09/1/13

What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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