Atheists will usually argue that atheism is not a religion, but rather is the lack of a religion. The American Atheists website states:
“Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods… Atheism is not a belief system nor is it a religion. While there are some religions that are atheistic (certain sects of Buddhism, for example), that does not mean that atheism is a religion. Two commonly used retorts to the nonsense that atheism is a religion are: 1) If atheism is a religion then bald is a hair color, and 2) If atheism is a religion then health is a disease.“
Is Atheism a religion? It depends entirely on how one defines the terms “religion” and “Atheism.”
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, religion is:
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
Similarly, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Atheism as:
1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
b : the doctrine that there is no deity
According to the dictionary definitions, Atheism is not a religion. Atheism, strictly speaking, is simply not believing any deity exists. This does not qualify as a religion or a belief system. However, by this sort of strict definition, theism also is not a religion – it is simply the “belief in the existence of a god or gods” (Merriam-Webster). Neither are pantheism or polytheism. No isolated belief is a religion. They are simply isolated beliefs.
Beliefs – or lack thereof – do not exist in isolation
The problem with this reasoning is that, in actual practice, beliefs do not exist in isolation. All of a person’s beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices are interrelated. The human mind hates contradiction. If a person does not believe in any deity, then other views held by that person must be consistent with this view. For example, Atheists almost universally hold to naturalism – the philosophical viewpoint in which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and all supernatural explanations are excluded or discounted. Almost all Atheists hold to the Big Bang and naturalistic evolution, because virtually any other belief regarding origins requires some sort of deity. Another almost unanimously held belief among Atheists is that science is the basis for correct attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Most hold to some sort of secular humanism – which is defined by the Council for Secular Humanism as a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance incorporating a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system.
Why are these beliefs nearly universally held by Atheists? Because almost any other combination of beliefs would contradict the notion that gods do not exist, and the human mind is wired to reject contradiction. In order to maintain a lack of belief in gods, any other philosophical or religious idea that requires or implies the existence of any deity must be rejected. This severely limits the Atheist’s philosophical options.
I find it ironic that Atheists frequently refer to themselves as “freethinkers.” According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a freethinker is:
“A person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists. No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.”
Why is this ironic? Because in the process of trying to free themselves of gods and faith, they severely limit their options. They are not free to even think God might exist. Rather than being free to think, Atheists become slaves to their limited thinking. Conformity to non-belief is demanded.
Atheistic worldviews are religious
I would agree with Atheists in their insistence that Atheism per se is not a religion. However, Atheism is always part of a larger worldview that is ultimately religious – despite emphatic protests and arguments to the contrary.
Religious worldviews have a number of common characteristics. Although the following is not a definitive list of these characteristics, it serves to show how most Atheism-based worldviews are also religious.
- Religions have narratives. Christians have the Bible, Muslims have the Quran, and Mormons have the Book of Mormon. Similarly, Atheists have a number of narratives, including the evolution and Big Bang stories. As Atheist Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” The story of everything coming into existence from a singularity, life mysteriously appearing from non-living matter, and evolving into present day forms, is the Atheist’s narrative. Many Atheists hold to the Humanist Manifesto as a sort of sacred text, along with Origin of Species and other writings.
- Religions have doctrine. Christians have many doctrines, including the Trinity, the virgin birth, the dual nature of Christ, and so forth. Other religions have their doctrine as well. The central doctrine of Atheism is that no deities exist. Atheists derive other doctrine from this central tenet, including:
- Faith must be rejected
- Science is the only way of knowing
- Science is the opposite of religion
- Life evolved
- Mankind is part of nature
- Matter and energy are all that exist
- The universe has no ultimate purpose
- Ethical values are derived from human need
Although not all atheists hold to all of these doctrines, any more than all Christians hold to all Christian doctrine, they serve to show that atheists are religious in that they have doctrine.
- Religions have faith. Despite vehement protests to the contrary, atheists have faith. The central doctrine of the non-existence of deity cannot be proved, any more than the non-existence of anything else – the view that gods do not exist must be held by faith. Atheists typically define faith as “blindly believing the impossible,” which is exactly what they must do if they believe that that the laws of chemistry, physics and biology were once violated and life arose from non-life via chemical evolution. Nearly all Atheist doctrines are a matter of belief and faith, rather than anything that can be taken into a lab and proved experimentally.
- Religion is a source of purpose and meaning. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and people of all other religions get their meaning and purpose for life primarily from their religious beliefs. Atheists are much the same. From the Humanist Manifesto III:
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
- Religions have rituals. From communion and baptism in Christianity, to circumcision and Passover in Judaism, to meditation in eastern religions, all religions have rituals. On the surface, atheism would seem to lack rituals, but a few exist. Because modern Atheism is a relatively recent movement, it does not have much of a history to commemorate. However, many atheists celebrate Darwin Day or the winter solstice. An increasing number of Atheist “churches” have been formed in recent years, complete with music and preaching. Although rituals are largely absent from Atheist practices, they are not completely absent.
- Religions use symbols. Christians have the cross; Jews have the Menorah; Muslims have the Star and Crescent. Atheists have the “Darwin fish,” the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” the unicorn, and several logos incorporating the letter A.
- Religion provides social construct. Christians have congregations and churches. Hindus have a caste system. Atheism also provides social construct. Communist countries have frequently made Atheism the state religion, often to the point of persecuting other religions. From the Humanist Manifesto III:
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
- Religions proselytize. Christians send out evangelists and missionaries. Muslims convert people under threat of violence. Atheists also proselytize. Modern Atheism has been driven predominantly by Atheist authors promoting their beliefs. In the preface to The God Delusion, Atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” The American Humanist Association spent thousands of dollars to place ads on buses in Washington, D.C., asking, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” The Freedom from Religion Foundation has had billboards across the country promoting Atheism. A simple good search shows thousands of websites, blogs, and social media pages – all proselytizing for Atheism.
Atheism is not a religion, per se, but almost all Atheists practice a non-theistic kind of religion. Atheist religion is generally not an institutionalized system or organization, but usually more of a personal set of non-theistic religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. In the discussions I have personally had with Atheists, many defend their system of beliefs with as much ardor and faith as any Christian evangelist.
The statement, “Atheism is a religion,” is technically incorrect. A better way of stating this would be to say, “Atheists are almost always religious,” or “Atheism is the core doctrine of the religion of Secular Humanism.”