Comment: Atheism & Secular Religions

In practice atheism is the rejection of the belief in society’s dominant form of god or gods. This could be strong (rejection) or weak (disbelief). Even early Christians were accused of atheism for rejecting the gods of Rome and Socrates for rejecting the gods of Athens. For most Western atheists today it is rejecting some form of Christian theism.

Many atheists go further. They extend the rejection to all supernatural or immaterial claims of ghosts, saints, afterlives, out-of-body-experiences, and miracles. This rejection approaches the world-view of naturalism, where all human experiences are seen as coming from strictly physical causes, causes as identified by the empirically-based sciences. So atheism itself is a relatively narrow ontological claim, a claim of no god or gods. It is not  that of a comprehensive world-view like naturalism or most religious traditions. Whether or not atheists support naturalism, I would like to think that they embrace the ideals of scientific enquiry. Moderate scepticism, open questioning, fair-minded analysis, and willingness to forgo previous beliefs in light of new experiences are worthwhile aims for any intellectual enquiry.

Most atheists would see religious beliefs and practices as supporting and promoting deluded supernatural claims. Membership in religious communities may offer social benefits, but they are founded on deluded claims, wishful beliefs ahead of rational thought. However the secular versions of religions, such as secular Buddhism and secular Judaism, create dilemmas for atheist and believers alike. How can someone be an atheist religionist?

The on-line atheist forum, Atheist Nexus, has been buzzing with discussion on the status of secular Buddhists. As Buddhists, they have typically have no Jewish-, Christian-, or Islamic-style personal God. The secular versions reject reincarnation and limit Karma to the everyday Western understanding of this life only. A supporter of secular Buddhism claimed that the Atheist Foundation of Australia had unreasonably extended its definition of atheism (beyond those commonly accepted) to exclude the secular versions of religions. He argued that atheism should be restricted to the original etymology of atheism, without (‘a’) god (‘theism’). This is interesting but is not necessarily a valid argument for today’s usage, the so-called etymological fallacy. A secular Buddhist or a secular Jew therefore would have just as much right to ascribe to atheism as any non-religious person. So does an active membership in any religious community automatically preclude someone from being an atheist?

Most religious practices involve worship. Buddhists, secular or otherwise, come close to worshipping Buddha. Atheists usually would not revere Darwin, Bacon, or Dawkins in the same way, admire yes but worship no. Worship, a common feature of most religions, (1. To honor and love as a deity; 2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion, according to seems something as an antithesis to atheism, and something that probably does preclude active secular religious people from, at least, a commonly-held broad sense of atheism.

Alex McCullie


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