The Seven Religious Dimensions of Modern Atheism

When asked what religion is I usually refer to scholar Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions (these dimensions being the Practical, Experiential, Mythic/Narrative, Doctrinal, Ethical, Social/Institutional, and Material). These dimensions are, in my view, adequate for capturing the nature of religion in a broad manner that does not exclude certain religious traditions from consideration. It also avoids the tricky situation of scholars having to adopt a strict definition of religion before doing their work. In this entry, we argue that atheism can be considered religious in that it fulfills all seven dimensions just as do other world religions. For other examples in which we apply Smart’s seven dimensions to religion, readers can visit my analysis of UFO religions and the Baha’i.

Doctrinal Dimension

We begin with the doctrinal dimension. Doctrines form a significant part of all major religious traditions and are typically required to be held if one wishes to be a member of a particular tradition. Atheism shares similarities with religion in this regard.

The core doctrine of atheism is the firm belief that there is no God. This is based on the positive affirmation that “There is no God” (1). This conviction is normally held together by philosophical naturalism or materialism, namely the view that the natural world is all that exists, which by definition rules out anything supernatural like God, gods, miracles, and so on. Philosopher Michael Ruse states that “if you want a concession, I’ve always said that naturalism is an act of faith…” (2). The atheist will often attempt to affirm the position that God is dependent on the mind rather than an objective reality. This view maintains that belief in God is genetically and biologically hardwired.

Some atheists have attempted to redefine atheism to mean a lack of belief in gods. But critics have rightly pointed out that this is an inadequate definition because then even babies and rocks qualify as atheists. We can also observe that many atheists are far more adamant about their atheism than such a definition allows for. One atheist wrote that even “If God proved he existed, I still wouldn’t believe in him… I don’t believe in God, not because I can’t but because I don’t want to” (3). The biologist Richard Lewontin claimed that “materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door” (4).

Many atheists are philosophical nihilists, which means that they affirm the meaninglessness of life and the need for one to create his or her own meaning. William Provine stated that “There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either” (5).

Another doctrine for many atheists is scientism. This is the philosophical view that science is the ultimate source of truth and that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically.

Human beings are placed at the center of the atheist’s philosophy. According to the American Atheists group, they wish to “propagate a social philosophy in which humankind is central and must itself be the source of strength, progress, and ideals for the wellbeing and happiness of humanity” (6). This is underpinned by the conviction that there are no gods or supernatural forces who can assist human beings in life; any progress that one makes has to be the result of one’s own work and effort. It is further affirmed that human beings only have one life to live and so should appreciate every moment by making the most of it. It is not uncommon to find this narrative shared in atheist churches (7).

Mythic/Narrative Dimension

Atheists have stories that they share and pass down to others. A common narrative espoused by some atheists, though not all, is that religion is itself evil or a negative force because it causes bad things to happen. Irreligion, however, is something to be celebrated. According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), “Most freethinkers consider religion to be not only untrue, but harmful. It has been used to justify war, slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, mutilations, intolerance, and oppression of minorities. The totalitarianism of religious absolutes chokes progress” (8). According to a 2019 Pew Research study, 71% of American atheists say that religion’s influence is declining in American public life and that this is a good thing (9).

The superiority of reason over and above religious knowledge is a central narrative shared among atheists. Often the scientific method is appropriated by atheists to support their philosophies (10). Relevant to this is the narrative of religion’s inferiority to science. Atheists will often posit the conflict thesis which states that science and religion are in continual conflict with each other. The stories of the church’s opposition to Galileo for supporting heliocentrism (the view that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun) and Christian opposition to evolutionary theory are often presented in support of the conflict thesis. According to this narrative, one cannot be both religious and supportive of science given these are mutually exclusive categories.

Many atheists tell stories of how their atheism is intellectually superior to religion. The FFRF views atheists as “freethinkers”, namely persons who, unlike the religious, form opinions “on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief” (11). Testimonies provided by converts to atheism will speak of how evidence and rational thinking are what convinced them atheism is true and that religion is superstition.

It is worth noting that the narrative of religious believers being less intelligent than atheists has not been accepted by all atheists. Michael Shermer laments Richard Dawkins’ view of religious believers: “I found myself wincing at Dawkins’ references to religious people as ‘faith-heads,’ as being less intelligent, poor at reasoning, or even deluded… I shudder because I have religious friends and colleagues who do not fit these descriptors, and I empathize at the pain such pejorative appellations cause them…” (12).

Like religions, atheism also has its share of myths. These narratives include Jesus not existing as a historical figure, that Hitler was a Christian, and that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria.

Practical Dimension

All religious traditions have practices to which they adhere, such as worship, preaching, prayers, and more. Atheism is not without its rituals and practices. These rituals are often based on the desire to rid religion itself; as Jon O’Hair of the American Atheists claims: “This world would be the best of all possible worlds if “faith” was eradicated from the face of the earth” (13). This underpins, as we will shortly see, the various atheist initiatives, project conferences, and meetings.

Although atheism has no central text or holy scripture, atheists themselves write books and read certain books religiously. Many atheists view Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species (1859) highly because they believe that it supports their philosophical naturalism and explains away any involvement that God might have had in producing life on Earth.

Rituals are performed within atheist churches and include listening to secular sermons, singing pop songs, bowing the head, and engaging in collective contemplation. Congregants also share significant moments in their lives and from the past week.

Additional features of the practical dimension include writing posts for blogs and websites that seek to reach an audience.

Experiential Dimension

It is important to take into consideration the experiences that members of a tradition have. For atheists, atheist churches no doubt contribute to the experiential dimension. Since there is no so-called “God connection” to seek, atheists must find ways to bond with each other using their own resources. These churches provide a space that nurtures community and the bond among congregants. An appreciation for one’s own life will no doubt be a common experience. Atheists realize that they only have one life to live and that their life seems insignificant in light of the cosmic scale of things.

One can imagine the excitement and satisfaction atheists feel in their churches when they listen to presentations that equip them with new knowledge. For example, in one atheist church in London, congregants listened to a power-point presentation delivered by a particle physicist (14). These occasions provide atheists with a sense of mutual bonding while celebrating reason and science.

Conventions also play a similar role to churches by bringing together members of the atheist community to celebrate reason, rationality, and atheism. No doubt fans and followers of popular atheists who give speeches at these conventions will experience exhilaration to hear their celebrities speak.

Atheists feel satisfaction when having their message heard and seen by others in the public. Atheist activists have flown banners that read “God-LESS America” and displayed on buses adverts reading “You don’t need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live.” Not only does this get atheism’s message out to the public, but also establishes connection; one atheist explains that the purpose of these campaigns is to “let non-religious people in the community know that they’re not alone” (15).

Ethical Dimension

There is a strong ethical dimension to atheism. Many atheists are humanists which is about putting humanist beliefs and values into practice and trying to make the world a better place. This requires co-operation to solve many pressing issues such as climate change, global poverty, war, and intolerance.

In his The God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins provides ten commandments as an alternative to the biblical Ten Commandments (16). According to this list, moral virtues include, but are not limited to, seeking knowledge, not causing harm to others, living life with joy and wonder, respecting others who disagree with you, and questioning everything.

Many atheists are united on the moral imperative of showing how religion and science are incompatible; according to Michael Shermer, “Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance” (17). The physicist Steven Weinberg shared a similar view saying that “The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion … anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization” (18).

Also important is it to acknowledge that other atheists are of the view that what we consider as morality is merely subjective human convention devoid of any ultimate significance; Provine states that “No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there any absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life” (19). Ethics is the “shared illusion of the human race”, according to Michael Ruse (20).

Social/Institutional Dimension

Atheism has a strong social and institutional dimension. There are atheist churches, conferences, chapters, meet-ups, television shows, and more. Atheists make use of the internet and share their views across blogs, forums, fan sites, and websites. They make use of social media like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

There has arisen the phenomenon of atheist churches in the United States and the United Kingdom. These exist to facilitate community for atheists and entails singing and the discussing of important topics concerning morality, and more.

There have historically been gatherings such as at the Reason Rally, A Celebration of Reason, and the Global Atheist Convention bringing together a few thousand atheists. Some conventions include Atheist Alliance International, the National Convention, and the Anti-Theism International Convention. These conventions and gatherings tend to be united on celebrating reason; according to the American Atheists “Our national conventions bring together members of the atheist community from all over the nation and world to celebrate reason, rationality, and atheism” (21). These occasions feature atheist leaders in the movement who are invited to speak.

Atheist organizations have law experts and attorneys who specialize in legal matters. These experts will take action over the entanglement of religion and government, government endorsement or promotion of religion, and so on. There are also groups, like the Atheist Alliance International, that seek to promote atheist doctrine in their society by raising awareness and engaging in global projects.

Material Dimension

Here we are interested in the material and external forms of a tradition. These can include buildings, works of art, figurines, artifacts, and many other creations.

We have noted the atheist church above. Some of the material forms in atheist churches include foods like donuts and bagels, and as well as coffee.

Various books have been written and published by atheists. Popular releases this century include Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) and Outgrowing God (2019), Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), and Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007). Atheist leaders also sign books for fans at conventions and gatherings.

Atheist organizations have shops that sell various items including books, apparel, music, DVDs, and cards. Some apparel includes the atheist narrative of the superiority of science and reason over religion; for example, the slogan “In Science We Trust” is printed on some shirts, as is the line “I think therefore I’m atheist.”

There are also artifacts such as awards. The Richard Dawkins Award is an annual prize that recognizes those who exemplify the values of secularism and rationalism. The Deschner Prize is awarded to those who are thought best to have criticized religion and ideology.

One also finds monuments celebrating reason and opposing the displaying of religious symbols on public property. The American Atheists installed a bench monument near a granite display of the Ten Commandments containing secular quotes from America’s Founding Fathers.

Concluding Thoughts

It is clear from the above that modern day atheism fulfills the criteria that scholars often apply to religion in order to study and make sense of them. Atheism can therefore be seen as a tradition within the umbrella of religion. I believe that if we are willing to include the very humanistic traditions of Confucianism and Theravada Buddhism in the category of religion, there is no reason why we shouldn’t include atheism too. It is important to note that we also find organized atheist religions like Satanism and Raelianism on whom an interesting dimensional representation can also be made. Further, one can argue that this also has implications for how we define and view religion. I believe some would argue that our concept of what constitutes religion is too broad and that this is why we can include traditions (like atheism and communism) that many would not consider religion. Perhaps we should be content with the broad umbrella of viewing religion or, alternatively, we should do away with the title “religion” for some other more inclusive descriptive term. This remains a discussion and debate in religious studies to this day.

References

  1. Draper, Paul. 2017. Atheism and Agnosticism. Available.
  2. Michael Ruse quoted by Robert Stewart in Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in Dialogue (2007). p. 37.
  3. Rowson, Martin. 2008. If God proved he existed, I still wouldn’t believe in him. Available.
  4. Lewontin, Richard. 1997. Billions and Billions of Demons. Available.
  5. William Provine quoted by Anya Plutynski in William Provine (1942-2015) (2015). Available.
  6. American Atheists. n.d. Our Vision. Available.
  7. Wheeler, Brian. 2013. What happens at an atheist church? Available.
  8. FFRF. n.d. What Is A Freethinker? Available.
  9. Pew Research Center. 2019. Americans Have Positive Views About Religion’s Role in Society, but Want It Out of Politics. Available.
  10. American Atheists. n.d. Our Vision. Available.
  11. FFRF. n.d. What Is A Freethinker? Available.
  12. Shermer, Michael. 2007. Arguing for Atheism. Available.
  13. Jon O’Hair cited by Os Guinness in The American Hour (1993). p. 172.
  14. Wheeler, Brian. 2013. Ibid.
  15. Harger, Jim. 2011. ‘You don’t need God’ billboard is posted along U.S. 131 by atheist group. Available.
  16. Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 406.
  17. Shermer, Michael. 2007. Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messers. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. Available.
  18. Stephen Weinberg in the closing statements of presentation at Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival (5 November 2006)
  19. Provine, William. 1998. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible. Available.
  20. Ruse, Michael.1985. “Evolution and Ethics”. New Scientist. p. 51-52.
  21. American Atheists. n.d. National Conventions. Available.

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