On May 30, 2012, I had a short but powerful discussion on A Controversial Buzz blog-radio talk show with Dr. Carol Swain. Dr. Swain is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and an advocate of the Christian theory. I, of course, reject the theory and believe the colonies and new nation were founded as secular.
The debate was well done and I kept my cool until Dr. Swain said that atheism is a religion because atheists believe they are god. I lost it and apologize if my anger crossed the boundary of good debate.
However, this is an issue that I have run into lately and, as I usually do when confused, decided to research the question.
Does atheism have a dogma? Is atheism a religion?
Allow me to begin with the more controversial questions of atheism – Is there a dogma? The question of dogma is brought up by many conservative Christians in their arguments concerning atheism. If one defines “dogma,” as those of religion do, as a doctrine or a corpus of doctrines relating to matters such as morality as in an authoritative manner by a church” no, because there is no “church of atheism.” (The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster cares only about beer volcanos and stripper factories.)
However, if dogma is defined as a “settled or established opinion, belief, or principle,” atheists may, in fact, have several which are collectively agreed upon.
As a whole, we generally believe in the human spirit, that there is no such thing as original sin. A newborn can never be labeled a “sinner” when a moral compass has not yet been established.
We generally believe in reason and critical thinking as a method of understanding the world around us, to explain its mysteries and to tackle the unknowns. This would include the use of the scientific method, to develop a hypothesis, develop a series of experiments that are repeatable by others to attempt to disprove that hypothesis, to develop a theory based on those tests and to continue to test for failure.
We share other “beliefs,” almost all based on logic and reason. I am sure somewhere, someone who claims to be a “strong atheist,” believes in ghosts or astrology or something else supernatural. You know who you are. But I maintain that “weird” is also part of human nature.
David Lose asked in his May, 2011 column in the Huffington Post titled “Has Atheism Become a Religion?”
I know that many of my atheist friends will argue “No.” That without a belief in mythology, especially the Christian mythologies, atheism is not a religion.
In addition, the courts and laws of the United States do not recognize atheism as a religion. The exception to this are the employment discrimination laws which recognizes that those without religion as a protected class.
Lose makes a number of arguments in support of his thesis. He begins with atheist who are members of the U.S. military were asking for “Chaplins” to care for their “spiritual needs.”
He argues that many of those who declare themselves as “atheists” in the US Census maybe, in fact, are just not declaring they are religious. Using a definition from Jonathan Lanman, Lose states that “‘non-theists,’ those with no particular religious belief…” as opposed a, “‘strong atheists,’ those who view religion not only as irrelevant but as misguided and dangerous.” But that is not quite right.
“Strong atheist” comes from Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” using a seven point “spectrum of probabilities,” Dawkins’ own grading system.
- Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
- De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
- Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
- Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
- Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
- De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
- Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.
Note that Dawkins does not mention the relevancy of religion. Yes, some “strong” atheists do believe that religion has no place in their lives. However, others believe that religion and its mythologies may have some purpose to the individual believer. Religion’s relevancy is in the eyes of the individual.
Dogma alone does not make a religion. Even the recognition of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or being ordained in the Universal Life Church does not make one a person of religious faith. It does mean that one has a good sense of humor. Just call me Rabbi, Father, Imam, Monk, Sage Dave.
Nor does the wanting to establish atheist chaplains in the armed services as Lose and others has suggested. The real problem is Christian military chaplains evangelizing to “non-believers,” which is prohibited by military law. The real problem is the failure of those in charge of the U.S. military who close their eyes when it comes to non-believers being discriminated against. The real problem is a “belief” that atheists are somehow non-Americans and only a Christian can be patriotic.
The ultimate problem is that those who believe in an all-powerful and knowing western God cannot agree on how to define or worship that entity. From snake handlers in West Virginia to New Agers like Deepak Chopra, who happens to believe that God is an acronym for “Generalization, organization, delivery” (http://youtu.be/wi2IC6e5DUY, 35:20), all say the other is wrong.
But atheism does not take on the mythologies of the “whoo-whoo” inner feelings of the being as “truths.” Blind truth is truly blind to evidence and one who does not believe in the mythos of theology need evidence.
Therefore, in the simplest terms, atheism is not a religion.