Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Faith and Football

In several of my discussions with people of faith, I have encountered the claim that atheism is just as much of a religion as Christianity or Islam or any other religion.  Everyone who makes this claim feels that they are being original or observant, when, in reality, it is quite a common accusation and it has been debunked over and over again in many creative ways.  I will do my best here to put this rather annoying little meme to rest. 

My usual response to this claim is simply to say that if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.  This is a witty little retort that has been floating around the internet for some time.  I am not sure where it originated, probably with one of the popular atheist authors like Sam Harris or Dan Dennett.  However, this doesn’t quite do the trick all the time, so I hope the following extended metaphor will.

Before I delve into the meat of it though, I want to make a rather funny observation.  It seems very strange to me that, when someone criticizes religion, an acceptable response from a religious person is, “You have a religion, too!” as if this were an insult of some kind!  Of course, I am a little insulted—maybe this is too strong a word.  Peeved?—when I hear this, but if you are taking on the mantel of ‘defender of religion’ why would you want to use the term ‘religion’ to insult someone?  Wouldn’t that be a complement, coming from a religious person?  What an ineffectual thing to say! 

Okay, so for the purpose of this post, I am going to compare religion to American football.  One can imagine that the various NFL teams are individual religions—we can say that the Vikings are Islam, the Bengals are Christianity, the Saints are Judaism, and the 49ers are Hinduism.  The supporters of these teams can be considered the religious people.  Obviously, some supporters are going to be more vocal than others.  The ones who never miss a game, who talk about football at work and at home, who sit in front of the TV watching game after game when they should be spending time with their families or working, who allow their support for their team to affect every corner of their lives, can be thought of as the extremists or radicals. 

Every once in a while, a ‘radical’ supporter from one of these teams will start a fight at a game with a supporter from another team.  We can look at this as religious war or terrorism, like the kind we have seen in Gaza or Northern Ireland or the Balkans or in New York City on the morning of September 11th.  Can these fights be attributed to simple acts of natural human aggression?  Absolutely.  Can all people who like football be blamed for these fights?  No.  But can anyone honestly say they would have happened if there was no football for people to get worked up about in the first place?  Of course not.  Here is the first place where my analogy succeeds:  Although not all football fans are violent, all violence at football games can be attributed to football.  Or, although not all religious people are violent, all religious violence can be attributed to religion. 

Now, there are also football fans that are not radical or crazy about their teams.  These are the religious moderates, people who watch a game on Sunday, who like football because it gives them something to look forward to on the weekends, but who don’t get completely worked up about it and who know how to prioritize work and family over their team.  These are much like the people who go to church on Sundays, who feel that religion gives them something to look forward to after life, but who know how to prioritize work and family over their faith. 

Then there are the folks who really don’t have a team that they support.  Perhaps they are slightly partial to the team that is closest to home or the one their parents supported, but they just enjoy the game.  These can be thought of as the pantheists—people, like Oprah or Jesse Jackson, who believe that all religions are just different expressions of god, and whichever one you choose is a matter of personal taste. 

And, of course, we can’t forget the guys out on the corner of the stadium on game day, scalpers selling tickets for three times their face value.  These guys may or may not really be interested in football, but they do know a money-making opportunity when they see it.  We can think of these people as the Chaucerian frauds, cynical exploiters of the gullible religious masses, people like former-hapless-journalist-turned-wealthy-best-selling-creationist Lee Strobel, the (thankfully) late Jerry Falwell, and Ray “Banana Man” Comfort.

Now, where do atheists fit into this picture?  Atheists can be seen as people who just don’t like football at all.  Perhaps even people who rather dislike football.  They don’t root for one particular team; they just don’t participate at all.  They opt out.  Perhaps they often talk about their irritation at constantly having football shoved down their throats during the season or their feeling of exclusion when others talk about their teams, perhaps just as much as football fans talk about their enjoyment of the sport.  But would it make sense to accuse someone who dislikes football intensely of being just as much of a fan as someone who roots for the Bengals or the Vikings?  Of course not.  They are too entirely different things.  Likewise, it does not make sense to criticize someone who sits on the outside of religion, criticizing it for being divisive or exclusive or causing violence, for being just as religious as any follower of Christianity or Islam. 

I think people who accuse atheism of being a religion are conflating a religion with a philosophy, or even an ideology. Religion is quite a strictly defined word. It pertains to a set of beliefs in a supernatural agent that requires worship or devotion of some kind. In order to have a religion, you have to 1) believe a supernatural agent exists and 2) worship that supernatural agent.  Atheism, which is just the absence of belief in any gods, meets neither of those criteria.

Now, what would be fair of critics of atheism to say is this: You (me) are just as passionate about your atheism as some believers are about their religions. I can accept that.  But it is not acceptable to conflate passion for an idea with worship of a supernatural agent.  By this standard, we could assign certain people to the religion of Democrat or Republican, or the religion of communism or animal rights activism, or, indeed, the religion of Bengalism or Vikingism, all of which everyone would (presumably) agree are not religions.



  1. Leprechauns are the true gods. And unlike Yahweh they have actually been seen. Of course the people that have seen them were probably extremely drunk at the time, but they saw them.

    All kneel to the leprechauns.

  2. I agreed with everything you said except your definition of religion...

    "In order to have a religion, you have to 1) believe a supernatural agent exists and 2) worship that supernatural agent"

    You can have religions without those two things, just like you can have religions that are atheist in nature. Buddhism is one example since they do not postulate the existence some supernatural agent we have to worship.

    Religion can take many forms and I have been in contact with many atheists I would categorize as religious. While they certainly are a minority and they definitely do NOT constitute a significant percentage of the movement I think that religion is not just for those that believe in god.

  3. I like this analogy a lot. It sounds fitting in many of the aspects like you laid out. One thought though. If Football is religion, NFL is the collection of all religions, and atheists are people who just don’t like football at all, it seems natural to ask this question: what are other sports? For example, what is soccer then, where there are also different factions, some people are extremely passionate with their own faction, and there are a lot of violence between fans of rival factions? If your line of analogy is strictly followed, would someone come to the conclusion that, if there's no religion, there will be something else that people will go crazy about and kill each other for (much like politics within one country, and wars between countries)?

    @godblahblah078, no, you can’t have a religion that is atheist in nature, that’s like saying black is white in nature, death is life in nature. Buddhism sure worships supernatural agents. You might say Buddhism rejects a creator God as the origin of the universe (or our world), but Buddhism has plenty of Gods, and they are supernatural. This is from wiki: “While Buddhist traditions do not deny the existence of supernatural beings (e.g., the devas, of which many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe powers, in the typical Western sense, for creation, salvation or judgment, to the "gods". They are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events in much the same way as humans and animals have the power to do so. Just as humans can affect the world more than animals, devas can affect the world more than humans.” But I have to say, even as a religion, Buddhism is like a young adult and the three desert religions are like an infant.