Popular Culture

Atheism Is a Religion

Or at least it requires a God for you not to believe in.

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Oh don't grovel. One thing I can't stand is people groveling.

I didn't know what fire and brimstone was until I made a throwaway claim recently during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. It seemed pretty unaudacious at the time, but by dropping the simple sentence "Atheism is a religion," I opened a biblical floodgate of ridicule, name-calling, and abuse.

My Twitter feed and Facebook page became engorged with angry responses. "Your adherence into adulthood to what is usually an adolescent phase (Libertarianism), speaks volumes about your confirmation bias levels," wrote Kernan. Touchstone Supertramp added; "Damn girl you got a big forehead." A guy named Kevin and about 70 other people shared this bumper-sticker nugget: "?If atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel." Liz wrote, "Kennedy, is that if atheism constitutes a religious belief than anorexia is whenever you don't eat." Michael wrote: "re·li·gion /ri?lij?n/ Noun: 1. Whatever Kennedy says it is." That was awesome. Beth called me a minor celebrity and a major troll—and it was also awesome to have somebody think I'm a celebrity.

I was called names and insulted in ways I haven't heard since the first Clinton administration, when leading scientists still believed the Internet was created by Al Gore in only seven days. Although I've missed the barbs, I was surprised at the bitterness that poured from so many disbelievers. And I remain convinced that atheism is, in fact, a religion. 

This is an explicable scientific phenomenon.

Like the Buddha seeking truth, I decided to leave the hostile waters of social networking in search of a scientist with a fresh perspective at the intersection of biology and the divine. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University whose field of study is neurotheology, the study of the relationship between the brain and religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences.

Newberg and his late partner Eugene D'Aquili mapped various parts of the brain showing activation in specific areas when people were undergoing certain religious rituals or experiences, such as a shaman being in a trance or a Buddhist entering a mystical state. Regardless of the religion, the brain function was the same. Something was happening when these people experienced their version of religious phenomena, and the scans lit up like Robert Redford's suit in The Electric Horseman.

This does not prove God exists, but it does show humans are wired or biologically predisposed to believe in something. When I interviewed him for this article, Newberg said his research demonstrates that "we are wired to have these beliefs about the world, to get at the fundamental stuff the universe is about. For many people, it includes God and for some it doesn't. Your brain is doing its best to understand the world and construct beliefs to understand it, and from an epistemological perspective there is no fundamental difference."

So, whether you make sense of the world as an atheist and don't require the God postulate to complete your understanding, or you are a theist and your feelings and experiences tell you something greater is there, biologically speaking, that big blob of gray Jell-O in our skulls is like a giant arrow pointing us in the same direction. I believe that is delicious. And religious.

Where Newberg and I differ is whether or not you call that universal leaning a religion when it is expressed as atheism. Newberg holds that if by religion you mean a system centered around a belief in a supernatural God, then atheism does not qualify. I contend that if your system is about God—or about the non-existence of God—God is still at the center of the argument's "aboutness." In the spirit of that "off is a TV channel" comment above: God is the TV. Religions are the channels. If it is off, maybe he's dead or disengaged, but at least you admit there's a TV. 

This also helps explain why the argument that libertarianism or the devout love of hockey are also religions fails. Libertarianism is about liberty and hockey is about mullets and pucks. Atheism, on the other hand, is about God and proving such an overpostulated supernatural being does not exist.

Maybe atheism is a religion, maybe not. But Madalyn Murray O'Hair would have made an excellent pope.

The problem doesn't seem to be so much in pinning the term religion on atheism, but defining religion in the first place. No one really wants to do this, and if they do, it's always with heavy qualifications. If you call it this, you have to mean that, blah blah blah. No one I spoke to, from atheist magicians to rockstar wives to philosophy professors, really wanted to take this cloud and pin it down in the examination tray. Even uber-atheist and diehard libertarian Penn Jillette would not give me his own definition of religion. Instead, he told me via email, "It's all in how you define religion—if it's faith, then atheism isn't. If it's theism, then atheism isn't. If it's philosophy, then atheism isn't. If it's a club, then atheism isn't."

This is a descriptive technique that has been used to get at what God is by saying what He isn't; it was first made popular by Maimonedes, who I'm sure would be a fan of Penn's magic as well as his brilliant and now defunct Showtime series, Bullshit!

You know why I love Penn? Because he added this for good measure: "The enemy is not religion, the enemy is faith. Believing something without proof is a fuck you to all the other people on earth." I don't agree with it, but that last part makes me laugh. Good thing we're centering on belief and not faith, or else I'd have to stop and go fuck myself!

When atheists rail against theists (as many did on my Facebook page), they are using the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against a secular society. By calling atheism a religion, I am not trying to craft terms or apply them out of convenience. I just see theists and atheists behaving in the same manner, approaching from opposite ends of the runway. The entire discourse about religion stems from those who think they know more than the other guy. But what we really know is that we don't know much. And we seem to share the same mechanisim in our brains that drives us to make claims of faith and rationalism as a way of making sense of the great unknown.

You can call atheism a belief system, which Newberg guardedly does, or you can make a stronger assertion and say that atheists and theists, who have conveniently developed hate-tinged froth and vitriol for one another, are quacking and waddling in the same way in different ponds. Either way, they are ducks and atheism is a religion. At least it is in the hands of those who are so religious about their disbelief that they place the weight of the argument on the feathery shoulders of their believing brothers and sisters.

Here you have the atheistic religion in a nutshell: superhuman agency, devotion, self-selecting groups of people. Add to that the intense—even religious—zeal with which many atheists defend their claims. Let me tell you: The angriest ones can be as malicious as a coven of Westboro Baptists at a veteran's funeral. Bill Maher himself took five minutes at the end of the next week's show to rant against anyone who would call atheism a religion. He added that you were a moron if you believed this (given what he's called other ladies he disagrees with, I'm thinking I got off pretty easy). 

For a group of ultra-rationalists, the atheists sound downright emotional. I may sound that way too: When I called some of my Twitter/Facebook pen pals "Palins," they became particularly rankled, accused me of circular logic, and called me a Palin, to which I say, "I know you are, but what am I?"

No matter what I said to counter their statements or clarify my thoughts, by and large they refused to give me a fitting definition of religion. Nobody on my Facebook thread could tell me why it was so problematic and offensive to categorize a system of thought adhered to by a group of people about the nonexistence of a supernatural entity as a religion.

Frank Zappa: Atheist or secret Muslim?

I have yet to hear a cogent response to this question: Why is it a problem if someone considers atheism a religion? How does that hurt the atheists' claim? It's not saying you can't believe God does not exist. Knock yourself out! Some of my idols are atheists—false idols, mind you, but certainly shapers of my outlook and worldview. I do thank God for the godless.

Maybe the best treatment on Earth of the question as to whether or not atheism is a religion came from music god Frank Zappa, founder of the Church of American Secular Humanism (CASH). Secular humanism is defined as reason rejecting dogma and supernaturalism, which is a fancy way of saying it's atheists who believe in people and not God. I am down with reason, and although I think I have psychic powers that allow my friends' dead parents to take over my emotions, I respect those who don't believe in the supernatural. It is a lot easier to believe in fewer things than to accept a host of others on faith alone, and humanists are intellectual minimalists. They are the Design Within Reach to Christianity's Shabby Chic, and no one was more ready to clean house than Frank Zappa.

CASH began with an Alabama school textbook court case, where a judge ruled atheism was a religion that was overwhelming the school system and that Christian families deserved equal time in the classroom. Frank called their bluff. If secular humanism is a court-recognized religion, he figured, then be prepared to dole out the tax-exempt rewards along with the after-life punishments! The tenets of the faith were laid out by the judge and Frank jumped on them with devotion. He created CASH and incorporated it in the Yellowhammer State, ready to convert the faithful out of their delusions and handing out T-shirts instead of communion wafers.

Zappa's widow Gail, who has renewed vigor to restart CASH and make a go of it in California, is simply giddy when she defines atheism as "technically a system of disbelief." CASH is not only a corporation but now, thanks to the Supreme Court, officially a person as well, and, as she puts it, "free to marry other religions' non-taxable businesses and enjoy another level of tax freedom." This seems like the best-case scenario. If humanism is a religion, and secular humanists are atheists, then why not create more formal instructional dwellings, label them churches, and lap up the tax-free nectar your peers in Scientology, Mormonism, and Catholicism have been enjoying for years?

As Gail Zappa summed it up to me in a poignant, thoughtful email, "I think it is central to true freedom of expression and true democracy that there be absolute separation of Church and State. Especially in politics, which [Frank] said is the Entertainment Branch of government." My Orthodox priest would probably give me a stern penance for saying this, but I do not have a problem with church-owned businesses paying taxes. I don't know that you have to tax every dime that hits the collection basket, but a blanket exemption seems a little clumsy.

Atheists should embrace their religiosity, recognize the biological component that drives them to make sense of the world like the rest of us, and church it up. As the Man from Galilee once put it, render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. If you don't believe in God, then you don't owe him anything. And if my Facebook friends are any indication, you lost your sense of humor ages ago. Which means you atheists may have nothing left to lose but your taxable status.

Kennedy is host of 98.7 FM's Music in the Morning in Los Angeles.