NYT debate: Is atheism a religion?

The New York Times introduces is latest “Room for Debate” segment, asking “Is Atheism a Religion?”

In Britain, where the Church of England is a laughing stock lately, the percentage of Britons professing no faith has nearly doubled in the last decade — which might explain the rise of an atheist church.

In the U.S., Susan Jacoby recently wrote, moments of tragedy can be a reminder “of what atheism has to offer.” The philosopher Gary Gutting adds that atheists, like religious people, ought to articulate reasons for their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Can atheism replace religion? Is it a religion?

Two Episcopalians out of three wrote for the “Theist” side of the debate: Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass

Phyllis says:

Like a religion, (atheism) can offer community and common cause to its adherents. But it lacks mystery, transcendence and beauty.

Diana says:

As for atheism replacing religion, even Christopher Hitchens said that religious faith was “ineradicable” as long as human beings fear death and each other. Atheism is — and will continue to be — a lively alternative for those weary and wary of institutional religion, those who find transcendent explanations meaningless or intellectually unsatisfactory, and fret over the dangers of religious triumphalism. As there is no shortage of people in the United States who find religion worrisome in public life and tedious in private, there is an ever-larger audience willing to entertain the possibility of a post-religious life. Atheism might never replace religion, but it certainly is giving bad and boring religion a real run for the money.

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  1. Adam Spencer

    Maybe a good starting place is defining what we all mean by religion?

  2. Gary (NJ)

    We have a member of our church who’s a university professor of philosophy whose specialty is religion. He lectures for us on occasion. According to his definition, a ‘religion’ is what you believe about the basic nature of reality. If you believe that the only thing that exists is matter and energy, then yes atheism IS a ‘religion’. The only folks who might be able to say they have no religion are agnostics, who say they just don’t know, and really mean it.

    [Gary Calderone – added by ~ed.]

  3. Benedict Varnum

    Seems to me that atheism isn’t a religion, though its more-sophisticated versions are “systems of belief.”

    I think the intriguing point of comparison is that atheism must make a faith commitment equal to that of any sort of theism: that the question, “Does God exist?” can, in fact, be answered.

    What’s interesting to me about that is that it puts you in an intriguing dialogue (which I have now and then with my atheist friends): on what do you found your commitment to your answer to the question? Often, we’re looking at the same “data,” and interpreting it differently (human evil in the world comes up frequently, as do humane responses to it).

    CS Lewis’s first thoughts in “Mere Christianity” can also be brought to bear on that kind of dialogue: a major purpose he had with those talks-turned-book was to argue that our own moral sensibilities provide “evidence” of something beyond us, and that the starting point for Christianity must, in some way, be the two premises: 1) that we have innate ideas about how we “ought” to behave and 2) that human beings consistently violate those ideas.

    Anyway. Those speculations aside, I’m not sure what’s at stake in asking whether atheism is a religion. Certain atheist movements (the “Good without God” folks, for instance) seem to have beliefs-and-practices-in-common that can be engaged, but there are a lot of places where saying you’re an atheist is sort of like saying you’re from Europe . . . it doesn’t mean you’ve got a lot in common with someone else who is.

  4. Michael Russell

    Who cares? If they had something that bound people together then they would have some ongoing presence. This article asks why not http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/us/on-religion-where-are-the-humanists.html?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0

    They are a reactionary group, defined by what they reject. How about they rename themselves in terms of something constructive they believe and do together?

    If people wish to believe they exist as a quantum accident, as an aggregation of automated environmental coping responses, or as public transportation systems for viruses and bacteria (or DNA) that is fine by me and I am happy to coexist with them.

    A former Librarian of Congress was in the Soviet Union when their White House fell. In a speech he told us that the Communists had believed that religion would die out when all the “Babushkas” died. What they didn’t count on, he said, was that Russia would continue making Babushkas!

    Barth was once asked why he was not more critical about the atheism of the Soviet Union given his fierce resistance to the Nazis. His reply was that Atheists were honest opponents of religion, while the Nazis perverted religion.

    For me the real test of their critique however will be this: When the poor and desperate, the broken and broken-hearted, seek out the “Houses of Atheism” to find comfort and relief, THEN they can criticize us.

  5. tgflux

    Atheism may not be a religion, but antitheism absolutely is (and, in my experience, the loudest “atheists” are antitheists—of the most obnoxious, fundamentalist variety).

    Spare me from ALL fundamentalisms!

    JC Fisher

  6. We might also ask if Christianity is a religion.

  7. Bill Dilworth

    Gary, I’ve come across that professor’s definition of religion before in Unitarian Universalist congregations; I wonder how widespread it is?

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