Is Atheism a Religion?

At The Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science you can find a witty and urbane video of TV host and comedian Bill Maher. In the video Maher is primarily arguing that “atheism is not a religion.” Maher contrasts the difference between atheism and religion like this:

When it comes to religion, we’re not two sides of the same coin, and you don’t get to put your unreason upon the same shelf as my reason. Your stuff [religion] has to go over there, on the shelf with Zeus, and Thor, and the crackin’. With the stuff that is not evidence based, stuff that religious people never change their mind about, no matter what happens.

What keeps atheism from being a religion? Because atheism is based on reason, but religion is based on faith and lacks evidence.

There are a number of interesting ways to respond. First, we should recollect that during the French Revolution, they literally turned churches into Temples of Reason. At Notre-Dame cathedral they even held a special ritual for “The Feast of Reason.” It seems that humans have a profound desire to create religion – sometimes even in the name of reason itself!

Second, Maher omits the reality that many Christians believe in their religion on the basis of arguments, evidence and reason. Christianity is a knowledge tradition. It makes testable claims for every field of learning, from history (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus) to science (e.g., predicting a beginning to the universe) to human identity (e.g., we are spiritual beings who can make free choices, engage in loving relationships, and find purpose in life). There is also a long-standing history of Christians providing evidence and arguments that directly establish the reasonableness of their core beliefs.

Another key part of Maher’s argument – a staple idea in contemporary atheism – is to lump all religions together as if they are basically the same. Historic, orthodox Christianity is said to be identical to Norse mythology, Roman mythology, Aztec mythology, and so on. Why? Because all of these belief systems are just different ways of being irrational.

If it is fair to lump all religions together because they are different ways of being irrational, then it is equally reasonable to lump together all opposition to religion as well. For instance, Stalin promoted atheism in a variety of ways and waged “a terror campaign against religious believers.” Maher is more of a TV personality than a government leader, but that minor difference aside, they are both strongly opposed to religion as a bad thing. So if Jesus and Zeus belong on the same shelf, why not Maher and Stalin?

Well, because obviously that comparison is terribly unfair to Bill Maher, who in spite of his opposition to religion, surely doesn’t believe in rounding up religious leaders and sending them to concentration camps. In the same way, though Christianity and Norse mythology are both religions, Christians have done extensive work to demonstrate that their beliefs are historical, testable and reasonable.

The final thing to examine is Maher’s claim to love reason. As he says, “I’m open to anything for which there’s evidence. Show me a God and I will believe in him.” At first glance, that does sound reasonable. But what does he mean? Well, Maher claims that in order to believe, he’d need Jesus to show up at the Super Bowl and turn the nachos into loaves and fishes.

To see why this doesn’t work, consider it from another point of view. I’m also open to anything for which there’s evidence. Let’s say I pledge to become an atheist only if archaeologists can find what remains of Jesus’ dead body. Maher’s formula looks like this: say you love reason, provide impossible-to-meet criteria for changing your mind, then claim that those who disagree are, by definition, unreasonable. That kind of argument wouldn’t fly if a theist gave it, so it shouldn’t work when an atheist tries it. Reason requires us to adopt more uniform standards for which beliefs can be legitimated as knowledge.

Here’s the other thing: Jesus has outdone Maher’s wildest dreams. After three days of bodily decomposition and intestinal rotting, he came back to life and publicly appeared to dozens of individuals and groups over a period of forty days. (According to some sources, he also multiplied fish and loaves at a large gathering). Did it happen? Well, that’s a matter of debate. The important point is that Christians stake the very center of their belief system on a historical claim which can be reasonably investigated and discussed.

Maher is a funny guy. But by the same token, it probably isn’t wise to take his atheism too seriously.