By Seth Richardson
Back on February 4th, comedian Bill Maher decided on a “new rule” on his television show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Maher’s new rule is: “Until someone claims to see Christopher Hitchens’ face in a tree stump, idiots must stop claiming that atheism is a religion.” How about idiots like Maher stop claiming it’s not a religion instead? That’s the actual truth of the matter.
Maher tries to support his “evidence-based” rule by defining religion as it suits him to define it, not as it’s actually defined by the people whose job it is to do so. He says, “religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power and atheism is precisely not that.”
One little problem Bill, you’re wrong. Atheism is a religion, at least as you and most other vocal Atheists practice it, because you make it a religion. Religion, you see, is not what you believe in, it’s how you go about it. You’re improperly conflating theism and religion, so don’t be an idiot and go look up the actual definition next time.
Religion, as defined by those whose job it is to examine the customary usages of words and record them in reference books, does not necessarily include either worship or a supernatural deity. That’s theism, and theism is clearly a category of religion, but not vice versa. We know, for example, that Secular Humanism is a religion. Its creators at first defined the belief/practice set as a religion, only turning their backs on that label for ideological and political reasons associated with intolerance of religion and a desire to not be associated with religion, but the fact remains that it meets all the basic requirements of a religion. Indeed, Secular Humanism is probably one of the examples used in broadening the definition of religion in the contemporary age to include non-theistic belief/practice sets.
It’s useful at this point to point out the actual, official definition of religion for Bill’s edification:
Definition of RELIGION
1a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith—
/rɪˈlɪdʒən/ Show Spelled[ri-lij-uhn]
1.a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2.a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3.the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4.the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5.the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6.something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion (accessed: February 09, 2012).
Pay particular attention to definitions four and six above, because they are the stake through the heart (or the serpent’s tooth through the horcrux if you will) of Mahr’s entire diatribe.
I’ve pointed out in the past the distinction between “implicit” and “explicit” atheism, and there’s a wiki entry on it for your reference, so I won’t belabor it here except to say that I’ve never met an implicit atheist who self-identified as an “atheist.” I think that it would be an oxymoron to do so, because self-identifying as an atheist necessarily implies that the person has been exposed to, and has rejected, theistic concepts.
This in and of itself places the explicit atheist perilously close to religion, and it takes but a little more on the part of the atheist to drop them firmly into religious belief and practice. Rare is the explicit atheist who hold no opinion about either atheism or theism that would make the belief a matter of conscience or ethics and therefore would qualify as a religious belief. Certainly any atheist who is, or argues secular activism falls into the religious atheist category because secularism implies a political agenda of excluding religion from government, which pretty clearly must be a matter of conscience or ethics, and activism meets the “follows devotedly” component of the broadest legitimate and accepted definition of religion.
Some people claim that explicit atheism is merely a philosophy, but I would disagree. One may philosophize about religion, or atheism, or anything else, but when one’s philosophy becomes a matter of faith, and faith is often (though not always) a component of religion, the lines are blurred beyond recognition and the philosophy (such as Secular Humanism) becomes a religion.
As to faith, while it is one of the often-seen components of religion, it is often narrowly defined by atheists as faith in a deity, so as to exclude their version of faith from the debate and evade the natural consequences of their actions. Properly, faith is defined as:
plural faiths \ˈfāths, sometimes ˈfāthz\
Definition of FAITH
1a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>
Removing, for the purposes of argument, the references to theism, we find applicable to this discussion: “Belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust; something that is believed especially with strong conviction.”
Let us examine how Atheists (the religious kind like Bill Maher) “believe in the traditional doctrines of atheism.” Being explicit atheists, religious atheists have faith in the traditional atheist doctrine that theistic claims are false and that God does not exist. This belief is far more than a mere lack of belief in gods, it is a positive rejection of theistic god-claims that is a central component in virtually all argumentation seen from atheists with the sole exception of when they are accused of being “religious” in their atheism, at which point they reverse course and try to claim that they have nothing more than a “lack of belief in god(s).” This, of course, is nonsense, as anyone can see merely from examining their rhetoric and arguments, and it’s just a convenient pettifogging evasion and nothing more.
Maher himself demonstrates this point nicely when he says, “You don’t get to put your unreason up on the shelf with my reason. Your stuff has to go over there on the shelf with Zeus and Thor and the Kraken; the stuff that is not evidence based. The stuff that religious people never change their mind about no matter what happens.” Note that he’s talking about theism, not religion here.
This is not a simple lack of belief in god(s), it’s an active, positive, deeply-held (and on Maher’s part anyway), viciously defended belief/practice system. It might more properly be defined as “radical anti-theist zealotry,” but I think calling it big-”A” Atheism is far more appropriate, since Maher and most other self-professed Atheists call themselves that.
On to “complete trust.” Most Atheists place complete trust in their belief that God does not exist. I think that’s pretty obvious. The zealousness with which they make their arguments is proof enough of that. Mahr is explicit in his faith and says of God’s potential appearance at the Superbowl, “…that’s not gonna happen.” That it didn’t means nothing to the analysis of his religious faith because God, if He exists, is not obliged to satisfy Maher’s skepticism.
And clearly Atheists are faithful to their system of beliefs “with strong conviction.” Maher is an excellent example of just how fundamental and strong Atheist beliefs and faith are.
Now we move on to how Atheists hold a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” The traditional Atheist claim that the claims of theists are false are usually based in the statement “there is no evidence showing that the claim is true, therefore it may be discounted.” That’s what Maher says in his comedy routine.
This is purported to be a “scientific” analysis of theistic claims, but it’s not, it’s a firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Most often the “no evidence” claim is based not in a true lack of evidence that’s proven not to exist, but merely in a refusal to even critically examine the evidence that is put forward by theists. It amounts to a mere dismissal of the claims of theists based on the atheistic belief that the claims, being “supernatural” in nature, are therefore axiomatically false based on the “scientific” presumption that nothing supernatural can exist. This is an iteration of the logical fallacy I’ve labeled “The Atheist’s Fallacy.”
Dismissal of a claim is not, however, in and of itself a disproving of the claim by the use of countervailing facts and evidence, it’s just dismissal. God may exist. Even the Archbishop of Atheism Richard Dawkins admits this possibility. The fact that human beings inaccurately describe or make claims about God does not change the fact that God may exist, and neither Maher nor any other Atheist has a single shred of proof that God does not exist.
Therefore such dismissals constitute a firm belief in something (the falsity of theistic claims) for which there is no actual proof. No Atheist has ever proven that God does not exist, which is the proof required to make a dismissal of a theistic claim that God does exist a valid conclusion rather than faith in the religious belief that God does not exist.
Maher says, “I’m open to anything for which there is evidence. Show me a god and I will believe in him.” Then he goes on to say that if God shows up at the Superbowl, he’ll admit he was wrong. Maher wants evidence before he’ll believe in God, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is not what Maher believes in, but how he goes about practicing what he does believe in. That’s what defines religion and his actions are what constitutes the practice of religion.
So the reality is that Atheists have a set of beliefs in which they have faith, which beliefs are based in a complete lack of evidence or proof of the truth of their beliefs (that God does not exist), which constitutes faith, a component of religion (though not a necessary component I must add). How they practice those beliefs is what constitutes religious practice, and any atheist who is an activist for secularism (including comedians), or atheism, or uses atheism as a label or justification for their political or social actions or activism, including self-identification, congregation (think atheist meetings or going to a Richard Dawkins talk) debate, support for atheist causes and media or otherwise actuates that belief set is, in fact, practicing religion in every essential and historical respect save deistic worship, which we have seen is not a required component of the definition of religion.
Why is this important? Because the real point of Maher’s diatribe was to “call out” those who “label any evidence based belief a religion.” His objection is that his “evidence-based stuff” cannot be “put on the same shelf” with religion, by which he means theism. Problem is, the reason that some of his “evidence based stuff” is labeled a religion is because it is a religion…like global warming. There may be a kernel of truth in the claim that temperatures are rising globally, but it’s far from certain that it’s being caused entirely by humans, that humans can actually do anything about it, or that it’s not part of a natural warming and cooling cycle earth has been going through for billions of years.
The anthropogenic global warming hysteria, and the faith, ardor and strength of belief with which some people cling to it, along with the lack of proof that all, or indeed any of the dire predicted consequences will come to pass meet every requirement of a religious belief, particularly when its on the part of people who accept uncritically the orthodoxy of the Global Warming Inquisition. It may be true that anthropogenic global warming will destroy the planet, just as it may be true that God exists, but that doesn’t mean that those who believe in the dogma of either are not engaged in religious practice.
So yes, Atheism is very, very often a religion. Not inexorably or always, but certainly when it comes to Bill Maher, who is a fundamentalist religious zealot every bit as much as Ted Haggard is, and just about as hypocritical about it. He’s just of a different religious faith than Haggard.
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