the metaphysical assumptions of atheism (atheism as religion)

One of the most disturbing aspects of atheism as it is currently practiced is that it refuses to admit, or even see, that it is in fact a religion – though of a very specific kind. It is not that atheists believe in the “no God” god – they actually do a very good job in not believing in any supernatural entities at all. What they do not realize though, is that they nevertheless believe in many morally, religiously and metaphysically controversial things. The problem is that they do not acknowledge this.

An atheist believes that “there most likely is no god”, an atheist can be a monist or a materialist, an atheist believes that “you cannot know and needn’t care about an afterlife”, our atheists believe that science is the only reliable source of true beliefs, and today they believe that all human are equal, deserving of equal rights, etc. Some of those statements are (currently) uncontroversial (in our part of the world), some are heftily debated or even denied by a majority of people (anywhere in the world), some (like materialism) are even morally suspicious.

Atheism needs to fess up to these presuppositions. It needs to draw out for everyone the metaphysical background upon which it is founded. Of course, there needn’t be one single such formulation, and each atheist probably has her own version. But until it is acknowledged that such underlying beliefs exist, atheism will have to street credibility, because everyone will see that the atheists are blind to their own failings.

Religions – and certainly all the religions that the atheists call religions – are honest and upfront about their metaphysical underpinnings. They dont try to hide their talking snakes, magically perfect books, their creators and wild trinities, their laws of karma and hoped for nirvanas and heavens. And believe it or not, many religious people are more or less aware that much of this is not quite literally true – they are at least willing to fudge the talking snakes and elephant-headed deities. But if the religious are honest about the rough edges of their systems, they certainly are entitled to ask the atheists (their moral and metaphysical siblings) to do likewise.

When atheists fail to rise to the level of transparency displayed by other religions, it suggests that they might actually believe that their system has no such metaphysical weaknesses! Now that would be less likely than any number of talking snakes! Come on atheists, be honest. Give us a clear picture of your moral assumptions, whether or not you color them with extravagant metaphysical deities.

Of course, once this “minimal religion” of atheism is brought to light, everyone might agree that it is good, true and right. But that is another matter.

P.S. These thoughts were brought forth (though not quite ex nihilo) by this post by the Atheist Ethicist.

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7 Comments to “the metaphysical assumptions of atheism (atheism as religion)”

  1. Why the preoccupation with categorizing everyone? Why do all people who think in a similar manner need to share a title? The fact is, most people are far more complex than the definition of whatever label someone has placed on them. This idea of claiming Atheism as a religion is silly. Your reasoning is also VERY flawed as it can only be applied to SOME atheists but certainly not most and definitely not ALL. I’m an Atheist but the title does not define me. In fact, it’s barely even an accurate definition of my beliefs. What I want to know is, why are so many god worshipers so obsessed with calling atheism a religion? I just don’t get it.

  2. That I find no evidence for god is not a religion. It is a view that I have, but no other opinions flow from it. I have no sacred books, rites, belief that a certain behaviour is what atheism is all about.

    Philosophical positions about the world are not religions either.

  3. doubtingthomas426 –

    ill grant you that not all atheists are alike (nor are all christians or all economists) but we do have to categorize the world if we are to talk about it. However, i am not aiming at ALL atheists, only those who are professing atheism (in books, blogs etc.).

    As to why god worshipers (of which i am not one) are obsessed with calling atheism a religion, it is perhaps because they think that atheism is trying to replace them. If that is so then atheism had put itself on the same playing field as religion as thus shows itself to be made of the same stuff (metaphysics).


    you are right that not finding evidence for god is no religion. That no other opinions follow directly from it is perhaps also the case. It is certainly NOT the case though, that you do not hold many moral/ethical/metaphysical beliefs. We needn’t call this a religion, but it serves the SAME PURPOSE and is just as debatable (which does not mean wrong) as what religions say and do.

  4. How on earth can Atheism be a religion..we have no dieties or religous texts, no clergy telling us to commit genocide, If Atheism was a religion we could come up with a hell of a better story than the one Christianity and Islam believe.. Both based on fear of god to be morale. Atheism is becoming more and more popular because people are becoming educated and it makes absolutely no sense that any religion would affirm human in martyrdom.. the killing of people if they break a commandment and the BIBLE was all for slavery little missy.. that is why the south stood on the Bible throughout the civil war.. Get your facts straight. Prove to me there is a God.. any kind of God… You are an ATHEIST for not believing in the God Zues, Or The God Isis, Or Allah, or Jesus, or Buddah..take your pick and shut the hell up!

  5. The charge that atheists are specifically dishonest requires actual substantiation. Metaphysical presuppositions are tricky things; “uncontroversial metaphysics” is an oxymoron.

    The thing is that atheists hold just those metaphysical presuppositions that everyone has to hold to navigate in the real world without falling off of cliffs and being eaten by tigers. Some atheists may be more or less aware of these presuppositions (which require a good deal of philosophical education to identify). The primary distinction between atheists and theists is not that our metaphysical systems are different, but that theists extend their own metaphysics, without (or so we claim) good justification.

    I think your charge of dishonesty is wholly without merit and in bad faith, and I think your underlying point that atheists have a completely different metaphysical system is unsubstantiated. (And the idea that materialism (which isn’t all that philosophically coherent IMnsHO) is somehow morally dangerous is ridiculous.)

  6. Someone can be an atheist without subscribing to any particular metaphysical assumptions at all. All they need to do is lack belief in deities.

    Therefore, whatever metaphysical assumptions an atheist might make (even if most atheists happen to share those assumptions) are incidental. But I do agree that individual atheists should feel free to share whatever metaphysical assumptions they have with the world, just so long as these are not portrayed as part of atheism.

  7. Why is atheism disturbing? What seperates atheism from religion is that if i discovered indisputable evidence favouring, say, the Christian beliefs, i would change my convictions; whereas religious people dismiss every single faith bar their own, atheists go the logical step further and find them all to be flawed

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