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.