atheism as religion?

A friend of mine recently said this to me:

Atheism is just another religion.

Rather than telling him he needs to stop listening to conservative Christian talk radio, I told him “that’s a discussion for another night”.

But I thought that perhaps my blog is as good a forum as any for discussing the issue, so I’m pretending it’s an advice question. Let’s rephrase it to suit our purposes, shall we? (Since it’s my blog, I can!)

I have a very good friend who was once a Christian but is now an atheist. I am still mostly a Christian: I participate in a lot of generally Christian activities, and believe that going to church and believing in God are very good things. However, I want to understand my friend’s viewpoint and avoid offending her or stereotyping her. I feel that, since she came from a similar lifestyle and background to what I still live, she has the upper hand in this situation — she has studied Christianity and understands it from an American protestant perspective. I believe that atheism is a religion. She disagrees. What can I do to understand her position?

First I’d like to say: what a very thoughtful thing to do. You are a very good friend and I’m sure your atheist friend appreciates your curiosity and your willingness to investigate her lifestyle choices, rather than just accuse her of something that Rush Limbaugh told you is true. (She also appreciates your extremely fantastic sense of humor and your understanding in her rephrasing of your statement to suit her needs.)

If you Google “atheism is a religion”, you come up with a lot of retorts from, unsurprisingly, atheists. In fact, the only people who assert that atheism is a religion happen to be religious people, generally of an evangelical Christian nature. That should be your first sign that there’s an ulterior motive in the statement.

I looked up “religion” in my favorite dictionary, Miriam Webster:

Main Entry: re·li·gion
Pronunciation: \ri-ˈli-jən\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back — more at rely
Date: 13th century

1 a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

As a linguist, I’m drawn to the very etymological root of the word from Latin: “to restrain” or “tie back” by a supernatural means. I’m going to run with that for a little bit. A religion, by this definition, is a set of rules, and a commitment to those rules, based on a faith that a supernatural order has set those rules in place.

By contrast, atheism has no rules, and certainly no supernatural rules. The only rule atheism could be said to have is that of its own definition (again from Miriam Webster):

Main Entry: athe·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈā-thē-ˌi-zəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god
Date: 1546

1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness (<— HOLY CRAP. Think about that for a minute.)
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity

That is, a lack of believe in any deity, or the belief that there is no deity. (Semantics, again, which we can delve into later if we so wish.)

Atheism does not have a holy book. Atheism does not have any sort of faith. The only thing atheists have in common with each other is a lack of belief. That’s as far as it goes. There’s no organization. There are no leaders. Being an atheist does not define a set of morals or a system of belief that changes your life one way or another.

It’s true, there are groups of atheists who band together to do certain things — like the Secular Student Alliance, which also includes agnostics and humanists, or the American Atheists. These groups sometimes have a common purpose of trying to make atheism acceptable or attain basic rights for atheists (a 2006 University of Minnesota poll found that atheists are the most-hated minority in America, and many a Christian with a persecution complex will tell you that the Second Amendment guarantees freedom of religion rather than freedom from religion); or perhaps they are trying to stop religion from imposing itself on the education of children in objective science (say, in Kansas, maybe); or maybe they are just trying to meet with the President for the first time in the history of the U.S. and present the views of some of the secularists in society (as happened recently, much to the chagrin of many religious people).

The Scarlet A

The Scarlet A, a symbol of atheists "coming out"

Nevertheless, atheists as a whole do not share any common goals, common ancestry, common holidays, or, in fact, a major tenet of religion: faith. Atheists do not necessarily believe that evolution is correct; they do not necessarily believe there is no purpose to life; they do not necessarily believe there’s no such thing as morality. The only thing atheists have in common with each other is the fact that they do not believe in a god.

Furthermore, often, by saying she is an atheist, a person means that she is prepared to continually redefine her beliefs about the world based on what she learns, rather than try to reaffirm certain beliefs she already has. If you take a peek over at some of my favorite blogs, Unreasonable Faith and Friendly Atheist, you find that many atheists ask over and over again for empirical proof of the existence of God or gods.

Personally, I think that faith in a deity precludes proof that the deity exists. This is something that religions contain and atheism does not. Someone at Unreasonable Faith (possibly in this discussion) recently said something that rang true for me, and unfortunately, I can’t find the comment post, and I have to paraphrase:

“As an atheist, I don’t believe that science is true. I accept facts about evolution or science or germs or gravity as they are proven or disproven and as I come across them.”

Basically, as an atheist, I concern myself more with learning facts than asserting beliefs or seeking emotional experiences to back up my already existing beliefs about the universe. Which is another interesting distinction.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out to the people in my life that, just because someone hasn’t outed herself as an atheist to you, it doesn’t mean she believes the same things you do. Even though atheists are a minority of Americans, it doesn’t mean their viewpoints don’t count. Also, because atheism is not a religion, there isn’t very much you can assume about an atheist beyond the fact that they don’t believe in a god or gods. Beyond that, anything’s game.


5 Responses to “atheism as religion?”

  1. 1 Kerrie
    March 9, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    It’s true – atheists would LOVE to see proof that God exists, if the religious folks can provide it. And no, the Bible is not proof.

  2. 2 Derek Bill
    March 9, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Quote: Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat. Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there. Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there and shouting “I found it!”

    I suppose atheism must be like being in a dark room and either not looking for a cat, or being sure there isn’t one there.

  3. March 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Hi Kat,

    This is an interesting post and I wanted to flame war you on it….kidding. But your comment here did make think:

    “That is, a lack of believe in any deity, or the belief that there is no deity. (Semantics, again, which we can delve into later if we so wish.)”

    For me, those two positions are very much in opposition and I think part of the reason atheism gets labeled/branded as another form of religion these days. I don’t think atheism in itself is a religion, but the way it is often followed is just as you said, adherents claiming: “I don’t believe in God.” I also don’t think that’s what you were doing per se, since through the rest of your post you talk about facts and not asserting specific beliefs.

    It’s overall an interesting conundrum (and one I take myself out of as a polytheistic agnostic), since atheists are in a tricky place. For example, I think to really be an atheist you’re in the position of saying that there is currently no proof of the existence of god, but you’re always open to see real scientific evidence, one way or the other. For a person to say they “believe there is no god,” then that goes beyond “real” atheism and starts looking like a religion.

    I can see how people get there because of all the other things we take on faith in this life. I know many facts and various things about science, but when it comes to dark matter or string theory, there’s a lot that non-quantumites end saying whether we “believe” in it or not. We can say we don’t believe things, we just know facts, but many scientific things are unknowable by us right now. They may be knowable in the future, but until then, many (scientists and non-) “believe” in them.

    So, going back to the original note, unfortunately, I feel like the semantics point you made is very important. For atheists to disclaim the “religion” label they need to continually point out that they don’t believe there is no god, its just up until now there is no way to know the truth of god’s existence or non-existence. It’s an open question in part, although of course you can say that the evidence against their being deities weighs heavily in the “non” category.

    Ok. Flame over.


    – Jason

    • March 10, 2010 at 8:45 am

      hey jason,

      thanks for the comments!
      you’re right — one of the reasons i didn’t delve into the difference between “i don’t believe in god” and “i believe there is no god” is because of what a heavy, weird difference it is. most of the atheists i know fall into the first category — kind of a passive, “just don’t have a reason to believe” thought process. but i know some atheists who fall into the latter category, who actively seek to disprove religion or the existence of god. these are the more militant atheists we all know.
      however, i still don’t believe we can call that kind of atheism “religion”.
      i think we have to make a distinction between religion as something that involves belief in a supernatural force or power and other systems of thought that do not. this is often why buddhism is called “a philosophy” rather than a religion — there’s no godhead, there’s no supernatural force, it’s all meditation and self-will, and strict buddhism doesn’t even buy the whole reincarnation thing. empiricism is not a religion. economics is not a religion. democracy and communism are not religions. so why would we call atheism a religion — just because it has a statement about god somewhere in its philosophy?
      a friend of mine put it very well yesterday — he said atheism is like the “color” black. where black isn’t really a color, it’s the absence of color; atheism isn’t a religion; it’s the absence of religion.
      thanks again for posting. 🙂 this is an interesting debate that i think could go on forever.

  4. 5 Sarah
    March 14, 2010 at 12:23 am

    Well written and I concur on all fronts, being an atheist myself. I do fall into the “there is no god” category but only because I grew impatient with the “show me the evidence and I’ll change my mind” category. Obviously, nothing convincing came to light, and I feel safe assuming that it never will, although I will immediately and graciously retract that assumption should it be at all inaccurate.

    And here’s a cheer for publishing on the subject: hooray.

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