Why do atheists believe in religion?

Not everyone these days believes in God. But pretty much everyone believes in religion.

By “believing in religion,” I mean recognizing a significant categorical distinction between “religious” phenomena, and those that are “nonreligious” or “secular.”

For example, the concepts of “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state” are dependent on the concept of “religion.” If “religion” is a noninformative, unimportant, or confusing category, these concepts must also be noninformative, unimportant, or confusing.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc., consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they “believe in religion.”

My question is: why? Is this a useful belief? Does it help us understand the world? Or does it confuse or misinform us? Once again, our team of crack philosophers is on the case.

Let’s rule out the possibility that “religion” is noninformative. We can define “religion” as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities. This definition has its fuzzy corner cases, notably some kinds of Buddhism, but it’s short and it’ll do for the moment.

We are left with the question: is “religion” an important or clarifying category? Or is it unimportant and confusing?

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion. Religion is an important category because your religion is true, and all other religions are false. (As Sam Harris puts it, “everyone’s an atheist with respect to Zeus.”)

For atheists of the all-around variety—including me—the question remains. Why do we believe in “religion?”

One obvious answer is that we have to share the planet with a lot of religious people. If you are an atheist, there is no getting around it: religion, as per Dawkins, is a delusion. Deluded people do crazy things and are often dangerous. We need to have a category for these people, just as we have a category for “large, man-eating carnivores.” Certainly, religious violence has killed a lot more people lately than lions, tigers, or bears.

This argument sounds convincing, but it hides a fallacy.

The fallacy is that the distinction between “religion” and other classes of delusion must be clarifying or important. If there is a case for this proposition, we haven’t met it yet.

Peoples’ actions matter. And peoples’ beliefs matter, because they motivate actions.

But actions in the real world must be motivated by beliefs about the real world. Delusions about the paranormal world are only relevant—at least to us atheists—in the special case that they motivate delusions about the real world.

So, as atheists, why should we care about the former? Why not forget about the details of metaphysical doctrine, which pertain to an ethereal plane that doesn’t even exist, and concentrate our attention on beliefs about reality?

If you believe that nine Jewish virgins need to be thrown into Mt. Fuji, you are, in my opinion, deluded. Whether you believe this because you are receiving secret messages from Amaterasu Omikami, or because it’s just payback for the dirty deeds of the Elders of Zion, affects neither me nor the virgins.

If you believe “partial-birth abortion” is wrong because it’s “against God’s law,” or if you think it’s just “unethical,” your vote will be the same.

If you are tolerant and respectful of others because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful of others, how can I possibly have a problem with this? If you stab people in the street because you’ve misinterpreted Nietzsche and decided that morality is not for you, is that less of a problem?

Lots of people have delusions about the real world. People believe all kinds of crazy things for all kinds of crazy reasons. Some even believe sensible things for crazy reasons. Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

A reasonable answer is: why not?

Certainly, religion is an important force in the world today. Certainly at least some forms of religion—“fundamentalist,” one might say—are actively dangerous. No one is actually stabbing people in the street because of Nietzsche. The same cannot be said for Allah.

How can it possibly confuse or distract us to recognize and protect ourselves against this important class of delusion?

To see the answer, we need to break Godwin’s Law.

Suppose Hitler had declared that, rather than being just some guy from Linz, he was Thor’s prophet on earth. (Some people would have been positively delighted by this.) Suppose that everything the Nazis did was done in the name of Thor. Suppose, in other words, that Nazism was in the category “religion.”

This is by no means a new idea. Many writers, including Eric Voegelin, Eric Hoffer, Victor Klemperer, Michael Burleigh, etc., etc., have described the similarities between Nazism and religions. But Nazism does not fit our definition of religion above—no paranormal entities. This is the definition most people use, so most people don’t think of Nazism as a religion.

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a “religion,” which as we’ve seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren’t we supposed to respect other faiths? Shouldn’t we at least have restricted our unfriendly attentions to “fundamentalist Nazism,” and promoted a more “moderate” version of the creed? Suppose we gave the Taliban the same treatment? What, exactly, is the difference between Eisenhower’s policy and Ann Coulter’s?

It gets worse. Another one of Voegelin’s “political religions,” which by our definition are not religions at all (no anthropomorphic paranormal entities) is Marxism. Let’s tweak Marxism slightly and assert that the writings of Marx were divinely inspired, leaving everything else in the history of Communism unchanged.

Marxism, unlike Nazism, is still very popular in the world today. A substantial fraction of the professors in Western universities are either Marxists, or strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Nor are these beliefs passive—many fields that are actively taught and quite popular, such as postcolonial studies, seem largely or entirely Marxist in content.

This is certainly not true of Nazism. It is also not true of Christianity or any other “religion” proper. Many professors are Christians, true, and some are even fundamentalists. But the US educational system is quite sensitive to the possibility that it might be indoctrinating youth with Christian fundamentalism. “Creation science,” for example, is not taught in any mainstream university and seems unlikely to achieve that status.

If Marxism was a religion, Marxist economics would come pretty close to being the exact equivalent of “intelligent design.” But, again, Marxism as religion and Marxism as non-religion involve exactly the same set of delusions about the real world. (Of course, to a Marxist, they are not delusions.)

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our “wall of separation” is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against “intelligent design” today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of “religion” is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in “religion” is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule. The Dawkins treatment—our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism—wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, “political religions” have caused far, far more morbidity than “religious religions.” But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett—still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

(Update: before commenting on this post, please see my new comments policy.)