Faith of the faithless: Is atheism just another religion?

Apr 13, 2017

By Graham Lawton

I recently discovered that I am a member of a downtrodden minority, one of the most mistrusted and discriminated-against in the world. As a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gender male, this is not something I’m used to. But my minority status is undeniable. I am an atheist.

I’m not complaining. I live in one of the world’s most secular countries and work for a science magazine, so it hasn’t got in the way. But for atheists living in societies with a strong religious tradition, discrimination is a real problem. In the US, atheists have one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group. Non-believers are the only significant minority considered unelectable as president – and “unelectable” turns out to be a pretty low bar.

Even when atheists don’t face open hostility or discrimination, we often have to endure put-downs about the sincerity of our (lack of) beliefs. One of the most common is that “atheism is just another religion anyway”. There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of god, the argument goes, so to deny it is a leap of faith. Ergo, atheism is just like a religion.

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15 comments on “Faith of the faithless: Is atheism just another religion?

  • ” There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of god, the argument goes, so to deny it is a leap of faith.”

    Is denying the existence of unicorns a leap of faith?

    Furthermore, the evidence of gods being characters from ancient human mythology is overwhelming, so no futher arguments need be offered. The burden of proof is with the claimants of theism, and they have none..

    Nothing to see here …… move along.

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  • rogeroney #1
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    The burden of proof is with the claimants of theism, and they have none..

    Ah! But that is a coherent reasoning position from evidence!
    Faith does not “do” reasoning – unless we count the circular variety from preconceptions! 🙂

    ” There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of god”

    Actually before theists even have an argument to make, they first need to specify which god is assumed to need to be “proven or disproven”. — given the vast selection of contradictory ones!

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  • Graham Lawton is listed as an (the?) Executive Editor at New Scientist. Perhaps this means he can over-rule the Subs because he takes his time getting to the meat and potatoes.

    Lawton is defending the trope: Atheism is another religion.

    The truth is that atheism [1] is not simply an absence of belief in god, but also a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality.

    Clearly this is false, as Lawton himself recognises:

    [Atheists] say, the word just means ‘without god’. That is all. We can go home now …

    [1] In addition note that Lawton has snuck in an unexplained ism here. I am an atheist, I know of no atheism.

    But Lawton thinks he’s on to something.

    Even though these belief systems …

    Atheists became atheism without explanation – in a leap of faith, if you will – and now there seem to be several atheisms in Lawton’s colourful imagination.

    … diverge in their content and level of fact from religious beliefs, perhaps …

    Wait, “perhaps”? So this is an hypothesis. Supporting evidence must now, surely, be presented in a magazine that says Scientist on the front cover?

    … perhaps they originate from the same underlying psychological processes, and fulfil similar psychological needs.

    The hypothesis appears to be:

    An ism that is not explained or detailed, and which atheists habitually and loudly declaim, has the same psychological roots as theists belief through faith. Moving right along:

    Religious ideas, for example, provide stability and reassurance in the face of uncertainty.

    Does my being an atheist provide me with stability and reassurance?


    I may draw some solace from my understanding that my investigations of matters of fact are true. My being an atheist is otherwise entirely separate from the uncertainties that I face in life, and the way I deal with those events never references my non-belief in unicycling as a a species of elephant.

    So far, so incoherent.

    They [atheisms] help to explain events and provide a moral framework

    Does my non-belief in the game of poker as a form of metal working help explain otherwise unexplained events?


    Does my non-belief in truck drivers as a species of juniper bush provide me with a moral framework?


    For these reasons, and others, they [isms] are intuitively appealing to human brains.

    Say what?

    Maybe brains that reject supernatural ideas simply soak up naturalistic ones …

    Way to go Sherlock.

    … to take their place

    That depends on context. I don’t ritually slaughter a hen once a week to the Special Theory of Relativity, if that’s what he means – but I do think that psychotherapy is a significant improvement on the pastoral ‘care’ of many Catholic priests.

    They may work as replacement beliefs, helping alleviate stress and anxiety as religion does, says Miguel Farias, leader of the brain, belief and behaviour group at Coventry University, GB

    As someone who frequently suffers from anxiety I can say with confidence that comment is so hopelessly wrong-headed it’s not even wrong.

    Not knowing, or ignorance as it is more commonly known, is the most effective method for relieving stress that I know and it is, surely, a truth universally acknowledged that ignorance is bliss. I note that while this appears – by the context in which Farias is quoted by Lawton – to be news to psychologists, it is one of the most commonly used tools in the Propagandist’s toolbox. A continuous flow of bad news raises anxiety until the members of the audience switch off in acts of self-preservation – thinkers are turned into non-thinkers. Disengagement is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of propaganda, but I digress.

    Lawton refers to a study in which secularists (who they?) forced to read an essay that progress was illusory became more aware of their own deaths. It seems that no control group was used, and the study therefore tells us very little. But Lawton is not shy, he manages to extract a lesson about how we atheists have a belief in “progress”.

    I won’t bore you with the details; Lawton goes on to draw other parallels which seem, on their face, to confuse subconscious intuitive psychological reactions with conscious considered views. He concludes:

    Stressful situations tend to strengthen [atheists’] belief in science, especially in theories that emphasise orderliness and predictability over randomness and unpredictability

    Assuming, for the moment, that Lawton has that right; is that sufficient evidence to extend that conclusion to Lawton’s next conclusion:

    All of which suggests that religious believers and atheists are more psychologically similar than either would like to think


    These two things (psychology of the immediate environment under stress and psychology of considered beliefs) seem completely different to me. I’m even tempted to say that Lawton has made one of the most elementary mistakes here; this is a category error.

    First of all if and when I acknowledge that psychologists are scientists – and I read heartening news on a regular basis – I have no difficulty in thinking of theists as psychologically similar to me and all other atheists. Why would I deny our common humanity? I note that this is very different to the in-group / out-group dynamics of most, if not all, organized religions.

    Secondly, it is possible – and I maintain that it is so – that seeking order in knowledge is not an allegory for belief. Come to think of it, even if it were, would that mean that seeking order is synonymous with religious belief or religious organization, or religious faith?

    No. There is no clear link between any of these ideas, and Lawton’s doing so is simply insupportable. In précis: He’s talking nonsense.

    Proponents of the “psychological impossibility of atheism” argue that supernatural beliefs are so hard-wired into our brains that discarding them altogether is not an option …

    I don’t know how atheism is possible psychologically, sociologically, in terms of physicalism or as an ideology. Setting that tangent aside then: Are supernatural beliefs hard-wired in our brains?

    The answer depends on your definitions of ‘hard-wired’, ‘belief’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘brain’. Lawton is on a roll, he has no time for such niceties.

    Given that we have the same brains and the same psychology (up to a point) as theists is it likely that we atheists retain some intuitive, even instinctive, thinking that undermines us?


    But this way of thinking completely misses the point of thinking.

    Do we have a record of religious people doing harm to themselves and others.

    Do we recognize that these people are not employing the best methods of thinking, and therefore of forming true understanding.

    That is the negative example. Atheists are examples of the positive side of thinking. We demonstrate that it is possible to over-ride instinct and intuition without harming others, or ourselves. That is the point of thinking, and we’ve had that answer before us for about 2,500 years since Socrates told us that an unexamined life is not worth living.

    Notice that Socrates hinted at something that Lawton misses: The examined life is one that is always in flux. Socrates urged us to re-examine, to question even our most treasured and basic beliefs, every day.

    Socrates is not synonymous with atheist, yet he illustrates the difference between non-theist thinking and theist thinking. Stressful situations are a specific case of instances where time to think is necessarily curtailed. Atheists come, in the vast majority of cases, to non-belief in thinking time.

    Lawton switches tack:

    There is another way in which atheist beliefs make them religion-like, according to Sloan Wilson: “Atheists will say that religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaptation – which happens not to be true … That is how atheism becomes an ideology”

    Both Lawton and Wilson appear to be claiming that religion is an evolutionary adaptation. Is it? I know of no evidence supporting this hypothesis, and Lawton presents none.

    Also, even if religion evolved, is it a trait that is good? Or, is religion an evolved trait that isn’t terminal (in the species sense, we know it’s frequently terminal to individuals). Lawton fails to address this issue.

    Those who claim religion is bad are anti-theists not atheists. Anti-theists are indeed ideological. Do I need to post the definitions? Hopefully Mr. Lawton can use a dictionary and can see that, while there is some overlap, the definitions clearly set them apart – the word is about ideas, the suffix is about an organized movement.

    I repeat: There is no athe-ism

    It [‘atheism’] is organised to motivate behaviour

    If only that were true. Herding cats.

    Wilson: If it uses counterfactual beliefs in order to do it then there’s really very little difference between atheism and a religion

    True. Evidence please.

    One conclusion is that religion and atheism do have things in common, sometimes. Both feature sacred values …

    Sacred values for not believing in stamp collecting?

    Both [theists and atheists] have rituals – although atheist ones are rare – and distinct social identities

    True, I brush my teeth every morning. Does this make me religious.

    An atheist’s sacred value might be that religion should have no place in government, whereas a Muslim’s might be the exact opposite

    Lawton seems to want to be contentious just for the sake of it. He has yet to itemise an atheist-specific ritual, and labelling anything atheist sacred is just nonsense. Perhaps he does need a lesson in dictionary use after all …

    New Scientist?

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  • I’ve been here, on Dawkins for a long time. I’ve seen this trope before. It is worn out. Stephen of Wimbledon has invested much time in a well reasoned “shut down” response. This should be “drop the mic” kind of stuff.

    However, and this is yuge, the statement

    ” There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of god, the
    argument goes, so to deny it is a leap of faith.”

    Is the harbinger of what ensues. There is no “disproof”. In no other arena, in no other discussion, in no other content area (if god even is “content” at all), is the burden of proof on the “disproof” of anything at all.

    In order to prove a murderer guilty, you do not have to disprove the other 7 BILLION people on the planet’s guilt. I can clearly demonstrate the existence of an ORANGE. Why can’t you show me your god? This idea of disproof is where the logic (and thus, the necessity of the conversation) gets derailed. Assert something, prove it. Imagine compiling a list of the things that demonstrably exist. And, yes, many abstract things would be on said list. And the list would be staggering.

    Now, demonstrating Yahweh exists wouldn’t even come close to “disproving” Allah existing. Demonstrating Allah, would not deconstruct Thor….

    My footprint is all over this planet. It is absurd for someone to try to “disprove” me. God? Aside from anecdote and “personal conviction”… I really really really really want there to be a sky daddy who loves me…. there is simply nothing. That is “disproof” enough for me.

    We’ve allowed the word “hope” to be conflated with “faith” and “real”. Do I hope I get to sit with my grand mom (Nan) again and show her my children? Without hesitation, yes. But, I HOPE that it occurs, and I do NOT elevate my hope into something that enables me to distort my reality and try to influence the world around me and manipulate LAW to assure me that I am “right”. Fucking nut jobs.

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  • crookedshoes #7
    Apr 15, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    There is no “disproof”. In no other arena, in no other discussion, in no other content area (if god even is “content” at all), is the burden of proof on the “disproof” of anything at all.

    This is ONE of the negative influences of religious dogmatic indoctrination!
    In order to prop up lame claims, children are taught from a tender, age that fallacious thinking is virtuous, – by leaders they are encouraged to respect as authorities and role models!

    As rational adults, we only have to glance briefly at evangelical TV, to see the shambolic delusional mentality generated by such processes!

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  • Thank you Alan and crookedshoes,

    I don’t think my comment qualifies as a mic drop. I would actually like to hear Graham Lawton respond to all three of us. I can see how that would be possible.

    You have both found the biggest and most basic problem and Alan’s response was excellent so I didn’t include it in mine: A god or gods is a big claim, and being an atheist is, in my book, no more than asking: Where’s the big evidence and, by the way, what do you mean by god?

    The quality of journalism at NS is clearly extremely poor when a senior member of the writing team eschews evidence and begins with a hypothesis then seeks arguments to support that hypothesis. This would be not-so-bad if the final result was something logically and philosophically coherent and there was evidence presented, and the evidence supported the hypothesis. Base over apex, but at least clear. Lawton’s piece, as it stands, is none of these things.

    The really bad part about this is that NS is supposedly a science publication.


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  • This is an utter disgrace coming from the NS.

    Stephen has suitably and seasonally nailed it.

    Advertisers need to sell you a problem before they can sell you a solution.

    I firmly believe we fear death as much because we were promised salvation from it as children. Those brought up with the ever present reality of their own final final demise I propose are more likely to accept the fact with equanimity.

    The problem of original sin, the obligation of sufficient gratitude for some brief gestural suffering and gestural death to pay for our (!) earlier apple scrumping (stealing in the UK, but also works in the US for Adam and Eve) and the prospect of hell, may result in the Advertisers honestly claiming to fix things and reduce fears, but these were fears they maliciously and self-servingly sowed in the first place. the fuckers.

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  • phil rimmer #10
    Apr 16, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    This is an utter disgrace coming from the NS.

    Graham Lawton appears to be simply stating the theist argument . . . . “the argument goes,”- – – “One of the most common is….. “, etc. – but without reading the rest of the article which is beyond the paywall, it is unclear why this is in a science magazine!

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  • Not believing in God requires a leap of faith. Ha-ha-ha-ha!

    That sounds like something the supremely witty and often cynical Oscar Wilde might have said (or a character from a play of his). He also said: “fidelity in marriage is just laziness.” (Paraphrasing.) What a great wit.

    Great comments. The “Off” channel has advertisements too. Not bad, Alan.

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  • all this being said..
    where can I buy that necklace in the picture above? That is a bloody cool thing and I would also wear it as a broche, if it comes as one.. Just to state I am an atheist (or rather an anti-theist, which luckily also starts with an A)

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  • @OP – “atheism is just another religion anyway”.

    Or to put this in a realistic context:-
    those proclaiming this nonsense are actually saying:-

    atheism is just another (not my) religion anyway”, so being profoundly ignorant of most other viewpoints, I will lump it in with all those other “false” religions – which I dismiss as inconsistent with my preconceived “correct” indoctrinated views, – without any further thought!

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