Atheism is not a religion

Every once in a while, the topic of religion (or lack there-of) comes up in discussion among me and my friends. I often try to explain what atheism is, or actually what it isn’t, and almost like clockwork it comes up: sounds a lot like religion. It’s an innocent statement, but it also means my explanation failed yet again. It’s a rousing topic full of nuance and passion, no matter the religion, agnosticism or atheism of the participant in the discussion. And it fascinates me so because it’s supposed to be simple! After all, it’s just semantics:

atheism, noun
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods

religion, noun
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Clearly just by looking at the dictionary, one seems incompatible with the other. All the delicious nuance stems from the fact that the term “god” is part of both definitions.

Quick intermezzo before we get into the weeds: I have many friends with a multitude of different religions, people whom I love and respect deeply. I’m not here to take anyones faith away. This is not about whether religion is a force for good or not, there are far more intelligent debates to be had elsewhere. I just like discussing semantic nuance.

What makes it so difficult to pin down is the fact that atheism is really just a word in the dictionary. We’re not even very protective about such words, so we change its meaning from time to time. New information comes to light! The term evolves and mutates and comes to include more meaning still. Looking broadly, though, the definition of atheism forks in two general directions. One direction has it defined mainly as a disbelief in a god or gods, while the other considers it a lack of belief in a god or gods. Did you catch the difference between the two? It’s quite subtle, yet substantial.

Disbelief means you believe there are no gods. You’ve put your two and two together, and decided hey — it just doesn’t make sense to me. This is unlike religion in a couple of obvious ways, first of all the fact that there’s no holy text that describes what you must or must not believe. There’s no promise of an afterlife or lack thereof if you don’t, err, not believe in god. There’s no codex of laws you have to follow to be a “true” atheist. And there are no places you can go to to meet other atheist to, uh, not pray with. (Actually you can still say a prayer if you want to, it’s not like The Atheist Police comes knocking on your door if you do).

The absence of belief, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to pin down. If for whatever reason you never learned about god, well, then you are without belief in god. How could you believe in something you never heard of? Take my daughter for instance. She’s 3, and she’s only talked for the past year or so. I don’t think anyone has told her about religion, not that I know of at least. So she is, by definition, without belief in god. Literally atheos — greek for “without god(s)”. It wasn’t her choice, how could she even make one? I’m not even sure she’d understand what I was talking about if I tried — she’d probably ask for her juicebox and crayons. From this perspective, being an atheist is, in many ways, a default position. It’s what you’re born as. Even if you later in life find solace and happiness in religion, until you found that religion you were for all intents and purposes, an atheist. There’s no shame in that, it’s just a word.

I half expect some readers (thanks for reading 737 words discussing semantics by the way) to ask me: why so defensive, are you sure you’re not describing a religion? Sure, once in a while you’ll encounter someone who takes their atheism so seriously it borders on being a religious experience for them. But that’s fine, they can call themselves atheists too. It’s not like you get a badge at the door. Atheism isn’t organized behind a hashtag, and it’s not about ethics in games journalism.

You are an atheist until you choose not to be, and there’s room for all of us.

Sam Harris: Why We Should Ditch Religion

Sam Harris on religion:

We have people who think you should throw battery acid in the faces of little girls for trying to learn to read in Afghanistan, so clearly, there are real world correlates of that kind of thinking, that kind of orientation. And it’s not our job to not judge it and say, well, to each his own everyone has to work out their own strategy for human fulfillment, it’s just not true. There are people who are wrong about human fulfillment.

Eloquent as always. A tough argument summed up so that anyone can understand it.

Irish Atheists Publish 25 Well-Known Blasphemous Quotes To Test Ridiculous New Blasphemy Law

January 1st, a brand new blasphemy law takes into effect in Ireland, in which it’s now criminal with fines up to 25.000 euros for:

publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted

In response to this Orwellian feat, a group of Irish atheists have gathered 25 blasphemous quotes to challenge the law, including:

Look, I had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.

— Matthias, son of Deuteronomy of Gath, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979.

Nova Documentary On Intelligent Design

It’s no well-kept secret that I’m not fan of the pseudo-science known by some as “intelligent design”, yet it is a guilty pleasure following the ideological tennis match that’s been playing out in American schools this last decade. And so, I loved this — now somewhat old — documentary on the Dover trial on intelligent design. Watch it on your second monitor, and don’t be afraid, it’s got a happy ending.