Tag Archives: definition

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There is a trope called the “Pyrrhic Victory”, which references a Greek king who achieved a desperate victory at the expense of destroying his own armies. The basic concept is that an empty success is snatched at the cost of your own side along with the enemy’s. This idea is also inherent in the “scorched earth” strategy, where one retreats in the face of an overwhelming attack, while burning and salting your own territory, rendering it as useless to your foe as it is to you. Why bring up these suicidal military tactics? Because both of these approaches seem to drip from a very peculiar response levelled by believers against atheists: Atheism is just one more religion among many.

Coming from the religious themselves, the accusation of religiosity as a criticism is an extraordinary attempt at a knock-down argument. What could be more self-refuting than an argument that states, “You are unjustified because you are the same as me”? This seems to be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. If atheism is just another religion, then it is just as superstitious, irrational and baseless as any other faith. Congratulations, you have successfully argued that those who disagree with you are just as absurd and bewildered as you are. The statement is certainly not intended as a compliment. When a Christian says to another Christian, “Your faith is admirable,” they intend a great compliment. When the same sentiment is offered to an atheist, the intent is a snide potshot. I understand that words can have different meanings, but with such a foundational concept, it is unwise to define it in diametrically opposed ways. It may begin to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Atheism is not the end point of an examination of god claims and finding them wanting, nor a result of lacking any exposure to them. Rather, it is a position based upon faith, the groundless failure to accept that any deity exists. Theism and atheism are therefore left on equal footing, right? Well, no. A belief is relatively reasonable if, while it lacks real justification, it accurately reflects the way the world works. We would look more kindly on a heliocentrist than a geocentrist, even if their belief is based on nothing more than personal preference. There are better and worse reasons to believe, but a correct belief is better than a false one, even if it falls short of actual knowledge. So in the presence of a universe operating by physical laws, wherein all the suffering and chaos and wonder one might expect in an unsupervised space exists, atheism still seems eerily like one of these true beliefs. The claims of the religious of miraculous events and benevolent superintendence are as ridiculous as ever, regardless of the faithfulness of their opponents.

This is where my generosity ends. Atheism does not fit any description of religion that isn’t so hopelessly diffuse as to also bring sports fanaticism and knitting club membership into the fold of faith. We use definitions as limiters, to distinguish things by noting those characteristics that are shared by that group and not by everything else. Thus atheism can easily be excluded from the category of “religion” by its failure to participate in the necessary features thereof. Admittedly, religion is difficult to define, but most people have something specific in mind when they use the word, and it may be accepted that a layman’s definition is sufficient for the purpose.

A religion generally includes a belief in some kind of deity or deities, whether deistic, theistic or pantheistic. Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily fall under this umbrella, and for this reason it may be argued that these are closer to philosophies than religions – though some sects of Buddhism do hold a belief in the deity of the Buddha. Atheism spectacularly fails to fulfil this requirement, by its very definition. This is an analytically true statement: Atheism is the lack of belief in a god, and therefore atheists lack a belief in a god. No further empirical investigation is necessary. The vast majority of religions include a belief in an additional cornucopia of supernatural propositions. If one lacks belief in god, prayer and miracles become untenable. And while the term “atheism” only applies to the belief in god, most atheists in my experience – in the West, as many Chinese atheists hold traditional beliefs like ancestor worship – are also sceptics and materialists, and this certainly excludes these atheists from being religious believers. Religions commonly have a text or set of texts that are seen as essential and inviolable, often claimed to contain tales of gods, inspiration from same, or even direct communication from the divine. While atheists may have personal favourites and admired authors and thinkers, we stop far short of deification and are all too aware of their human limitations. I have great affection for the works of David Hume, but I will freely state that his views on race were backwards and vile.

Remove god, the supernatural and holy texts from religion, and what are we left with? Groups of people with similar ideas who meet regularly and celebrate particular days, identifying under a particular label. There is nothing now to differentiate between a religion and a political party or supporter’s club. A definition that describes everything describes nothing and should be discarded as useless. So, no meaningful definition of religion can include atheism. This leaves the theists’ scorched earth policy as a failure on two fronts: it is factually incorrect, and even if used damages theism more than it does atheism.

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Filed under Atheism, Philosophy, Religion