The Nature of Atheism


Question

Is atheism a religion?

Answer

H.D. Goswami Profile Picture

First, we can address the issue of the difficulty scholars have in defining “religion.” I have always found the academic inability to define religion to be more a sign of the academy’s lack of common sense, than a definitional problem inherent to religion. Incorporating Smart’s seven-fold list, why can’t we simply say this: religion is a set of ultimate values and beliefs that define for individuals and groups, what is ultimately real, ethical, and beneficial.

Would it be fair to claim that atheism is a more “natural conclusion” when one tries to be as rigorous as possible, only using the simplest reasons to explain empirical observations? I would answer this with another question: is it always the case that a rigorous, methodologically atheistic approach is the simplest? It is certainly simplest in that it is uni-dimensional, giving exclusive validity to the physical and none to the metaphysical. But apart from having the simplest inventory of entities, in some cases the analysis itself becomes extremely complicated and unwieldy in order to exclude a metaphysical entity and maintain ontological “purity.”

Atheists think their belief is more solid because the existence of God cannot be proved beyond doubt to all people. Bertrand Russell’s Flying Teapot argument is well-known. Russell felt that he did not have to prove the nonexistence of a teapot orbiting the Earth. This does not mean that the teapot is definitely not there, only that it is improbable. Similar claims are made by Pastafarians and those comparing God to Santa Claus.

But most human beings that ever lived, including most thinkers, believed in some kind of divine being. This does not “prove” the existence of a divine being, but it shows belief in one to be inseparable from the general evolution of human thinking. This represents a gigantic disanalogy with flying teapots or flying spaghetti monsters.

So, yes, atheism is a religion and I use the word “religion” rather than alternatives like “worldview” for two good reasons:

  1. It shatters the false, intellectually destructive dichotomy of religion and science.
  2. It reveals the non-rational, ultimately metaphysical core of every worldview, including atheism.