider, ‘Religious Humanism’, in Paul Kurtz, The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, p. 65, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 33.
  7. James E. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 24.
  8. ‘Religion, philosophy of’, in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 304.
  9. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, ed., Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  10. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  11. ‘Religion’ in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 270.
  12. Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 16.
  13. Jim Grant, Sam Gorin and Neil Fleming, The Archaeology Coursebook – Second Edition: An Introduction to Study Skills, Topics and Methods (Abingdon, Routledge 2005), p. 155.
  14. Grant, Gorin and Fleming, Archaeology Coursebook, p. 155.
  15. Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology Key Concepts, p. 46.
  16. Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology Key concepts, p. 46.
  17. ‘Kami’, in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 179.
  18. Juliet Piggott, Japanese Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1982), p. 115.
  19. ‘Kami’, in Hinnells, Dictionary of Religions, p. 179.
  20. Loren McIntyre, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman, The Incredible Incas and Their Timeless Land (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society 1984), p. 16.
  21. McIntyre and Glanzman, Incredible Incas, p. 43.
  22. ‘God, goddess’ in James Mackillop, Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 256.
  23. Grant, Gorin and Fleming, Archaeology Coursebook, p. 154..
  24. ‘Stoicism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 339.
  25. Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God, (London, T&T Clark 2004), p. 37; Jonathan Barnes, ‘Introduction, in Jonathan Barnes, ed., Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 19.
  26. Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy (Oxford, Clarendon 2005), p. 32.
  27. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1990), p. 13.
  28. Franklin Rosemont, Andre Breton and the First Principles of Surrealism (London, Pluto Press 1978), pp. 102-3.
  29. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 75.
  30. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 45; ‘The Surrealists’ in Andre Nataf, The Occult (Edinburgh, W&R Chambers 1991, p. 222.
  31. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 6.
  32. Rosemont, Andre Breton, p. 5.
  33. ‘The Surrealists’ in Nataf, The Occult, p. 222.
  34. Bryan Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford, OUP 1982), pp. 41-2.
  35. J.M. Yinger, ‘Alternatives to Religion’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest (London, The Open University 1978), p. 540.
  36. Thomas R. McDonough, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Listening for Life in the Cosmos (New York, John Wiley and Sons 1987), pp. 221-2.
  37. McDonough, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, p. 228.
  38. McDonough, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, p. 223.
  39. Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: how Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon & Schuster 1999), p. 196.
  40. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 196.

14 Responses to “Atheism as Religion 3”

  1. Rich Says:

    So do you advance the position it is impossible to be irreligious?

  2. JOR Says:

    And now for something only tangentially related, ur mom is meaningless.

  3. beastrabban Says:

    No, Rich, I don’t advance the position that it’s impossible to be irreligious, as I believe I’ve said in the above article.

    Lol, JOR. 🙂 Yup, that just about describes some problems of definition in philosophical arguments.

  4. Rich Says:

    So is irreligious a better phrase than atheist?

    Does it mean I’m not committed to being not committed?

  5. Ilíon Says:


    And now for something only tangentially related, ur mom is meaningless.

    JOR, your second example of inanity is quite misplaced.

    Obviously, I need to take more seriously your speculation that “[You] think [you were] probably uncharitable to [me].

  6. Jim Wynne Says:

    Jebus. You’ve taken 5,500 words (in this post alone) to support what should be a relatively simple proposition to annunciate. In my experience, people who habitually write too much have little confidence in their ideas, and somehow feel that an avalanche of densely-packed verbiage is a viable substitute for cogent reasoning. If you can’t express your contention in a few paragraphs, you probably can’t express your contention at all in a helpful or meaningful way.

    Regardless of your attempts at obfuscation, all you’ve really said so far is that atheists do some stuff that theists do, therefore atheism is a religious construct. It’s been pointed out that stamp collectors, model train enthusiasts, and other social groups also do things akin to what theists do, and you’ve been asked to make a meaningful point vis a vis atheism. When can we expect a concise, meaningful answer?

  7. JOR Says:

    Ilion, I wasn’t referring to you. I was referring to Beast’s critics. This would be obvious if you realized that their criticisms matched the general pattern of what I was complaining about.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for your reply, Jim Wynne. Let’s look at your criticism further.

    You castigate me for writing a long reply, yet this length is clearly warranted. Religion is difficult to define, and the parallels between religion and secular alternatives to religion need to be fully explored. Doing so is not obfuscation. It is merely a recognition of the complexity of the problem. I’m also very aware that some of the readers of this blog will not be satisfied with anything less than a full answer. So clearly I have to supply it.

    In my experience, people who habitually write too much have little confidence in their ideas, and somehow feel that an avalanche of densely-packed verbiage is a viable substitute for cogent reasoning.

    Actually, I’m very confident in my ideas here. And I’m very sure that the reasoning is sound.

    It’s been pointed out that stamp collectors, model train enthusiasts, and other social groups also do things akin to what theists do, and you’ve been asked to make a meaningful point vis a vis atheism. When can we expect a concise, meaningful answer? Well, I’ve answered that question in the above essay. As I point out, stamp collectors, model train enthusiasts and other social groups don’t do the same kind of things definitive of religion as part of their hobbies, but atheist groups do. As I demonstrated, organised atheist groups like the Brights, Humanists, Positivists and the Ethical Churches do have metaphysical theories of ultimate concern around which they construct theories of value, and organise meetings and social rituals. In social they construct a total worldview supported by rituals and symbolism, which stamp collectors, as stamp collectors or any other kind of hobby enthusiasts don’t. And worldviews supported by ritual and symbol are a good way of defining religion. So organised atheism acts in some ways as religion.

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Rich

    So is irreligious a better phrase than atheist?

    Does it mean I’m not committed to being not committed?

    Actually, I don’t think irreligious is a better term than atheist. Irreligious to me has positive connotations of antagonism to religion, while atheism can include simple indifference.

    As for not being committed to not being committed, that would make you an agnostic, or a Pyrrhonian Sceptic, who advocated a complete suspension of belief.

    Now I think atheism is different from religion, though this doesn’t mean that atheists may not describe themselves as ‘religious’, or that organised atheism doesn’t perform analogues to the definitive functions of religion through ritual and symbolism, and a system of morals based on an ultimate worldview.

  10. Rich Says:

    Gnostism speaks to the epistomological question. You can be an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist for example.

  11. Ilíon Says:

    JOR: Ilion, I wasn’t referring to you. I was referring to Beast’s critics. This would be obvious if you realized that their criticisms matched the general pattern of what I was complaining about.

    JOR, I *do* realize that most of the criticisms that BR has been receiving match the general pattern you were complaining about. And ‘inane’ is a good descriptor of so many of them.

    Clearly, I misunderstood something about a key part of your intent (and I see how/why I came to that misunderstanding). I took it that your intent was to link to three specific instances of ‘inane’ criticism to serve as illustrations of your subject matter. But rather, you were just linking to the beginning of the comments made to three of BR’s blogs (my comment on the second merely happens to have been the first) and leaving it to your reader to figure out which comments are or are not inane.

    I’m sorry I misunderstood; I hope you can see *how* it is that I misunderstood.

  12. JOR Says:

    Yeah well, I fixed it. What can I say, I suck at blogging.

  13. Jim Wynne Says:

    As I demonstrated, organised atheist groups like the Brights, Humanists, Positivists and the Ethical Churches do have metaphysical theories of ultimate concern around which they construct theories of value, and organise meetings and social rituals. In social they construct a total worldview supported by rituals and symbolism, which stamp collectors, as stamp collectors or any other kind of hobby enthusiasts don’t. And worldviews supported by ritual and symbol are a good way of defining religion. So organised atheism acts in some ways as religion.

    You’ve demonstrated nothing of the sort. I’ve seen model train hobbyists gather in groups wearing engineer regalia, and engaging in activities that outsiders would think very bizarre. In their own social structures, which are built around a common belief system it’s all very “normal.” They engage in metaphysical musings together, imagining themselves to be train engineers guiding the City Of New Orleans or the Super Chief across their little imaginary landscapes. This sort of behavior does indeed resemble organized religious worship, but I don’t hear you whining about it, or writing 5000-word “essays” about the alleged hypocrisy of their behavior.

    It’s pretty simple: when atheists, model train enthusiasts, stamp collectors and dog breeders band together in social or political groups, some of what they do might be compared to religious rites. So what?

  14. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Rich – there’s a whole world of religious and secular epistemology to be explored there!:)

    Jim – I have indeed demonstrated that certain forms of atheism are religious or quasi-religious. It’s in the above essay, if you’d care to read it. And I’m not whining about it. As a religious person concerned with ultimate things and the meaning of life, I can respect others who share these concerns, even if they approach it from a purely secular angle.

    Now let’s discuss your idea that railway enthusiasts somehow resemble religion. There’s a misunderstanding there about what ‘metaphysical’ means. It has a set of specific definitions, which will include:

    ‘An attempt to characterise existence or reality as whole, instead of, as in the various natural sciences, particular parts or aspects there. Materialism and idealism, Sponza’s monism and Leibniz’s monadology are examples of metaphysics in this sense. It can also be an attempt to explore the realm of the suprasensible, beyond the world of experience; to establish indubitable first principles as a foundation for all knowledge; to examine critically what more limited sudies simply take for granted; or to compile an inventory of what sorts of things ultimately, or in the last analysis, there are’ – ‘Metaphysis’, in Jeffifer Speake., ed, A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan 1979), p. 229. It does not mean simply ‘imaginary’ or ‘fantastic’.

    Now atheists clearly are constructing a total worldview based on a fundamental conception of the nature of the universe, which informs every other aspect of their view of the world. This is like religion, which also has a fundamental view of the nature of the world, a view which also structures their other conceptions and beliefs, but unlike stamp collectors, model railway enthusiasts or any other type of hobbyist. They might have their own codes of conduct, elaborate rituals and complex fantasy lives, but they aren’t engaged in the same metaphysical project as religion and organised atheism. Unless somehow these groups really do develop elaborate belief systems in which the universe, at its very heart, is a postage stamp or railway engine, for example, or somehow modelled on them, and its true nature can only be apprehended through postage stamps or railway engines. In which case they have indeed constructed a religion, and I can think of a number of religious scholars, folklorists and sociologists who’d be very interested in exploring that kind of belief.:)

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