Is Atheism a Religion?

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In their attempt to reach the truth, the New Atheists have swapped their own version of scientific dogma for religious dogma.

Although it isn’t an organized religion like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, atheism is a religious worldview. With assurance rooted in faith (rather than in proven fact), the theist says “I believe in god(s)/God,” while the atheist with equal confidence says “I don’t believe in god(s)/God.”

Atheism is a religious worldview because it claims to know something fundamental about reality that hasn’t been—or can’t be—proven. Like theists, atheists operate out of a foundational faith or belief that shapes their perceiving, thinking, and living in the world.

But it’s not as if theism and atheism are forms of “blind faith.” Each has gathered from human experience evidence that supports their worldview. For example, neither theists nor atheists have proven whether life has meaning. Theists believe life has meaning because of their primary belief in a good Creator God who guarantees life’s intrinsic meaning. Atheists’ primary belief that there is no god(s)/God means the universe has emerged accidently and without inherent meaning and that humans must be the ones to give life its meaning.

Here’s where the New Atheists (including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) are so puzzling. These brilliant minds invite us to think that because we can’t observe god(s)/God through a microscope or telescope, faith is silly at best and dangerous at worst. They do not take into account that the scientific method (which works wonderfully across a large part of human life) simply isn’t geared to make definitive metaphysical pronouncements. In their attempt to reach the truth, they have swapped their own version of scientific dogma for religious dogma.

Our culture today has largely exchanged older, pre-modern theistic assumptions about the world for modern atheistic assumptions. Because of the industrial, scientific, and technological revolutions of the past 300 years, life in the Western world today leaves little room for questions of god(s)/God. Christian writer C. S. Lewis said the world today says to us, “‘You may be religious when you are alone,’ but adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.’”

This has resulted in a generally atheistic culture and worldview rather than the theistic culture and worldview of Christendom. Many people have migrated from religious faith and church life to agnosticism, atheism, and secularism. They are the religious “nones” on surveys, or those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Young people today live in a world where it is hard to believe in God. Their grandparents lived in a world where it was hard not to believe in God. And Western secular governments tend to default to the atheistic worldview in an effort to be inclusive.

Both theism and atheism, therefore, operate out of a primary and foundational belief or faith that results in a particular worldview. Both attempt to offer a comprehensive account of reality. If the goal is, as someone said, “living with the grain of the universe,” then you’ll live according to how you discern the grain from either your theistic or atheistic starting point.

Did you know that the earliest Christians were derided as atheists? It was because Christians didn’t worship the Greek and Roman gods or the Roman emperor as divine, refusing to give their allegiance to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ and refusing to conform their lives to the pattern of their idolatrous and pagan neighbors.

Christians today would benefit from exploring afresh how the Lord over all calls us not to be conformed to the religious patterns of this atheistic world. What, like atheists, do Christians not believe?

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

See comments (3)


Thanks, Mike, for this article that compares atheism to theism.  You are right in saying, atheist do not believe in God/Gods and theists do.  Another difference is that atheism is not organized into a religion, whereas theists are.  Christianity is an organized religion based on the teachings of the Bible.  Islam is an organized religion based on the teachings of the Koran.  Judaism is an organized religion based on the teachings of the Tanakh.  Hindus have their inspired Scriptures as well.  Most religions have their own set of Scriptures which define their beliefs about God and humankind.  And all religions believe differently about God and his relationship to people.  But theism has a broader definition than Christianity alone, in that it takes in most all religions.  Theism doesn’t distinguish between organized religions.  And so nearly all religions are theistic.  All religions believe in a God.  Your argument for theism is an argument for all religions that believe in a God.  Theism does not say one religion is better or more true than another.  Nor does this article.  You seem to want us (readers) to assume that Christianity is better but don’t tell us why.  Your argument seems to be, religion (theism) is good and atheism isn’t, so pick a religion, any religion.  They’re all theistic. Thanks Mike for a thoughtful article.

I’m trying to follow your reasoning, Mike, in comparing theism and atheism. You conclude by saying, “Both theism and atheism, therefore, operate out of a primary and foundational belief or faith that results in a particular worldview. Both attempt to offer a comprehensive account of reality.”  I think you are trying to be fair to both perspectives.  But I sense a bit of bias.
Christianity, and every other religion, asks its followers to believe unlikely and unreasonable teachings which come from their special revelations.  The teaching of the Mormons is that the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith revealing twelve golden plates with an unknown script, which Joseph Smith, with Moroni’s help, translated into the book of Mormon.  Most people, including Christians, say this is very unlikely or unreasonable, therefor unbelievable.  Most people, including most Christians, would acknowledge the unreasonable teachings of most religions and therefor discount them.
But, to a growing number of people today (in our culture), the teachings of Christianity are no more reasonable than that of other religions.  That Jesus (as God) came to earth from heaven and was born as a human baby seems unlikely.  Or that Jesus throughout his life never sinned, or made bad choices, or did wrong, seems very unlikely.  Or that Jesus on one occasion fed five thousand people (and on another fed four thousand) from a child’s lunch, seems very unlikely and unreasonable to believe.  Such things sound more like the makings of a legendary character than a historical character.  These and many other miracles performed by Jesus do not seem to contribute to a feasible account of reality.  So when we say that Christianity, or other theistic religions, results in a particular worldview, such worldviews depends on believing many unrealistic ideas or teachings that do not fit with our own life experiences.
Atheism, as well, operates out of a primary belief that results in a particular worldview.  The primary belief, is that to a person’s experience of life and living, people do not see an objective hand of God moving their lives in a direction different from those who do believe in God.  Whether a person prays, life goes on the same for the person who did or didn’t.  When Jesus said you will get what you pray for, there is no evidence that this is true.  Life goes on the same for Christians and non Christians. To the atheist, belief in a personal God is a hollow teaching.  The atheist’s comprehensive account of reality is based on a reasonable assumption of not seeing any objective activity of God in life and living.  Christians tends to say all good things are attributable to God and all bad things are not attributable to him.  Where is the evidence of that though?  So the atheist lives his/her life on the assumption that there is no God. And it works out fine, or at least the same as for the person who believes in a personal God.  If there is a God, he is not evident.  And so the atheist builds his world and life view from the perspective of not seeing any objective evidence for God/Gods.
The theist says, my husband (or wife) was ultimately cured of cancer by God.  The atheist says my husband or wife was ultimately cured of cancer by human ingenuity and modern medicine.
So, once again, the theist (including the Christian) builds his worldview on unrealistic and unlikely so called supernatural revelations (like all theistic religions).  The teachings of theistic religions are unreasonable and do not make common sense.  Whereas, the atheistic worldview is gained through reason apart from any so called supernatural revelations.  It is based on a common sense experience of life and living.  I hope I have made this contrast of theism and atheism clear.  I would think it would be helpful to have a clear picture of the differences.  Blessings to you.

This is a hilariously bad comparison, and your assertions were entirely backwards. Let's start with your statement that atheists are like theists because they claim to know something fundamental about reality. You've already totally discredited your argument within the first two paragraphs. No rational atheist would ever make definitely claims about the nature of existence. We might have ideas but don't present them as undeniable fact. The entire logic behind the VAST majority of nonbelievers is a level of intellectual honesty I've never personally observed in a person of faith. We are willing to examine the evidence we observe and based on the evidence gathered through our empirical experience, most of us simply state we do not find sufficient evidence to support the assertion that God exists. The huge difference is that Christians or any religious individual typically will make this enormous existential claim; and, when asked for evidence, will inevitably fall into a predictable and wholly unoriginal set of fallacious logical arguments that are easily dismantled with the slightest effort. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, do not tend to make sweeping assertions and offer their own ignorance as proof. 
There is a lot more I could say, but I've gone on long enough. You're self aggrandizing, smug lack of anything remotely resembling a rational thought is pathetic, and you should be embarrassed for presenting this garbage as some sort of profound idea.