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The Religious Atheist

Posted by Lara Douglas November 17th, 2009 |

Due to the rather volatile nature of the subject I am about to discuss, I would first like to make my intentions as clear as I can.  It is my belief that the knowledge of mankind is inherently flawed; the word ‘fact’, to me, means very little.  Our knowledge of the world, whether it is of how it works, or why, is changing so constantly that I would not honestly apply such a strong word to even the sentences I am currently typing, although I do believe them wholly.

As such, when something comes up in conversation that is as far beyond our comprehension as the question of how and why we came to be here, a word such as ‘fact’ should be simply thrown out the window.  On the contrary, each religion to date will throw the word around shamelessly, and today’s Atheists are using the word as if it were solely their own. 

In this article I attempt to define religion and find out exactly what it is, if anything, that separates modern Atheism from being defined as a religion.  To those of you who are wondering, or possibly assuming, I would like to quickly note that I am not Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, or any other religious group you care to come up with, with special emphasis on Scientology.  I am merely an interested observer in the way the Atheist movement is currently changing.

Rosary Bead in Question Mark Shape by KulickiOne of the few things that Atheism and Christianity have in common is the fact that both groups are noticing the active uprising of the Atheism movement over the past few years, although obviously they both have very different opinions on the matter. 

Atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a god or gods, and is therefore not considered to be a religion.  The definition of religion, however, is one that is sketchy at best.  The most common belief is that it is exactly the opposite of Atheism; the belief in a higher power such as a god or multiple gods.  This excludes even as well known a religion as Buddhism, one branch of which does not believe in a god or gods.  So what is the definition of religion?

When researching the topic, one will find that it is almost impossible to find a definition that is able to cover each religion.  Another commonplace definition is that religion is a belief rooted in history.  But then why do governments all over the world have the power to give new beliefs a religious status?  This begs the question of how a religion is, at the very least, legally defined.  How, for example, did a belief system as recent as Scientology become classified as a tax-exempt religion, in some countries at least, if not others?  What were the major defining factors that swayed the judge to give them such a status? 

A more well-rounded definition is given by George A. Lindbeck (Lindbeck, 1984), “A religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought… It is not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (though it may involve these), or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings, or sentiments (though these will be generated).  Rather, it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings and sentiments.”

Some might consider this to be rather vague, but in essence it is the truest description that I have come across.  One will find many religions that claim not to be a religion but, in fact, ‘a way of life’.  But isn’t this what every religion encompasses?  The search for a religion is a search for truth, for knowledge.  The search ends when the individual finds what he believes teaches him or her the basic facts of our existence and the way that we can get the most out of it.  Each of us ask the same question and each religion endeavours to answer it; how should I live my life and why?

It is in finding our own personal answer that religions begin to arise.  The answer is to the asker their own form of enlightenment; such a feeling of purpose and truth awakens that as a result we feel the uprising need to Spread the Word!  This word may be that of god, it may be that of many gods, but it also can be that of science, or that of yoga or a balanced diet or even that of the truth behind flying spaghetti.  

Flying Spaghetti Monster

“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free.” (Ingersoll, 1896)   

It is at this point in time that a religion begins to spread, and also when it begins to encounter problems.  It seems quite often that the simpler the solution is, the more popularity the idea gains, but other ideas can also gain just as much popularity through fear.  This may be fear of a god, fear of what will happen in an afterlife, fear of being different, or fear of being deemed unintelligent through the lack of belief or understanding of what the religion teaches; “A believer is not a thinker and a thinker is not a believer.” (Sherman, 1969)

The most obvious problem that religion has is religious intolerance.  While one person has this overwhelming feeling of truth and knowledge, the person or persons they then share this with may be offended if it clashes with their own ‘truth’.  A discussion between two individuals of different faiths about said faith is rarely a civilised or open-minded one, even amongst the normally rational or intelligent, and such rationality and intelligence is often called into question; ‘I prefer rationalism to Atheism… The question of god and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.’ (Asimov, 2002)

The biggest problem that religion has, however, is that of being universally accepted.  The reasons for this are obvious, yet religions still go about trying to convert the rest of the world to their own way of thinking.  Those who believe they are of a non-religious status follow the same pattern, but seemingly against religion itself; “So returning to tactics and the evolution lobby, I want to argue that rocking the boat may be just the right thing to do.  My approach to attacking creationism is unlike the evolution lobby, my approach to attacking creationism is to attack religion as a whole.” (Dawkins, 2002)

Although it would like to claim as such, Atheism is not exempt from anything that has been stated so far, as evidenced by the adjacent Atheistic quotations.  The fact that there is no supernatural being in their beliefs is irrelevant, and the fact that science is constantly changing and updating has both its pros and cons when arguing its ‘truth’.  And, like many other religions, its followers will ultimately see anyone who disagrees with their beliefs as less intelligent beings.  “There is not one single established religion that an intelligent, educated man can believe.” (Shaw, 1997)

A common thread amongst Atheism is the promotion of ‘free-thinking’.  Unfortunately in context this is more often than not intended to mean ‘one who thinks the same way as we do’; “A believer is a bird in a cage, a freethinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing.” (Ingersoll R. G., 1873)

Cheap Travelling by Josh Blake

So what is it that separates Atheism from religion?  The most common argument is that one cannot define a lack of belief in something as a religion.  But technically agnosticism is the correct term for this.  Agnostics do not believe there is proof of god, they do not believe that there is proof that there is no god, and they do not believe that there are any grounds for the argument to change their lifestyle in any way.  Atheism, however, is the firm belief that there is no god. 

Then is it the fact that Atheists have no set rules which they need to follow?  Or rather, that the rules they have set for themselves, such as a belief in science and ‘reason’, are so vague that they can be interpreted by each individual as they deem necessary?  This is a much better reason than the last, and yet is one that I actually have yet to see proposed.  It can be refuted, however, by the fact that most religious titles cover a broad range of beliefs, so much so that most of them then have sub-categories.  A Christian, for example, could have any number of beliefs; the only assumed knowledge of such a broad term is that they will believe in a god.  Atheism may not have formally named these categories as of yet, but it is quite simple to put them in place.

The Evolutionary Atheist; one who believes in the theory of Charles Darwin.  The Scientific Atheist; one who believes science has the answers to everything, although doesn’t necessarily believe in the theory of evolution.  The Observed Atheist; one who believes the universe exists simply because we are observing it.  The Simplistic Atheist; one who doesn’t believe we came about by evolution, doesn’t understand science, but is nevertheless most certain that we were not created by a god.  This is, quite obviously, a very rough sketch of the categories Atheists may be put into, and I’m sure there are many more that I have not included.

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheismThe final argument against Atheism being a religion is that of ritual, and I admit it is the most valid of all arguments presented to me.  Atheists in general do not have religious rituals such as prayer or meditation.  It could be argued, however, that by the founding of recent Atheist Clubs for both school students and adults, it is beginning to teeter on the edge of becoming a ritualistic religion.  Attending Atheist meetings once a week is akin to heading to Church on Sundays, which is considered a religious ritual.  This is a small step, but as atheism is rapidly changing I believe it is the first of many. 

So, in short, there is no reason that I can find to continue to exclude Atheism from being a religion.  We are in an age where there are Atheist clubs at schools and regular meetings at rented halls for the older sympathisers, where Atheists have been willing to stick by their belief literally to the death, where Atheists are actively recruiting non-believers (as such) to their own cause, and where Atheists are discriminated against for their beliefs (although not as harshly as some like to claim).  We are in an age of the Religious Atheist.



Asimov, I. (2002). It’s Been A Good Life. In I. A. Asimov, It’s Been A Good Life. Prometheus Books.

Dawkins, R. (2002, February). Richard Dawkins on Militant Atheism . Retrieved April 2007, from www.ted.com: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/richard_dawkins_on_militant_Atheism.html

Goldman, E. (1916, February). The Philosophy of Atheism. Retrieved from www.spunk.org: http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/goldman/sp001502.html

Ingersoll, R. G. (1873). Individuality.

Ingersoll, R. G. (1896). Why I am Agnostic.

Lindbeck, G. A. (1984). The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Shaw, G. B. (1997). 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt. Prometheus Books.

Sherman, M. N. (1969). M.D. Interview. Daily Colonist .


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7 Responses to “The Religious Atheist”

  1. J.A.DeAngelis says:

    This was a very informative essay on atheism and religion and a joy to read. Please keep them coming.

    I agree that atheism has most of the characteristics of a religion. But I also know through my in-depth study of different religions over the years that what a religious person believes and what their ‘texts’ say are almost always completely different so I’d advise anyone looking into a religion to investigate it on their own without any follower whispering in their ears.


  2. Lara Horgan says:

    I couldn’t agree more, in many cases people take what they wish from religious texts and ignore the rest. A favourite quote of mine from Mahatma Gandhi is, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    Thanks very much for the comment. ^_^

  3. Elise says:

    Interesting, never thought of it like that

  4. Todd Greene says:

    When you change words to mean anything you want, then you can of course use them to justify any argument. Of course, that doesn’t make it correct.

    For example, you point out that since one branch of Buddhism doesn’t have belief in a god, therefore atheism is a religion too.


    Just because someone who is an atheist can *also* follow some particular religious tradition doesn’t make atheism itself a religion.

    Tax-exempt status?


    You cite a definition by George A. Lindbeck, and even acknowledge that it may be rather vague, but – oh boy! – you get to use it to even call anything a “religion” you want to call a “religion”:

    | It is in finding our own personal answer that
    | religions begin to arise. The answer is to the
    | asker their own form of enlightenment; such a
    | feeling of purpose and truth awakens that as a
    | result we feel the uprising need to Spread the
    | Word! This word may be that of god, it may be
    | that of many gods, but it also can be that of
    | science, or that of yoga or a balanced diet or
    | even that of the truth behind flying spaghetti.

    So now science is a “religion”!

    Yes, that proves the definition you’re using is too vague or out of context.

    Stamp collecting can be called a “religion” too (look up the word “religion” in the dictionary), but context is important and the meanings of words in context are important too, and basing claims and arguments on words by equivocating on the *different* meanings for which a word is used in different contexts is a sure-fire way to get things wrong and merely confuse an issue.

    Agnosticism is not the correct term for a lack of belief in something. Being agnostic about something refers to the idea that you don’t know about something. Atheist technically means “without belief in a god”, and typically in reference to a volitional thought process (rather than to, say, a two year old child who’s never even thought about it). Indeed, a person can be both an atheist and agnostic at the same time. None of this, of course, makes atheism a religion.

    Atheists have a strong tendency to support critical thinking – i.e., the idea that our beliefs are subject to critical scrutiny, bringing rational analysis (reason) and testing by relevent factual information (science) to bear. You then portray these concepts of critical thinking themselves as beliefs, and so atheism is a religion.


    A belief is not “religious” merely because it is believed. Some beliefs are religious beliefs, and there are all kinds of other beliefs that have nothing to do with religion. You don’t get to masquerade something as a religion merely because there are beliefs involved. I “believe” that the earth orbits the sun, because that is what makes sense (reason) in terms of the relevant evidence (science). So now – according to the word games you’re using – I’m involved in religion (religious belief) because I “believe” that the earth orbits the sun.

    That doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Oh, and should atheists get together in groups on a regular basis, because they’re atheists and want to associate on that basis and discuss issues of common interest to atheists, that means atheism is a religion because this is “akin to heading to Church on Sundays”. So I guess chess is a “religion” too because some chess players meet together on a regular basis, and sometimes even form clubs, to play chess.


    And on the basis of these horrible arguments, we have the coup-de-grace: “there is no reason that I can find to continue to exclude Atheism from being a religion”. In other words, those who can’t really come up with a *good* reason to call atheism a religion, but who want to do it anyway, can easily generate a rhetorical facade to make doing so not look so obviously bad. Of course, when you mangle words to mean anything you want, so that everything becomes a religion (even stamp collecting and chess!), it just doesn’t make any real sense.

    Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

  5. Taking arguments out of context you can of course then fallaciously apply them to other scenarios to make them seem silly. But the argument is the sum of several premises. Each one on its own might not be enough, but it is the combination of these things that becomes relevant, and together they point to a bigger picture and a very interesting conclusion. Whether you agree with it or not is up to you, but your means to discredit it are based on a very misleading approach, it’s called the Straw Man Fallacy, defined by Wikipedia as follows:

    “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

  6. Defensor says:

    “Atheism, however, is the firm belief that there is no god.”

    This is entirely wrong. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in gods, as you noted earlier. What you describe in the aforesaid quote is strong atheism only, or gnostic atheism, and is an uncommon form of atheism. The broad, superior, and most used definition of atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods.

  7. The Whyman says:

    “There is a fundamental distinction between the way that Christian apologists approach proving a negative, and the way that atheists approach proving a negative.

    The distinction is that Christian apologists give good reasons to accept that something doesn’t exist or isn’t true, whereas atheist apologists will commit a fallacy known as an argument from ignorance. The atheist will say “If you can’t prove to my satisfaction that God exists, then I am justified in not believing.” It is an argument from ignorance to say that “X” does not exist because it hasn’t been proven to my satisfaction. However, Christian apologists will say, “We have good reasons to not accept your claim.” and then will proceed to give those reasons…

    ..It should be recognized that when the atheist is arguing for a deity in order to refute any type of theism, including Christianity, that the atheist is forsaking their own worldview for in favor of another. The presuppositions of Pastafarianism are inconsistent with the presuppositions of atheism. Since the arguments and objections that atheism brings to the table in regards to Christianity are not sufficient, it is necessary for atheists to posit something as absurd as a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Since the presuppositions of Pastafarianism are inconsistent with atheism, when they adopt this worldview to try to challenge the Special Revelation of Christianity, they are actually forsaking their own belief that no gods exist. If the arguments that atheists used against Christianity were so consistent, there would be no need for them to mention the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It seems that the atheists have not realized that if could successfully prove the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster, then atheism would be false. The Flying Spaghetti Monster undermines the entire atheist worldview.”

    Learn more here: http://answersforhope.com/falsifying-flying-spaghetti-monster/

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