To know God and to make Him known.

Religious by Definition

To continue the discussion on Atheism which I began on June 14 <read here>, I want to examine some dictionary definitions of religion and argue that Atheism fits within these definitions. My hope is that, if you have any Atheist friends, this article will equip you with some conversation points that will shake them out of the illusion that they are “not religious.” They are.

Atheists’ primary intellectual weapon is the perception that they have risen above religious debates by having no religion at all. Showing that they are themselves religious disarms this weapon and is thus—I think—the first step in preparing them for the gospel.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines religion as:

Belief in or acknowledgment of some superhuman power or powers (esp. a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.

Note that the OED includes acknowledgment of powers that are usually, but not always, gods. Buddhism falls into the category of religion without a god and, I will argue, so does Atheism.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary (I have chosen Webster not only because his language is more extensive, but because his Christian tones should make it the hardest to apply to Atheism) says:

Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man's obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion. [italics added],religion

Indeed, these definitions use terms that, on the surface, seem to exclude Atheism, and Atheists would very much like to think that they do. I believe that this is because we (and they) tend to think about religion in terms of eternal destiny only. Atheists do not believe in eternal destiny, therefore they assume they escape the accusation of being “religious.” But if we talk about the temporal features of religion, then it is easy to see that Atheists are just as religious as we—or at least as any religion that is light on afterlife.

Atheists do not believe in the being of God. Then again, neither do Buddhists or Wiccan, and we would not deny that Buddhism and Wicca qualify as religions. This is why Webster couches his definition in terms of the “most comprehensive sense.” Atheism fits, in some form, all the other points of the definition.

From these two definitions, four more major points stand out to me. Religion is:

  1. A means of achieving spiritual or material improvement;
  2. A belief in a state of punishment and reward;
  3. Acknowledgment of some superhuman power; and
  4. Not the practice of “moral duties” without belief in a divine lawgiver.

Achieving Spiritual Improvement

Religious people believe that certain beliefs are good for them—that they improve one spiritually. For a Christian, this obviously relates to one’s eternal destiny. But it also means living a more whole kind of life on earth: knowing what is good for us, thinking more clearly and rightly about the big questions, and being at ease with the confusing aspects of life.

Atheists believe that certain beliefs are good for them. For an Atheist, seeking belief-related improvement means living a more whole kind of life on earth: knowing what is good for them, knowing the answers to the big questions (namely, that science is sovereign), and being at ease with the confusing aspects of life (namely, dealing with them without relying on a divine “crutch”).

Both Atheists and Christians seek improvement of the mind through the beliefs they hold. But does improvement of the mind qualify as spiritual improvement? Yes. When an Atheist says “there is no soul,” he is not denying that the thing which used to be called the “soul” exists. He is saying that the thing which was called the “soul” in primitive times is actually the complex outworkings of the brain—that science has found a less superstitious, more grown-up definition for it. He may have a different view of what the “spirit” is (as, indeed, what religion does not?) but that does not mean he has stopped trying to improve his.

If Atheists believe that believing in Atheism will give them an improved brain (and you only need talk to one to find out that they do), then they are fulfilling this part of the OED definition.

Punishment and Reward

To us this phrase immediately signifies eternal destiny. Though eternity is the most important thing to which these words point, it is not the only thing; punishment and reward have much to do with the present.

Temporal rewards are a consequence of acting in accord with God’s commands, and punishments, of acting contrarily. In the Christian life, we can be supernaturally rewarded or punished for our actions, but far more often we experience consequences that are not miraculous, but are instead natural outcomes which the Lord has programmed into creation; e.g., adultery, by its God-decreed nature, causes unpleasant repercussions at home. A Christian who understands this might very accurately call it “the way the world works.”

Atheists have a (very robust) sense of “the way the world works,” and believe it leads to precisely this kind of reward and punishment. If you take your child to church, he will grow up to be delusional and sexually repressed; if you teach him to be a “free thinker,” he will be happy, healthy and fulfilled. Just because Atheists recognize only temporal punishments and rewards does not make their belief in them less religious. Like Christians, Atheists believe that the world works a certain way, and that following this way brings reward – they just disagree on how, really, the world does work.

This puts them in exactly the the same relationship with Christians as religious non-Christians.

Acknowledgment of Some Superhuman Power

Superhuman means a thing which, by its nature, is above and beyond human beings in its power and authority. In addition to any of the things on which Atheists may place hope for the future (education, legislation, or other agents of social change—all of which are bigger than the individual human, and outlive and transcend us) Atheists are great believers in the power of science, the inexhaustible source of truth. And in terms of this power’s revelation to man, they also believe it is the only source of truth—that anything not revealed to us through science is invalid.

Nicholas Humphrey, in the sinister quote in my last article, does indeed acknowledge a superhuman power: he appeals to society—an entity which has the power to deem one parent’s actions as “bad” and overrule them. How can society overrule particular individuals if it is not more powerful than individuals in general—if it is not superhuman?

Obedience without Belief

Many Atheists perform the same moral actions that Christians perform, and not out of a principle of obedience to God. This seems to disqualify Atheism as a religion according to a quick reading of Webster. But, again, we must take Webster in the context of his religious tradition.

Webster was a Congregationalist, a Calvinistic strain of Christianity whose doctrine can be found in the Savoy Declaration—a document closely related to The Westminster Confession of Faith that is more widely read among Calvinists today.

It has this to say about obedience without belief:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and to others… cannot please God, nor make a man meet to receive grace from God. (Chapter XVI.7)   (full document here).

In this context, Webster is not saying that people who do not believe in God are therefore excused from being called religious—later in the same definition, he goes on to acknowledge false religions <read link>. He is saying that practicing moral duties without believing in God is just accidental—that it does not make one part of the true religion.

But I am not arguing that Atheists’ “practice of moral duties” makes them religious—Webster rightly says that it does not. I am arguing that having a belief system that guides the way you act and think, is religious. The Atheistic belief system, though it acknowledges no personal lawgiver and therefore is not religion in its most comprehensive sense, does recognize the authority of certain transcendent laws, such as the laws of physics, logic, and the maxim that ‘if you can’t measure it, it’s not real.’ Atheists do what they do and think what they think in conformity to these principles that were not made with hands, that they believe are eternal, immutable, and exist no matter what anyone thinks. Atheists believe that truth (the biggest one being that there is no God) is transcendent and—just as we believe—that we should conform to it.

Thus the Atheistic belief system fulfills the dictionary definitions, though not, admittedly, in their most comprehensive sense. One might argue that of course no other religion is going to fill the most comprehensive sense of Webster’s definition and, therefore, that my analysis proves nothing. But Webster goes on (I encourage you to read the whole definition) to write about non-Christian religions—belief systems—which, not surprisingly, contain these traits less comprehensively than the one true religion, and yet are admitted under the definition.

These arguments can only “stick,” of course, in the context of a friendship, and I hope your Atheist friend will stop and consider the strange degree of similarity between “religion” and his own beliefs. Getting an Atheist friend to realize his own devoutness to a belief system whose central doctrine is that ‘religion poisons everything,’ could be the first victory.

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