Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Is Atheism a Religion?

with 19 comments

There were two monks walking along a deserted country track. They belonged to an order where they had taken vows to have no contact with women whatsoever. They came a place where they had to ford a river, it was spring and the river was high and wide and fast. There was an elderly woman there, who obviously wanted to cross the river, and obviously could not do so. One of the monks took her on his back, carried her across the river, and set her down. The two monks then continued on their trek. Some miles later the second monk, obviously upset,  said to the first: “I’ve known you for decades, you’ve never broken your vows. I don’t understand it, how could you deliberately break your vows like that by carrying a woman on your back?” The first monk said: “I left her on the far side of the river.  Are you still carrying her?”

So I was on an atheist discussion board today, and an atheist had a question. They said that an old and dear friend, a friend who knew they were an atheist, had asked them to pray for their dying father who had but months to live. The atheist wanted to know what other atheists would do in this situation. Gentle reader, if you were an atheist, how would you handle a request such as this?

To my surprize, a number of atheists said that under no circumstances would they do so. I thought this was fascinating. If a person is truly an atheist, then a prayer is simply a string of words, and has no inherent significance. Yet some claimed that this was a superstitious ritual, and they simply could not comply. In other words, complying with their atheistic beliefs was more important than comforting an old friend. I don’t understand how this is any different that what atheists accuse theists of doing, following ritual and dogma instead of using compassion to guide their actions. In fact if an atheist is adamant about refusing to do anything theistic, be it prayer or using the Lord’s name or whatever, I would submit that they are just as superstitious as anyone.

Until I came across this discussion thread I maintained that atheism wasn’t a religion. And in the conventional sense, it isn’t. At least in the sense that their is no church of atheism or book of atheism or some head atheist in a  funny hat interpreting atheism for the rest of the atheists. However, if there is even one atheist who insists that acting like an atheist trumps all other considerations,  a person for whom acting like an atheist is what it means to be an atheist, then I have to admit that for some people, atheism is indeed a religion. Or at the very least a superstitious belief, but what is religion except groups of people with shared superstitious beliefs.

Speaking for myself, of course I would pray for a friend’s father in a  situation like that. In fact there’s all sorts of religious rituals I might participate in if loved ones asked me too. As long as a loved one’s beliefs cause no harm, it would be disrespectful of me not to. Politeness is also a meaningless ritual, yet most people do understand that it’s an important part of what makes society function. While I don’t believe in Jesus and his imaginary friend, nor any of the alternate imaginary friends, there is no harm and much good to be had by respecting the beliefs of my loved one who do. Compassion and caring come from the heart, not from following arbitrary rules.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the image. I got it from this fine web site, credit and copyright Ajay Jain. I first heard the zen story of the two monks in my Altered States of Consciousness class taught by the redoubtable Professor Charles Tart. I knew it would come in handy some day.)


Written by unitedcats

May 13, 2011 at 6:18 pm

19 Responses

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  1. Depends on exactly what the believer wanted. A promise that when I went home that night, I’d say a prayer? This is where a little white lie comes in handy. “Sure.” I mean, they’re never going to know.

    But if they want me to stand in a religious ceremony reciting prayers, I would just tell the believer I’d be there for them, and with them, but I would not speak any prayers. Put it to you this way: If you were a polytheist, and you asked a monotheist to a ceremony in which they were to recite prayers to one of your gods, chances are they wouldn’t open their mouths. They would “observe” and “be present,” if anything. So it is with me as an atheist. I would be present to support my loved one, but I wouldn’t partake of any rituals.


    May 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm

  2. See, now you got me thinking. Maybe the polytheist/monotheist example wasn’t the right one to use, as that is still religious.

    Another example would be asking a vegetarian to eat meat out of respect for someone else. Sorry, no. Not going to do that, either. Has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with who I am, my values, and how I live my life.


    May 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  3. Beautifully said!

    Douglas Macary

    May 13, 2011 at 7:12 pm

  4. I like Terri’s answer #2; my common response to such a request is that I will send all of my good thoughts in the direction of the intended recipient… this has always worked for me, and it’s true (except for the directional part). That, I believe, is just as effective as prayer, and nobody feels insulted.

    Doug Franklin

    May 13, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  5. I am by belief an atheist, but by habit a Christian; I attend church, participate fully, et cetera. I don’t see any particular contradiction here; I probably wouldn’t attend church if my family wasn’t doing so and expecting my presence, but I don’t see a problem with doing it to make others happy. I think that Doug’s formulation is a good one: that if you refuse on principle to participate in any religious ritual, then you’re most likely being just as superstitious as the religious people. (The exception would be people who believe that religion is deeply damaging to society and refuse to strengthen it; that’s the only reason I can think of to validly simply refuse to participate.)

    Tom Dickson-Hunt

    May 13, 2011 at 8:03 pm

  6. So, a long while back I did a few favors for a fundie family who were just moving in up the street, and as a “thank you” they bought us tickets to the Easter pageant at their megachurch.

    Couldn’t say no.

    There we were, sitting front and center as the passion play unfolded. They had this gruesome prosthetic latex back-piece all red and oozing for the scourging bit. That was quite a hit. Also some unambiguous improv from the Pilate character as to who was at fault for all the shenanigans (rhymes with “the Jews”).

    I happened to be sitting next to their 6-year-old daughter, and at the climactic moment when the disciples rolled back the stone and Jesus wasn’t there she looked up at me all wide-eyed and asked “Where did he go?!”

    Quite the dilemma.

    My instinct was to whisper that there was a trap-door at the back of the tomb.

    But that just seemed wrong, so I opted into the fantasy and said “He went to heaven.”

    And then I winked. I think she got the message.

    Paul C.

    May 13, 2011 at 8:29 pm

  7. Do you believe in your imaginary self?

    Mike Goldman

    May 13, 2011 at 10:04 pm

  8. ‘A’ is an old term used in the fashion of ‘in’ or ‘non’ theism :
    Rejection of the narrower sense of theism can take forms such as deism, pantheism, and polytheism. The claim that the existence of any deity is unknown is agnosticism, and can be compatible with theism and with atheism.[8][9][10] The positive assertion of knowledge, either of the existence of gods or the absence of gods, can also be attributed to some theists and some atheists. Put simply theism and atheism deal with belief, and agnosticism deals with (absence of) knowledge; they are not mutually exclusive as they deal with different domains.

    What’s interesting in all this is that it is another case of Strawman Argumentation : positing what one’s beliefs are from the framework of belief in another…not as concept(s) worthy of consideration by itself on its own terms. Even as one raised in the ‘Christian’ tradition I find such to be deceptive packaging which will stifle understanding by introducing systemic confusion. i.e. DuckSpeak incapable of subtlety and discrimination.


    May 14, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  9. I really couldnt agree more. I consider myself an atheist and have been in this situation. A simple “I will keep them in my thoughts” or something like that is easy to give away to show that you care even if thats just a little and feels only obligatory. Its relatively painless I swear.


    May 15, 2011 at 1:05 pm

  10. The question is, would I lie to a dear friend if lying would comfort him/her? Yes, I would probably do that. My integity is not too precious to be put aside in order to comfort someone I care about. If the person knew me, she would also know I lied, but take it face value, knowing it was given in the best intention.


    May 16, 2011 at 2:43 am

  11. I am puzzled; why would anyone approach an atheist for prayer support? I can only imagine that (s)he mistakenly viewed the atheist as being a religious person in the “Divine” sense. I am a Christian, not recognising institutionalised churches, but with very much prayer successful experience. I have never been disappointed and neither have those requesting prayer.
    Approaching an atheist for prayer is misguided to say the least – a bit like fishing without a net. The true Christian ethos is one of loving kindness. Plainly, the atheist(s) did not share that ethos.
    I feel for the person with the request; (s)he had to have been disappointed. I doubt the atheist knew not of the location of a place of theistic worship, of any kind. Directing the requestor toward that place, just out of a sense of loving kindness alone, would have been the obvious solution.


    May 16, 2011 at 4:44 am

  12. Roland, I’m not surprised that you are puzzled,given that you have “much successful experience” and you feel that atheists do not share a “loving kindness” ethos, ascribing that only to xians. You don’t believe that the xian did not know of a place of worship? And you think that that’s the only place that prayers are effective… but you don’t belong to an established religion? But, regardless, shame on us atheists?
    There is a definite lack of consistency there… you will probably remain confused.

    Doug Franklin

    May 16, 2011 at 9:25 am

    • Doug Franklin, please, go back to sleep. Better still, go back to school, learn to read, write, comprehend and communicate in real English. When you are competent, get back to us!


      May 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm

  13. Good little rant on agnostics/atheists…


    May 16, 2011 at 9:32 am

  14. I am an atheist, always have been and always will be. Whenever people say they will pray for me and know that I am atheist I find it a bit offensive because it feels like they think they know what is best for me. If someone asked me to pray for someone as in this instance I would say I will keep them in my thoughts but an actual prayer? To whom? To someone that is not my god, that I believe does not exist, that I think is a fairy tale akin to Santa Claus? Isn’t that blasphemous, for someone who does not “take the lord as their savior” to pray to them for someone else? I cannot even imagine how that is acceptable to a religious person.

    I do know that as an atheist I get tired of hearing things like ‘i will pray for you’ and ‘god works in mysterious ways’ as well as all the other comments that atheists get labeled. How could we be moral or loving or anything that is falsely associated with being religious WITHOUT turning to a deity for guidance!?!? I think a lot of people get defensive and may be perceived as being on a high horse about their lack of belief (atheism) when they’re trying to stick to their beliefs as any strongly religious person would.


    May 16, 2011 at 11:37 am

  15. Well spoken. Therein lay true wisdom.


    May 17, 2011 at 10:31 am

  16. As opit suggested, many atheists and theists alike are caught up in what they believe themselves to KNOW, when in reality none of us can claim 100% certainty. Just as theists require faith to bolster their beliefs, atheists demand conclusive evidence for that which cannot be proven.

    I agree with Doug that superstitious inclinations run in each direction. Atheists believe themselves to be distinctly separate from such nonsense, but complete avoidance of all things spiritual, ignoring the rich history of religions dating back to the dawn of Homo sapiens, leads many to miss the bigger picture and to imitate the dogmatic ways of those they oppose. No good comes from it. Blind is as blind does.


    May 17, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    • PhophetBob, I do believe that the “rich” history of religions should be reviled… it’s a history of violence, delusion, tyranny and greed. No good has ever come of it, and never will. “Spiritual” is a religious word for something unknowable and undefined, just as “faith” is.
      We have excellent examples of violence, delusion, tyranny and greed right now in our world, we don’t really need examples from ages past.
      The whole idea is to make the world better… progress, not regress.

      Doug Franklin

      May 21, 2011 at 12:10 am

  17. […] After I published this I discovered I had written a previous post on “Is atheism a religion?” I knew this would happen sooner or later. […]

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