Religion is not the opposite of atheism
It is very common in many atheist circles to propose ‘religion’ as the opposite of atheism. There are countless quotes from atheists pronouncing the irrationality of religion (and the corresponding rationality of atheism). For example, George Carlin dismissed ‘religion’ by saying,
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day.”
Notice that religion is conflated with theism – I’m not sure that Buddhists would agree with this statement. Atheism is instead proposed as the opposite of this foolishness. Similarly, there is an atheistic Facebook page called ‘Debating Religion’ – yet it should be more accurately named ‘Debating Theism’ for this page is pro-atheism and anti-theist.
Yet this claim that atheism is the de facto opposite and alternative to religion is just not true (and makes for very frustrating debates). “Religion” is not the opposite of atheism. I’ve written on a similar topic before when I proposed that atheism is not a religion. So I wanted to clear up this distinction.
1. Theism is the opposite of atheism. Many atheists take great pains to point out that atheism is the non-belief in the existence of God. Religion implies some kind of organised ‘system’, yet atheism makes no claim to negate a system, simply the non-belief in god(s). Very few would claim theism as a ‘religion’, hence I can’t see how atheism is the opposite of ‘religion’.
2. There are atheistic religions. Whilst defining religion is difficult (see my other post) there are religious elements in various atheistic systems. The classic example is Buddhism. Buddhism is an atheistic religious system – there is no god. Similarly ‘nationalism’ as seen in Nazi Germany, is another atheistic religion. Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, before World War II agreed with this by claiming that, “Our religion is Germany.” Also, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, Emperor worship in North Korea functioned very much as a religion. Hence communism, Emperor worship, and even secular humanism are all forms of atheistic religions. Rather than being the opposite of atheism, these religious systems are built on an atheistic foundation.
3. There are things which function as atheistic religions. Furthermore, there are other ideologies which may not be ordinarily be classified as ‘religion’, yet they function as such. For example, sport may be considered a religion for some, it functions as some kind of ‘system’. Similarly materialism and hedonism. People serve these ‘higher purposes’. Again, these are not the opposite of atheism, but are built on atheistic assumptions.
4. Religion can be the problem. To conclude I think that many Christians would admit alongside atheists that ‘religion’ can be the problem. One only needs to look at the life and example of Jesus. Jesus was put to death, not by pagans and atheists, but by the religious. Religion is very multi-faceted and can be the cause for much evil and suffering. Yet I would propose that rather than bringing an oppressive religious ‘system’, the ‘religion’ that Jesus brings freedom is a true and vibrant relationship with God. The religious ‘system’ of true Christianity was very much in contrast to, and indeed the opposite of, the legalistic, suppressive and oppressive religious system which condemned Jesus to death.
So let’s be clear, atheism is not the opposite of religion.