Is Atheism a Religion?

alikeI recently read an article in which the author insisted that public funds not go to support religious schools. The rhetoric in this article was very much in the “us” versus “them” vein. In essence, “their” views, that is those of the religious, are tainted with the irrational and divisive forces of faith or belief common to all religions, unlike “our” rational and unifying position which is free from dangerous subjectivity.

In the comment section someone agreed saying:

Religious indoctrination of children is nothing less than abuse, and ought not to be allowed let alone publicly funded.

What this commenter does not understand is that there is no way to raise a child without “religious” indoctrination.  Modern rationalism or postmodern relativism, which dominate much of western education are inherently “religious.” Even atheism are in a sense “religious.” So public schools are, in essence, are engaged in religious education.

I said as much in my own comment. Another commenter objected saying:

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason that bald is not a hair colour.

He is right, baldness is not a hair color, but it is a hair style.

There are two ways in which one might use the term “religious.” In one sense, atheism is not a religion–if religion is defined by religious rituals and believing in spiritual beings. In this sense, atheism is not a religion for the same reason baldness is not a hair colour. But in another very important sense, atheism is religious. The term can also refer to the guiding principles that one accepts by faith that shape ones reality and around which one organizes ones life.

These guiding principles revealed in how one might answer fundamental questions about reality. Not everyone is aware of their own answers to these questions, but their lives testify to having answered them one way or another.

Does life have meaning? If so, what is it?

Does human life have value? If so, why?

Do we have a purpose? If so why?

Does the universe have a purpose?

Is the universe friendly, hostile or indifferent?

What’s wrong with the world?

What is the solution to what is wrong with the world?

Is there a God or gods?

Every human being lives out their answer to these questions. Interestingly, many people proclaim an answer to a question, but live out another answer. The answers, stated or lived, are religious. They are religious in that they cannot be proven; they are accepted by faith.

The atheist believes that there is no God on the same, some would argue less, grounds that theists believes that there is.  Both do so by faith; neither can know it to be so.

One may chose not to use the term religion to describe this category, but it doesn’t get atheism out of the category, whatever you call it.

Baldness is not a hair colour, but it is a hair style. Atheism does not engage in religious activities that arise out of a belief in a God, but they do make unverifiable claims about reality based on faith.

There is no way we can have an a-religious education, so the government will always be funding religious education. The question now remains, which religions will they fund.

Faith versus Reason

Faith no parachuteThis was an image on Facebook a while back.  It portrays a popular understanding of faith.  It describes what we might call blind faith. The adjective blind distinguishes this faith from reasonable faith–or simply, faith.

There is a popular, but mistaken, notion that religious people base their conviction of the existence of God on a faith that is opposed to reason. I am mildly frustrated when I read this error in an online rant from some guy trying to prove religious people are idiots because they are so irrational. But what really drives me nuts is when Christians to it. Both the atheist and the theist are mistaken when they think faith is the opposite of reason.

Reason is really important. It is important that Christians are reasonable. Without reason, faith will become nothing more than sentiment. The more sentimental faith becomes, the more it will be pushed around by the values of the dominant culture, or some mutant form of Christianity.

Christians need to understand that reason is not a bad thing–God made it.  It is important that we clarify terms. Luigi Giussani’s in the second chapter The Religious Sense discusses what reason is not.  First, rational is not the same as demonstrable.  This is the empirical approach which says that a thing is true, only if we have evidence. (I will point out that this principle itself is not empirically verifiable, so empiricism is self-refuting as a complete theory of knowledge.) There are many things that are rational, that are not demonstrable. Second, rational is not the same as logical. Logic is all about coherence. It is logical to say, as my son once did, that creatures eat what they like; beavers eat trees; trees taste good. It’s logical, but based on a false premise–not rational. Logic and demonstration are two of the tools in the hands of reason. Reason, as it has been understood for millennia, and as it is lived by every human being who has ever lived, is much bigger than the merely demonstrable or logical.   Giussanii says that rationality is  adherence to reality, and because reality is so very big and deep and wide, rationality is a lot bigger than we often think. There are different procedures for using reason–all depend on the object.

  • It is rational to say that water is H20. My certainty comes from a scientific or analytic procedure.
  • It is rational to say that (a+b)(a-b)=(a² -b²) The procedure here is mathematical.
  • It is rational to say that a woman has the same rights as a man. This claim is based on a philosophical approach: all humans are equal; women are human; women are equal to men.
  • It is rational to say that my mother loves me. This moral or existential certainty is derived from many thousands of encounters with my mother.

Importantly, we can be in error when using any of these methods. But we will always be in error–we will be irrational–if we use the wrong procedure. As I said before, the method one uses is dictated by the object. It would be irrational of me to attempt to use the philosophical procedure to attempt to understand the chemical composition water.   It would be equally irrational to use the scientific procedure to determine a mother’s love for her child. When I sit down to dinner at my mother’s house, I do not need to test the food to know that the food isn’t poisoned. It’s irrational for me to think it is. It would be irrational to have to test each component of the meal in order to ascertain that it was safe for consumption.

We aren’t being rational if we are limiting reason to only two or three categories.

Now for a definition of faith. When we are not talking about blind faith, we are talking about faith in relation to reason. Giussani’s definition of faith is “adhesion to what another affirms.” Faith is unreasonable if there are no adequate reasons for the faith. I have reasons to adhere to what my doctor tells me about exercise.  I have reasons to believe what others tell me about the molecular composition of water. I have reasons to believe in the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s resurrection.  Faith is reasonable if there are reasons to adhere to what another affirms.

Imagine if humanity never practiced this type of reasonable faith. We’d never move forward because each individual would need to start at square one.  I’d have to study the effects of exercise on the cholesterol levels myself.  We’d never get anywhere as a civilization.  So, I accept it as true and act accordingly. It’s rational to do so, because I have good reason to believe it to be true. So even the knowledge made certain by the first three methods require faith.

Perhaps these definitions of faith and reason are still unacceptable to some, but these are the definitions that human beings live by–they are the definitions most attuned to reality of lived experience. If one lives by them, one can be said to have a personal relationship with reality.

“A personal relationship with reality”?

Billboard 1This billboard communicates an important truth: it’s good to have a relationship, personal or otherwise, with reality.  It is, however, contestable that atheism brings us into this relationship.  It does so only if there isn’t a God.   If there is a God, then this is false advertising.




A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Dream”

Owen MeanyIn the seventh chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s life continues to parallel that of Jesus: Because of Owen’s attacks on the establishment, especially the hypocrisy of the new headmaster. Owen is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will.

Owen has a recurring dream. We don’t know the specifics, but Owen understands it as a divinely inspired “vision.”   Predictably, to the more secular Johnny, it’s “just a dream.”   For Wheelwright, faith is a “trust that is antithetical to rational demonstration” (Sykes 59). Because of this, it is not possible for him to have faith, or understand that of Owen.  All the other characters of the novel share Johnny’s opinion (Dan Needham, Harriet Wheelwright, Hester, Pastor Merrill, and Father Findley), and for the same reason.

The dispute between Owen and Johnny on the issue of belief is the same in our culture at large. According to Charles Taylor, there is little argument as to whether there is an immanent reality or not. What is disputable is whether it lies within a transcendent one. According to Taylor, the material world “allows of both readings, without compelling us to either” (Taylor 550). Because the material reality allows for both, taking a position on whether or not there is also a supernatural realm requires a ‘leap of faith.’ The particular direction we chose to leap is dictated by “our over-all personal take on . . . life” (Taylor 550). However, our “take” can change through experience. This is conversion. Taylor describes two types of conversions. The first type is a “seemingly self-authenticating experience” and the second comes about more indirectly through those whose experience is more direct. Owen’s conversion is of the first order and Johnny’s is of the second.

It becomes more and more clear that Owen, like most theists to one degree or another, believes the events of his life a following a divine plan. Like a good secular modernist, John Wheelwright believes in free will; he believes that ones choices or chance govern the universe. “Disbelief is hard in the enchanted world” (Taylor 41); because Owen lives in such a world, it is far easier to be a believer, but Johnny, who experiences the world as disenchanted, was continuously puzzled by Owen’s faith.   Irving makes it clear that choosing between these two is extremely difficult; he consistently problematizes both views.

Irving insures an ambiguity between faith and doubt by “giving us access to Owen only through Johnny’s second hand narration, rather than the direct evidence on which Owen’s own faith is based” (Haynes 78). With this narrative device, Irving undercuts both belief and unbelief and maintains a non-didactic stance. This is seen in one of the novel’s major story lines—the search for the identity of Johnny Wheelwright’s biological father. Unbelief, or faith in rationalistic explanation, is undercut in the elaborate investigation of this paternal mystery. Pursuit of the facts takes the boys down various avenues all of which turn out to be far from the truth.   By keeping both paths ambiguous, Irving is consistent with Taylor’s assertion that we have no compulsion to choose one over the other.

Owen’s faith arises from a combination of that which underlies the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” and the hitting the foul ball which kills Tabitha Wheelwright.   “The first of these events determines Owen’s religious interpretation of the second” (Eisenstien 7). This fusion is not “rational”; it is believed as a leap of faith. The fusion amounts to a direct encounter with God and once it is believed, other things follow which are equally irrational but do not require another leap of faith. Owen sees the inseparability of material reality and the transcendent as having a real bearing on his life. His voice and diminutive size, his obsession with “the shot,” the regular return to the image of armlessness, his vision of the date on the tombstone in the play, and his recurring dream are all informed by his belief in the fusion of the transcendent and the immanent—he has an integrative and incarnational view of reality.

Importantly, the leap of faith toward unbelief follows the same path.   Unbelief in the transcendent is also non-rational.  Once it is believed that no god exists, other things follow which are equally irrational but do not require another leap of faith. 


Recognizing that faith need not always align with reason, Owen asserts “YOU CAN’T PROVE A MIRACLE” (272). “REAL MIRACLES AREN’T ANYTHING YOU CAN SEE—THEY’RE THINGS YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE WITHOUT SEEING (309). On the other hand, he doesn’t believe everything that pops into his head; “FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT” (472). Because Owen’s faith is incarnational, he is not so focused on the either faith or reason, but on the purpose of his life in which each event or action has meaning.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the battle is not between faith and reason; it’s between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the battle is not between faith and reason; it's between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness. #OwenMeany


Other resources:

Sykes, John. “Christian Apologetic Uses of the Grotesque in John Irving and Flannery O. Connor.” Literature and Theology 10.1 (1996) : 58-67.

Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.

Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.

“Just a Story”?


It’s quite common for Bible detractors to derogate this or that part of scripture by saying it is “just a story.” But in the last month I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the Bible’s reliability. Defending an historic Adam, they insisted that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

By using this phrase, both the detractors and supporters of biblical veracity are making the same error. An error rooted in the way our modern minds understand story.

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to steer Christians from adopting the ideas that lie behind the phrase “just a story.”

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just” in relationship to the stories they heard.   It is only since the Enlightenment, after which we severely limited what fell into the category we called Truth, that our use of the term “just” in conjunction with stories is possible.

Up till about the 17th century, truth came at us in many forms. We could encounter it in dreams, through traditions and previous generations. Truth was in our experiences, and it was in the stories we told. In the Scientific Revolution, some people realized that in some contexts–scientific ones, for instance–it was beneficial to use only objective, observable, measureable truth. All sorts of wonderful things, came out of this approach—a better understanding of the universe and the human body, advances in navigation, manufacturing and agriculture, and bi-focals. The success of this narrowing of truth to fact when doing science was so exhilarating that we began to apply it to practically everything. Subjective, narrative and experiential truth fell came to be thought of as unreliable, because they weren’t true in the same way a quantifiable or observable fact was true.  Our Modern approach equates truth with factual information, and we believe that the best way to transmit factual information is in simple and exact language. It follows then that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience as well. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense. Facts are true, and stories are not true. If the Bible is true, then it can’t contain “just” stories.

But what if stories are just as true as facts?

Pretty much every culture in the world, past and present, that hasn’t yet bought into our modern worldview, believes this is the case. This includes the writers of biblical narratives, who sometimes put factual information aside in order to communicate far more important truths about relationships and human experience. The Ancient Hebrew faith is about a relationship with and experience of a transcendent God, so they communicate relational truths in narratives–the genre best suited to communicate such things. What’s the best way to get at the truth about your mother? Telling stories or offering a list of factual information about her. In order to get at complex truths, we often will use the tools of literary language. The language of story is not nearly as clear, simple or exact as literal language, but it’s far better at saying things that cannot be said. It’s full of metaphor and symbol so as to help us articulate the truth about love and betrayal, beauty and death, despair and redemption. In order communicate truth about these subjects we need more that literal language and fact, we need symbols and stories. This is as true now as it was a thousand years ago.

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world. The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representatives, the priest-kings and pharaohs respectively. The Adam story told its original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God. And in a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do. In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible we find the radical idea that both Man and Woman bear the image of the creator. Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that humans are precious, and that male and female are equally valuable. Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths; truths that are the basis of our concern for human rights and equity in our culture today.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis. We learn that all of creation was declared “very good,” and that God wants a relationship with the people He created. We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices. We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived. How we, deep down, want to live it. We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be achieved, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat both evil and death.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve. Communicating these all important truths was, I believe, the purpose of the author(s). These truths are true, whether or not the people or events actually happened in the way it’s presented in the story. Truth is truth, however it is communicated. What is true for the first audiences of these stories, is true for the modern one. We will need to have conversations about the degree to which individual biblical stories are historical, but whether they are or not the truth they contain will have nothing to do with the degree to which they conform to modern assumptions about what constitutes truth. The authors of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners would know things; his intention was that they experience truth at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives—this is the power of story.

Whatever it is we do find in the biblical narratives, we never find “just” a story.

Is Atheism a Religion?

AthesismBill Maher sure doesn’t like it when religious people say that atheism is a religion.

In one sense, Maher is right; atheism is not a religion.  Atheism doesn’t have any explicit rituals or holy texts, nor does it believe in a deity.  When Maher restricts his  definition of religion to “this looney stuff” he can safely declare that “atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.”

But if we were to broaden the definition of religion to something like–people who have faith in something that can’t be proven rationally.  Well, then it would be a little more legitimate to declare Maher a religious person because atheism is based on a belief that cannot be proven.  It requires a leap of faith to accept the claim that the whole of reality is strictly material.

A lot of discussion (argument) comes after we have agreed on this point.  For instance, we’d have to talk about upon whom the burden of truth rests, but it is important that we accept the fact that there is no belief that does not begin with a claim that cannot be proven rationally.

Maher claims it is only “idiots” who stand in the “grand intellectual tradition of ‘I know you are but what am I?'” who assert that atheism and theism are “two sides of the same coin.”  But this isn’t exactly true.  Fredrich Nietzsche, who on the continuum between idiocy and genius makes geniuses look like idiots, said exactly this.

In one sense, Nietzsche would lump Maher and the Christians who drive him crazy into the same category.  He that, just like religion, the rationalism and scientific optimism celebrated by Maher, is another attempt to set up an ideal to which we might aspire.  Maher’s transcendent ideal is an aggregate of equality, freedom of speech, science, democracy, etc.

There is nothing wrong with belief in transcendent meaning.  Nietzsche said that human beings have a hard time flourishing without something to believe in.  So it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

. . . the line between faith and reason

There are some pretty distinct lines between his “evidence based belief” and my “faith based malarkey” but it is not helpful to draw ones that don’t really exist.

Enlightenment Dualism


geralt / Pixabay

Have you ever been told that an issue of “faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself?”

Where did this idea come from? The idea that life is divided between public and private spheres?

The Roots of Dualism

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed. Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief. Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion. God was understood to be the creator but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law. Correlative to the division between God and His Creation was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Immanuel Kant

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood. This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment. The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason. This view of is the essence of the modern worldview and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles. All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles. He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason. For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief (or history, tradition, body, etc.).   It wasn’t very long before religion was thought to be its opposite.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism. It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere. The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason. If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (This false dichotomy, and others, is the point of this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

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