Is Atheism a Religion?
There were two monks walking along a deserted country track. They belonged to an order where they had taken vows to have no contact with women whatsoever. They came a place where they had to ford a river, it was spring and the river was high and wide and fast. There was an elderly woman there, who obviously wanted to cross the river, and obviously could not do so. One of the monks took her on his back, carried her across the river, and set her down. The two monks then continued on their trek. Some miles later the second monk, obviously upset, said to the first: “I’ve known you for decades, you’ve never broken your vows. I don’t understand it, how could you deliberately break your vows like that by carrying a woman on your back?” The first monk said: “I left her on the far side of the river. Are you still carrying her?”
So I was on an atheist discussion board today, and an atheist had a question. They said that an old and dear friend, a friend who knew they were an atheist, had asked them to pray for their dying father who had but months to live. The atheist wanted to know what other atheists would do in this situation. Gentle reader, if you were an atheist, how would you handle a request such as this?
To my surprize, a number of atheists said that under no circumstances would they do so. I thought this was fascinating. If a person is truly an atheist, then a prayer is simply a string of words, and has no inherent significance. Yet some claimed that this was a superstitious ritual, and they simply could not comply. In other words, complying with their atheistic beliefs was more important than comforting an old friend. I don’t understand how this is any different that what atheists accuse theists of doing, following ritual and dogma instead of using compassion to guide their actions. In fact if an atheist is adamant about refusing to do anything theistic, be it prayer or using the Lord’s name or whatever, I would submit that they are just as superstitious as anyone.
Until I came across this discussion thread I maintained that atheism wasn’t a religion. And in the conventional sense, it isn’t. At least in the sense that their is no church of atheism or book of atheism or some head atheist in a funny hat interpreting atheism for the rest of the atheists. However, if there is even one atheist who insists that acting like an atheist trumps all other considerations, a person for whom acting like an atheist is what it means to be an atheist, then I have to admit that for some people, atheism is indeed a religion. Or at the very least a superstitious belief, but what is religion except groups of people with shared superstitious beliefs.
Speaking for myself, of course I would pray for a friend’s father in a situation like that. In fact there’s all sorts of religious rituals I might participate in if loved ones asked me too. As long as a loved one’s beliefs cause no harm, it would be disrespectful of me not to. Politeness is also a meaningless ritual, yet most people do understand that it’s an important part of what makes society function. While I don’t believe in Jesus and his imaginary friend, nor any of the alternate imaginary friends, there is no harm and much good to be had by respecting the beliefs of my loved one who do. Compassion and caring come from the heart, not from following arbitrary rules.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the image. I got it from this fine web site, credit and copyright Ajay Jain. I first heard the zen story of the two monks in my Altered States of Consciousness class taught by the redoubtable Professor Charles Tart. I knew it would come in handy some day.)