Let’s Agree on Some Definitions…
Last week, a promotional video for a religious documentary film, Unstoppable, was released. The film and the video both feature Kirk Cameron (famously of Growing Pains, the terrible Left Behind movie, and friend of the Bananaman). In this video, Kirk claims to be a “recovering atheist” and asserts that there are two things all good atheists must cling to: firstly, there is no god, and secondly, that they hate him (the god they do not believe in).
Tonight, I was listening to episode #823 of The Atheist Experience. The first caller was debating the hosts, Matt Dillahunty and Martin Wagner about the need for an intelligent creator for the universe and life on Earth to exist. A large portion of the call was taken up with Matt and Martin trying to explain to the caller why atheism isn’t a religion and why it is not the assertion that there is no god. The caller accused them of being agnostic, not atheist, a common mistake people make and one I’ve addressed previously.
Just in case you’ve missed it, I’ll sum it up with the use explanation Matt himself often uses: theism and atheism addresses belief and gnosticism and agnosticism addresses knowledge. One can be an agnostic theist or a gnostic theist, just as one can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist. The agnostic atheist does not believe a god exists, but does not claim to have knowledge that no god exists. Likewise, an agnostic theist believes in god but does not claim to have knowledge that a god exists. It is important, too, to note the difference in not believing in a god and believing that there is not a god.
There is another semantic problem many people fall into that popped up in this call. Early in the conversation the caller asserted that atheism is a religion. The hosts tried to explain that neither theism nor atheism are religions. These words address only a single belief and do not, in themselves, form any religion. They explained that there are atheistic religions, and there are non-religious theists. This is a point many Christians fail to grasp and what struck me as I was listening is one possible explanation as to why they fail to understand the fallacy of calling atheism (or theism) a religion. They cannot comprehend someone not believing in god.
This would explain why so many Christians think that atheists are angry at god or why there are so many stories of Christians leaving the church, becoming atheists, and then returning to the church at some later point. They have confused being nonreligious with being atheist. These are people who were indoctrinated early to believe in god, became disenfranchised with the religion of their childhood and left it. They are often angry at the church or at the god they believe in for some injustice they experienced. They then return to their religion (perhaps a different variety, or sometimes perhaps a different theistic religion) later in life and claim to have been atheists, when they were just non-religious theists for a while. (Or, more often probably, were just non-practicing religious theists.)
I have had difficulty understanding why it is so hard for some people to accept that atheism is not a religious belief. Now I see that many people have trouble separating religion from theism, as well. Yes, many religions incorporate theism in their belief system, and most theists are also religious, but one does not require the other.
Most atheists who claim the label of atheist are nonreligious. Most of them also tend to be agnostic. Most, but not all. Atheism is not a religion, and agnosticism is not the middle ground between theism and atheism, and there are nonreligious theists (in fact, I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of the “nones” are theists). Apparently, many Christians think that being nonreligious makes you an atheist. Not sure why some of them also want to claim that atheism is a religion.
Anyway, that’s what was on my mind tonight. I apologize that it has been so terribly long since I made a post. Partly, I just don’t need this outlet as much as I once did since I’ve got a network of friends with whom I can speak openly about such things. Also, I tend to forget things moments after I’ve thought of them, so unless I make a note of it, it can be gone forever. (And often if I make a note of it I forget that I made a note of it!) I do intend to continue writing here, but it may be infrequent. Bear with me, and subscribe to my Twitter or this blog so you get notified of new posts.
Here are some helpful links. Most of them are hotlinked in the post but I felt it would be good to include them here, too: