Most people have an understanding of what atheism is and they understand what anti-religious means. Some people believe that all atheists are anti-religious. That isn’t true however. In order to show that it is not true, it is necessary to take a closer look at what the words atheism and religion mean. If there is an ambiguity, then we may be able to establish some clarity that improves our understanding. Let’s begin with religion. What is it really?
What is Religion?
A religion is primarily an organization of people. Organizations form based on a set of stated interests and beliefs and cultivate preferred attitudes among the membership. Members of the organization share similar ideas, attitudes and beliefs about the interests of the organization. A religion is a specific type of organization which focuses on the belief and worship of a god, gods or some other expression of objective existence. If this definition does not satisfy you, then add what you like.
What is Atheism?
From Merriam’s Dictionary: “Critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or divine beings. Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a God, atheism is a positive denial. It is rooted in an array of philosophical systems. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Epicurus argued for it in the context of materialism. In the 18th century David Hume and Immanuel Kant, though not atheists, argued against traditional proofs for God’s existence, making belief a matter of faith alone. Atheists such as Ludwig Feuerbach held that God was a projection of human ideals and that recognizing this fiction made self-realization possible. Marxism exemplified modern materialism. Beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche, existentialist atheism proclaimed the death of God and the human freedom to determine value and meaning. Logical positivism holds that propositions concerning the existence or nonexistence of God are nonsensical or meaningless.”
(My readers may remember that I wrote previously about the four types of atheists. There is no need to go into that here. A general definition is sufficient for this writing.)
What is Anti-Religion?
A person who holds an anti-religious view is one who is against religion. If you renounce your belief in a religion it is called apostasy. If you disagree with the commonly held beliefs of a religion, with no interest in denouncing your belief in the whole set of beliefs of that organization, that is known as heresy.
Anti-religion usually means a person who is against all religions. That isn’t a fair or accurate rendering of the meaning however. A Catholic who seeks to negate the validity of a Protestant faith could be said to be anti-religious toward Protestantism. To be against something could mean you are against all objects within a set of objects, or you could simply be against a subset of objects. It makes no sense to regard a Catholic as anti-religious against all religions simply because of an anti-religious sentiment towards Protestantism.
Are Atheists Anti-Religious
Atheism concerns itself with belief. It really isn’t a statement for or against religion, per se. It does however strongly imply an anti-religious sentiment because it dismisses the validity of all religions that center on a theistic belief. I am splitting hairs, I know. But if we only use general definitions of words, we dismiss all the specific exceptions that are not fully addressed by the general definition. This causes people to misunderstand each other. For instance, I know a minister of a church who is also an atheist. Is he anti-religious? You would be hard-pressed to make that case.
As a matter of policy for those who discuss atheism and religion, it is probably best to draw a distinction between the two terms. Some atheists hold anti-religious sentiments. Some theists do too. if we leave our readers to infer that atheism is foremost an anti-religious expression, then we do a disservice. I would prefer not to intermingle the two topics. Here is why.
Religion Isn’t the Problem, People Are
Some people are frustrated and angry because of the occurrence of pedophilia in the Catholic Church. They believe the Catholic Church attracts pedophiles. Subsequent studies have shown that pedophilia occurs within the Church at the same rate that it occurs in the general population (4%). Pedophilia is therefore not exclusive to the Church. To continue this example, people will say that the Catholic leadership violated the law by secreting the criminal activities of members of the Church who were known to be pedophiles. Once again, the Church is just an organization, and its leaders behave the same as leaders in every other organization. It isn’t a problem with the Church. It is a problem with the management of people, and the limits imposed by organizational behavior.
Some atheist writers are very critical of religion. They point out that religious people do bad things in the name of their religion. That is true. But it is also true that all people occasionally do bad things in the name of their organization, religious or otherwise. Organizations do not take actions – people do. Every religion attempts to answer very difficult questions about life. If we eliminated religion tomorrow, would people not do bad things? Of course not! Religion isn’t the problem, people are.
Now you could say that people are worse off with religion than they would be without it. That statement is nonsense if you allow that the whole expression of being human is in itself religious. Before there was a church, there were individuals who held certain beliefs, attitudes and ideas about the world. It was only after they each sought to create a community of like-minded individuals that an organization was created. So if you really want to get to the problem, you have to ignore these organizations and focus on the individuals who created the organizations.
How are you going to do that? How are you going to improve the virtue of human beings? Well, as it turns out, there are already many organizations that attempt to do just that!
They are called religious organizations: churches.
But if you have a better idea, then go with that and create your own organization of people who have similar ideas, attitudes and beliefs.
And after you are done organizing, you will have created a new religion.
It is circuitous. Religion is nothing more than a group of people. As long as you have people, you will have religion. And if you are an atheist who embraces the value of being rational in all you do, let it be known to you that it is highly irrational to be anti-religious. If you seek to invalidate religion, you are invalidating the ideas, attitudes and beliefs of people. You are left with only a few options. Help people who need help. Teach people who want to be taught. Love and respect everyone. And if you know that your proclamations of atheism will only upset people, then keep your mouth shut.
That is the most rational thing to do.