• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Atheist Religions?

Is Atheism a Religion
Jimmy Akin recently wrote a post here at Strange Notions asking "Is Atheism a Religion?". The following doesn't engage with Jimmy's post directly—that's what the combox is for—but it does offer a rather different (and fairly blunt) answer to the question. It then tackles what I think is a more helpful question: is there, or could there be, a modern western atheistic religion?

Is atheism a religion?

Let us deal with the question quickly: atheism is not and could not be a 'religion'. Religions are complex, three-dimensional things, typically involving—among much else—beliefs, moral codes, authoritative texts or people, rituals, customs, etc. Atheism, meanwhile, is simply an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods.

(I'll argue the precise ins and outs of this definition in a later post. For now, suffice it to say this is the one favored in both The Cambridge Companion to Atheism and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Pretty much every other mainstream, scholarly definition would make the point just as well.)

For the very same reason, theism is not and could not be a religion either. Theism is a major component of many of the world’s religions. But simple 'belief in the existence of a God or gods' alone is not enough to constitute a religion—and nor is an absence of such belief. To suppose otherwise would be to commit a category mistake.

But if theism, while not itself capable of being a religion, can be a component of religions, might the same be true of atheism? Could there be a genuinely atheistic religion? It is traditional here to appeal to one of the eastern religions, usually Theravada Buddhism or Jainism. However, while I don't know that much about either of them, I do know several scholars of these religions who dispute (sometimes with great irritation, as I have discovered) these kinds of claims. Much hangs, I understand, on whether or not the powerful, supernatural beings (i.e. devas), affirmed in both classic Theravada and classic Jainism, are counted as being actual 'gods' or not. This is an interesting question, but one that won't detain us here. Let's be honest: most discussions about whether atheism itself, or else a particular atheistic worldview/movement, is a religion or not are not really concerned with the ancient East. What they're really concerned with is the modern West. So let us instead ask the question: is there, or could there be, a modern western atheistic religion? And to answer that, we first must briefly ponder the meaning of religion.

What is a 'religion'?

We've already alluded to the difficulties of defining 'atheism', but they're nothing compared to the difficulties of defining 'religion'.

Some sociologists argue for functional definitions: defining religions by what they actually 'do', such as binding groups or societies together, or fulfilling certain (alleged) psychological needs. At their broadest, these kinds of approaches end up discovering religion in all kinds of unlikely places—e.g., in the ‘secular liturgies’ enacted at football stadiums, or in the contemporary ‘cult of brand-names [which is] a form of icon veneration’, as I once read in a (very sincere) German article. Without denying the worth of exploring the genuine parallels such things might well have with religious practices (and vice versa), there is certainly a danger here of our definition of 'religion' becoming so broad as to be practically useless.

At the other extreme, lies an opposite danger: the elevation of a particular, substantive feature of some religion-contenders to the status of a necessary (or even sufficient) condition for 'religion' itself, thereby excluding a number of, otherwise apparently exemplary, examples. Belief in a God or gods would be a prime example. Even if Jainism turns out not to be theistic after all, it possesses pretty much a full complement of other religion-type indicators—why arbitrarily privilege this one, over all the others? Or suppose we decided that all true religions include some kind of hierarchical ministerial structure: that would exclude a number of Protestant congregations, among others.

For this and other reasons, other scholars of religion prefer a kind of Wittgensteinian 'family-resemblance' model (see, especially, Clarke and Byrne's Religion Defined and Explained). This recognizes that there are certain 'clear-cut' religions that pretty much everyone agrees are religions (i.e., most mainstream forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc.). There are lots of similarities and overlaps between them, even if there is no single feature (or group of features) that all of them hold in common. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, of course, made the same point about 'games'. Chess, baseball, hopscotch, I Have Never, and Divinity: The Catholic Catechism Learning System are all considered to be games. However, it is probably impossible to produce a single, essentialist definition that is broad enough to fit them all, but narrow enough not to include lots of other things we don't regard as games.) On this model, membership of the genus 'religion' is not necessarily black and white (e.g., is Scientology a full religion, or a religion-like business; is Falun Gong a close niece or nephew of the family, or a black-sheep fifth cousin, three times removed?). While it also has its problems, my own view is that the positives of Wittgensteinian's approach far outweigh its negatives. (If anyone really cares about my reasons on this, then by all means ask below!)

With that in mind, let's get back to the question at hand: is there, or could there be, a modern western member of the 'religion' family?

The Religion of Humanity

Actually, like our very first question ('is atheism a religion?'), I think that this one admits of a fairly short, clear answer too: Yes.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was a French positivist philosopher, and is widely regarded—along with Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Freud et al.—as one of the founding fathers of the social sciences. For the atheist Comte: "While the Protestants and deists have always attacked religion in the name of God, we must discard God, once and for all, in the name of religion." In God’s place, Comte sought to install Humanity, ‘the Great Being’, as the object of worship for "the only real and complete religion." Nor did he intend this in any figurative or poetic sense. This was indeed to be a religion of humanity, including: scriptures and dogmas (from Comte’s own writings); liturgies, sacraments (nine of 'em!); private devotions; churches and cathedrals (Notre Dame was to become ‘the great Temple of the West’); saints and icons; missionaries and priests (Comte’s Catéchisme positive specified 100,000 worldwide); and even a Paris-based pontificate (with Comte himself as its first incumbent).

Though not as successful as 'Pope Auguste I' had hoped, la religion de l’Humanité was not without its followers. Largely-defunct chapels 'to humanity' can still be visited in France. In Brazil, where the Church still lives on, it even found its way onto the national flag (and is still there today). Regardless, I think a clear case can be made for counting the Religion of Humanity as a bona-fide member of the family Religion—not least because it consciously imitates Catholic Christianity in (almost) all respects.

St Vladimir Ilyich and Humanist Hymns

While Comte's bizarre experiment may be the most obvious example, it is not the only one. More controversially, it can certainly be argued that some manifestations of both Marxist-Leninism and Humanism come close to being at least distant family members of religion (the kind you only see at weddings and funerals). At various times, for instance, the Russian authorities tried explicitly to replace Orthodox customs with Soviet substitutes: 'Red Baptisms', a 'Great Winter Festival' (complete with red stars atop erstwhile Christmas trees), and—most obviously—the preservation of Lenin's corpse in the manner of an Orthodox saint, in a tomb bearing the inscription 'The Savior of the World', as an object of pilgrimage and veneration. (Some Russian scientists even looked forward to a time when Soviet science had advanced so far that he could actually be resurrected.) Humanists, meanwhile, may avail themselves of a range of liturgical celebrations (Baby Namings, Weddings, Funerals), and the ministrations of dedicated chaplains in colleges, hospitals, and the armed forces. They can even, should they so choose, literally all sing from the same (humanist) hymnbook: on my bookshelf I have a copy of Social Worship, published in 1913.

Does that also make Marxism-Leninism or Humanism modern western atheistic religions? I'm not sure—some minority strands of them perhaps. (At the very least, it would be easy to make a fairly full-blooded religion out of them, even though the vast majority of Marxist-Leninists and Humanists don't and wouldn't.) Like I say, the family-resemblance model isn't black and white—but then neither are religions or 'religion-ish' groups. There are other possible examples here, not least the self-identifying 'atheist churches' which have recently sprung up—apparently independently—in Britain and the USA.

Atheist religions?

Even though atheism itself is not, and cannot be, a religion, it does not follow that 'atheism' and 'religion' are necessarily mutually exclusive categories. This does not mean that all, or many, or any more than an unrepresentative handful, of modern western atheists are in fact members of modern western atheistic religions. But the above does, I hope, help us to think more clearly about both 'atheism' and 'religion', and the kinds of things they actually are (and aren't).
(Editor's Note: A much fuller (and properly referenced) version of the basic argument here can be found in Stephen's The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012).
(Image credit: Worship Matters)

Stephen Bullivant

Written by

Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the "LaCugna Award for New Scholars" from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He recent books include Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and (co-edited with Michael Ruse) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). His latest book is called The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.