Because of the secularization of the Western World, many people today now identify as not religious (“the nones”). In 2016 and 2017, according to some national surveys, 48.5% of people in England and Wales1 and 72% of people in Scotland2 say they have no religion! Many of these people identified as atheists. But are atheists not religious? Atheists will tell you they are not religious, but several characteristics identify atheists as religious. In this article, I deal with seven of those characteristics.
Before we look at seven of the characteristics that identify atheism as a religion, we need to ask the question: “What is religion?” It should be noted that it is particularly difficult to define religion as there is not a universally accepted definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Under this definition, atheism would not be viewed as religious since the dictionary definition of atheism is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.”
Many atheists spend much of their time railing against the Creator they believe doesn’t exist, and they hold their cause with great devotion and faith.
Yet, atheism isn’t just a lack of belief in God (or gods). It was not a lack of belief in God that caused atheists to write books such as The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), or God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens). Those books are designed to convince people that theism is false and that atheism is true. The Oxford English Dictionary also defines religion as “a particular system of faith and worship” and “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.” Under that second definition of religion, atheism is religious. Many atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) spend much of their time railing against the Creator they believe doesn’t exist, and they hold their cause with great devotion and faith.
I think that a better way to understand religion is as a system of belief: a person’s ultimate standard for reality—their worldview. Atheists themselves have a worldview based upon certain beliefs, such as the belief that the universe, including life, came about by natural processes. This is a belief based upon faith; blind faith! It is nothing more than self-imposed worship—a secular religion (cf. Colossians 2:23).3
A helpful way to know if a system of thought or worldview is religious is to look at the characteristics that most religions share. In his book Dimensions of the Sacred, the renowned anthropologist Ninian Smart set forth seven of these dimensions to detect whether something is religious:4
Let’s just briefly consider each of these dimensions in light of the system of thought that is naturalistic atheism.
Just about every religion has a narrative that explains the world around them. Briefly, the Christian narrative is creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, for example. In the Western World, the narrative of atheism used to explain the existence of life and the world around them is Darwinian evolution, and the philosophy that it entails. Richard Dawkins has famously said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”6 The whole point of Darwinian evolution is to show that there is no need for a supernatural Creator.
The narrative of evolution and millions of years is not only an account of the origin of the universe but also about the end of it. Evolutionists, thus, have an eschatology (a belief about how the universe will end). In the narrative of evolution, the universe will finally come to an end in what naturalistic scientists call a “heat death.”7 Basically, the atheistic narrative begins with nothing, then something inexplicably appears, then life accidentally starts and evolves over billions of years, and ultimately everything will die, and there will be no more heat, energy, or motion left in the universe.
The experiential, social, and ritual aspects of atheism can be seen in the recent establishing of atheist churches. In an interview in the UK newspaper The Telegraph (October 2014), a leader of one of the first atheist churches said,
The first event took place in the deconsecrated Union Chapel in London in July last year . Some 300 people attended the launch. A typical Sunday Assembly consists of a sing-along (pop songs rather than hymns), a secular reading, a talk that helps the congregation “live better, help often or wonder more”—the company’s mantra—followed by a moment of reflection, then tea and cake.8
The atheist church “now exists in 55 outposts, across Britain, continental Europe, North America, and Australia, with a total of about 3,500 regular attendees . . . .”9 It is interesting that the atheists chose to meet on a Sunday. But notice the leader of the atheist church said that their service includes a talk that helps people “live better, help often or wonder more.”
In other words, modern atheists borrow their moral standards from the Christian worldview.
One question that must be asked is, “live better than what?” This assumes an objective standard of morality, but atheism does not have an objective standard of morality (see below). One of the reasons atheists can talk about “living better” is, as recognised by historian Tom Holland (atheist/agnostic), that “modern atheism in the West is Christian atheism. And secularism and liberalism are shot through with Christian ethical and moral presumptions and understandings.”10 In other words, modern atheists borrow their moral standards from the Christian worldview. Nonetheless, what do atheists “wonder more” about? If life is meaningless and purposeless and if the history of the world is just “. . . full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing”11 as some atheists claim, then what is there to wonder about in any objective sense? Atheism and the transcendent do not go together. The fact that atheists meet to do these things shows the reality of their religious behaviour.
Atheists even have doctrine and are evangelistic in their promotion of it. For example, a few years ago, the humanist society in the UK teamed up with atheist Richard Dawkins for a famous advertising campaign that they plastered on the side of buses that read, “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” The fact that atheists go out of their way to let other people know what they believe and even come up with principles to live life by (even called, for example, the “New Ten Commandments”)12 is evidence of their religion. Ultimately, if there is no God, why do the atheists spend so much of their time telling other people about it? Atheists don’t spend the time and money to write books, have websites, and pay for advertising that argues against Santa Claus! From a Christian viewpoint, they are trying to supress the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-20). But why the effort? This is surely a waste of the short time they have on this earth. If there is no life after death, then why not just “. . . eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Even though atheists are moral relativists, they make ethical claims. Many leading atheists have argued that Christian parents who raise their children according to their own faith are committing “child abuse.” Atheist Daniel C. Dennett argues that many declare that “there is the sacred and inviolable right of life. . . . On the other hand, many of the same people declare that, once born, the child loses its right not to be indoctrinated or brainwashed or otherwise psychologically abused by those parents.”13
But how can Dennett as an atheist even establish this ethical claim (of child abuse) when he has no foundation on which to make absolute moral statements? Some leading atheist philosophers even admit that atheism implies amorality. Atheist Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven, states,
The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. . . . [T]he religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.14
Atheists have no basis with which to question anybody’s morality, given that they have no objective moral foundation on which to do so. Morality for an atheist is just a matter of opinion. From an evolutionary point of view, if humans are just evolved animals, then there is no such thing as absolute morality. Yet absolute morality is needed to make ethical judgements, such as child abuse, and the triune God of the Bible is needed to make absolute ethical judgements. Yet, many atheists are also more than happy to support abortion—the killing of a child in the womb—and argue that it is not child abuse.
This is not to say that you do not need to profess belief in God to argue morality, but you do need God to have absolute morality. In the Christian worldview, God is good and is the standard of goodness. So, apart from God any standard of our own making would be necessarily arbitrary, and ultimately self refuting.
Finally, the material aspect of the religious nature of atheism can be seen in several ways, but specifically, it can be seen in the atheist’s treatment of creation as sacred. In an interview in the UK newspaper The Times (April 2019), the founder of the global environmental movement “Extinction Rebellion” Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist, said,
I don’t believe in God, like there’s some person there organising everything. I think there’s something inherently beautiful and sacred about the universe and I think you can feel that just as well as an atheist. A bit of me thinks, “Is there a way to have some form of dialogue with the universe?”15
From an atheistic perspective, the universe does not care what you think, or how you feel. So, what would be the point of dialogue? In the US television program Cosmos: A Space time Odyssey, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said of the stars,
Our ancestors worshipped the sun. They were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and stars because we are their children. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the iron in our skyscrapers, the silver in our jewellery—were all made in stars, billions of years ago. Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are stardust.16
According to Tyson, it was good, not foolish, that our ancestors worshipped the sun, even though God warns us not to worship creation and warns us of the folly of idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:19; Isaiah 44:9–20).17 In this same episode Tyson also went onto say, “Accepting our kinship with all life on earth is not only solid science, in my view, it's also a soaring spiritual experience.” As a naturalistic materialist, why is Tyson talking about a “spiritual experience”? Isn’t it religious people who have “spiritual experiences”? Again, this is the inconsistency of the atheistic worldview, showing how religious the philosophy really is.
Atheists are not in a neutral position when it comes to the existence of God.
Ultimately, it is the Bible that tells us atheists are religious. Whether it is through creation or conscience, the knowledge of God is revealed, and sinful men seek to suppress that which is revealed for their own purposes (Romans 1:18–20, 2:15). Atheists are not in a neutral position when it comes to the existence of God. God’s creatures have no right in judging the existence of their Creator. The atheistic worldview ultimately ends up in irrationality because they have sinfully taken the truth about God’s world and convinced themselves that it is not true.
Atheism is a false religion. It is the worship of self where they have “. . .exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). The facts that (1) the leader of the atheist church wants to “live better, wonder more”; (2) Daniel Dennett believes child abuse is wrong; and (3) that Neil deGrasse Tyson can have a “spiritual experience” over creation all ultimately exemplify a recognition (whether they accept it or not) of what theologians call the sensus divinitatis (a true knowledge of God, i.e., Romans 1:18–23). It is to this sensus that Christians should appeal in order to show atheists the internal inconsistency of their own worldview. The reason that atheists can value and seek to preserve human life comes from the fact that knowledge of God comes to them not only through his creation but from the fact that they are made in his image (Genesis 1:27).
Atheism will be one of the many subjects that we will focus upon at our World Religions & Cults Conference in Oxford later this year. If you live in the UK or Europe, why not think about joining us and learn how to defend the Christian faith and share the gospel message effectively.
In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins cites the atheists “New Ten Commandments.”
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
In all things, strive to cause no harm.
Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect.
Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
Always seek to be learning something new.
Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2006): 298–299.