Understanding the Experience of Religion: Defining Religion, Part 7

Getting a case of the “feels”

Indeed, much of what makes one religious is some type of meaningful experience that becomes something of a touchpoint for everything else that grows out of it. Indeed, religion seems to be very much tied to emotion. It’s why belief in a god—especially a god who interacts with people—is often seen as the sole, definitional characteristic of religion, so much so that when someone assumes it, they come to a conclusion like the AAI did in saying that atheism is, “as far away from faith and religion as one can get.”

The entanglement finds its way into the scholarly texts,

“[Religious] and mystical experience is often viewed by those who undergo such experience as a direct, personal awareness of God himself and, consequently, as exceptionally strong justification for the belief in God. (19)

As such experience, personal experience is a key element of religion. Experience can be centered on certain emotions (joy, fear, relief, sadness), or it can be centered on reasons (the historical resurrection of Christ) but it is this experience that makes it elemental, and even definitional. Life is about experience, and experience requires a starting point.

Most atheists, like most theists, start somewhere and begin cataloging and categorizing their experiences. Atheist Dan Barker—who began as a charismatic Christian preacher and musician—in his book Godless has to concede that experience, at least “inner experience,” serves as evidence for the believer.(20) What’s more interesting is that Barker concedes that, as an atheist, he had an experience:

“It was at that moment that I experienced the startling reality that I was alone. Completely and utterly alone. There was no supernatural realm, no God, no Devil, no demons, no angels helping me from the other side….It was simultaneously a frightening and liberating experience.(21)

Many atheists, like Barker, will reflect on their former beliefs, and attempt to differentiate between their emotional experience in the context of coming to believe that atheism is true, thus adopting the term “atheist” to give a sense of self-identification.(22) But are such distinctions really different? It would only seem so if we engage in some arbitrary, a priori exclusions rather than finding in them the common elements of human emotion, specifically the emotion of liberation.

But one aspect isn’t enough to satisfy the requirement.

Making it Social

While emotion plays into our experiential aspect, another is the experience of the social aspect.

We often don’t realize how much of our experience is filtered to us through our social experience. From our earliest age we are taught and trained how to relate to one another. If we consider that our perception of reality is necessary for us to relate to another. It has been argued that much of our self-identity is bound up in group identity, in the “us vs them” distinction.(23) The fact that groups like AAI, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), American Atheists, and Atheist Community of Austin (TX), exist and that individual atheists believed that such organizations needed to exist says something about the human need to socialize in and identify with specific groups. But what’s so important about group identity as it relates to individual identity?

Group identity gives an individual a sense of context. As one source states, “Group identity permits one to be connected to a broader slice of society.”(24) As such, it helps people understand how to feel about themselves. Further, its in the distinguishing between groups, emphasizing differences and similarities that drives and strengthens cooperation between members of groups.(25) 

To be fair, there must be a distinction between those who formally associate with a particular group and those who informally associate through the adoption of perspectives and talking-points. On these grounds certain atheists would most certainly say that atheism is most certainly no religion because there is no one atheist group that even claims to have any authority to define atheism. Even the fact that there are dozens, if not hundreds of atheist groups that do not even pretend to be able to speak for all atheists. 

That’s not part of the argument though. For something to be a religion doesn’t mean that there has to be some over-arching organization that presumes to speak for the whole. Rather, it assumes that the whole of a particular group has the ability to speak on the behest of its constituents.

That being said, such a social element requires a means by which it can be recognized. A sign that members can recognize as an expression under which the members can unify.

Show Me A Sign

Symbols are an important element of a religion because symbols can carry meaning with greater effect than either a spoken or written word.(26) The meaning that symbols carry can be manifested in one of two ways: through a material symbol or through ritual action. 

Symbols are often tied to emotional experience. They serve to connect the person who recognizes them to something to which the symbol is connected. For example, a Christian taking the elements of the Lord’s Supper is reminded of both the word’s and actions of Jesus. It serves to connect believers collectively, since it is taken collectively. As such it is both ritual action and material symbol.

Christians have a number of material symbols, some of which more recognizable than others, that they use to signal their group identity. The question is, do atheists have such symbols?

Well, yes.




Without a symbol that serves both to identify a group as a unique element of the larger society, or individual members to one another, the individual can become lost and disconnected. The fact that many atheists may or may not use these symbols doesn’t mean that they aren’t carrying an accompanying message, a message that requires a worldview to decipher the intended and accompanying meaning that lies behind the symbol.

Viewing the World

Worldview is a word that may sound strange to some ears simply because it’s not one used in everyday discourse. It is used in the philosophical and social science realms. “Worldview”, as a term, is incredibly important to any discussion of religion—especially since it can help sort the question—because everyone has one.(27)  It is the term that is used to refer to the, “intellectual framework thing which one explains the meaning of life.”(28) Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily reflect upon the reality, necessity, or even consistency of their worldview, but it also doesn’t deny the fact that people have one and actively depend upon it to help them sort through their experiences.(29)

Philosophers, such as philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is a committed atheist, has stated that, “[an] unblinking scientific worldview requires atheism.”(30,31) As such, he equates the brute materialism of scientism that he advocates to atheism, at least modern atheism.(32) Of course not all atheists would embrace Rosenberg’s position, but it serves a purpose as evidence of the fact that atheism can impose a required worldview.

This is important because worldviews also carry something else along with them: narratives.

Tell Me a Story

When it comes to processing data, humans seem to be able to do so better when it comes in the form of a narrative. Good teachers are often those who can couch their lessons in the form of a story that has characters and motives and resolution. Narratives often have to gloss over certain facts because the audience might not be terrible interested in all the minutia of mathematical equations, unless solving that particular equation can stop a war, or save a child from a horrible disease. Narrative drives us, and the key means of narrative in religion is myth.

Myth in this sense can be considered as a, “symbolic narrative…that ostensibly relates actual events…”.(33) Myths are often characterized, and subsequently dismissed, because they—at least in most common literary experience— often feature characters that are supernatural or describe extraordinary events that exist away from normal human experience.(34) One researcher writes, “Myths are the soul of a culture, an integral part of the religious experience of people.”(35) Put another way, myths help culture articulate those things which cannot be explained any other way. Myths do this by explaining origins, purposes, and social order.(36) Indeed, one characteristic of myth is that it gives a “just so” appearance of life. This is how things began, this is why they are the way they are, and this is why you should behave in such a way, are key elemental take-aways of myth. So, the question is, does atheism have any inherent myths that drive it?

Well, yes, if we look at what atheists write and read. 

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Blind Watchmaker, wonders how anyone could be an atheist before the publishing of Darwin’s Origin of Species, interestingly he notes that there were—such as Scotsman David Hume—but they simply refused to argue any questions of origins outside of simply waving any explanation of divine agency away.(37) Reading Darwin’s seminal work, one cannot help but notice that the man is weaving a narrative built around observations and hypotheses. And the vast majority of people who accept Darwin’s theory, as he expounded it, are constantly working to find evidence in reality that has correspondence to his story of reality, so much so that it has been called “hypnotic”.(38) So strong is the desire to keep Darwin’s theory—however correct or incorrect it may be, this is not the place to hash such questions out—in the mainstream that proponents essentially had it installed essentially as dogma in the United States to be taught in public schools, unquestioned and unchallenged.(39) As such, atheism—at least in our modern context—hinges on a particular narrative of origins, and rightly such could be called myth. 

So far, we’ve looked at atheism as being experiential, social, possessing communicative and recognizable symbolism, possessing a worldview, and having a foundational mythological narrative, which checks off five of the eight requirements for something to be sociologically considered to be a religion. In the next sections we will see whether or not atheism possesses an ethical system, a system of rituals, and a political element.

For the beginning of this essay.

For part 8.



19. William L. Rowe. Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction. Wadsworth. Belmont, CA. 2007. p.69

20. Dan Barker. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Ulysses Press. Berkeley, CA. 2009. p.135

21. Ibid. p.78

22. Ibid.

23. Simply Psych

24. Social Psychology

25. Ibid

26. Roberts and Yamane. p. 82

27. Bahnsen. p.98

28. Roberts and Yamane. p.83

29. Bahnsen. p.98

30. Emphasis added. 

31. Alex Rosenberg. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. W.W. Norton Company. New York, NY. 2012.pdf. p.5

32. Ibid. p.11

33. Encyclopedia Britannica.

34. Ibid.

35. S.G. Bhanegaonkar. “Meaning, Origin, and Function of Myth: A Brief Survey”. International Journal of Social Science Tomorrow, Volume 1, Number 3. May 2012.

36. Mary Magoulick. “What is Myth?”

37. Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. W.W. Norton Company. New York, NY. 1996. p.5-6.

38. Michael Denton. Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. Discovery Institute Press. Seattle, WA. 2016. p.181.

39. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005