|Chapter 6. Atheism is neither a religion nor the
opposite of religion (or, why atheists should not wear
their hats on their elbows).
They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as
merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a
new religion in America--the religion of secularism. American Presidential Candidate Mitt
Atheism is the religion whose belief about God is that there is no God. . . . it must be subject
to the same legal restrictions imposed by governments on all other religions. In particular, in
the United States, the teaching of Atheism must be prohibited wherever the teaching of
Christianity is prohibited. The Reverend Bill McGinnis
Atheism is defined by religion, but it is not the opposite of religion. Neither is atheism a
form of religion. Everyone is born atheist, just as everyone is born human. Some
humans learn religion, some do not, and some learn religion and later reject it.
It is kind of like humans and hats. All humans are born without hats, just as all humans
are born without religion. Some humans have hats put on their heads pretty soon after
birth, but they are not born that way. Humor me and let me call newborns “a-hatist”
(that is without hats, just like “a-theist” is without religion). If hats were never invented,
there would be no need for the term “a-hatist,” but a-hatism would still exist.
Similarly, atheism is defined by religion. Atheism is a lack of belief in religion. If men
had never invented religion, there would be no need for the term “atheist,” but atheism
would still exist.
Neither is atheism a religion. Religionists want to call atheism a religion. They seize on
language in a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court case that labeled secular humanism a religion.
The language is located in a footnote and is what lawyers call dicta–incidental words
that are thrown into the case but have no bearing on the decision and do not serve as
binding legal precedent. Religionists call us secular humanists more frequently than
they call us atheists. There is a reason for this.
If religionists succeed in categorizing atheism as a religion, they can claim victory.
Atheism would just be another supernatural theory, no better or worse than their own.
They could call evolution a religion and demand that their bearded man myths get
equal billing. But they are wrong. Religion is a belief in the supernatural. Atheism is the
absence of that belief. Think back to Chapter 1 where I described the mayonnaise jars
of religionists and atheists. A Christian religionist’s jar is full of supernatural beliefs like:
the world was created in six days, woman was created from man’s rib, a virgin gave
birth to a child, dead people can come back to life, and so on. The atheist’s
mayonnaise jar is empty. No matter how much the religionists try, they cannot
transmute the lack of supernatural belief into a supernatural belief. That is, unless we
It is easy to imitate the religious model and allow religionists to set the agenda.
Satanists are a good example. They take Christianity and flip it on its head. Satanists
worship Lucifer instead of Yahweh. They have black masses instead of white. It seems
that some people get a rebellious thrill by claiming to be Satanists, but they are
misdirecting their frustration with Christianity by being its opposite. They let the
religionists set their agenda and act in a manner as equally silly as the religionists they
are rebelling against.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a spoof of Christianity. It provides a bit
of comic relief in the debates over religion and creationism. Tongue in cheek, the
Church announces, “Some claim that the church is purely a thought experiment, satire,
illustrating that Intelligent Design is not science, but rather a pseudoscience
manufactured by Christians to push creationism into public schools. These people are
mistaken.” Admittedly, I laugh at the irreverent references. But all fun aside, the Church
of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a limited joke that conforms to the religious model.
On the serious side of things, the Church of Reality gives little more than a wink before
announcing it is “winning souls for Darwin” and then plugging common sense concepts
into the religious model. Although spoof remains evident, it is a more serious attempt to
fit atheism into a religious model. They have even obtained tax-free status for their
organization from the Internal Revenue Service.
The American Humanist model is a very serious attempt to mold atheism into a religion.
Humanists are so intent on answering the religionist posed question “can you be good
without god,” that they create an alternative church. In fact, their first Humanist
Manifesto repeatedly labeled humanism a religion. Their recent billboard campaign
advertises, “Millions are good without god.” Humanists have allowed religionists set
their agenda. Humanists seem like nice people but I believe they have gone down the
Everyone has a right to express their beliefs but I believe that these “churches” fall into
the trap set by religionists to make atheism another religion. It is like “a-hatists”
Hat-ists are wrong
to wear their hats on their heads,
so we will wear hats
on our elbows instead.
Atheism is the absence of religion, it is not the opposite of religion and it is not a new
religion. To behave otherwise allows the religionists to set our agenda.
Even an organization with the hopeful title “Freedom From Religion Foundation
(FFRF)” falls into the same trap. Their co-leader is a former preacher who went from
traveling around the country singing Christian songs and preaching Christianity to
traveling around the country singing atheist songs and preaching atheism. They even
print atheist recipes in their church bulletin–um, I mean freethought paper. An FFRF
billboard campaign adopts a religious stained glass motif and proclaims, “Praise
Darwin!” Perhaps I am missing the sophisticated humor of juxtapositioning religious
imagery with atheism in the campaign, but it looks to me like they are elevating Darwin
to the position of saint or deity. I believe Darwin was a brave and bright scientist. But I
think that making him a saint is allowing the religionists to set the agenda. Atheism is
the absence of religion. If we make atheism the opposite of religion, it is like (going
back to the a-hatism example) wearing a hat on our elbow instead of wearing no hat.
And if we wear our hats on our elbows, we are letting religionists dictate the rules.
A personal example is my recent decision to grow my hair long. Styles are changing, it
reminds me of my youth when I first grew long hair, and it is a final opportunity to wear
long hair before it turns white. These are my rationalizations. But I also decided to grow
my hair long about the time I learned a Bible passage dictates that men should wear
their hair short. If I am growing my hair simply to be the opposite of what the Bible
dictates, I am letting the religionists set the agenda. It is like I am wearing a hat on my
elbow. I believe I am growing my hair for the reasons I first stated, but I must admit the
possibility exists it is simply to oppose religion.
Religionists have a mayonnaise jar full of myths. Atheists have an empty jar. Where
religionists promote myths, atheists look to facts. If religionists can convince us to
comply with their model, to fill our mayonnaise jar with replacement myths, then they
have a battle of myth versus myth, something they want. Then, for example, religionists
can say that in the conflict between teaching religion versus science in the classroom
(creationism v. evolution); that no myth can have priority over another myth and that
the law gives them equal opportunity. One reason religionists label their enemy
“secular humanists” is because the humanist belief structure fits better into the myth
versus myth battle than that of atheists. Religionists have a much harder time creating
the battle with atheists who point out that their mayonnaise jar is empty.
When it comes to facts, the religionists’ position is indefensible. Look at creationism.
There are no facts to support that the world was created in six days, no evidence that
the world was created less than 10,000 years ago, and nothing indicates that the
species are fixed in their current form. But, bargaining from their position of power, if
the religionists can keep atheists chasing after a red herring like “can you be good
without god,” then the religionists can maintain their dominance–they never need to
face the facts. Atheists reject religious myths. We must also reject the religionists’
agenda of making the debate myth versus myth instead of myth versus reality. Atheism
is not a religion. There should be no atheist churches. We do not put our empty
mayonnaise jars on altars. That is the difference between atheists and religionists.
When religion goes away there will be no need for the term “atheist.” But the status will
still exist. Humans can exist without religion, but religion cannot exist without humans.
Religion is a byproduct of human behavior but atheism is not a product at all, it is the
absence of religion.
Atheism and negativity.
In emphasizing that we should not allow religionists to set our agenda, I do not mean to
deny that there is an oppositional aspect to atheism. Atheism is defined by religion, it is
not the opposite of religion, but there is an element of opposition to religion contained
within atheism. In fact, I believe a negative factor is a key element of atheism. When
pressed, “nones” admit, “I have no religion.” Atheists, on the other hand, are proud to
announce they have no religion. They advertise it. When you ask an atheist about
religion, he happily responds, “can I tell you more?” Atheists are willing to speak out to
some degree against religion, that is what distinguishes them from “nones.”
Returning to the religiousness scale from Chapter 4, but changing the scale from the
percentage of the population to a numerical rating of religiousness, the scale
appropriately extends from negative numbers to positive numbers. That is, “nones”
would sit around zero on the scale. Religious zealots would be near 100, and atheists
would fall below zero into the negative numbers.
Religionists could argue that the negative scale should go to –100. However, I see no
evidence that atheists are as extreme as religionists. For example, I am one of the most
vocal atheists I know. However, my atheist activism goes no further than talking to
religionists, being open about my atheism, putting bumper stickers on my car and
writing this book. To me, it seems reasonable to call my anti-religionism a –5. Some
religionists, on the other hand, kill for their religion. The 9/11 terrorists come quickly to
mind. These radical acts earn a higher number--close to 100, on my religiosity scale.
To help make sense of the chart, I mentally put a few stories from the news on the
scale. To the right falls Pat Robertson, the former presidential candidate and preacher
who said the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was punishment for a pact the Haitian people
made with the devil 200 years earlier to gain freedom from the French. A bit further
right fall the religious shooters, such as Christian Scott Roeder, who shot abortion
doctor George Tiller at his church, and Muslim Army shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, who
allegedly yelled “god is great” before killing 12 and wounding 31 at his military
Toward the very end of the chart are zealous believers who use improvised weapons
of mass destruction, like the 9/11 hijackers and the Detroit underwear bomber. At the
very far right are the “end timers” who may seek to use nuclear weapons, especially in
the Middle East, because they believe it will accelerate the appearance or return of
I use the religiosity scale as a tool to give a graphic depiction of the range of religious
behavior. First, I use it to acknowledge that atheism has a negative, antireligious
element. It is not the sole element of atheism, but it is a factor. Second, I use it for
encouragement. Facing the statistic that 80% of Americans believe in god, is
disheartening. But the scale helps me to see that they do not all believe equally. The
religious block is not a solid monolith, but a gradation of belief. The scale helps me to
see that a large number of people are closer to atheism than at first appears. This
helps me to target my message and encourages me to continue my
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