atheism, christians, culture, education, politics, religion, religious right, science, Skepticism, Things We Should Know

Why Atheism is NOT a Religion

As those of you who read the ‘Kog regularly know, I am an avowed atheist. Some of my compatriots, including our Fearless Leader, are also of an atheistic bent. As such, and in the spirit of enlightenment that hangs over my writings like stale cigarette smoke, I would like to explain something to you.

I read constantly about people who assert that atheism is a religion or belief system that can be equated with any other – this view has been particularly prevalent of late, what with the recent kerfuffle about Metro Transit’s refusal to allow atheist-related signage on their bus fleet here in Halifax.  Some assert that the link is clear between atheism and other belief systems, and that it is considered a religion under U.S. law.  Well, the law can be, and often is, wrong. As interpreted by human beings, a lack of a full understanding as to the nature of a given subject can result in oversimplification and error of conclusion, for example:

Some Atheists, for their own political reasons, assert that Atheism is not a religion but instead is the total absence of religion. This allows them to spread their Atheistic beliefs freely in societies which insist on “separation of church and state.”

But this is like saying that “black,” (which physicists define as the total absence of color) is not a color. A few years ago, the car I drove was a big, old Chevrolet, whose color was black. In common practice throughout the world, “black” is understood to be a color, despite the technical definition of the physicists. Likewise, “Atheism” is a religion, despite any technical definitions to the contrary.

If black is a color, then Atheism is a religion.

In addition to such religion/atheism associations, there are more disturbing associations, such as  the association of atheism with the mass murders of historical record. Again, an emphatic no – a misunderstanding, willful or otherwise, results in this conclusion. I’m here to attempt to set the record straight.

I would define religion as a system of beliefs that depend on revealed wisdom from a supernatural source. Often, rituals are built that reinforce the shared approach to and understanding of the revealed wisdom. The beliefs are shared through adherence to these rituals and common belief in the accuracy or ‘truth’ of a particular supernaturally-based worldview. Adherents of a particular religious tradition ‘know’ that what they believe is the truth because it has been presented by a deity and reinforced through the deity’s representatives.

Conversely, an atheist believes what he knows to be the truth because there is ample evidence to support the belief, and that’s the key issue – not belief, but the reason for that belief, which is evidence. An atheist does not succumb to the intellectual trap of believing solely based on authority, and certainly would not adhere to a system of beliefs based on the word of earthly representatives of a supernatural force. I wouldn’t assert that atheists don’t believe in anything – I for one am optimistic about the ability of my fellow humans to be charitable and kind to one another, and I see evidence of that every day. They don’t believe in a doctrine that demands supplication and obedience in exchange for a reward after death. The promise of post-life reward is meaningless – I’ll be dead, and so will the individual who promised me this signing bonus.

The key concept is faith, not belief. Faith allows a person to accept revealed wisdom as truth without the necessity of evidence. Evidence (or science, if you will) is the antithesis of faith, the proof that nature works in a certain way that does not require supernatural intervention. Any assertion that a congregant can make for evidence of revealed religious truth can be countered by alternative explanations that are consistent with the applications of the laws of physics as mankind knows and understands it. If given the choice between ‘trust me’ and ‘here’s the proof’, I will always choose the latter. Atheism does not require faith, it requires only consideration of a series of interlocking theories and postulates about how the universe works that explains the operations of said universe elegantly, efficiently and logically. No ghosts required. The addition of the concept of divinity to everyday events complicates them needlessly. The simplest explanation is what’s right in front of you. Atheism is the absence of faith – a refusal to believe without evidence.

I absolutely do not know what happens to a person after death beyond the biological process of decay, nor do I expect we will have an answer to that – you can’t exactly ask. What I do know with some certainty is that, based on my understanding of physics, biology, chemistry, and so on, I will not have an immortal part of me represented by an indefinable energy source relocate to a place where all the good folk (or bad folk) before me have also gone, where I would ‘live’ for eternity. No proof, no faith, no chance. To me, that is a fantasy created by someone who is squeamish about dying and likes to think they’ll be up and around playing tennis among the clouds rather than nourishing the soil. My truth works better for me. Sure, I’d rather not die, but I recognize it as inevitable, and that makes me more aware of how important it is to leave a legacy, be it children, a work of art, fond memories of close friends, what have you. I cherish each and every one of my close friends and my family because I know that someday they, and I, will be gone.

Which brings us (sort of) to morality – the moral code, if you will. I absolutely resent that someone thinks I am morally lacking because I refuse to prostrate myself before a god or goddess and act according to received doctrine. I would consider myself to have a very strong morality, in fact. I have volunteered extensively, I have friends for whom I would do pretty much anything and for whom I would give everything to protect – and all without the promise of a grand prize behind door #2.

The linking of historic genocides to atheism reflects an ignorance of history, or atheism, or both. Just as an example, Hitler had no intention of creating a state without religion – in fact, he wanted to replace established European religions with re-treaded versions of Norse mythology that ‘proved’ that Germany was home to the Master Race. The German Volk would not be religion-free, but would bow to the religion imposed by the state. In all other cases of historic genocides, and in cases of smaller conflicts, the problem is not an immorality bred by a lack of religion, but an immorality bred by the desires of some to be the object, or the benefactor, or the representative of the people’s religion. Morality is not the exclusive possession of the pious, it exists in all of us, and in all of us it can be twisted into greed and hatred.

I am not in need of ‘saving’ from my happy, contented life. I do not need a do-over by being ‘born again’. I own my mistakes and have learned from most of them. If I can be confident, secure and happy in my life, and enjoy the fellowship of others based on what I can see and feel rather than building layer upon layer of doctrine to explain it based on the existence of a supernatural force, who can say I’m wrong?

‘There is probably no god’ is as accurate a statement from my perspective as ‘the sky will be blue tomorrow’ (depending on the weather forecast, of course). There is no evidence to support the existence of a deity, and I don’t need to set aside some karma for when I die. I want to be remembered for who I was, what kind of a man I am, rather than how closely I stuck to the ‘script’, how well I could ignore proof that contradicted my beliefs, or how many ways I could sing the praises of an apparently insecure deity.

Atheism is not a religion, and not a measure of faith. It is a confidence that things are what they seem to be, and a resolve to avoid falling victim to superstition. It is a commitment to influence the here and now rather than a desire to ensure a place in a mythical afterlife. It is a respect for others, not a lens through which to judge others and find them wanting – in fact, it is a way to find the true potential in others, if they would only take off the philosophical training wheels.

It may be a worldview that is unpopular, and sometimes intellectually demanding, but it is ultimately more rewarding, because it recognizes the importance, or the primacy, of life, of friendship, of kindness and of love – for one another, not for structures, official representatives of a higher power or for scriptures.

Keep your gods, I’m good. Or at least, I try to be.

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Give Me a Break…

brucex26Bruce MacKinnon’s cartoon from today’s Chronicle-Herald. I’ve seen funnier. It’s starting to piss me off a bit that Atheism is not taken seriously. I know, I need to lighten up…

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Vigilance and Knowledge

Welcome, my friends, to Freedom to Read Week.

I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what it means to be able to read what I want, when I want, and just how critical it is to be able to read at all. I enjoy reading, I read for about an hour a day on average – mostly non-fiction in the last few years, just out of a personal preference and an insatiable curiosity more than anything else. I have, as I always do, a stack of books next to my bed, with bookmarks in each of them, awaiting my return. I’m either unfocused or too curious for my own good. Just as an example of the subjects that interest me, the stack consists of the biography of Charles Schulz (from the library – surprisingly I’m not impressed so far), a history of modern Japan, a short history of the world, the diaries of Michael Palin, a book of the 50 worst films of all time, a behind the scenes look at 60 classic films, and one or two others. You get the idea from this that my reading choices are eclectic, to say the least – next week’s stack may be quite different. What I love more than anything, however, is the freedom to create my stack of beloved friends without interference from anyone.

The true measure of the maturity of a culture is the breadth of its tolerance and the degree of freedom an individual had to explore ideas, good or bad. We must always be on guard for ideological pettiness, for censorship based on a narrow view of the world, for suppression of ideas by those who feel they know better. I thought it would be interesting to create a link to the list of challenged books in Canada, which provides a snapshot of intolerance and narrow-minded paranoia, in most cases.

But of course, that’s just my opinion. Isn’t it great that I have the freedom to write it, and that you have the freedom (and impeccable good taste) to read it?

Happy reading!