Many (including some Epicureans, like Michel Onfray) consider atheism as a nihilism, or say that it means “not having a religion”, or that it’s devoid of spirituality, but this is far from true. There are many ways of being atheistic, and the variety of atheistic religions bears witness to this. Some are not entirely scientific, and accept views like reincarnation. Others are fully materialistic in philosophy. You will notice that some of these traditions have influenced and cross-fertilized each other. Here is a brief survey of the atheistic religions out there in alphabetical order.
Buddhism. 2,500 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama founded a dharmic religion that was meant to reform and challenge Vedic Hinduism. His doctrine incorporated elements of psychoanalysis, and revolved around the problem of suffering rather than being concerned with appeasing deities. Today there are many branches of Buddhism, some of which attract atheists. The Nichiren tradition of Buddhism was referred to frequently in my reasonings on the Lotus Sutra, the scripture on which it’s based. There are many Secular Buddhist books and organizations, and author and neuroscientist Sam Harris–who has participated in week-long meditation retreats and researches the meditating brain–is an outspoken advocate of Buddhist philosophy. –> Secular Buddhism.org and .com Secular Buddhist.com
Dudeism. It’s one of the several new religious movements that are based on movies or pop culture phenomena, in this case the film The Big Lebowski. It’s also one of the most Californian of (parody?) religions. The Church of the Latter Day Dude offers certificates of ordination and has published works like the The Dude De Ching–a Dudeist commentary on the Tao Te Ching. Taoist and Epicurean philosophies greatly influence Dudeist discourse, which can be best summed up as: “Take it easy, man!”. –> Dudeism.com
Epicureanism. I have written before on how our own tradition fulfills the seven dimensions of religion posited by anthropologist Ninian Smart. It is based on the study of nature and teaches atomist physics, hedonist ethics with an asterisk–pleasure is the end that our own nature seeks–and that there is a proper way to pursue pleasure, that friendships are sacred, and that we should strive to be self-sufficient, among other doctrines. Please visit SocietyofEpicurus.com, NewEpicurean.com, or ElementalEpicureanism.com for more info.
Existentialism. If you’re fond of Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir you might be an existentialist. These intellectuals tackle the issues of actively creating meaning in a meaningless and sometimes cruel and absurd cosmos, human freedom, and the vulnerable condition of man in his natural state. Though not typically thought of as a religion, Existentialism does inform the lives of millions in the West and some of the central writings have an air of sacred scripture and are even studied as such–the main of which are Thus Spake Zarathustra and Being and Nothingness.
Jainism. Buddhism’s lesser-known sibling religion, which emerged at around the same time in India, is Jainism–“the way of ahimsa (non-violence)”. Founded by Mahavira–who was a Buddha-like figure–the whole point of Jain ethics is to live according to non-violence. There is no formal initiation or baptism, one only has to study, follow the teachings, and practice the strict non-violence teachings. I had the pleasure of meeting an Indian Jain once, who was a strict vegetarian and left a very positive impression on me, but am not too familiar with the rest of their doctrine. Hermant Mehta, author of The Friendly Atheist Blog, was raised as a Jain and says that there is really no concept of God in Jainism. –> Jainpedia
Jediism. Who gets to decide what is a real religion and what isn’t? With roots in pop culture and in census-related antics, the religion based on the Jedi Code has gained serious adherents in recent years. Many people don’t know this, but mythographer Joseph Campbell–author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces–mentored George Lucas while he was creating Star Wars, and his ideas greatly influenced the saga. He was the REAL Obi Wan Kenobi, and even had a short cameo in one of the early films! Campbell’s central idea is that humans are storytelling animals who build their identities by telling myths. He taught that every person has a personal sacred narrative that gives them meaning. –> Temple of the Jedi Order Jedi Church (Star Wars is not the only great movie or work of pop literature to have inspired quasi-religious awe: Harry Potter is read as sacred text by some fans.)
Humanism. While some of the other religions mentioned here are sects within it, Humanism (sometimes called “Secular Humanism” to distinguish it from religious versions of it) is the “generic” version of a religion of humanity and philanthropy that is based on Enlightenment values. Humanism also has ethnic flavors (Confucianism is considered a Chinese Humanism, and Ubuntu is an African Humanism) as well as doctrinal or intellectual traditions (Sartre called one of his introductory tracts “Existentialism is a Humanism“). While it rejects supernatural claims, it does favor the celebration of ceremonies and rites of passage like baby namings, coming of age, weddings, and memorials. It has been at the forefront of training chaplains to develop secular versions of traditionally sanctioned rites which are viewed as important rites of passage in our society that bring communities together. –> American Ethical Union and American Humanist Association
Humanistic Judaism. One of the newest, and lesser known, of the denominations within mainstream Judaism is fully atheistic –> Society of Humanistic Judaism
This newest denomination within modern Judaism was founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine during the middle of the 20th Century, who believed that there were many Jewish identities and that the monopoly on Jewishness exerted by orthodox religious authorities in Israel had to be challenged. He argued that there have always been atheist Jews, and he even adopted the label apikorsim (Epicurean) as a secular Jewish and philosophical identity. Although the apikorsim (Hellenized Jews who adopted Epicureanism) were reviled by the traditional rabbis in antiquity, HJ Rabbis argue that their mention in the Talmud demonstrates that there was, indeed, a huge number of Jews whose beliefs were not orthodox and who identified with secular and scientific values.
While believing in the usefulness of ritual as a tool to preserve a sense of tribal identity, he also considered the Torah to be only one of many sources for Jewish history and identity, and–most controversially–insisted on re-inventing the liturgy to reflect a non-theistic Judaism. He said he wanted to “say what we mean, and mean what we say“, unlike people in traditional synagogues who repeat ancient formulas that they don’t honestly believe in for the sake of tradition.
The traditional blessings and invocations in Jewish liturgy usually begin along the lines of Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu Melekh haOlam … (“Blessed are you Lord Our God, King of the World …”), but Rabbi Wine’s Shabbat blessing is:
barukh ha-or ba-olam
barukh ha-or ba-Adam
barukh ha-or ba-shabbat
This translates as a fully immanent blessing:
Blessed is the light in the world
Blessed is the light within people
Blessed is the light of Shabbat
with similar blessings for wine, meals, etc.
Objectivism. The philosophy of Ayn Rand–who preached unbridled capitalism and self-interest–draws heavily from Nietzsche, but it claims a Neo-Aristotelian pedigree. Though it’s a philosophy and in spite of my criticism of it, I decided to include it here because it informs the lives of many who have read Rand’s fiction and non-fiction books, functioning almost as “the unofficial religion of free enterprise” that fetishizes power and worldly success. Rand has had great influence on many conservative American politicians and economists. The main doctrinal tract is The Virtue of Selfishness.
Pastafarianism. It started as an attempt to ridicule creationism, but has evolved into a full-fledged parody religion complete with scriptures, rituals (including weddings in pirate costumes) and its own headdress. Visit the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster website to learn more.
Satanism. Originating from the margins of Christianity, Satanism did not exist as an organized group of religions until the 1960’s. Prior to that, it existed merely in the collective imagination of Christians who suffered from hysteria. Then Anton LaVey published his The Satanic Bible and founded the Church of Satan, which shows the greatest level of orthodox adherence to LaVeyan Satanism–a faith that is mostly based on Ayn Rand’s philosophy, with strong Nietzschean and social Darwinist influences. Today, there are Post-Laveyan sects like the Satanic Temple, which rejects social Darwinism, and also dismisses the Satanic Bible in favor of Revolt of the Angels as its literary canon. TST was recently recognized as a non-profit, tax-exempt church by the IRS. Its early history is documented in the film Hail Satan?, and it’s experiencing considerable growth these days. This particular flavor of the faith revolves around The Seven Tenets:
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
- Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
- People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
Sunday Assembly. Created as a church for atheists who crave community, SA encourages its participants to “Live Better; Help Often; Wonder More“. It incorporates pop culture songs into its liturgy, and weaves humanism and comedy into its sermons. The one time I visited their Chicago service, the congregation sang a Beatles song. –> Sunday Assembly
Taoism. Like Confucianism, Taoism is a humanist philosophy from the East and at least one of its sages are Epicurean in all but name. It has inspired an Autarkist blog series. While Epicureanism is based on the philosophical-scientific study and appreciation of nature, Taoism is based on a mystical study and appreciation of nature. –> Personal Tao
Unitarianism. Like the Sunday Assembly, the Unitarian Universalists are a post-Christian denomination that focuses not on beliefs, but on community. One distinguishing element in UU is their central communal ritual–the lighting of the flaming chalice. Their communal format is otherwise identical to a Christian church in most respects, except that probably the majority of church members are agnostics or atheists. –> Unitarian Universalist Association