Rosenhouse shows, with finality, that atheism is not a religion

June 1, 2011 • 1:15 pm

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse takes apart a truly dreadful PuffHo piece by David Lose, who argues that atheism is a religion.  Lose makes four claims, all of them extremely stupid and easily rebutted. The dumbest one is this:

Similarly, it’s worth noting the degree to which Atheists routinely, strategically, and often vociferously position what is often described as their “secular-humanist” views against religious traditions. Read or listen to any of the celebrity Atheists of the past decade like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris and you realize that they fashion many of their arguments not against some alternative economic, political, or philosophical position but against organized religion. Religious faith is clearly their primary opponent in the contest for the intellectual allegiance of the population, which makes it hard not to conclude that they offer their views and beliefs as a viable alternative to traditional religious systems.

The other three are nearly as bad.  In his critique, “Ye olde ‘Atheism is a religion’ canard,” Jason disposes once and for all with this common argument.  It’s well worth reading, for we’re all going to encounter this claim if we’re at all vociferous about our nonbelief.

49 thoughts on “Rosenhouse shows, with finality, that atheism is not a religion

  1. My god that’s a stupid article.

    …which makes it hard not to conclude that they offer their views and beliefs as a viable alternative to traditional religious systems.

    Because… they… are…? There’s- there’s a problem with this??

    1. It’s like claiming that since car driving is a viable alternative to donkey riding*, a car is an animal. (The pull back of both to “means of transport” doesn’t help the religious conflation, then the comparison is atheism and religion are both world views.)

      * I really wanted to say “mud crawling, with leeches”. But then the analogy didn’t go through. :-/

  2. Playing devil’s advocate, would atheism be considered a religion in the context of the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?

    1. Its certainly something that creationists use to object to the teaching of evolution, since it is synonymous to atheism to them, and you’re not allowed to teach atheism in schools.

    2. That’s an interesting question.

      My first instinct would be to reply that the State shouldn’t endorse symbols or statements about there not being a god anymore than they should endorse statements that there is one.

      …But on the other hand, I don’t believe it’s generally considered an issue for the State to endorse matters of fact. And it is just as much a fact that god does not exist as it is a fact that Keebler Elves do not exist. No one would have a problem with an endorsement of the latter, so why the former?

    3. Yes. For legal purposes, the courts have ruled that atheism is in the same category as any other religious position, meaning it is subject to the same restrictions and protections. So, for instance, you couldn’t legally teach children in public schools that there is no god any more than you could teach that there is. But neither can you be legally discriminated against by your employer for being an atheist. Many theists wrongly confuse government secularism (neutrality) with atheism, however.

      1. Quite a few States have laws on the books that prohibit atheists from holding office (Texas comes to mind).
        That’s hardly neutrality.
        And I WOULD call that legal discrimination.

        1. And they can do that AND it is constitutional? Strewth! We had catholic emancipation 180 odd years ago in GB – imagine the fuss if someone prohibited some religious folk from holding public office… I am staggered.

        2. True, while there are still some laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding office, pretty much everyone agrees they are unconstitutional and unenforceable.

          1. It’s true that All laws against atheists holding office were ruled unconstitutional and unenforceable by the 1961 Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins on a first amendment basis.
            That does NOT mean that pretty much most people AGREE on that.
            Just like the famous Dover case ruled that teaching creationism in public school isn’t legal: that doesn’t mean that people stopped trying just that anyway.
            Despite that 1961 ruling, every now and then some nutcase tries to block an oponent’s appointment by a) trying to paint him as an atheist, and b) invoking one of those ‘atheists cannot hold office’ laws. Always fails, but it doesn’t keep them from trying.

            1. Sometimes, even getting people to think that a candidate might be a atheist is enough to get them to vote for someone else.

              Just look at all the “Obama is a secret Muslim” hysteria.

          2. Just for grins and giggles: here’s the Texas variant:

            Texas Constitution, Article I, Section 4: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

            1. Note that I personally would have no problem with this law.
              When pressed on the issue I would acknowledge the existence of oh, a PZ Myers, as my personal choice for Supreme Being (just to use a name that would REALLY piss people off).

            2. You know, re-reading that law, it sounds like the equivalent of some highbrow long-winded law AGAINST slavery that ends with a small sentence in small print that says “(except for black people”).

              1. They are obviously phrasing it that way to get around the federal constitution’s prohibition on religion tests. Of course, if atheism were a religion, it would make such laws even more obviously unconstitutional.

      2. I’d be interested in knowing what the exact wording is on that. Any position can be a religious one, including what causes disease, what the sun orbits around, how humans got here, and whether or not god exists. All you have to do is tie a belief to a supernatural source, and BAM, it’s now a “religious belief.”

        But teaching that germs cause disease (not spirits), that the Earth orbits the sun, and that evolution is how we got here is allowed in all three cases. Really, atheism is no different – there’s just more objection to it.

        It seems to me that separation between church and state can never be complete, and no matter what’s right, you will always end up with a state that reflects what the people make it.

  3. There is a perfectly reasonable word to describe atheism/humanism. Its called ‘a philosophy’.
    I’d suggest that atheism doesn’t even go so far as to be an ideology. It seems so aggro to this Lutheran guy mostly because he’s so use to it being an almost criminal offense. I can only imagine how hard it must be to be in his profession and, having spend your life arguing against other varieties of Sky Daddies, having to suddenly deal with people who are questioning the very roots of faith itself.
    No wonder they want to pigeon hole atheism into a thing they’re used to dealing with. But hey, its better than being labeled as a witch (Burn him/her!).

    1. ‘a philosophy’.

      It can’t be taken as “perfectly reasonable”, as it would exclude empirical atheists such as Carroll (“dysteleological physicalism”) or Dawkins (“there almost certainly is no god”). I believe that is the majority of atheists, actually.

      You could also make a valid case that it could, used in a precise sense, include only agnostics (“don’t ask, don’t tell” =D), as you can’t use philosophy to adjudicate between fact and speculation.

      The more reasonable description would be that it is a position. (Whether a conclusion, proposal, emotional stance, whatever.)

  4. “Professing belief in God, as well as rejecting such belief, each requires equal measures of imagination and nerve.”

    EQUAL measures of imagination? Faith and atheism? Me thinks it takes a WHOLE LOT more imagination to be a ‘believer’ than to be an atheist.

    EQUAL measures of nerve? Faith and atheism? Yeah, sure, it takes a bunch of nerve to ‘come out’ as a devout Christian these days in America. *rolls eyes*

    1. Well, if they want to become Christian missionaries in Tehran, I’ll admit they have more nerve than me. Putting a JesusFish on their car or a line in their message board signature proclaiming their Christianity is about as daring as making your white-bread-and-cheese sandwiches with yellow American cheese instead of white.

      1. A Christian missionary in Tehran is not a case of ‘(un)equal measures’ between Faith and Atheism!

  5. This Rosenhouse fellow seems much too clever to waste time with Lose’s four points. Lose’s arguments barely even follow *as arguments*. Look at #2: “Atheists call themselves atheists.” Therefore…atheism is a religion? Lose can’t even manage laying out premises and getting to a conclusion. It’s all a disconnected haze that doesn’t even rise to the level of emotional pleading.

  6. Very timely in some other discussions I’ve been having. Thanks for posting, and thanks to Jason for saving the rest of us the trouble of making mincemeat out of it.

  7. Again, Faith, Faith Faith. “I believe in my religion and have faith that it is so. I believe in my “faith” and have faith in my belief. I have faith that my religion is the “true” religion because I have faith in my fellow belivers who belive in it, so it must be true.” Horse hockey!
    I myself have only one belief and that is that the sun will appear in the East tomorrow. This is faith based on the fact that the Earth has turned around once a day and orbited the sun for nigh’ on to 4 billion years.I have faith in this because it is not hearsay but a verifiable fact.

    1. That’s not “faith;” that’s a reasonable inference and pragmatic reliance. If you had a religious faith that the sun will appear in the East tomorrow, that would mean that if it suddenly appeared in the West instead, you would either deny that it did and parade your blindness as a virtue, or you’d come up with a way to show that when you said “East,” you really meant West — so your faith is confirmed.

    2. I gave this example, and someone told me that it was “faith” since I could not be 100% sure that the sun will come tomorrow. Or could I read the future?
      And it came from someone who used bee venom therapy, that is to say a faith specialist.

      1. I believe Dr. Coyne dealt with this precise issue yesterday.

        Faith[religion] = belief without evidence.

        Faith[science] = belief based on scientific observation and inference.

        The two are not synonymous. Not even close.

        1. Couldn’t agree more. The reply to those who insist on using only one meaning of a word is to tell them to open a dictionary and have a look at all the words with more than one listed, well-established definition; possibly adding that intelligent people have no problem understanding which meaning is intended from context.

      2. I can read the future and promise you that the sun will come up tomorrow. I would bet my life on that.

    3. Your (and my) faith that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the likelihood that it will do so, based mainly on past experience and reports of it doing so going back millennia. There is a finite but very small possibility that some disturbance will quench its fusion and begin the end of life on earth before tomorrow, and we factor that into our “faith”. Religious “faith” is not like that. You are supposed to believe 100% regardless of (lack of) evidence.

    4. I know this is to nit-pick but are there really sensible reasons for thinking that the sun would not (appear to) rise above the horizon? Is not the idea that the sun might just fizzle out as, as, well as absurd and unlikely as fairies in my fridge eating the butter? That is so far from the realms of anything we can say about the world as we know it as to be impossible. This is why I verge towards the PZ view of why there cannot be a god (see previous discussions on these pages).

      1. I don’t think that’s picking nits. In fact it’s that sort of thinking that validates induction in my mind. There is, after all, only one way for continuous processes to operate; the alternatives are limited only by imagination. To spin it another way, even if I can’t justify believing that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, I don’t know how *not* to believe it.

  8. I followed the link, in hope that maybe Lose began his essay with a nice, clear definition of religion, but of course he didn’t. You’d think that would be the very first thing one ought to do, though, if you’re going to argue that some position which isn’t considered a religion, really is.

    I have a file 6 pages long which I’ve collected over the years: it contains nothing but brief definitions of “religion.” They run all over the freaking board, from religion as “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, especially as found in accepted sacred writings”(Webster’s) to an “attempt to express the inexpressible”(Armstrong) to “… what one does with his solitariness”(Whitehead) to “religion is any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.”(Dewey)

    I think any definition which leaves out the supernatural, the Transcendent, or the idea of there being a hidden, sacred moral order running through the cosmos is not religion. Flat out. No re-defining everything as religion. It ought to be stipulated.

    Atheism, like theism, is simply too broad (or maybe too narrow) to be either religion or not. Scientific humanism or gnu atheism, however, would be at least part of a life philosophy (or eupraxophy, as Kurtz called it.) Some philosophies are religious, some aren’t.

    Lose is playing a game called “I know you are but what am I?”

    1. Massimo Pigliucci uses the redefinition trick to prove that the confrontationists are wrong to say that Christianity is incompatible with science. Apparently there are some individuals who don’t believe in miracles, a creator God, or the supernatural and yet they have a feeling of admiration for Jesus as a moral figure and therefore call themselves ‘Christians’. Therefore it is incorrect to say that Christianity is incompatible with science.

      1. To call a feeling of admiration for Jesus as “Christianity” would have to exclude similar admiration for any other individuals possessing, demonstrating, any such moralities as important or equal to those in the stories of Jesus.

        Certainly, there have been superior moral people to Jesus: who other than Jesus turned children into pigs??

    2. I disagree with your definition of religion, as it leaves out Maoism, Stalinism, National Socialism (Nazi) and other political regimes as =not= religions. But I argue (as have others) that, though not theistic, indeed these types of government/political groupings should be categorized as religions, and their members as religionists. I suggest that the penalty for apostasy (denouncing the faith) be the test to determine whether a “philosophy” is a religion or not. This criteria may indeed leave some generous Unitarian groups, some Wiccan groups, some Animist/Spirit groups, in the “hobby” arena, and out of the fold of Religion, but I believe it is far, far, more important to marry the consequences of such seemingly disparate groups as Mao and his “Little Red Book” and Islam and the Koran, as one and the same, because of the penalty for non-belief in the ruling philosophy. And thus should highly restrictive, barriers to exit, definitional philosophies be regarded as in the same category of “Religion” (?Scientology?). After all, Maoism was a matter of faith, and that faith resulted in deaths to millions of people: true devotion, that. Had she witnessed it, Mother Teresa would have devotionally swooned at the site of the suffering Chinese landscape.

  9. “Jason disposes once and for all with this common argument.”

    That sounds just a bit optimistic. It’s only true if we never heard this argument again. I suspect we will.

    An interesting question is why believers want atheism to be thought of an a kind of faith. I suspect it’s a kind of ‘well, you are no better’ defence.

    1. Also you can note how movements take up and then mirror arguments used against them. Crackpots and creationists are certainly well versed in that tradition.

      (I note with some distaste that gnus do so too, when confronted with Mooney’s et al militant accommodationism we have adopted some of their explanatory models and terminology (“militant”). But I don’t see how one can refrain when attempting a response and/or learning.

      “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” [Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146])

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