Is Atheism a Form of Religious Belief?

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Atheism, Philosophy, Religion, Science
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Disbelief 101: A Young Person's Guide to Atheism

 

Excerpted from Chapter 2 of Disbelief 101:  A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock

Many religious people view atheism as simply another form of belief, no different from Christianity or Hinduism. It’s not. It’s the absence of belief. However, for a moment let’s accept the assertion that atheism is a form of religion. (I don’t really accept the idea that atheism is another type of faith, and I’ll explain why in a moment. But for the sake of argument let’s accept the assertion that atheism is just another “belief.”)

Imagine if, of all the world’s religions, one of them, say some little-known Christian church buried deep in Alabama, began to work miracles. Let’s say that the members of this church, when they prayed and did their rituals, were actually able to heal the sick in high, statistically verifiable percentages. Let’s say this church eradicated smallpox, and through its members’ prayers sent people halfway across the world in hours, and to the moon in days. Let’s say that its ministers were able to stare far out into the cosmos and down at the tiniest particles. There would seem to be nothing, given enough time, that these believers couldn’t accomplish through their religion’s rituals.

Wouldn’t this little church win converts from all around the world? Wouldn’t a religious sect with this kind of real-world power become completely dominant? It would be considered the one true faith. According to those who look at atheism as a belief, there is such a religion. It is called atheism, and it works precisely because it is so different from all of the other religions. Where the other religions assume that there are gods and a spirit world, atheism assumes there are not.

Let’s define the “religion” of atheism in this way: “Atheism believes that questions of the natural world can be solved by beginning with the proposition that there is no god. Instead, the atheist looks at evidence before making a claim.”
Okay, now let’s assume that this “religion” of atheism has a ritual; it’s called the scientific method. We’ve all learned it. One asks a question, sets up a hypothesis, runs an experiment, and then examines the evidence.

Atheism has now been defined as a “religion” with a core “theological” doctrine, and a “religious” ritual. We could stretch the metaphor to include labs as places of worship, etc., but it’s unnecessary.

Let’s now imagine our religion of atheism in the real world, where it must compete with other religions for followers. It’s just one more piece of lettuce on the salad bar of religious belief.

The atheists, using their atheistic rituals, have conquered many of humankind’s most destructive diseases. They have created artificial limbs, the telephone, flight, advances in agriculture and medicine. They have even managed to predict the weather. (Talk about prophecy!) They have created weapons technology capable of destroying the entire world many times over. Is this not a powerful religion? Has atheism not truly discovered the ways of god by simply assuming that there isn’t one?

Imagine if any single religious sect could claim the kind of success in real-world results, for good or bad, that atheistic science has. Can you imagine if an evangelical Christian church could pray a man into orbit? Would they hide this away and say that god works in mysterious ways, or would they scream it from the rooftops and win converts because of their supernatural miracle?

Atheistic science has been too successful. It makes the miraculous commonplace. If ever the world was destroyed nearly entirely, and some new race of intelligent beings, mired again in religious mumbo jumbo, discovered that we, the ancients, knew how to fly and how to prevent plagues, and could see hurricanes coming, wouldn’t they think we had some powerful religion indeed? And if we could explain it all to this new race, wouldn’t they be surprised to find that not a single one of our miracles was the result of prayer or religious ritual? That there wasn’t a single word in any of our holy books about nuclear physics, about bacteria or viruses, about meteorology? We did the miraculous, we would have to say, by assuming that miracles don’t exist and by ignoring the false teachings in our holy texts.

So if atheism is just another “belief,” why doesn’t atheism have a massive following? Why are atheists instead a small minority in America? Why are we reviled and pushed out of politics and public conversation?

It’s because the advances of science are never described as being successful primarily because science assumes there is no god. Imagine a newspaper article that described a breakthrough in the creation of a smallpox vaccine:

A group of atheists, working under the always successful assumption that there is no god and that the natural world operates without any supernatural help, found today that smallpox is in fact created by microscopic entities called viruses. Now that this evidence is in, the scientists can work on the creation of a vaccine using weakened viruses to strengthen the body’s immune system. Another victory for the atheistic world view.

Don’t you see? Everything that works in the world, everything that humanity has created works because we assume there is no god. Cars work because we assume that no god will help run them if there’s no gasoline or engine. Diseases are cured because we assume that god has nothing to do with them; so scientists look for other causes. Buildings stand because we build them strongly, knowing that the hand of god won’t hold them up.

Imagine building a car with no engine, and assuming it’s going to run on “god power.” What irony! After centuries of priests and shamans praying for signs and praying that a god or gods interfere with human lives, the only thing that has worked in the real world is to assume that god doesn’t exist! To assume there is no god is to get off on the right foot every single time.

Let’s imagine a situation where a child is badly injured. The child’s deeply religious parents, assuming there is a god who works miracles, pray over the child in their home and do not take her to the hospital. The child dies. In this case, aren’t the parents guilty of a crime? Don’t we all, deep down, know that it’s criminal to pretend there is a real god in certain situations? That injured child should have been taken to a hospital, where the doctors, who would assume that there is no god (through their actions if not their beliefs) would hopefully be able to repair her body and keep her alive. If there is a god, why does he demand that we deny him in order to make anything work?

Why don’t we begin to define atheism as a religion? Not only that, but let’s define everything that works as atheistic. Atheistic car mechanics, atheistic doctors, atheistic custodial workers. We could go on and on. Not a single profession in the entire world achieves results by assuming there is a god. That is, except for the religious profession, which exists only to perpetuate its religious beliefs. But, you might say, don’t many religious professionals do a lot to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and all that? Don’t religious people often do good things because of religion? Sure, but why do they have to do it? Because they know god won’t. Religious people themselves have to achieve real-world results in the same way that everyone else does: by assuming there is no god who’ll do it for them.

If we did define atheism as a religion, then maybe we’d start to win converts in the same kind of numbers that Jesus and Mohammed have.

But we don’t. Atheism is not a religion. What is it then? It’s an offshoot of scientific inquiry. Let me explain.
In the not so distant past, just a few centuries ago, people would look at the world and make guesses about how it worked. If a person was smart or well educated and wrote a guess down, then people began to believe it. Let’s use an example you may have learned in your science classes: that of meat and maggots. It was once believed that if you left meat out in the open it turned into maggots. After all, that’s what you saw if you left the meat out and came back a few days later. In fact, the idea that meat turns into maggots is just one of a seemingly infinite number of explanations for maggots.

Well, it’s simple to test whether or not this is true. You put meat in two jars and put them both on a window sill. Cover one with a cloth and don’t cover the other one. A few days later the uncovered jar will have maggots and the covered one won’t. Interesting. Now you know that meat doesn’t just turn into maggots. But you still don’t know that maggots are fly larvae. It could be that the sun helps the meat turn into maggots. So try the experiment again with the jars in the shade. When the results are the same, you’ll know that the sun is not a cause of maggots. But, if you’re watching, you’ll notice that flies are all over the meat in the uncovered jar. Could there be a connection? If you watch long enough, and closely enough, you’ll see that, yes, the flies are laying eggs in the meat. The hatched larvae must live off the nutrition in the dead flesh.

By collecting evidence, you found the truth. And the truth is useful because you can build upon it. Once you discover, for example, that maggots eat only dead flesh, you’ll find that they are excellent for cleaning the dead skin out of gangrenous wounds. This is an effective, though disgusting, medical procedure.

We reason in such a way. You begin by understanding something concrete and then building on it. Let’s say that we don’t know how sound works and that several of us are sitting around talking about the problem. One guy states that sound is caused by tiny little angels flying out of our mouths and entering the ears of the people we’re speaking to. Any time there’s a noise, it’s the work of angels. If it’s a really loud noise, then there are bunches of angels. The problem is that the angels get tired. If they have to fly too far, they give up or just fall down.

So this man creates a device that he thinks will carry the angels, and the sound, for long distances. It’s a complicated machine, a large pipe with holes on the sides. Every five feet, the inventor has placed strong but silent fans. The fans are at the holes to give the angels a burst of wind to help carry them farther on.

Once the contraption is built, the man stations himself at one end of the pipe and puts another person at the opposite end a mile away. He speaks and the powerful fans start whirring.

Now, let’s imagine that this inventor is in competition with a man who closely studied sound and discovered that it has a tendency to smash into an object, like a tree, but then seems to wash around the tree so that some of it comes around the other side. In fact, it acts rather like a wave.

This man realizes, because of previous scientific discoveries, that electricity, alternating current, is also a wave, and that it travels through wires. Well, if he wants to carry sound over long distances, it’s not just a matter of turning the sound wave into an electrical wave, but changing it back into sound at the other end. So, he invents a device called a telephone that translates sound waves into electrical waves when you speak into it, and turns them back into sound waves when you listen to it.

Obviously, this is just a thought experiment. No one person could discover the nature of sound and invent the telephone. This is something that happens over generations, but it illustrates my point. If you start with a belief that has no evidence to back it up, then you’ll get nowhere. The long-pipe/angel/fan machine obviously won’t work, because there are no angels.

The telephone will work because there are sound and electrical waves. In the beginning, to say that angels carry sound or to say that sound is made of invisible waves may sound equally valid, or equally crazy, but one statement has the power of evidence to back it up and the other doesn’t.

Likewise, if we begin with the idea that prayer really heals people, we will get nowhere. Prayer doesn’t heal people. Prayer affects viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells about as much as ancient or tribal people dancing around a fire and killing animals for sacrifice does.

So, let’s compare prayer with our example from above about the tiny sound-carrying angels. A contraption designed to convey sound-carrying angels over long distances doesn’t work. Why? Simple: because there are no angels. Likewise, praying to god to heal someone doesn’t work. Why? Simple: because there is no god

The thing is, atheism is not a religion. Atheism is a simple statement of disbelief in any kind of supernatural force. This statement can be made with words such as “I don’t believe in a god or group of gods.” Or, it can be made with actions such as when someone goes to the hospital because he knows that god won’t heal him. (And, I’m sorry, but the notion that god chose to heal a person through the creation of hospitals makes no sense. Where was god for the thousands of years that people got sick before hospitals existed?)

Once you’ve made that statement of disbelief, then you’re free to think about every topic, be it moral or scientific, through the use of reason and your own intellect rather than by searching some holy book for the answers given by “prophets” of questionable sanity. Religions are an end. Atheism is a beginning.

Every religion claims that human beings are put on this Earth for the express purpose of discovering that religion. Atheism says no such thing. Atheistic scientific inquiry is merely a tool that anyone can use. It’s like a hammer. And anyone can use a hammer. Scientific inquiry is like that. It doesn’t require that you convert to any ideology in order to use it.

Even a deeply religious person can use the experimental method and have it work. To be an atheist merely means that you don’t believe in anything, be it god, an Invisible Flying Clown, or sound-carrying angels, without evidence.
But wait! The religious person might be yelling at this point. You can’t prove there is no god through scientific inquiry. He could easily exist and just chooses not to answer prayers. You can’t prove that something doesn’t exist! That’s true. I can’t prove that there aren’t sound-carrying angels, either.

But, a liberal religious person might say, god does exist but he doesn’t answer prayers or interact with the natural world at all. Then, I, as the skeptic, would have to ask: “How do you know he exists?” After all, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Prove to me he exists. If he doesn’t answer prayers, if he doesn’t interact with the natural world, then how do you know he’s there? And, given the fact that he is either actively involved in the evil of the world or completely detached and uncaring, why do you think he is good?

The religious person will undoubtedly answer with the most harmful word ever concocted in the history of humankind.

Faith. 

[more on this in a subsequent post–ed.]

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