WHY ATHEISM IS A BELIEF SYSTEM

Article by Andy Bannister | excerpted from RZIM Zacharias Trust

This is an excerpt, please visit Zacharias Trust to read the complete article and footnotes


In recent weeks, the merry bunch of atheists who like to hang out on my Twitter feed have posted similar examples, my favourite being:

Atheism isn’t a claim. It’s just non-belief in the claim “There is a god”.

Since this idea is heard increasingly frequently, often when the atheist making it is asked to give reasons or evidence for their position, it’s worth taking the time to briefly explore six problems with the idea that atheism is not a claim or a belief—and that to argue otherwise is to place oneself on the same level as my Sweden-denying friend.

Neither True, Nor False, But Meaningless
A further drastic problem arises if the atheist wishes to claim that his statement “there is no God” is not a claim or a belief—if it isn’t, then it cannot be true or false. The problem is that only claims can be true or false. It makes perfect sense to ask whether a claim like “It is raining today” or “The Maple Leafs lost again” is true or false.[4] On the other hand, it is meaningless to ask whether the colour blue, a small off-duty Czechoslovakian traffic warden, or the word ‘Wibble’ are true—they are not claims and thus cannot possess a truth value.

So here’s the problem for the atheist. If atheism is not a claim of any kind, then it is simply meaningless. On the other hand, if the atheist wishes to claim that his atheism is true, then that must mean that atheism is a claim, and claims need to be defended, evidence provided and reasons given. If atheists wish to join in the conversation and the debate—and I believe that they deserve their seat at the table of ideas as much as any other worldview—then they must recognise their belief for what it is and start behaving accordingly.

Belief Leads to Action
A third problem with the idea that atheism is not a claim or belief, but merely the absence of belief in God, is that absences possess no causative power. If I drop a sledgehammer on my foot, it will cause pain. Touching the screen on your iPod may cause an Abba track to play through your headphones. But a non-existent sledgehammer or non-existent iPod causes nothing (in the case of Abba songs, much to the relief of lovers of music everywhere).

When it comes to beliefs, much the same applies. Non-belief in the tooth fairy does not cause action (it might arguably cause non-action, such as not putting your teeth under the pillow when they fall out.[5]) For something to cause an action, it has to be a positive belief, an actual claim.

So what about atheism? It doesn’t take a lot of searching to quickly discover that atheism does indeed cause actions. For example, many Internet-dwelling atheists read sceptical websites, edit Wikipedia articles, frequent atheist discussion forums, and post anti-religious sound bites on Twitter. These are all actions, caused, one would imagine, by their atheism. Likewise, it was his atheism that caused Richard Dawkins to write his best-selling book The God Delusion and, presumably, atheism that led many enthusiastic young sceptics to buy it, causing if not much rejoicing in heaven, certainly much celebration in the North Oxford branch of whoever Dawkins banks with. For a non-belief, a non-thing, atheism looks rather busy and active and so we must be suspicious of anybody telling us atheism is nothing.

I Disbelieve, Therefore I Am
There is one final powerful piece of evidence that atheism is a belief and that is its tendency to act as an identity marker. Many people self-describe as atheists, in a way that non-believers in the tooth fairy, Atlantis or Santa Claus do not. I have never, for example, introduced myself at a party as an “Atoothfairyian” and I have no plans to start doing so. But atheists on the other hand do use their non-belief in God as an identity marker. They proudly write ‘atheist’ or ‘free thinker’ in their social media profiles and the more zealously enthusiastic change their profile pictures to little icons of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Furthermore, atheists show a tendency to gather together in communities centred around their atheism. For example, they hang out online at places like RichardDawkins.Net in order to beat up on believers and remind one another how cool it is to be an atheist. They attend conferences and seminars, they buy books written by atheist gurus like Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris,[11] they have creeds and accuse those who disagree with them of heresy.[12] They are even starting churches. I’m not making this up—in London, England a group of atheists have launched ‘The Sunday Service’ where every week, hundreds of people gather in a deconsecrated Anglican church to sing secular songs (like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’) and hear messages on everything from science to the importance of volunteering. They then sit around and enjoy coffee and biscuits.[13]

Quite how a non-belief, a non-claim, a non-thing has performed so well as an identity marker and as the kernel of community is mystifying. The much simpler suggestion is that atheism is a belief and, just like other beliefs, ranging from the political to the religious, can indeed form part of a person or a community’s identity. Atheism looks like a belief, functions like a belief and behaves like a belief—in short: it is a belief.
But can we go further than this? Could some forms of atheism even be described as a religion? Many scholars think that they can, especially the ‘New Atheist’ form of irreligion that has proven so popular of late. Listen to these words from Stephen Prothero of Boston University:

Atheism is a religion of sorts, or can be. Many atheists are quite religious, holding their views about God with the conviction of zealots and evangelizing with verve … It stands at the center of their lives, defining who they are, how they think, and with whom they associate. The question of God is never far from their minds.[14]

Can atheism really be described as a religion? I believe so. You see, simple disbelief in God does not make one non-religious. As Stephen Prothero points out, plenty of religious people don’t believe in God, including many adherents of Buddhism, Confucianism and some forms of Judaism.[15] The key is what we mean by the word ‘religion’, something scholars have debated for decades. A useful definition was offered by sociologist Émile Durkheim, who defined religion as ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things’.[16] Now before atheists get too antsy, Durkheim was clear that ‘sacred things’ did not necessarily have to be supernatural beings such as gods, but could be anything held dear to the person including ideas or values. It’s really not difficult to see how atheism, with its fetishization of science and human reason fits this definition quite nicely.

Another helpful way to think about the word ‘religion’ is to consider a religion as a system of belief that attempts to answer ultimate questions: Is there a God? Why are we here? How do we determine good and evil? What happens when we die? Atheists certainly claim to have answers to those questions (“No”, “Time plus chance plus natural selection”; “Personal preference”; “We rot” etc.) and so fits the definition well.

Continue reading at RZIM Zacharias Trust

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