Here’s a common theistic claim that makes me want to punch my computer: Atheism is a religion. This is very strange considering atheism doesn’t have any features normally associated with religion–things like creeds, holy books, moral codes, origin myths, prayers, prophecies, and rituals, to name a few. Yet fundamentalist Christians call atheism a religion all the time.
Often when I point out that religion requires faith (which I define as “belief without evidence”), they say atheism also requires faith and is therefore a belief system. Sometimes they’ll even say Christians are not religious, that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and that atheists are the religious ones.
What we’re dealing with here is classic projection. When Christians finally admit they don’t have enough evidence to justify their beliefs, they say it takes faith. But when you ask them why you should put your faith in their religion and not some other, they claim to have evidence. They might not realize they are using circular reasoning and relying on blind faith, but I think they can sense there is something wrong with their position. So rather than deal with it, they project it onto atheists by calling them religious.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Atheism is not a belief, it is not a belief system, and it is certainly not a religion. Atheism is the lack of belief in god. Lack. Lack, I tell you! Technically, we don’t know there isn’t a god, and we don’t claim to. No one knows what caused the big bang (or if it even had a cause). The idea that god did it seems pretty unlikely, but we would change our minds if there were as much evidence for god as there is for, say, the big bang. But until then we have no choice but to withhold belief in god until there is some actual evidence for god (not just claims that there’s no other explanation).
I should address the small percentage of atheists known as gnostic atheists who do claim to know there is no god. They make a good point. For example, no one would say they lack a belief in leprechauns. Most people are comfortable saying they know leprechauns do not exist. While I feel this way about specific gods such as Yahweh, Allah, and Vishnu, I don’t think it’s possible to rule out the idea that the universe had some sort of intelligent creator. At least not yet. But even gnostic atheists do not qualify as religious.
Let’s look at the various definitions of “religion” on dictionary.com and see if any of them describe atheism.
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Nope. Atheism doesn’t make any claims about the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe. It doesn’t involve any devotional or ritual observances, and it offers no moral code.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices
Again, no. There is no set of beliefs all atheists agree upon. We have many things in common, but the one and only thing that we all have in common is a lack of belief in god.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
Not at all. There is no such thing as an atheist lifestyle, and there are no ritual observances of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience.
This is the one where many Christians will say, “Aha!” Many atheists such as myself seem devoted to atheism, but we’re not. As I said, atheists are willing to change their minds about god if presented with proof. For most of us, our zeal comes from our devotion to truth, not atheism. We want to learn and share the truth of the universe, whatever that may be. If there were as much evidence for god as there were for any well-established scientific theory, we would want people to know about it. But so far the case for god just doesn’t hold up. Our insistence on discovering the truth, whether comforting or terrifying, is why we are atheists.
Sadly, many Christians will read this post, forget about it almost immediately, and go right back to calling atheism a religion. Maybe this will help. It’s a list of analogies that show why atheism is not a religion. For example, if atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel, not collecting stamps is a hobby, not smoking is a habit, and so forth.
Anyone who reads this post and still insists on calling atheism a belief system or a religion is either refusing to let themselves understand the definition of atheism or lying. Don’t be dense, don’t be a liar. Just admit it: Atheism is not a religion. You don’t have to become an atheist admit this. Just stop calling atheism something it isn’t.
Now can we please move on?
Great article! What’s funny to me is that for Christians and for Atheists, the state of “being a religion” seems to be a bad thing. It’s as if being a religion gives an ideology less credibility. This is why a Christian wants to say Christianity is not a religion, its a relationship; while also saying that atheism is a religion.
What I would ask is this. If Atheism is a religion than what isn’t a religion? Is it possible to have a belief about the world that isn’t a religion? Maybe people who haven’t decided what they believe? Maybe they are the only non-religious people. But these people are really just atheists for now that are considering becoming theists in the future.
So, I would say that either Atheism isn’t a religion or everything is.
Southern Skeptic says
Agreed. Some people–such as Kirk Cameron–really do suggest that EVERY worldview is a religion. They try to say that everything, even history and science, is taken on faith. But what they’re trying to do is drag reason and science down to their level so they can say their claims are no less valid. But even if that were true, I still don’t see why I should choose their worldview over a secular worldview.
Shem the Penman says
And doesn’t this sound just as nauseatingly evangelical as the rantings of a religious nutcase? The “truth of the universe”? Really?
I think the notion that I or any other atheist would change our minds about God if presented with “proof” is silly. Theistic explanations don’t make emotional sense to us, that’s all. Some uber-atheists may truly believe that the “evidence” led them to nonbelief, but what they did is exclude all evidence that didn’t support their predetermined conclusion.
Let’s take responsibility for our beliefs, or lack thereof.
Southern Skeptic says
“And doesn’t this sound just as nauseatingly evangelical as the rantings of a religious nutcase? The “truth of the universe”? Really?”
In what way does that sound religious? When I say “truth of the universe” I mean the truth about how and/or why it exists. That’s all.
“I think the notion that I or any other atheist would change our minds about God if presented with “proof” is silly. Theistic explanations don’t make emotional sense to us, that’s all.”
So your lack of belief in god is based on emotions? That’s not a good reason not to believe in something. For me, it has everything to do with logic and evidence and nothing to do with emotions.
“Some uber-atheists may truly believe that the “evidence” led them to nonbelief, but what they did is exclude all evidence that didn’t support their predetermined conclusion.”
No, I didn’t have any predetermined conclusion. I want to know what’s true, and there is not enough evidence that Christianity is true. End of story.
AFrayed Knott says
If rejection of religion, is a religion….. then NOT playing football, is a sport. NOT collecting stamps, is a hobby.