Atheism 101: Is atheism a belief, a world-view, or a religion?

We have been nurturing our new official United Aspects of Satan Twitter account (please follow us!), using it to share news and opinions that may be of interest to our members, and engage the broader community on topics such as atheism, social justice, freedom of religion, our core values. In a very short time, it has become clear that a lot of people have no clue what “atheism” is.

My goal in this article is to lay out the bare-bones fundamentals: the three things you absolutely need to understand, from the beginning, in order for any further dialog about atheism or theism (much less theology or metaphysics) to be productive.

  1. Is atheism a religion?
  2. Is atheism a world-view?
  3. Is atheism a belief?

If you or the person you are talking to don’t agree on these three points, any further debate about “atheism” is a waste of oxygen.

If you are a proud atheist, you probably already know this stuff. You may still want to read this article as a kind of guide: some tips and approaches you can use the next time you’re having a discussion with a theist.

If you absolutely despise atheism and everything associated with it, you should probably read on… just to make sure that the thing you hate and are arguing about is really “atheism”.

Q: Is atheism a religion?

A: No.

Atheism is a word that describes a single fact about the entire set of a person’s beliefs: specifically, that the person doesn’t believe in gods. Atheism is therefore a descriptive word that can apply to religions, but it is not a religion.

Christianity is a religion. It involves belief in a god. Therefore it is a theistic religion. Islam is a religion. It also involves belief in a god. Therefore it is a theistic religion. Modern Satanism, including that espoused by the United Aspects of Satan, does not involve belief in a god. Therefore, it is an atheistic religion.

You can think of the relationship between atheism and religion as being like the relationship between redness and apples. Some apples are red, other apples are not red. But “red” is not an apple. “Red” isn’t even a type of apple. It’s a trait that apples may or may not have.

For a good article on the relationship between atheism and religions, and the fact that religions can be either theistic or atheistic, you may want to read Atheism is not the opposite of religion by Greg Stevens.

So what’s a religion?

The definition is a little fuzzy and varies from culture to culture, but it is generally accepted that a religion encompasses a broad range of interlocking elements. Religions usually make some claims about how the universe works, and almost always make claims about morality and how people should act. They often make value judgments about what matters and what doesn’t matter. Traditionally they have texts that are considered particularly important or enlightening, in relation to their beliefs and philosophies. Often, but not always, they have symbols and rituals that have particular importance or meaning within the religion.

Anyone who does not believe in gods is an atheist. There are no symbols, no rituals, no particular moral codes that are implied or required by a lack of belief in gods.

One person can think money and fame are the most noble pursuits a person can have, while another seeks inner peace and personal enlightenment: if neither of them believes in a god, then they are both atheists.

Members of the United Aspects of Satan believe in evidence-based reasoning and scientific method. Many spiritualists who believe in mysterious “forces” and “energies” and the consciousness of atoms. These two groups are not the same religion, but they are both atheists.

Now, some people say “atheism is a religion!” simply because they think atheism is absolutely central and important to the lives of atheists. Atheists seem obsessed with atheism!

First of all, that’s not true of all atheists… although I can see how one might get that impression if one spends a lot of time on social media. But even if it were, that doesn’t make atheism a religion any more than fitness is a religion for some people, or Star Trek is a religion for others.

And you might be perfectly happy saying “For some people, fitness is a religion!” But now we are wandering pretty far afield of what most people mean when they talk about religion. Perhaps you mean it metaphorically. That’s perfectly fine! But make sure that’s clear at the beginning of the conversation… because unless you are speaking metaphorically, atheism is definitely not a religion.

Q: Is atheism a world-view?

A: No.

This question is very similar to the previous one, to be quite honest–as is the answer. The idea of a “world-view” is different from the idea of a “religion” in several important respects: religions often have foundational documents, rituals and symbols, and important historical figures associated with them; a world-view does not.

A world-view is, however, a fairly comprehensive interconnected set of beliefs that can include everything from your beliefs about how the material world operates to your beliefs about morals and values, and purpose and goals. A world-view is a system of thought that outlines, at least in general terms, how the universe functions and what our place is in it.

There are several different variations of modern atheistic Satanism, and each espouses a slightly different world-view. The type of Satanism adhered to by the Church of Satan, for example, puts much more emphasis and importance on individualism, while the Satanism of The Satanic Temple puts more emphasis on social justice and political activism. The United Aspects of Satan represents a third world-view, that values the multiplicity of Satanic personas outlined by its Core Values.

All of them are atheists: belief in gods is not part of the world-view of any of them. All are variants of the same religion, as they share many of the same symbols and beliefs, and even share some common history. However, they are all different world-views.

So, just as with the previous question, it is best to think of the relationship between atheism and world-views as like the relationship between, for example, friendliness and people. Some people are friendly. Some people are not friendly.

But: friendliness is not a person.

Q: Is atheism a belief?

A: In the colloquial sense, yes. In the scientific sense, no.

This is where it gets really complicated! This is also where a lot of debates get completely tangled up. The atheist will say that beliefs require evidence, and the theist will respond that the belief “God doesn’t exist” must also require evidence, which the atheist then claims to be false.

The reason for this confusion is that atheists are using “belief” to refer to thoughts that are hypotheses, while theists are using “belief” to refer to mental states more generally.

It is worth point out that both of these interpretations of the word “belief” do have some validity.

In the same way that not receiving a phone call from your romantic interest can contain meaning and influence your behavior, the fact that your “state of mind” lacks a belief in gods also will change the way you think and the way you act.  A person not saying “I love you” in a particular context can convey as much meaning as a person saying “I love you”.

So when you are thinking in terms of the impact on people’s lives and actions, it is not ridiculous to claim that not holding a particular viewpoint can be as important and impactful as holding a particular viewpoint.

However, the word “belief” has a much more specific connotation within technical discussions around scientific method and evidence-based reasoning. When atheists say “I don’t need evidence to not believe in God, but you need evidence to believe in God,” they are using “belief” in this context. In this context, the term means something similar to the word “hypothesis” in the jargon of experimental science.

What is a hypothesis?

In science, a hypothesis is an idea that has been presented to explain some collection of observations. It is something that is proposed. Once proposed, it can be accepted or rejected. In science, we test hypotheses by looking at predictions they make. If the prediction turns out to be false, we reject the hypothesis. If it turns out to be true, we provisionally accept it until the next test.

If it makes no predictions, there is no reason to accept the hypothesis.

Let’s say you are playing baseball, and you hit a home run when there is a blimp overhead. You might come up with the hypothesis: “The blimp caused me to hit a home run.” Should you accept the hypothesis?

It could give rise to a prediction: the next time a blimp is overhead when you are playing ball, see whether you hit a home run. If you don’t, then it looks like you should reject the hypothesis “blimps cause me to hit home runs.” But if no blimp is ever overhead when you play ball again, you also have no reason to accept the hypothesis.

In either of those situations–where no prediction has been tested, or a prediction has failed–the consequence is that the hypothesis is rejected, and we go back to the default state, which is “I have no idea why I hit that home run.” That is where your beliefs stay, until you come up with a new hypothesis, that you can then test with a new prediction.

That’s science.

In this framework, the notion that “the blimp did not cause my home run” is not a hypothesis. It is not something that needs to be tested. It is not something that needs evidence. It’s the “default” — in scientific jargon, it is sometimes called the “null hypothesis”, in other words: the hypothesis that there is no known cause.

So how does this translate into the question of atheism?

First, what is the data you are trying to explain? What are the observations? Often, it’s something like “the existence of the universe.”  OK, fine.

Then, “God” is part of the hypothesis that is used to explain how the universe came to be. That’s fine, too.

The person who approaches the issue from a scientific, evidence-based perspective will then say: “What predictions does that hypothesis make? What further data can you present for this God hypothesis?”

And if no evidence is given, then the scientific thinker has no reason to believe the God hypothesis. Instead, the scientific thinker goes with the “null hypothesis”, which is, “There is no known explanation for how the universe came to be.”

Notice: it is not required that the atheist has an alternative explanation for the origin of the universe: just like you are not required to have an alternative explanation for why you hit the home run, in order to not believe that it was caused by the blimp. It is enough to say: “I have no reason to think it had anything to do with the blimp, therefore I don’t believe that it was caused by the blimp.

Some theists respond to this by saying, “Shouldn’t the atheist say I don’t know rather than I don’t believe in God?”

Here you have to pay close attention to the nature of hypotheses in evidence-based reasoning. Think it through using the analogy.

If you don’t have any evidence that the blimp caused you to hit your home run, you don’t go around saying “The blimp might have made me hit a home run!”

Instead, you say: “I don’t know how I hit that home run.”

That is analogous to an atheist saying “I do not know how the universe came into being.” It is not analogous to saying, “I do not know if God exists.”

This is a very tough conversation to have, because many theists are simply not used to thinking using evidence-based reasoning. The meaning of the word “belief” is actually different for them, than it is for people who are used to thinking scientifically.

So when you engage in these conversations, it’s best to start simple, and attack that problem head on.

Start by saying, “What does the word belief mean to you?”

Then say, “Do you think blimps cause home-runs?”

See where it goes from there.