Is Atheism a replacement for Religion?

I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest “storm in a Twitter-cup”, but Richard Dawkins has hit the news once again. You can read more about it here and here. Suffice it to say, he’s not made himself a popular man!

Earlier today, I tweeted this:

This started a Twitter conversation with few people, and I just wanted to clarify what I meant. Part of the problem is how you define ‘atheism’: many people were quick to point out (both to me personally and in general) that atheism is simply a lack of belief in god or gods: it’s not a system of values. It doesn’t help you to live your life, per se. Its remit is very narrow. (Thus, Richard Dawkins does not speak for atheists, he is not the atheist leader, etc).

The problem is, I think atheism is often presented by the likes of Dawkins as a credible alternative to religion. The perception is, our choice is between religion and atheism. What’s wrong with that? It’s wrong because, as many atheists would be quick to point out themselves – atheism is not a religion. ‘Religion’ and ‘atheism’ are not equal, in the sense that a religion defines a whole system of values and ethics – how people are meant to live their lives. Atheism by definition cannot do that. Atheism cannot help you live your life day to day, that’s not its purpose. It is simply a statement about whether you believe in god/gods or not.

What I was trying to do in my tweet above is simply to point that out. What I believe people are looking for in this world when it comes to belief is not simply something which is true, but something which works in everyday life. Atheists would consider atheism to be ‘true’, but it doesn’t ‘work’ because that’s not its purpose. I think this is actually what Atheism Plus was about, as well as Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the new atheist ‘church’. However you do it, you have to have a positive commitment to something else, whatever that something else is – maybe society, or humanism, or scientism.

Of course, by the same logic (i.e. that atheism is only defined by a negative belief) – atheism is pretty much morally neutral. You could be an atheist serial killer just as easily as you could be an atheist charity worker. Atheism doesn’t provide those kind of values by definition. Those values must be gained from somewhere external to atheism.

And moral values are only half the story. Moral behaviour is a different kettle of fish. To take one example of billions you could choose, the Twitter trolls in recent weeks – I’m sure most if not all of them knew what they were doing was wrong, and yet they did it anyway. Values and behaviour are something which a good system of beliefs should encompass. I, of course, believe that Christianity is the only belief system which is fulfils that criteria: I think that it is true, as well as that it works for everyday life.

All this makes me uncomfortable with the way atheism is promoted. In reality, atheism is never atheism alone – it is always atheism ‘plus’ something else. I wonder what that ‘plus’ is for Richard Dawkins, because whatever it is it doesn’t seem to be working for him.