Why atheism is a religion

April 2, 2007

I took a good deal of e-mail spanking for pointing out that atheism is a religion, just differing from others in the number of gods it advocates – zero versus one or more.

My correspondents informed me – via an exchange that very quickly turned surprisingly acrimonious – that I did not understand atheism, which, according to them, was not a “belief that there is no God” but rather an “absence of a belief in God.”

For one, I was glad that that at least there was no disagreement that the “wrong” version of atheism – which was held by the millions under the Communist rule – was tacitly acknowledged to be a faith-based religion, just like any other. If I was wrong in defining atheism when I put together my brief original note, at least I was not off on the nature of that “wrong” atheism.

But let’s look at atheism in its “true” definition – the “absence of a belief in God.”

There are obviously two sets of circumstances which could produce such absence. First of all, it may simply never occur to a person that there could be a God. Such person may never have happened to think of a higher power himself, nor had he ever met anybody to suggest that idea to him. Such atheist obviously needs no excuse for his “absence of a belief in God.” His atheism is not rooted in any mental activity – but is rather rooted in its absence. He is atheistic simply because of innocence of mind – very much like an ancient Roman was innocent of an idea of a proton or a black hole.

And than, there can be another set of circumstances: a person becomes aware of an idea of God, either through his own thinking, or through contact with others – yet chooses “absence of a belief in God.”

Such atheism is no longer the natural outcome of the virginity of mind. Introduction of the idea of God automatically creates a need for justifying the “absence of a belief in God” – just as there had always been a need for justifying the “presence of a belief in God.”

This need for justifying atheistic position had been angrily denied by my correspondents – which I found rather peculiar, given the obvious possibility that there might be a God. Perhaps the word “irrational” is not out of place here, for it is the mark of reason in a human being that he does not just keep chewing on his fodder no matter what is being said to or around him, as does a cow, but defines his position with regards to any newly introduced set of ideas. He may decide not to care because they do not concern him, he may decide to embrace them because he cares and they make sense, he may decide to reject them because he cares and they make no sense – but there’s got to be some sort of mental re-adjustment, requiring rational justification. Atheists with whom I exchanged e-mails clearly cared about the proper view of the world (else, they would not have cared to react to my opinion in the first place), yet adamantly refused to outline the reasoning behind their choice, insisting that no justification for their position was needed.

In looked like they insisted on belonging to atheism of innocence, to the atheism from before the idea of God was even introduced, much like the Christian nudists during the Reformation who felt that, their faith in Christ having annulled the original sin, they were innocent, pre-Fall Adams and Eves roaming naturally nude in the new gardens of paradise, the idea of clothes being simply out of place. Though of course, unlike the “true” atheists, pre-Adamites did feel a need for justifying their views – and did their best to do so, feeling perhaps what Thomas Jefferson called, when he penned the Declaration of Independence, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” or responding to the need to proselytize.

Yet, the firm refusal by the atheists to provide basis for their views is symptomatic of something that is far more serious than mere indifference to the opinions of others – a symptom, on suspects, of the absence of that basis, perhaps even of realization that their worldview can be justified only by agnosticism – which they claim to be alien to them because it legitimizes a possibility of existence of God – or by the “belief in the absence of God,” which they acknowledge to be a religion and decry as a “wrong” definition of atheism.

Whatever the underlying rationale, “true” atheists’ choice of “absence of a belief in God” is by no means based on reason. But what should we call a firmly held, ardently defended, yet fundamentally irrational – because rationally unsupportable – worldview? My word for it is “religion.” Though, of course, you are at liberty to choose yours.

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