Originally posted at About.com: Austin Cline tackles the – annoying – notion that atheism is just another religion, which is about as absurd as saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Faith isn’t just a type of belief, it’s also a commitment to a way of living or to a belief system. Atheism might therefore not be a “faith” in that it is belief in something without evidence, but it is a “faith” in that it has become a commitment to a particular worldview, philosophy, or way of life.
Most attempts by religious theists to argue that atheism is a “faith” are usually attempts to argue that atheism isn’t a rational, reasoned position — or at least that it isn’t any more rational and reasoned than religious theism. This myth takes a slightly different line and argues that rather than simply being the absence of belief in gods, atheism is in fact a worldview or way of life which is comparable to various forms of religious theism and so should be judged on that basis.
As an attempt to define atheism, this is a total failure. Atheism is not in any way, shape, or form a worldview, philosophy, or way of life. This means that atheism cannot be described as a “faith” in this sense any more than in the sense of “belief without evidence” or “belief without certainty.”
It is true that atheists as individuals have philosophies which they are committed to and, for some, their atheism plays a significant role in their philosophy. The error being made by people who use the above myth is that they are confusing the beliefs and actions of atheists with atheism itself.
Atheists as Individuals
Some atheists are tall, but this doesn’t imply that atheism has anything to do with tallness. Some atheists believe that humanity has in the past and is currently being visited by alien visitors, but this doesn’t imply that atheism has anything to do with UFOs. Some atheists are committed communists, but this doesn’t mean that atheism has anything to do with any particular economic theories. Some atheists are committed vegetarians, but this doesn’t mean that atheism has anything to do with any particular moral theories regarding the status of animals.
There are lots of atheists out there who are passionately committed to a variety of causes, political philosophies, moral philosophies, and worldviews. In every case, their atheism is at least a small part of their philosophy and some cases it is a major part. In no case, however, is it therefore legitimate to say that their atheism is itself a “faith” in the sense of a commitment to some cause or philosophy. Even if a person’s vegetarianism or communism can be described as a “faith” in that manner, atheism as one part of these beliefs cannot (and this is even more true in cases where their atheism plays no appreciable role in that ideology).
Atheism vs. Atheists
It’s important to be able to distinguish atheism from an atheist. Because atheism is not any sort of belief system, it’s easy for it to be independent of most of the things which an atheist believes. This is easy to forget when one encounters mostly atheists involved with arguing against religion and theism, but even that isn’t a part of atheism. Some atheists are themselves religious, some don’t care about religion, some don’t care about arguing against religion, and some even regard religion as a generally positive force in human culture. If atheists can’t even all agree on questions about religion, how can it be claimed that they all share some sort of philosophy or way of life which they are committed to and which can therefore be labeled a “faith”?
It’s arguable that this myth is little more than a poor, failed attempt at a Tu Quoque fallacy. Atheist are frequently critics of faith as part of their critiques of religion and theism. Some apologists may feel that if they can brand atheism as a sort of “faith” as well, then they can accuse atheists of being hypocrites at the very least since they are partaking of that which they are so critical of.
Even if this were successful, though, there’s a reason why Tu Quoque is a fallacy: it would not in any way serve as a substantive, serious rebuttal to atheists’ critiques of faith, theism, or religion. It’s entirely possible for atheists’ critiques to be completely accurate even while atheism is a faith. Accusing atheism of being a faith is thus a way to avoid responding to atheists’ critiques and arguments. Indeed, it’s almost an admission that the critiques are correct and that one is desperate to avoid being the only one guilty.