Tom Gilson

Last week I started a new series, “What Is Christianity?” I have another shorter series to run parallel with it: “What Is Atheism?”

The emphasis this time is on the question mark. The question I most want to address is whether atheism is a belief system. I have been taken to task for thinking that it is (also here), so I think it’s worth exploring. The author of The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath, certainly considers to be one. Writing in Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, he asks,

So how an we engage in a productive dialogue with the belief system of atheism?

That seems like a good question—productive dialogue is always welcome—unless the premise of atheism’s being a belief system is wrongheaded. We could still find some kind of productive dialogue, I’m sure, but if not with a belief system, then with what?

Atheism is not an ism, we are told. Specifically, from About.com,

Atheism Is Not a Belief System

A belief system is a “faith based on a series of beliefs but not formalized into a religion; also, a fixed coherent set of beliefs prevalent in a community or society.” This is simpler than an ideology or philosophy because it’s just a group of beliefs; they don’t have to be interconnected and they don’t have to provide guidance. This still doesn’t describe atheism; even if we narrowed atheism to denying the existence of gods, that’s still just one belief and a single belief is not a set of beliefs. Theism is also a single belief that is not a belief system. Both theism and atheism are part of belief systems, though.

Now in my naivetë I had thought it was a belief system; for a thought a belief system was some kind of system of some kind of beliefs. So I have begun to explore what atheists mean when they say it is not a belief system. I have come across at least three answers:

1. Atheism is not a belief system because it is not a system of belief. As About.com tells us, atheists’ views of life and reality are too varied and diverse to subsume under one system.

2. Atheism is not a belief system because atheism is not a belief. This answer divides further into two:

a. Atheism is not a belief but a lack of belief, in God of course. (That seems to have been the tack Marco was taking here., and it’s explicitly the approach taken here.)

b. Atheism is not a belief because “belief” means something like religious faith; or (to borrow terminology McGrath used just before the above-quoted question) atheism is not “a set of ideas that cannot actually be proved.”

I’ll leave it at that for now and come back to this later.

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6 thoughts on “What is Atheism?

  1. Why does it matter whether atheism is a belief system? I think perhaps atheism is one element, a structural component, that is part of many individual belief systems.

  2. In the second link above, Marco said that atheism cannot be held responsible for any moral implications or outcomes whatever. In the first link Tony said something related to that. Both of them based this on atheism’s not being a belief (system). Yet Christianity as a belief system is often blamed for moral errors and outrages. This asymmetry needs examining, at least.

    Further, there are some very doubtful assumptions in 2a and 2b that need exploring on their own account.

    But I don’t want to oversimplify the point; your second sentence here may well be accurate. The question then would be, how structurally essential is it as a component? Is it window molding, is it rafters, is it the foundation?

  3. So I have begun to explore what atheists mean when they say it is not a belief system. I have come across at least three answers:

    I think all of these are true to a varying degree, and to different people. I have certainly identified with all of these views at different times. As a result of its complete lack of creed or standard dogma, atheism can mean very different things to different people without there being a contradiction in that. For sure, atheism to a philosopher who has thought long and hard about it is clearly not the same thing as it is to a secularist who just grew up without religion and never thought about it at all. It is this multicolored nature of atheism that compounds the issue and makes it impossible to put all atheists into one box with a single description without offending at least half of them.

    I think that this is actually what the “New Atheism” is all about: the emancipation of unbelief and irreligion from historical notions of atheism that are no longer relevant. What’s new is not primarily the arguments (though a case can be made for that as well), but the way atheists think about themselves. Society has changed a lot since the Enlightenment; for the first time in modern history there are now secular societies where whole communities grow up without being forced to take a stance on religion — of course this is going to have an effect on how atheists define themselves. I’m pretty sure that this is the reason why many atheists espouse the 2a option, which historically was never really possible before.

  4. We agree on something at last! This much, at any rate:

    What’s new is not primarily the arguments… but the way atheists think about themselves.

  5. Atheists that I dialog with object rather vehemently to the term “new atheism” which they claim is an attempt to redefine atheism.

    As for whether or not it’s a belief system, is it fair to say that if one is an atheist, they are then necessarily philosophical materialists? If one denies any kind of spiritual realm (which I think is understood in atheism) then one must – I think – accept that we are ruled by natural laws only. Then, the belief system that atheists adhere to would be materialism, or naturalism, whichever term you prefer.

    Atheists actually have had a hard time organizing around the banner of atheism due to it simply being a lack of belief; hardly something to generate a lot of excitement.

  6. Atheism only exists because beliefs in God exist. Before belief in God, there was no atheism. Similarly, atheism as a belief system or element of a belief system only exists in contrast to a belief system that includes a belief in God. If there was no theology, there would still be different ways of looking at and thinking about the world and our being in it (ie, belief systems.) So atheism doesn\’t stand alone as a belief or belief system.

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