Religious Atheism?

Atheism is a religion. ~Lisa Kennedy Montgomery

And with that quip above on the HBO Real Time with Bill Maher show Lisa Kennedy Montgomery unleashed a floodgate of irate replies from unbelievers across the fruited plain that atheism sure as hell is not a religion. Kennedy didn’t have much chance to defend her statement on Bill’s show, but she did get that chance within the pages of Reason magazine. So is Kennedy right? Is atheism a religion?

Kennedy writes in Reason “the problem doesn’t seem to be so much in pinning the term religion on atheism, but defining religion in the first place. No one really wants to do this…No one I spoke to…really wanted to take this cloud and pin it down in the examination tray.”  But that’s not true. I do. Certainly people have their own definitions of words and what “religion” (or atheism) means to them and, if you’re not careful, you can end up talking right past each other. For instance, Catholics and Protestants both talk about God’s grace, but grace operates differently under their respective doctrines. In Catholicism, God’s grace is dispensed by a priest with the Church; in Protestantism, God’s grace is granted freely to all who ask. After reading Kennedy’s article, I would say there is a good chance Kennedy and Bill were talking past each other. Not knowing what is bouncing around inside another’s head when it comes to matters like this can lead to much confusion, especially when one starts putting their own personal twist to what words mean.

My Meriam-Webster app defines atheism as 1) archaic: ungodliness, wickedness; 2a) a disbelief in the existence of deity; 2b) the doctrine that there is no deity.

You can see the prejudice in the archaic form from a day when being an atheist wasn’t simply a matter of not believing in god(s), but that meant you weren’t a very good person, either. For many people still, “atheist” remains more than just somebody who doesn’t believe. They’re instruments of evil. And so atheism is a term itself in flux, as it transitions to the later definition from the former.

Religion: 1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods; 2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; 3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

On 1 and 2 atheism definitively gets a pass. There is no belief in gods or ceremonies and ritual designed around such. But on 3, which I believe is close to the point Kennedy was driving at, atheism could be a match. I am reminded of a time when a group of friends was working out a good time for us to regularly gather to play games when one of them quipped, “Martin can’t play games on Sunday, he’s very religious. Religious about his football.” And atheists seem to forget that the word religion can be used in this fashion. You can be religious about your diet, religious about your studies, whatever. It’s just saying that x is a significant part of your life dance. And I will contend that Bill Maher’s heathen leanings are a significant part of what he is all about, so far that he went and made a movie about it, Religulous. You might say Bill, and many other notable atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, pursue their irreligiosity with religious fervor. That’s accurate, and there is nothing wrong with that. Dispelling belief in superstition is their mission.

Here’s the problem. When an atheist hears “atheism is a religion” they don’t hear “atheism must be very important to you.” What they do hear is, “Your position is no better or different from mine and takes just as much faith.” And, very often, maybe almost always, that is exactly what is meant. What atheists don’t like is the suggestion they are just like faithful believers–that their stance is one of faith. One of the kickbacks Kennedy received was “if atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel.” Kennedy goes on to reply “I contend that if your system is about God–or about the non-existence of God–God is still at the center of the argument’s ‘aboutness.’ In the spirit of that ‘off is a TV channel’ comment…God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he’s dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there’s a TV.” Later she tacks on “Atheism…is about God and proving such a overpostulated supernatural being does not exist.” It’s a decent metaphor, but it falls way off the mark. Proving that such a being does not exist is not what atheism is about. Theists can’t even begin to agree on an unambiguous, coherent concept of god for it to be disproved.

It doesn’t take faith to not believe in God. At least no more faith than it takes not to believe in unicorns, faeries, magic, and other mythological creatures.  These tenets are all held with equal candor. The only time a TV comes into play is when a group decides its time to “take America back for God” or want to legislate how the rest of us live. This is why religion gets more flak, why, as Kennedy writes, “[atheists use] the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against secular society,” and why disbelief in goblins, ogres, and Zeus is not considered being “religious.” So if God is the TV, or otherwise topic of debate, and talking about the TV makes us religious due to its cultural pervasiveness, fine.  But in no way is being religious about a subject matter in this manner equivocal to that of the religious faith variety.

The enemy is not religion, the enemy is faith. Believing something without proof is a fuck you to all the other people on earth. ~Penn Jillette to Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, quoted in her article.

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