In an upcoming post, I was discussing the debate about whether or not atheism qualifies as a religion. If you read the post, you’ll see that theory debunked (along with a couple other claims). But I did come across something during my research that made me curious.
The Creation Ministries International (CMI) website has a page on why Atheism (with a capital “A,” like the scarlet letter) is a religion. To prove their point, they use Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion as criteria (I can’t be the only person who read “Ninian Smart” and went right to “Noonian Soong” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, can I?)
Anyway, I decided to go over these seven dimensions and, as an actual Real Life Atheist, see whether or not they held up. Is atheism a religion? Or is CMI simply engaging in logical gymnastics in order to get across a very biased and ill-informed point? (Spoiler: it’s definitely the second one.)
So here they are, the seven dimensions of religion by writer, religious scholar, and creator of the first android to work on board a star ship:
CMI states that the atheist narrative is evolution. Wrong. Atheism is not inextricably linked to evolution. There are atheists who don’t ascribe to evolution, and there are evolutionists who are not atheist. Many atheists tend to also be evolutionists, but it is by no means a requirement. This is important to understand, because this isn’t the first time this false equivalence is used to argue the point.
This is basically the argument that if you feel emotions it is a religion. Which is weird to me. I feel emotions for my boyfriend, for Marvel movies, for a good egg bagel. I’m not making a religion out of any of those things. That religion claims any kind of monopoly on feeling things is the craziest fucking shit I’ve ever heard.
Smart also includes “faith” in this category, which CMI says atheists have in evolution. This is not only misapplying the word “faith,” and once again falsely equating atheism with evolution, it also reveals how little they understand about the difference between cosmology, abiogenesis, and evolution. Typical.
Here Smart and CMI also puts a kibosh on any kind of social or hierarchical structure that doesn’t have to do with a faith system. They say that people like authors and scientists are akin to atheists’ priests and religious leaders. Which gives them a power they never claimed to have or want, and also means that basically anything can be a religion. Is a family instantly a religion because there are parents and children engaging in a hierarchical social structure?How about a kingdom, or a university, or that annoying clique from high school?
Here we find the claim that “secular humanism” is a branch of atheism and that atheists adhere to this “doctrine.” Many atheists also call themselves secular humanists, but according to the Council for Secular Humanism, “atheism is only a position on the existence of God, not a comprehensive life stance. Nothing about atheism as such compels atheists to adopt any particular value system.” Their website quotes British author Jeaneane Fowler, who notes:
“while atheism is a ubiquitous characteristic of secular humanism, the most that can be said of an atheist is that he or she does not have belief in any kind of deity; the majority of atheists have no connection” with secular humanism.”
In a moment of honesty, CMI comes right out and admits that “most Atheists adhere to one ethical system or another,” emphasizing their lack of ethical conformity. But for some reason still try to make the point that they share an ethical framework. Are we just lumping all ethical frameworks which don’t believe in a God-given morality into one group? Not all atheists are moral relativists, and not all moral relativists are atheists.
They also try to use the Nazis as an example of a “morally relativistic ethical framework,” the problems with which I discussed in a previous post. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Atheism is just the disbelief in a god, and has no necessary bearing on any other part of your worldview.
Unlike some of the other dimensions, I agree with Smart on this one. Ritual being a component of religion seems pretty basic and straightforward. If you think about a religion, it’s unarguably going to have some kind of ritual attached to it. CMI admits that atheism doesn’t have rituals, but shrugs it off: “Because atheism is a relatively recent movement, it doesn’t have much of a history to commemorate.”
Bullshit. First, atheism is not recent, there have been atheists for as long as there have been religious people. People are just now starting to feel more comfortable identifying as such. Second, the age of a religion or the absence of a long history has never stopped recent religions from developing rituals, e.g. Mormonism (1840s) or Wicca (1920s).
According to Smart, this includes “all the physical things created by a religion such as art and buildings, and also natural features and places treated as sacred by adherents.” For some reason, CMI goes straight to the idea that atheists are secretly also pantheists, because “nature is treated as sacred by some Atheists in and of itself.” While I know some atheists who also ascribe to pantheism, I know many more who would laugh such a concept out of the room.
If I were a Christian trying to claim atheists had religious materials, I’d at least go to books like Origin of the Species or God Is Not Great. (But then I guess every idea that resulted in a published book would also be considered a religion — and while I’m all for The Church of J.R.R. Tolkien, I don’t think that’d be a reasonable jump to make.)
Verdict: Not Very Smart
I’m not sure where I stand on the seven dimensions of religion. It seems to me that most of the criteria could apply to just about anything: a culture, an individual family, a fandom. Maybe reading some of his work will give me a better appreciation for his viewpoint, but as of right now, I’m not terribly impressed.
Regardless of the merits of Smart’s theory, there will always be some people who are convinced by CMI’s breakdown of “the religion of Atheism.” If they are, it only reveals how little they know about actual atheists and how deeply ingrained their own biases have become. The only thing all atheists share is a disbelief in gods. Other than that, we’re a pretty varied group (maybe not varied enough to boast 33,000 different denominations across global traditions, but varied just the same).