Atheism and what constitutes a religion

Religion has been observed for thousands of years across all cultures and continents, but what actually is a religion? As usual I will refer to the Oxford dictionary regarding the various definitions of a religion. Firstly, a religion is the belief in, and/or worship of a superhuman power, especially god or gods. Secondly it’s also defined as a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion. Religions differ depending on regions, cultural differences and belief, but most have set rules and standards that must be adhered to; ie praying, dietary guidelines, standards of behaviour that must be strictly followed with devotion. Most religions that worship a god (monotheistic), or several gods or versions of gods (polytheistic) share a worldview that everything is created by, and ruled over by the creator. This is often a deity that has presented a list of moral expectations that has been written down by their representatives and prayer, worship or disciplines that vary on extremes depending on the religion.

Many theists claim that atheism is also a religion because it takes more faith to reject the belief in a god than it takes to embrace the idea of a supernatural, all knowing, all powerful supreme being. Atheism is however in direct contrast to theism, and is either the outright rejection and inability to accept the existence of any god as the empirical evidence just simply isn’t there to warrant it being taken seriously, or simply they don’t believe any gods exist or have ever existed as it’s a ridiculous concept. Many atheists are extremely vocal about their opposition to deity fuelled organised religions, but how can the rejection of gods, and the need to live without religious doctrines, dogma, scripture and lifestyle be classified as a religion? There’s no ideology, worldview or code of conduct. Each atheist is free to live their life as they see fit without any constraints other than the law of the land, but innatism, which is belief that people are born with knowledge, is claimed that theistic innatism is what atheists are in denial about as they know god exists but refuses to admit it. If anything this is a strong argument in favour of atheism not being a religion as they are really Christians living non-Christian lifestyles.

‘Evil men do evil on their own accord. For good men to do evil requires religion.” – H.L. Mencken

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule has been adhered to for thousands of years, and has been adopted by many religions and philosophies, and became widespread amongst philosophers of Ancient Greece, but like most ideologies, it’s been hijacked by Abrahamic faiths, and they believe they have the monopoly on ethics and morality. It’s origin is said to go as far back as Middle Kingdom Egyptian scholars; some 2000 years BCE. The most common version known to modern society is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” , and is promoted by modern Christianity as words of Jesus, but it was used in the Far East hundreds of years prior by Buddha and Confucius. The Golden rule is all about the use of empathy, and knowing how you’d feel if someone wronged you, and if you wish to be treated with respect, then the respect should be reciprocated, and if you wish I’ll on others, then be prepared to have ill wished upon you.

“Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” – Socrates

People of Abrahamic faiths constantly criticise pagan, or non-believers by claiming that without a god, they have no moral guidelines, and everything is unaccountable, as we have no higher authority, and because of this misconception, they are morally bankrupt. But if a theist, and an atheist, both adopt the golden rule, and treat others with dignity and respect, then how are their moral codes any different? Just because someone worships a god means they are going to be the Good Samaritan, and just because someone doesn’t worship a god doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being the Good Samaritan.

“In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” – Mahavira

However, there is a flaw by adopting the golden rule, and it’s the assumption that another person wishes to be treated as you do, or someone treats you in a way they think is acceptable but you don’t. Do you feel obliged to ask every person that you encounter what their preferences are in relation to how they wish to be treated? Be it only a slight flaw, it’s a flaw nevertheless, but as long as you adopt the foundations of morality, which is empathy, then compassion, humility, understanding and respect become second nature. The golden rule has come under criticism as it doesn’t outline a code of conduct, but do we really need to have a list of requirements on how to behave ethically?

“In nearly every religion I am aware of, there is a variation of the golden rule. And even for the non-religious, it is a tenet of people who believe in humanistic principles.” – Hillary Clinton

Humanism: is it a religion?

For me, this is an easy question to answer, and it’s a resounding no, but in a way I can understand why ignorant people can mistake it for one, especially if they think that atheism is a religion. Disingenuous people like Ken Ham either ignorantly link it to what he calls secularist atheism, which he claims is a religion, or he says it to cause intentional provocation. Humanism is a way of life with a set of principles that most humanists agree on, but that’s where its comparison to religion ends.

Humanism has several key focuses, and some of them are extremely frowned upon by religious groups as it goes against their personal beliefs and their religious texts. Humanism is an area of philosophy that focuses on the importance of humanity individually and collectively, and the value of sentient life. They accept that this life is the only one we have and it’s our job to live it morally and respectfully, and knowing that we live in a reality of naturalism, there’s no need for superstitious beliefs as we are solely in charge of our own destinies. There’s no life mapped out for us, so it’s our choice to make decisions that are ethical, and try to preserve the well being and happiness of those around us.

It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for. We have everything to live for” – Ricky Gervais

The key elements of humanism is using logic and reason, and to gain knowledge through evidence as opposed to belief or faith. The only way to gain true knowledge is through the scientific method, and strict scepticism. It’s also about defining morality as maximising happiness, and minimising suffering whenever possible by using compassion and empathy rather than fulfilling the will of an egotistic god who demands to be obeyed. Doing as you’re told to please a master is not a moral action, and it really baffles me as to how theists believe a god gives them moral superiority, when in truth, there is NO morality in god fearing religions.

“A non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values.”

– Little Oxford Dictionary

I’ve been a member of Humanists UK for a little over a year, and the reason I decided to join, and pay a monthly subscription is because of its charity status and the campaigns it tirelessly fights for. One of the things I feel most strongly about is human rights and equality; be it gender, sexuality, physically,mentally or racially. Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard and respected. Despite this, I still find it extremely hard to stay civil with religious zealots, but I’d always fight for their freedom of religion, but I’m just as entitled to my freedom from religion.

SECULARISM

Where I live in England is not a very religious area at all, and no one I know attends church. The churches before the COVID 19 pandemic lock down were trying any methods to encourage people through the doors, ie fitness classes. But this doesn’t mean for one second that my country hasn’t got a relationship between the government and the church. The Church of England, who’s leader is Queen Elizabeth II, is England’s state religion, and because of this bishops get automatic seats in the House of Lords, but no other faith has these rights. This is why Humanists UK is campaigning for disestablishmentarianism which is to remove religious influence from the government.

PUBLIC ETHICS

A few of the public ethical campaigns are confusing to theists, or they simply cannot accept them because their religion frowns upon them. These include assisted dying, abortion rights, genital mutilation, and enforcing schools to adopt sexual education and making mandatory.

Abortion is a pro-choice stance with humanists, and it’s not about the murdering of babies, or a form of contraception, it’s about a woman having the right to terminate for a number of reasons that include rape victims, or serious health concerns relating to the unborn baby or the mother. This is where sexual education is important to teach children that contraception is important, and no one is required to have sexual interaction if they don’t want to. As well as sexual education, humanists require schools to teach children what homosexuality is and you don’t have to be ashamed of your sexuality, and it’s not about perverting society and turning people gay like some Christians think.

Assisted dying is another important issue that extremely sick humans are denied the right to die with honour and dignity, and anyone who helps a loved one pass away can potentially face criminal action and possibly prison. Why should someone who’s suffering, has no quality of life and just wishes to leave be denied the right for painless euthanasia? If an animal is sick and suffering a vet will euthanise them to end their suffering, so why have animals got the right, but not humans. The religious argument that god gave you life, and he decides when to take it away is sheer madness and unacceptable.

ANIMAL WELFARE

Another campaign I feel strong about is animal welfare, and this ranges from treatment to unethical religious slaughter, that is usually carried out without stunning, or sedation, and involves a sharp blade cutting the throat and the animal bleeding out until death. Whilst a larger number of Halal slaughters are using stunning techniques, Kosher does not, and the animal dies slowly whilst being in a fully conscious state. Humanists UK fully supports the ‘Five Freedoms’ which are listed below.

  • freedom from hunger, malnutrition and thirst;
  • freedom from fear and distress; 
  • freedom from heat stress or physical discomfort; 
  • freedom from pain, injury and disease; and
  • freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.