Why atheism is not a religion

I was trawling through the comments to the lovely Laci’s recent Youtube posting on atheism not being a religion, and some of the counterpoints being raised where, um, dumb. Youtube’s limit of 500 character comment responses probably contributes to that a bit. Anyway, this kicked off a thought train in my head about my own rationale for atheism not being a religion.

The main point here is to define what atheism is. Atheism is “not believing that a god exists”, as opposed to “believing a god exists.” Importantly, this is not the same as “believing a god does not exist”. A slightly stronger way to spin this is to say that atheism is a belief that a deity is not required to explain the universe.

This is an important distinction, even though it is a subtle one. We can not prove that a deity does not exist, and thus any definitive statement that “God does not exist” is either a faith-based position, or a short hand for saying “there is no evidence that God exists, and thus the logical default position should be that God does not exist”. Atheism does not allow for a faith-based position.

Although we can not disprove the existence of a deity, we can attempt to prove that a deity exists. Given the lack of a bearded head in the sky, a common fallback is to say that the universe must have a creator, and that creator we label “God”. After all, if the universe had to have a creator, then the creator at least used to exist, and presumably still does. The statement “the universe requires a creator to exist” is a testable statement.

Over the last few hundred years, scientific progress has demonstrated that numerous aspects of the universe once thought to be definitive proof of the necessity of a creator may in fact have natural explanations. This progress has been based on concrete credible evidence. For example, James Hutton brought the concept of “deep time” to Western thought in the 18th century, thus shattering completely the evidence for a literal Biblical creation (as usual, the Western world was a bit late realising this; Islamic and Chinese geologists & philosophers realised that back in the 11th century). Charles Darwin famously demonstrated that, once life had started, time and a random mechanism of change (later identified to be DNA mutation, amongst other things) would produce the drastic diversity of life shown both on the planet and in the fossil record. Although science has yet to prove conclusively how life got started, this are of study (also known as abiogensis has determined not just one but several plausible mechanisms for the origin of life on Earth (or some other planet, should panspermia prove to be correct). We have cosmological models that explain how the universe developed from as little as a few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. We even have credible scientific models – some of which are testable and being tested – that could account for the Big Bang itself. In other words, science has almost demonstrated conclusive that the statement “the universe requires a creator” to be false.

By contrast to this well-established body of evidence and theory demonstrating the lack of need for a Universe creator, much of the attempts to produce a counter argument rely on logical fallacies. My personal favourite is “the universe must have a creator, because something so complex and complete could not have come about by chance”. The immediate counter argument, of course, is how did the creator come into being?

(I’m not even going to try to explain arguments based on so-called “Biblical authority”. The most credible and rational explanation for the Bible is that it is a book, written over hundreds of years by a number of different authors, edited for all sorts of reasons (mostly political) and mixes myth, fact, ignorance and propaganda in the one document. Nor is it even consistent, even in the New Testament. Even the most fundamentalist Christians read the Bible selectively, anyway. Yes, that’s right – they all pick and choose. There is also nothing that gives the Bible more credence than, say, the Koran or the Hindu Scriptures.)

The short summary of all this is that the belief that a deity is not required to explain the universe is a defensible one based on evidence rather than simple assertion. As such, it is not a faith-based position, and that is why atheism is not a religious position.

Author: Robert Watkins

My name is Robert Watkins. I am a software developer and have been for over 20 years now. I currently work for people, but my opinions here are in no way endorsed by them (which is cool; their opinions aren’t endorsed by me either). My main professional interests are in Java development, using Agile methods, with a historical focus on building web based applications. I’m also a Mac-fan and love my iPhone, which I’m currently learning how to code for. I live and work in Brisbane, Australia, but I grew up in the Northern Territory, and still find Brisbane too cold (after 22 years here). I’m married, with two children and one cat. My politics are socialist in tendency, my religious affiliation is atheist (aka “none of the above”), my attitude is condescending and my moral standing is lying down.

7 thoughts on “Why atheism is not a religion”

  1. Well, of course Atheism is not a religion, it’s the lack of belief in God.

    However a belief in god should not be confused with religion. Religion is a public manifestation of a belief in god. Which is a different thing altogether.

    (So you can be religious in public and an atheist in private, lets say in a country where to be otherwise in sight of others might lead you to harm, or if for example you were a 1st Century BCE Roman Senator, or perhaps you may arrive at a view that it does no particular harm to “fit in” to a social strata to which you’d otherwise belong).

    Also, while I generally agree with your conclusion and reasoning, I disagree with your argument regarding Atheism being the mere absence of a belief in god. To me, that’s an Empirical Atheism. It’s quite possible to be an Atheist and arrive at this position from the point of view of theology. For example, a Holocaust survivor might come to the belief that (from some particular bias about the nature of God), God would not allow such a calamity to occur, but it did occur, therefore God does not exist.

    And despite an Empiricist who might say, that’s still a non-Empirical belief system, such a belief system is still described as Atheism. And it’s a rational type of Atheism too.

    It shits me no end when someone describes a scientific position on e.g. the absence of God as a “rational” position. Rationalism is necessary but not sufficient for a scientific position. Science is an Empirical pursuit. Technically, there can be a rationalist argument for the existence of a divine being. Just not a empirical one.

    I am, as always, a materialist. However, and unlike Dawkins for example, I find that it’s important to get the nuances right, and not conflate overlapping but distinct philosophical categories.

  2. Mmm… to me, the key part of atheism is the lack of unfounded belief. A statement such as “if God existed, he would not allow such a calamity to occur, ergo there is no God” has unfounded belief – a belief that a deity would not permit said calamity.

    It’s also always possible to turn that sort of logic on its head. For example, I have heard Jewish and Christian theologians argue that the Holocaust was part of God’s Plan to restore the state of Israel as a Jewish nation.

    A non-empirical position can be both rational and scientific; there are still significant areas where we can not test our theories, making them non-empirical. One reason a deity can not be dismissed, for example, is that “Big Science” is yet to prove that any of the numerous “cause of the Big Bang” theories could actually have occurred (not “did occur” – that’s a lot harder). But while non-empirical positions can be rational and scientific, I can’t see a non-rational position being empirical.

    In terms of nuance, I should more properly have stated that “atheism is not a religious belief”; if I’m threatened with removal of body parts if I don’t rub blue mud into my navel, then I’ll rub blue mud in my navel.

  3. Ahh, yes, I see your position. I still think, however, that “I hold no unfounded beliefs” to be a different category of statements to “I have no belief in God” and “God does not exist”. For me, atheism is the lack of belief – the foundation of that lack of belief is quite a separate matter.

    From a theological point of view, I think the holocaust is a pretty good argument for the lack of any God! Well, either that or he/she/it really is the petty vindictive fucker found all through the old testament!

    Now, as to rational, scientific, and empirical. You’ll have to explain to me how something is scientific without empiricism, because I don’t see that. Take String Theory, for example. There seems to be rising chorus in the physics world deriding it’s total lack of any predictions that can be tested, i.e. it lacks an empirical basis. Nice topological mathematics though!

    (but then, I’m sure you’ve heard me say more than once, that mathematics, not being strictly empirical, is not science, even as it is the underpinning for nearly all science – because it forms the large part of the ‘rational’ component of it – its formal reasoning).

  4. The reason String Theory is science is that:
    a) most flavours of String Theory makes macro level predictions which are testable (and generally collapse down to conventional physics anyway)
    b) they propose specific tests which we just can’t do… yet.

    If you look at the LHC project, one of its goals is to apply a test to String theory that will potentially invalidate some of the competing theories.

    Theories being proposed before the experiment that can prove them isn’t new. Most of atomic theory was worked out in the late 19th/early 20th. Einstein worked out relativity without much proof – for example, the predicted time dilation effect wasn’t shown to exist until the 1950s. Quantum mechanics was proposed in the 30s, but serious experiments couldn’t be done for decades – quantum entanglement was only shown to exist within the last 10 years.

    Part of the challenge in establishing a theory is to come up with a way to test it. Certain tests are taken for granted – e.g. String theory needs to be able to explain how strings collapse to normal matter and energy that conform roughly to Newton’s Laws of Motions. The leading edge comes when a test is proposed which differentiates the theory from the conventional explanation; e.g. Einstein’s theory of space time was accepted when it was shown that Mercury’s orbit didn’t quite conform to classical mechanics. The concept of dark matter and dark energy started being taken more seriously when it was shown that both distant galaxies and (relatively) nearby space probes aren’t changing velocities at quite the predicted pace.

    More than one Nobel prize for Physics has been awarded to experimental physicists who worked out new ways to test theories developed by their theoretical counterpart.

  5. Well, I’ve heard physicists directly challenge String theory on the basis on “no testable predictions”. Smolin is pretty intractable about String Theory, and Woit basically accuses String theorists of redefining science in order to circumvent the problem of the testable hypothesis.

    Science in my mind at least, is ipso facto, empirical. I don’t see how a non-empirical science is differentiated from philosophy, for example.

  6. String theory makes predictions which are testable. They just require engineering capabilities we don’t have (like energy limits about a billion times more than the LHC).

    OTH, there are aspects of String Theory that are testable at a lower level, such as the potential holographic nature of the universe, which had supporting data released just this week. String Theory predicts, unlike quantum field theory, that we can’t reach the Planck scale; this is appearing to be the case.

    Still, that’s all way above my understanding, and I won’t try to debate the specifics. But String Theorists are definitely looking for ways to test their theories (unlike philosophisers).

    Empiricism is definitely at the core of science, but so is theory. Pure empiricism isn’t science; it’s engineering. In science, theory evolves to explain the facts provided by empirical evidence, but also to guide the next layer of experimentation. Thus the cutting edge of theory always outpaces the empirical evidence.

    But it’s also incorrect to say that physics explains the universe. Physics provides models of the universe that happen to be useful, and which appear to replicate observable evidence. In this sense, physics is very much applied mathematics.

  7. Well, it’s incorrect to say philosophers don’t look to test their theories – some certainly do – but generally they would rely on mathematical / logic-based proofs, not empirical ones.

    Science has at it heart, the scientific method. It is grounded in empirical measurement of predicted outcomes (theory). But theories have to have predicted outcomes. That’s why theology isn’t scientific – it’s all theory, no prediction or relation to any sensible predicted outcome.

    I don’t understand the statement “incorrect to say physics explains the universe”. Surely, while it relies on models, which contain approximations, to make such a statement defines the notion of the “explanation” to some level of verisimilitude that is a priori impossible to reach (infinite precision if you like). It’s an argument of epistemology. For at least some general human sense of the word “explain” (and I would argue, many other more precise definitions too), physics explains the Universe pretty well.

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