Truly there is no end to the vapid inanity the HuffPo Religion section will post. Our latest example comes from David Lose, in an essay titled, “Has Atheism Become a Religion?” Want to take bets on whether the answer is “No”?
I don’t recall who first said it, but it has been wisely noted that if atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. That ought to be the end of things, but Lose encourages us not to dismiss the question out of hand. He then presents four lines of evidence. Let’s have a look.
1) As recently reported in the New York Times, military personnel who identify themselves as “Atheists” have requested chaplains to tend to their spiritual needs. As the Times article notes, “Defense Department statistics show that about 9,400 of the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military.” Having their own chaplains, the article explains, would give Atheists a sense of legitimacy and help validate their own system of values and beliefs.
How on earth is that evidence that atheism has become a religion? It looks more like evidence that atheists feel a bit beleaguered in a military environment that tends to be suffused with Christianity.
2) The U.S. Government reports that in 2008 those identifying themselves specifically as “Atheist” composed the 18th largest group of 43 possible categories of “self-described religious identification.” The number of persons so identifying themselves almost doubled from seven years earlier. Admittedly, “Atheist” is one of the options listed under “no religion specified,” but given that other options for respondents included checking “Agnostic” or “No Religion” or not answering the question at all, it appears that identifying oneself specifically as an Atheist, as opposed to simply “not religious,” is growing in appeal. This points to the utility of a distinction made by Jonathan Lanman between “non-theists,” those with no particular religious belief, and “strong atheists,” those who view religion not only as irrelevant but as misguided and dangerous.
You can make whatever distinctions you like, but, save for some semantical games, I fail to see how this makes atheism a religion. I’m certainly glad to hear that the explicit rejection of religion is becoming more common, but it seems odd to argue that rejecting religion makes you religious. For some reason I’m reminded of that old SNL commercial, where Sam Waterston represents an insurance company selling policies against robot attacks. At the end of the commercial we are told, “People who deny the existence of robots may be robots themselves.”
3) Similarly, it’s worth noting the degree to which Atheists routinely, strategically, and often vociferously position what is often described as their “secular-humanist” views against religious traditions. Read or listen to any of the celebrity Atheists of the past decade like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris and you realize that they fashion many of their arguments not against some alternative economic, political, or philosophical position but against organized religion. Religious faith is clearly their primary opponent in the contest for the intellectual allegiance of the population, which makes it hard not to conclude that they offer their views and beliefs as a viable alternative to traditional religious systems.
That’s very perceptive, don’t you think? Of course atheists direct their fire at organized religion, and rightly so. But, once again, how does arguing that organized religion is a blight the world would be better off without transform atheism into a religion? Offering your views as an alternative to traditional religious systems does not mean that your views comprise a religious system of their own.
4) Finally — and you probably knew this was coming — consider all the comments made by self-identified Atheists on articles published in the Religion section of the Huffington Post. Seriously. Either Atheists have way more time on their hands than the rest of the population or they’ve got something to prove. This assertive, us-against-them tone (in this case, against established religion) is characteristic of new religions. (Think of the Christian gospels’, especially Matthew and John, stance toward first-century Judaism, for example.) As Rabbi David Wolpe observed a few months ago, there is an astonishing garrulousness to the comments made by Atheists to posts about religion that suggest not simply a lack of interest in, or even disdain for, religion but a competitive anger directed against persons of traditional religious faith. (Obviously plenty of religious folk radiate the same garrulousness, but this post is about Atheists.)
An assertive, us-against-them tone against established religion is also characteristic of groups that are consistently derided and belittled by it, which certainly describes atheists rather well. And let me suggest that people who use asinine cliches about commenters “having too much time on their hands” represent the lowest level of the blogosphere.
Lose now turns to three reasons why he thinks it’s terribly important to describe atheism as a faith. I’ll leave the first two as exercises for you, but here’s the third:
Third, characterizing both organized religion and emergent Atheism as distinct faith traditions invites a measure of mutual regard and even respect that is sorely lacking in present discourse. Professing belief in God, as well as rejecting such belief, each requires equal measures of imagination and nerve. As it turns out, doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is. For this reason, we can hold out the hope that religious and non-religious believers alike may recognize in each other similar acts of courage and together reject the cowardice of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular. Being able to disagree respectfully is a small but significant step that believers and non-believers could take as they, together, contemplate admiring, understanding, and preserving this wondrous world we share.
Equal measures? No.
As for certainty, not doubt, being the opposite of faith, please. Atheists are not the ones who need lectures about excessive certainty. Let’s not forget that it is Christians who claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God. It’s the Catholic Church that claims an exclusive right to interpret the Bible, and claims its leader can speak infallibly at least some of the time. It is Christianity that, in its culturally dominant forms, preaches eternal damnation for anyone who demurs. Against this atheists and agnostics just point out that the evidence for these propositions is very weak. Tell me again about how these positions require equal measures of faith.
I’m all in favor of respectful disagreements, but, at the risk of being childish, I would note that it was not Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens who started this little fight. Respect is a two-way street, and I see very little of it coming from the leading representatives of religion.