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Atheist Dogma?

Supporters of religion seem to be getting a bit desperate. If you take religion seriously you must already be accustomed to using half truths, biased information, and invalid arguments to support your cause so I guess using the same tactics against the new atheists should not be a surprise to anyone.

It’s difficult to say what’s the cause and what’s the effect in this phenomenon. Anyone who can’t think logically is much more likely to follow a religion but anyone who wants to continue to follow a religion can’t afford to think logically. So which comes first: the superstitious beliefs or the illogical way of reasoning? It’s impossible to say but I guess each reinforces the other.

Anyway, getting back to the argument against atheists. Often it comes down to the obviously silly accusation that atheism is just another religion. The degree of validity of this claim obviously depends on the definition you use for the word “religion” but the definition which best fits into this argument is the one which defines religion as a belief system involving a supernatural entity.

It should be obvious that atheism isn’t a religion by this definition because it specifically rejects the supernatural (or at least it rejects things which are unsupported by facts, the supernatural being the most prominent example).

But there are other definitions too. The other one I found in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance”. I’m not sure how this would fit in with the argument against atheism because refusing to believe in something which has no supporting evidence could hardly be classified as of supreme importance.

Actually, now that I consider the point again I think maybe there is a certain amount of truth there. Many of the new atheists do take their opposition to religion very seriously and to some of them it does attain supreme importance, at least it seems that way if you look at their public activities.

But if a religion is just something that is taken extremely seriously then few people would have serious objections to it. The reason people do object to it is because real religion is based on unthinking dogma, superstition and ignorance, yet is still taken extremely seriously. I don’t think atheism can really be said to be based on dogma.

Or can it? At the recent Gods and Politics conference in Copenhagen the Atheist Alliance formulated an atheistic declaration on religion in public life which included statements such as “We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular” and “We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma”.

Is this atheist dogma? Atheism’s critics will no doubt suggest it is but I think they will be again guilty of being mislead by superficial similarities and failing to see the deeper truth. This “dogma” was formulated as a way of summarising the ideals which are the result of careful philosophical and scientific consideration. Religion does things the opposite way around: it takes the dogma found in its holy texts and that becomes its ideal. So again, really, there is little similarity between the two approaches.

I would also hope that the atheist declaration would be used for guidance only and failing to follow it would not be considered “heretical” as long as a reasonable justification could be provided. But if that’s the case I can see little point in having it at all.

Most atheists are “free thinkers”. They tend to have few assumed premises and fewer restrictions than other groups. That means that it’s harder for atheist to work as a group compared with the more tightly controlled organisations like most churches. For example, there is a split regarding whether overt criticism of religion is a better approach than the more traditional compromise which often resulted in a refusal to criticise religion at all. Organising atheists is often compared to herding cats!

Having a set of principles might remove one of atheism’s great strength’s (freedom from dogma) so I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. Looking through the full list (which is here) I can’t see anything much beyond common sense anyway, so what’s really the point?

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