Is atheism the millennium's newest religion?

On the surface, it seems preposterous to even consider the idea. After all, isn't it the modern atheist movement that stands in the forefront of efforts to secularize society and do away with religion in general? Aren't they the ones determined to vanquish the cross, the star of David, the crescent moon and all other public displays of religion, just as they endeavor to erase all references to Christ, God, and the role of religion from our political and historical consciousness? Clearly, atheism is nothing if not the antithesis of religion—even the antidote to it, some might maintain. As such, to consider that it might itself have become the very thing it is endeavoring to destroy seems too absurd to take seriously, at least at first glance.

But is it as easy as that? Can atheism maintain with any degree of integrity that it is free of the stain of dogma and devoid of statements that must be accepted on faith, or is it simply fooling itself? I submit that once one clearly understands the mechanics of religion and belief in general, it is not difficult to maintain that atheism belongs alongside the great pantheon of religions, regardless of how that conclusion sits with its followers. All it takes is a little closer examination of what religion is to demonstrate my point.

Defining Belief
Atheists general deny that they are a religion on the grounds that they do not believe in God and leave it at that. However, the assumption that to be religious is synonymous with believing in God is simplistic and demonstrates an ignorance of what it is, exactly, that constitutes the foundation of religion.

In its most primitive form, religion is simply the established worship of something larger than ourselves (or the creation in general). Though most people call this "something" God and endow it with certain human characteristics and traits, this is not always the case. For example, followers of the Jainist religion of northern India (an early offshoot of Brahminism), while embracing a belief in an after life, do not worship, venerate, or pray to a God or gods. While the belief in such a being—or beings—is tolerated, it is entirely unnecessary to the faith. As such, one could be a perfectly good Jainist while maintaining a strictly atheistic world-view, clearly demonstrating that a belief in God is not a requisite for being a member of an established religion.

On the other hand, there are millions who maintain a general belief in God yet adhere to no specific religion or articulated set of beliefs (most agnostics fall into this camp). While their perspective of what "God" is may range from the fairly traditional—a personal being that one can have a relationship with—to the more transcendent—a nondescript energy force or "something" out there that is behind the creation—in either case, they maintain these beliefs despite having no formal religious structure to objectify them. They simply believe in God while remaining unapologetically irreligious, clearly demonstrating that a belief in God does not necessarily make one "religious" either. Therefore, since a person can be religious without believing in God—as evidenced by the Jainists of India—and can believe in God without being religious—as seen among a large percentage of the unchurched population within western nations—our definition of what constitutes religion needs to be expanded.

Expanded, or merely simplified? Perhaps a better definition of religion should be the adherence to any established and clearly articulated statement of faith having to do with the nature of reality and the question of immortality. In essence, this makes religion simply the process of believing in something that can be neither proven nor disproven that must be maintained purely through the presumption of truth. Further, this belief structure need not include a belief in "God" or a Creator at all, but merely reflect upon the question of God itself—either negatively or positively; a definition which, it should be pointed out, brings the atheist camp perilously close to the precipice of being a religion.

Of course, the atheist will reject this definition on the basis that religion is more than simple belief, but is a belief system marked by common communal beliefs and experiences that make it distinct and unique, which would seem to leave atheism, with its free-thinking philosophy and rational objectivism, its lack of creeds or churches, hymns or mantras, high priests and altars, free of the stain of religion—or so it would seem. In other words, unlike religion, atheism practices no rituals, observes no ceremonies, has no sacred writings or high priests, and maintains no systematic belief structure.

Or does it? Before examining the question further, let's first take a moment to examine religion's shared characteristics and see if atheism exhibits any of them.

Religious Traits versus Atheism
Religions share a number of common characteristics, regardless of where and how they originated. Let's consider each in turn and see how they compare to atheistic thought and practice:

Religions are faith-based rather than logic-based: Religion works from the presumption—indeed, even the innate conviction—that there is more to the world than what we can determine through our human senses or even perceive with our logical mind. It is based on the unseen, the unknown, and even, in some cases, the unknowable. Being that there is usually little in terms of scientific evidence to support this belief, it must be accepted on faith and maintained by faith when confronted with empirical evidence that runs contrary to it.


How atheism compares: Despite beliefs to the contrary, the statement that there is no God is not provable—a point most atheists are usually quick to admit—and therefore there can be no means of maintaining a position of uncompromising atheism except by faith. Additionally, like theistic beliefs, evidence in support of their position is often available but never conclusive, while contrary evidence is usually dismissed or explained away. In this respect, then, there is little difference between the atheist and theist in regard to faith; they just simply choose which bias they wish to maintain and look for evidence to support it—and, if finding none, choose to believe it anyway.

The atheist frequently circumvents this difficulty by maintaining that atheism does not declare that there is no God, but that God is unproven, which is a position which is not faith-based. However, to say that something is not proven to exist is to deny that it exists; the two conclusions being mutually supported by the other (i.e. Fairies have never been proven to exist; therefore, there is no such thing as a fairy.) To imagine that one can maintain the one premise without embracing the other is intellectually dishonest. As such, the premise that there is no God (as well as the supposition that there is no evidence to support his, her, or its existence) remains a subjective opinion. It may or may not be true, but it is still a faith-based position in either case.

Religion is often marked by a distrust or even contempt of science: Despite the fact that science is an outgrowth of religion (the desire to understand God's creation.) religion can be, and in the case of some fundamentalist groups, usually is, if not anti-science, at least suspicious of science. Unfortunately, those elements that do demonstrate such tendencies (most notably among them the modern Creationist or intelligent design movement) in being so vocal, often give the false impression that animosity towards science is the norm within religion. The truth is, however, that most religious people accept the basic tenets of science and embrace them in their life. Additionally, some of the world's greatest scientists have been men and women of faith whose religious beliefs have not hindered their professional abilities, making the argument that religion is uniformly anti-scientific untenable.


How atheism compares: While atheism is supposedly constructed upon the alter of science and pure reason, atheism can be and often proves to be extremely hostile to any scientific studies that smack of the supernatural, the metaphysical, or the spiritual (i.e. ESP, past-life regression, the paranormal, NDEs, etc.) even if it is well researched and carefully documented. When it comes to research that seems to challenge atheism's basic materialistic precepts, then, atheism can be every bit as biased as any religion and just as obstinate in its refusal to consider the evidences in support of an opposing world-view.

Religions usually have a founder: Almost all religions can trace their inception to the teachings of some particular leader, prophet, or holy man, even if their exact identity has since been lost to history. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, and, more recently, Joseph Smith Jr. (Mormonism), L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology), and Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) all directly founded or precipitated a religion based off their teachings and ideas. Only certain animist or earth religions have no known founder, since they appear to have evolved spontaneously among isolated cultures around the world (though, of course, each manifestation may have had an early master teacher or sage to originate or, at very least, coordinate the primary teachings.)


How atheism compares: While there is no one person who could be regarded as the founder of atheism, there are a number of "heroes of the faith" who serve in the role of inadvertent "church fathers". Atheists are fond of pointing to anti-religious literature of antiquity for their heroes (Cicero, Democrites, et al) though they have been increasingly finding champions in modern times as well. Charles Darwin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Huxley, Mark Twain, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and other notable personalities have all been traditionally touted as atheist apologists (sometimes to their own surprise). Perhaps no man has had a greater influence on forging modern atheistic philosophies or did more to clearly articulate the atheist position, however, than the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). So extensive was his influence, in fact, that most modern atheist literature is largely rehashes of or variations on his positions, with little new material being added since he articulated his philosophies over seventy five years ago.

Religions are usually hierarchical in nature: Most religions eventually develop a hierarchy of leadership, usually in the form of priests or senior teachers, either during their inception or shortly thereafter (which also tends to grow in size and sophistication the longer it survives).


How atheism compares: First, it should be recognized that organizational structures are not confined to religion, but are a natural human mechanism designed to preserve and propagate any noteworthy ideas or concepts, as well as maintain order. Corporations, armies, even ant farms all organize themselves into a "pecking order" with clearly defined roles and expectations for each member; as such, hierarchy is not a hallmark solely of religion, but of humanities' efforts at protecting and proliferating its unique heritage and cultural beliefs. In the case of atheism, however, since it does not maintain any rituals or sacraments or recognize a central leadership per se, it could not be accused of being hierarchical in nature. However, even atheists have their "generals" who command the respect of the laymen and can make or break a career with just a few words from their mighty pens. They may not maintain the rank of bishop or cardinal or even priest, but they are well known within the atheist community and, in a curious way, held accountable to each another for maintaining the "purity of the faith."

Religions usually have sacred texts or other imperative writings they follow: While the Christian Bible is probably the best known of all religious texts, all religions look to some writings or commentaries for their inspiration and core beliefs. The Koran, the Torah, and the Vedic Texts are all well known ancient sacred writings that are perceived by their followers as "the Word of God" or, at very least, holy, sacred, or inspired texts that are considered inerrant, infallible, utterly trustworthy and reliable documents of divine intent, nature, and morality. At very least, they are usually considered important documents of value for their historical accuracy and insight, cultural and moral content, and often superb literary styles.


How atheism compares: Since atheism does not believe in divine inspiration, it does not have a single "sacred" text it may turn to in all matters pertaining to "faith". However, there are a number of key writings and books that have been generated over the last century that are held in high-esteem by modern atheists, and are almost required reading for anyone who desires a good, sound understanding of basic atheistic teachings. Bertrand Russell's treatise Why I Am Not A Christian and George H. Smith's The Case against God are probably two of the most thorough and complete treatments on the subject, though almost anything written by the existentialists and naturalist scientists will suffice.

Religions maintain very specific doctrinal beliefs that one must accept to be considered orthodox: Since few religions are open to individual interpretation, almost all of them find it necessary to clearly articulate and codify its core beliefs and concepts, of which adherence to is considered essential for "membership." While minor doctrinal differences on secondary elements of the faith are sometimes allowed—especially within more liberal religious traditions—one is generally expected to embrace the faith's key points as the price of inclusion. Additionally, failure to embrace these doctrines can have unfortunate consequences in the form of overt or covert persecution, social, professional and familial ostracizing, and even, in extreme cases, death. At a minimum, those who refuse to adhere to such dogmas are generally shunned, which can have adverse effects in terms of social opportunities, professional credentials, and family cohesion.


How atheism compares: Like traditional theistic religion, atheism comes complete with its own firm set of beliefs one must accept to be considered a "true" atheist. Obviously, some debate over the details is permitted (and, in some cases, even encouraged) but in general, there are certain core concepts that are held to be self-evident and universally recognized, and as such are unassailable. Also, like traditional religion, those who refuse to "tow the party line" are frequently shunned by colleagues and often turned on by their peers, potentially endangering years of hard-earned credentials. Theists who come from and atheistic background can also often expect to be ridiculed or even ostracized by friends and family, making the need to conform to group expectations often as powerful among atheists as it is among theists.

Religions are marked by a tendency to proselytize: While proselytizing (or evangelizing) is given greater importance within some faiths than in others, all religions carry on some form of proselytizing. If they didn't, they would simply die out once the last believer died, thus silencing their "truth" once and for all and rendering the entire faith moot. Christians are the most obvious and aggressive in this effort (which they consider to be a sacred duty and evidence of salvation) though all religions engage in it to some extent. Among such "non-proselytizing faiths" like Islam and Judaism, numbers are maintained not through converting outsiders, but through maintaining high birth rates and pressuring their offspring to embrace the family faith (with often severe penalties for failing to do so.)


How atheism compares: Though there is no such thing as atheist missionaries, the desire to challenge and overturn theistic beliefs is strong among militant atheists, resulting in the emergence of a virtual army of debunkers, debaters, and deniers. Atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1923-1995) was probably one of the best known and most virulent modern day opponents of religion and tireless promoter of atheism who, not unlike a modern televangelist, appeared on literally hundreds of television and radio programs throughout the 70's and 80's to defend her "lack of beliefs" and denounce and ridicule those of her opponents. Clearly, within some circles, atheists can be just as determined to get others to accept their opinions as the standard missionary is to convert their heathen flock to Christianity.

Religions tend to fracture along denominational lines: Given enough time, all great religions eventually fracture into smaller groups, and sometimes even open great chasms among themselves. The Protestant Reformation that split Christendom in the sixteenth century is the best known, but schisms have emerged in almost all religions, from Islam to Judaism to Buddhism. Further, these subgroups are often further subdivided into conservative and liberal factions that battle among themselves for dominance, which is why one often finds such a range of beliefs even within the same denomination.


How atheism compares: While there is no such thing as atheist denominations, there are various schools of thought and conservative and liberal (agnostic) wings within atheism. They may all agree that there is no God, but their approaches and arguments are frequently shaped from very different perspectives, often giving each an inadvertent but undeniable "denominational feel." For example, some may reject the idea of God for personal reasons while others may do so on more rationalistic, philosophical, or scientific grounds. Additionally, some atheists may reject only the idea of a transcendent, western-style concept of deity (or a particular religion in general, like Christianity) but be potentially open to eastern concepts of deity as immanent, cosmic consciousness (though, admittedly, such perspectives are rare among atheists as a whole, though not unheard of.)

Religion is responsible for many wars and much human suffering: Because of the often small but irreconcilable doctrinal differences between the various subgroups and denominations, persecutions, inquisitions, and jihads are sometimes the result, with untold millions dying in the name of religious intolerance.


How atheism compares: This tendency towards intolerance and perceiving those of other beliefs as a threat seems to be an unfortunate failure of human nature, though it is not confined purely to religious beliefs. Ardent nationalism and political absolutism can frequently be just as divisive and destructive, as evidenced by the spread of Communism during the twentieth century. Humanity has always paid a high price for its lack of objectivity and intolerance for other beliefs, ideas, and philosophies.

As far as atheism goes, however, it should be noted that more people died under atheistic regimes during the twentieth century than died throughout the previous five thousand years of religious persecution and warfare. Atheism was forced upon the people of Russia and China, resulting in religious books being burned, monasteries, churches, and synagogues being destroyed, and millions of people being forced into labor camps or outright executed for refusing to renounce their beliefs. Militant secularism has proven to be, in many ways, every bit as repressive, brutal and cruel as any crusade, jihad, or inquisition throughout history. Of course, atheists are quick to counter this point by rightfully pointing out that atheism shouldn't be held accountable for the crimes of a renegade few. However, such an argument seems every bit as valid for the theist, who also frequently decries the tendency to blame all religion for the crimes of its most zealot minorities.

Clearly, by any criteria one would care to use, atheism passes the litmus test of being a religion. It is an organized statement of faith that possesses its own dogmas and essential doctrines, has its own important writings, leaders and apologists (or "deconverters") and is just as intent on eradicating religion (especially Christianity) as the churches are to spread the gospel to the four corners of the Earth. To come to any other conclusion is not only to deny the weight of the evidence, but would render one intellectually dishonest.

Atheism has as its primary goal the secularization of all humanity, and truly believes that world peace and a better tomorrow will be impossible to achieve without it. In this, at least, it is essentially indistinguishable from religion's belief that a utopian age can only be realized within the context of a thoroughly evangelized world; the only difference being that religion is more honest about what it's trying to do whereas atheism has yet to admit its own ambitions in this regard.

It is also interesting to consider how much the most ardent atheists have in common with the most determined evangelists in terms of nature and personality. Both are thoroughly convinced of their arguments and consider their opponent to be "lost" in confusion, sin, or superstition, and each sees themselves as the only bulwark against the collapse of civilization. In their most extreme incarnations, each is capable of being every bit as dogmatic, hostile, and condemning as the other, which should be the clearest evidence yet that both the theist and the atheist are operating under the influence and power of religious ferver.

Obviously, we all want to understand the nature of reality and know what happens to us—if anything—when we die. The only difference between the theist and the atheist, then, is not in how they believe, but in what they believe. In fact, it may be reasonably claimed that the only real difference between them is purely a matter of the imagination; the theist is frequently accused of living in a fantasy world of their own creation where God meets their every need and they are surrounded by a pantheon of angels and demons; atheism, in contrast, seems to often suffer from a sterile inability to perceive of anything that might or could even conceivably exist outside its limited frame of reference. The arguments and tactics both sides use to bolster their position, however, are almost identical and may be equally beneficial or destructive based upon one's opinion and preference. In the end, we all have to choose which position speaks to us and live our lifes according to that decision the best we can.