Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Why Atheism Is Not A Religion

Recently, some people have gone around claiming that Richard Dawkins is turning atheism into a religion. This is hardly a new attack since religionists have always been claiming that atheism is just another religion. Of course it is nonsense, but why is it nonsense?

We'll start by noting that every religion is an ideology, but that not every ideology is a religion. To be a religion, an ideology needs a power structure. There are plenty of atheist religions, including but not limited to: Leninism, Maoism, Fidelismo, Bushism, Statism, Objectivism, and Buddhism. Maoism in particular had a sufficiently strong personality worship to make it a cult. So did Objectivism. But atheism is not yet nor is it becoming a religion.

There's a bit more than that because otherwise the Boy Scouts would be a religion. There needs to be an element of adoration, veneration or worship tied up in the hierarchy. So that's what a religion is: the confluence of an ideology, a hierarchy and adoration.

Getting back to Dawkins, the atheism movement epitomized by Dawkins just doesn't have the power structure to be a religion. Dawkins doesn't have enough power among atheists and it is exceedingly unlikely that he could ever accumulate such power. To see why, ask yourself what privileges he has gained from this movement. Also ask who his subordinates in the movement are supposed to be.

And although Dawkins is doing all the right things to set himself up as a religious figure, this is an illusion. What he's actually doing is setting himself up as an authority on this one narrow subject. Meaning, he's playing the kind of power politics which is the lifeblood of any respected scientist. His behaviour is hardly unusual.

Religion

We've defined religion in a very particular way. What's important here is this is not "yet another" definition of religion. It's the correct definition of religion. And it's correct because it:

  1. includes all the things which are understood to be religions
  2. excludes all the things which are understood to not be religions
  3. creates a meaningful and significant distinction
  4. different from all other distinctions
  5. broadening the utility of language for communication, and
  6. provides insight into the phenomenon

Now, it might seem that Maoism is not commonly understood to be a religion, but things are a bit more complicated. In reality, most people aren't familiar enough with Maoism to be able to judge whether or not it is a religion. Furthermore, most political scientists do consider Maoism to be a religion. So there's more than enough reason to at least set it aside from the class of counter-examples. In the case of Bushism, it's a combination of Americans being too close, not intellectually honest enough, and of their not being familiar with Bushism per se.

When you examine all the things on which there is broad consensus that they are religions or not religions, defining a religion as a power structure wedded to an ideology makes a lot more sense. It then becomes obvious that the supernatural claptrap that comes with religion is incidental to it. This is an important and meaningful insight, well worth the price of using an unusual definition.

Ideology

Of course, having defined atheism as an ideology, opens it to attack as an ideology. But this isn't much of a vulnerability. Consider the case of anarchism. Some anarchy-ists are very ideological about anarchism, and other anarchs are pragmatic to an extreme. Since pragmatism is an intrinsic part of the anarchist ideology, it becomes clear that anarchism is both an ideology and its own anti-ideology. A notion that will resonate with anyone who's studied physics.

Atheism is in the same camp. It is both an ideology and an anti-ideology. It is a distinctly anti-religious ideology. But it is also its own anti-ideology, contrary to the claims of agnostics and contrary to the claims of the enemies of scientific rationalism. Agnostics being intellectually dishonest and scientific rationalism being an anti-method. Both of which will be the topic of future blog entries.

On these grounds, it's clear that atheism is impervious to principled attack. Principled being the key word here since there's no lack of manpower among the ranks of the intellectually dishonest and the magical thinkers.

6 comments:

sptrashcan said...

In the interests of clarity, it would be handy for you to provide your working definitions of: ideology, atheism, and agnosticism.

Also, the assertion that political scientists consider Maoism to be a religion is striking. Unfortunately, lazy Googling fails to turn up a reference, so if you have one on hand it would be interesting.

I have not studied much physics, so the part about ideologies being their own anti-ideology confused me somewhat. What is an anti-ideology?

As an aside, I have seen you use, from time to time, an argument which seems to proceed as follows:

1. I am tremendously intelligent.
2. You disagree with me.
Therefore:
3. You are wrong, and also stupid.

Why do you do this?

Richard Kulisz said...

> In the interests of clarity, it would be handy for you to provide your working definitions of: ideology, atheism, and agnosticism.

Ideology: a conviction in how reality functions, made part of a person's identity.

Atheism: either belief in the non-existence of gods or non-belief in their existence.

Agnosticism: the incorrect belief that (non)-beliefs about god have no rational justification. It's due to applying a special epistemological process to theism.

I don't have a handy reference for Maoism as religion. Though lazy googling should have turned up at least a few mentions of such. Anyways, it's just something that comes up again and again, with far more credibility (ie, no refutation) than atheism being a religion.

> What is an anti-ideology?

Either pragmatism which destroys all ideologies, or the opposite ideology of any given ideology.

> As an aside, I have seen you use, from time to time, an argument which seems to proceed as follows:

If you see this argument here then it's because you've read it into my blog entry.

Anyways, I'm going to have to refine the definition of religion to include adoration, worship or veneration.

sptrashcan said...

> Either pragmatism which destroys all ideologies, or the opposite ideology of any given ideology.

Why isn't pragmatism an ideology? It seems to make some claims about how reality functions, unless I'm thinking of the wrong pragmatism. Also, by opposite, do you mean a literal negation of every axiom of a given ideology?

> If you see this argument here then it's because you've read it into my blog entry.

Not seen here. I'll point it out if it comes up again.

Richard Kulisz said...

> Why isn't pragmatism an ideology? It seems to make some claims about how reality functions, unless I'm thinking of the wrong pragmatism.

I don't even know where to begin. That's like asking why vacuum isn't a kind of matter. Pragmatism says nothing about how reality functions, only that you should approach it without preconceived notions, without any secure convictions. In other words, non-ideologically.

> Also, by opposite, do you mean a literal negation of every axiom of a given ideology?

Or an axiomatic set equivalent to the literal negation of every axiom of that ideology. Within the typical fuzzy granularity of anything outside the exact sciences.

sptrashcan said...

> I don't even know where to begin.

Well, you managed to make a pretty good educated guess by giving a definition of pragmatism.

> Pragmatism says nothing about how reality functions, only that you should approach it without preconceived notions, without any secure convictions.

That clears it up nicely. Going by the definitions you provide, pragmatism is indeed not an ideology.

> Or an axiomatic set equivalent to the literal negation of every axiom of that ideology.

Does this mean that it is sufficient for A' to be an anti-ideology of A if A' consists of axioms which are mutually incompatible with those of A? Then there could be many anti-ideologies of A.

It belatedly occurs to me:

> Atheism: either belief in the non-existence of gods or non-belief in their existence.

I could be in error, but it seems the first type of atheism described is an ideology. The second seems to arise from pragmatic pruning of axioms, and therefore is indeed not an ideology.

This might be an interesting read for you: a critique of Dawkins' The God Delusion on the basis of poor understanding of religion.

Richard Kulisz said...

> Then there could be many anti-ideologies of A.

You need to go the extra step and junk the notion of uniqueness. There are an infinite number of theories compatible with our physical senses. And even if you apply Ockham's razor to them, it can easily leave multiple minimal theories behind. Accept that, that mathematics is plural, that physical reality is plural, and that ideologies built out of the same values are plural too. It's a Pattern.

> I could be in error, but it seems the first type of atheism described is an ideology. The second seems to arise from pragmatic pruning of axioms, and therefore is indeed not an ideology.

Which would be why I said that atheism is both an ideology and an anti-ideology. Which is also why I described anarchy-ists versus anarchs. The former have an ideology of anti-ideology (yes, this is self-contradictory if you apply the meta-level to the level). The latter are straight up anti-ideologists.

And I don't know about other people but I get along a lot better with the soft atheists than with the agnostics. Also, I'm more of an antitheist. I don't believe it's even possible for there to be gods. I believe it would violate laws of economics and psychology.