The Control Group
When I’m filling out a form and I get to the question “religion?”, I fill in “atheist”. I know that some people think that this implies that atheism is a religion, but I don’t think it does. It is, in my opinion, simply the most concise way of answering the question. With just one word, I can make it clear that I don’t have a religion, indeed, that I’m not religious. Some people have suggested that we write “non-religious” instead, but this just appeases, and even encourages people’s misunderstanding of the word “atheist”. If anything, “non-religious” implies that atheism is a religion, by suggesting that “non-religion” is a different option from “atheism”. I think “atheist” is the right thing to put, and if people misunderstand it, then that is their fault. People most certainly do misunderstand it frequently, but we should not adjust for this misconception. We should continue to defiantly use the term in its correct context, thus confronting the ignorance of misunderstanding with which it is so often met. Only then, will people stop misunderstanding it.
So, is atheism a religion, or is it religious? It is a question of semantics. The meaning of the term “atheist” is consistent, but it depends on how you are using the term “religious”. Wiktionary lists, among other, these two definitions of the word “religion”.
A system of beliefs, including belief in the existence of at least one of the following: a human soul or spirit, a deity or higher being, or self after the death of one’s body.
“When it comes to religion, she doesn’t believe, but she loves to attend the ceremonies.”
Anything that involves the association of people in a manner resembling a religious institution or cult.
“At this point, Star Trek has really become a religion.”
Under the second definition, atheism could, in some cases be said to be religious. But only in the way that people can be religious about Star Trek, football or stamp collecting. This colloquial expression of the term “religion” is widely used and accepted, but it is quite diluted. Personally, I don’t see it as harmful. It doesn’t really mean anything in concrete terms.
It is the first definition that really describes religion as we know it, and this is the one that people often try to fit, wrongly, to atheism. We clearly fail to meet this definition at any point. We don’t believe in souls, spirits, deities, higher beings, the afterlife or anything else that is supernatural. I would suggest that religion often also includes holy scriptures, and again we come up short (despite ludicrous claims of On the Origin of Species being our holy book). There is no room for interpretation here. Atheism simply is not a religion, at least not in the way that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are, which is the way that it is most frequently implied. There is a quote circulating the internet for which I can’t find an original source, that I think sums it up nicely, “if atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair colour”.
In a scientific study, say, a medical trial, the testers will include a group of people who are not given the drug being tested. They record the same statistics for this group as they do for experimental group. This is in order to have a point for comparison once the results are in. It allows the testers to be sure that their results can be attributed to the drug. If the results are the same for both groups, then they can be sure that the cause has not been the drug, but some other factor. This group that is not given the drug, is called the control group.
As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that religion, from its earliest point in history right up to the present, is a scientific study. Some groups of human beings are given Christianity, others are given Islam and so on. (Never mind about people converting and things like that. Of course, the real world is not a controlled environment and would not serve for a real experiment, but this is just a thought exercise.) Atheists are the control group. We are most certainly part of the experiment, but we are the group that does not actually have a religion. We are here for purposes of comparison.
This is why “atheist” is the answer to the question on the form. Atheism is not a religion, but as a term it only finds its meaning within the context of religion. If there were no religion, we would still be atheists, but the term would cease to have any meaning.
So, let’s look at the results of the experiment. We are the control group. Control. I think that’s very apt. As atheists, we are the only group in the experiment that has control over our own lives and destinies. Having not been ‘given’ a religion, there is nothing to affect us, our morality, our beliefs, our choices. We are free to decide for ourselves the best way to be happy, and to make others happy.
In stark contrast, religion relinquishes control to a supernatural being created, ironically, by the very people who follow him. A supernatural being who is obsessed with the suppression of sexuality, sin, ambition and desire. A supernatural being who revels in the blood spilt in his name, and splashes playfully in the tears of the bereaved like a baby in a paddling pool. A supernatural being far more concerned with his own happiness than that of any of his beloved creations.
This is why atheism is the path I chose. I do not wish to serve a god who hides from us, stealing credit for our hard work and petulantly refusing to accept the blame for our mistakes. I want to serve human beings, actual people that I can see and hear. People whose gratitude I can receive in the currency of smiles and words, and good deeds returned. People who will give me credit for my success, take credit for their own and help us all to deal out the blame fairly, when it is due.
Religion is at best, bad medicine, and at its most horrific extreme, a disease. Atheism is both the cure and the prevention. Its growth across humanity cannot repair the damage done in the past, but it can change things for the better in the present and protect us all from harm in the future. Not just our future, but all the time that lies before us. A future planet whose residents are yet to be born. Through atheism, which is not a religion, but the rejection of religion, we can take control and ensure that the generations to come are welcomed into a bright and happy home.