Myths about atheism: Atheism is just another religion

I’ll be honest, this is one of the arguments I find a bit tedious—the idea that atheism is a religion or a  worldview or a belief system or a dogma. It’s an argument often used by religious people who write books about atheism (I’m looking at you, Dr. Frank Turek!). These folks insist that atheists are merely trading one belief system for another, and I’m not sure why they do that—maybe they just can’t imagine life without some sort of belief system. But that’s a total misconception and misunderstanding of atheism.

Let’s talk about the definition of the word atheist (and if you’ve read my article about being an atheist and an agnostic, you can skip the next two paragraphs, they’re review). The “a” in “atheist” is a suffix that negates the root word. A-theism literally means without theism. An a-theist is simply not a theist.

Theism is the belief in a god who created the universe and tends to its daily affairs. If you believe that—as most Jews, Christians and Muslims do—you are a theist. If you don’t believe in such a god, you’re an atheist. (That’s me.)

Dogs and babies are atheists

Being an atheist does not mean you subscribe to any alternative worldview—or any particular worldview at all. My dogs, so far as I can tell, are atheists. One them shows no signs of recognizing any authority higher than the humans in the house. The other one shows no signs of recognizing any authority higher than himself.

Newborn babies are atheists. They have no knowledge of or belief in anything spiritual or religious until someone teaches it to them. But wait—couldn’t religion be somehow pre-programmed into the mind (or heart, or soul, or shins, or wherever you think it resides) at or before birth? If that was the case, one would expect to see all children the world over embrace the same religious belief (presumably the correct one, assuming only one can be correct). And if you won’t make that assumption, you’d expect to see a little more random distribution.

Instead, the religion children adopt tends to be based on era and area. A child born in England in 1600 is likely to have been a Christian; a child born in modern-day Saudi Arabia is likely to be a Muslim. We aren’t born with a religion. Religion is taught to us.

But until someone tells them differently, those kids, like my pooches, are atheists. One can be an atheist because one has not been taught belief in God, or one can be an atheist because one rejected belief in God. (I’ve done both!) Point being, one need not have any alternative beliefs to be an atheist. One need simply be without theistic belief.

“If you don’t believe in God, science is your religion!”

Still, a lot of people insist atheism is a kind of religion, or that atheists believe in the religion of science. Science gets the blame a lot, since it has provided better explanations for many phenomena that were once explained by religion and credited to the divine. There was a time when we didn’t understand why the sun moved across the sky, so we posited a god who carried it in a (presumably fireproof) chariot. When science came up with a better explanation, it was curtains for Helios.

Here’s the thing—and it’s an important point for believers to understand—one need not believe in science to be an atheist.

This rarely seems to sit well with those religious authors. They seem to be of the opinion that one cannot reject a belief without having something to replace it, and since science is the most common replacement for religious explanations, that’s where they go. They then pounce on something for which science does not have an explanation—say, the nature of consciousness—and say “Ah-hah! Your religion of science has no answer for that, therefore the atheistic worldview must be false and the theistic worldview must be true!”

This, by the way, is what is known as a god of the gaps argument, one that posits a divine explanation to fill in the gaps we cannot otherwise answer (like how the sun travels across the sky). Science doesn’t yet know how organic matter becomes conscious, so the religious explanation—a supernatural being grants it—must be true. (But wait—if consciousness must be granted, who gave God consciousness?)

Let’s get back to an atheist like me. I reject the idea of a god who created the universe (and consciousness) and controls it. I don’t think it’s a reasonable explanation because it raises more questions than it answers (such as if intelligent minds require a creator, who created the intelligent mind that created us?).

Does that mean I must align myself with the religion of science? No, not at all. The key point that I hope you will absorb, even if religious authors won’t:

One can reject a bad explanation even if one has nothing better to replace it.

When no explanation is better than a bad explanation

I have no idea how iron is made into steel. I know it has something to do with heat, but that’s the extent of my understanding.

So let’s say you explain to me that there is a little old woman who lives in a cottage on the edge of the Ardennes. If you want steel, you unload some iron on her front lawn. At precisely seventeen minutes past midnight on the third Thursday of any month with an R in the name, she comes out of her cottage, pours boiling spring water on the iron, then does a special dance around it while uttering an ancient incantation in Swahili. She turns around three times, stamps on the metal with the heel of her left shoe, and voila, the transition is complete! Your iron is now steel, which you may pick up at your leisure, but you’d better make it fast because after 24 hours she charges for storage.

I’ve chosen a deliberately ludicrous explanation, and of course it’s false. I can reject it out of hand, even though I don’t have a better one.

Were this an argument about religion, however, the god of the gaps argument would say “You can’t offer a better explanation of how steel is made, so the one about the old lady in the Ardennes must be true!”

Um, no.

To tie this back to my original point: Atheism is not a belief system. One needn’t have any substitute beliefs to reject belief in theism. If you don’t think theism is true—if you believe the evidence indicates against a theistic god, as I do—then you’re an atheist.

It doesn’t matter if you have an alternative belief system. It doesn’t matter if you believe in science, or UFOs, or that the world is being carried through the cosmos in the pincers of two giant green lobsters named Esmeralda and Keith, or none of the above, or if you just don’t care and can’t be bothered.

If you reject the idea of theism—if you don’t think there’s a supernatural god who created the world and runs its daily affairs—then you are an atheist. That is the sole requirement.

Being an atheist means having the courage to say “I don’t know”

Now, I don’t like to adopt the style of the religious authors who write books about atheism, but I’m going to do it anyway: That concept is very, very bad news for those same authors, because that’s the foundation on which many of the anti-atheism books I’ve read is based: “Atheism is just another belief system, and it can’t explain everything so it cannot possibly be true. Religion offers explanations for everything; granted, some of them are a bit implausible, but that’s where faith comes in. Therefore, religion wins over atheism!”

Sorry, friends, but that’s just not the case. Penn Jillette, in his book God No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, makes this point quite eloquently in his introduction. Rejecting theism means giving up some of these just-so explanations that religion provides. (No big loss as most of them fall apart with any deliberate prodding.) It means having the courage to say “I don’t know.”

Saying “I don’t know” isn’t easy. It’s human nature to find the answers. That’s how we got to the Moon. That’s why religion continues to flourish.

But that doesn’t change the fact that atheism is not a belief system. It’s not a religion and it’s not a worldview. It’s merely the lack of one particular worldview.

You don’t have to know anything or believe anything to be an atheist—you just have to not believe one thing. That’s all atheism is!

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