As William noted in his post, atheism could be considered a kind of belief for those atheists who do not simply lack a belief in God, but believe precisely that there is no God. It is one thing to say “There’s no evidence for God, I have no reason to believe that God exists, so I don’t believe in God.” It is another thing entirely to say “There is no God. He does not exist.” This distinction is sometimes termed “negative” versus “positive” atheism, which doesn’t refer to values, but means that one is a lack of belief while the other is an assertion of fact.
I would go a step further than William, and say that those positive atheists who deny the existence of God are in fact believers – that is, believers in the fact of the non-existence of God. These atheists are typically naturalists, believing that all that exists is the material of the cosmos, and that it is senseless to speak of anything transcendent to this materiality (Richard Dawkins is this kind of atheist). So in this sense atheism can be equated with naturalism, and this is definitely a kind of belief.
These atheists also typically say that science gives us the power to understand nature – our entirely material cosmos. It thereby also allows us to understand ourselves more deeply. Where we come from, why we are here, where we are going: the theory of evolution answers these questions, and situates us within a grand cosmic narrative. Carl Sagan said that “we are the cosmos coming to know itself.” That is, as entirely material things made up of elements forged in stars that came together to form simple organic compounds, single-celled organisms, and eventually after millions of years of natural selection, humans, our consciousness represents the the consciousness of the cosmos itself. Humans, it seems, have a grand purpose. There is meaning to be found in a view of life that sees humanity as the awakening of the universe to itself, and in humanity’s capacity to understand the nature of material reality. Sagan argued this in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and the same view is taken by many scientific atheists today.
Science, then, becomes something more than a tool for discovering facts about nature. It becomes something sacred, given its power to reveal these profound truths of our existence. The notion of evolution takes on particular significance since it speaks specifically to the origin of humanity, and facilitates a very unscientific narrative about progress and destiny, with human civilization evolving in Darwinian fashion from superstition and barbarism to an enlightened age where science is the basis not only of knowledge, but also morality and social organization.
Richard Dawkins is no different from Auguste Comte in this respect, and atheism today mirrors Comte’s Religion of Humanity in some respects. Daniel Dennett has argued that atheists should adopt many of the rituals found in theistic religions and put a secular spin on them. Indeed many atheist organizations do just that, conducting secular marriage ceremonies and funerals, creating a number of holidays and observances (Darwin Day, Blasphemy Day, and so on), gathering together to share their experiences and find support and community with other “like-minded” people. The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” that began in England but has spread to a number of other countries, celebrates science and secular morality in a church setting. And secular prophets like the New Atheists promise salvation by science, which is driving us toward ever higher levels of civilization, creating a paradise right here on Earth, moving heaven into the material realm and making it a realizable practical goal.
Is atheism a belief? Yes, for some atheists, though there are others who are more on the “negative” side and don’t attach their lack of belief in God with any other set of beliefs. But for the kind of atheists who find meaning and purpose in science and in fellowship with other atheists, it is more than just a belief: it is a religion.
Stephen LeDrew is about to publish his book The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement at Oxford University Press later this year.