Is atheism a religion?

12 Sep

I know I’ve briefly touched on this topic before, but a friend of mine and I were discussing it, and I promised to write a detailed post giving my position. He is of the mind that atheism is a religion, I obviously disagree. Given this, I thought we’d have some fun. 🙂 I’ll write my position out, then let him present his.

I feel semantics are at the very heart of this issue, and thus it is important to define what atheism and religion are. This sounds a lot easier than it is. I did a little research and there is a lot of really interesting disagreement as to what exactly religion is. The best definition I found was not so much a flat out definition, but a list of characteristics religions share. Some religions have more characteristics than others:

  • Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to have a sacred or supernatural basis.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

The definition of atheism is much simpler, it’s in the name a-theism, without god.

The Greek word αθεοι (atheoi), as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians(2:12) on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46. It is usually translated into English as “[those who are] without God”.

My position is that while there are many characteristics that make up religion, the only characteristic that makes up atheism is the lack of belief in a god. That’s it, there is nothing else. Unlike religion, in atheism there are no universals. There is nothing that unites atheists like a universal moral code,  a universally accepted book, or a universal set of beliefs, or universal world view, or anything. When two atheists get together, the only thing they know that is universal about them is the lack of belief in supernatural powers. That’s where our associations end. Everything else is up in the air.

For example: Pretty much all adults don’t believe in Santa Claus, lets call them a-Santas. While all these adults might have a lack of belief in Santa as a commonality, you can’t predict other commonalities based off of this.  An a-Santa could be of any number of ethnicities, nationalities, political persuasions, hold any number of moral codes, etc. A-Santaism, just like atheism, is such a huge umbrella term that there will certainly be subgroups within it. These subgroups are comprised of people who have other things in common besides just the a-Santa or atheist label.

Subgroup A might have world view X, while subgroup B might have world view Y. Despite these conflicting positions and goals, they are both subgroups within the larger group, but one can’t look at either subgroup and ascribe it’s identifiers to the umbrella description. Are there groups of atheists who get together because they have similar world views, morals, and political aims? Yes, but those things care secondary to the unifying characteristic of their atheism. There are plenty of other atheists who have opposing views and do not join, but they’re still atheists.

——— My friend’s response:

My view is that a religion basically sees fault with some aspect of humanity and attempts to correct it in a way which is not based upon fact, but rather it is based on the “truth” which it’s members see. So for instance, Buddhism is a religion because it sees a problem with humanity (that of suffering) and tries to correct it in a way (adhering to the 8 fold path). In this way atheism is a religion because it finds some fault with humanity (that of believe in a god) and tries to solve that problem (by stopping said belief).
Although, it can be argued that atheism is not a religion, that it does not seek to actively try and solve the problem, activity is not a requirement. Trying to solve the problem is a requirement, every year you see more and more books, articles, and debates on atheism, it does seem, to me at least, that atheism has the aspect of religion which is required.
But the idea that “belief in the supernatural” is a fault, and must be corrected is not part of what it is to be an atheist the same way believing Jesus is god’s only son is part of being christian.  While there are atheists who would hold this view, they are yet again a subgroup. There are plenty of atheists who think it’s perfectly fine for other people to believe in the supernatural; to them there is no fault that needs correcting.
“Although, it can be argued that atheism is not a religion, that it does not seek to actively try and solve the problem, activity is not a requirement. Trying to solve the problem is a requirement, every year you see more and more books, articles, and debates on atheism, it does seem, to me at least, that atheism has the aspect of religion which is required.”
This seems to be a contradiction.  “…activity is not a requirement. Trying to solve the problem is a requirement…” Trying to solve the problem is a form of actively doing something, which you say is and is not a requirement?
There is a very small group of very vocal theists who do believe that belief is a fault and needs to be corrected that also actively try to work towards that goal, but even if this active striving was not a requirement, the view that belief is a fault and needs to be changed is not implicit in what it is to be an atheist. Lastly, I think that definition of religion isn’t very useful. Any group that sees a fault in humanity and seeks to change it, actively or not. Back to my old analogy, adults may think that other adults believing in Santa Claus is wrong, and some might try and tell other adults not to believe, but does that make them a religion? Or how about something more realistic? Political parties for example! Groups of individuals who see fault with humanity (ie, everybody isn’t liberal/conservative/whatever) and some actively go about seeking to change that. (Others who believe the same thing might be apathetic and not actively try to change other people’s minds while still feeling they’re wrong.) Basically I feel that definition of religion is so watered down that it loses its meaning.
Ball back over to you 🙂

3 Responses to “Is atheism a religion?”

  1. faustusnotes September 16, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    I really really hate this claim… religions require a supernatural element. Simple. You can’t have a religion without one. That’s it.

  2. Muzzafar November 27, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    Atheism is definirtely a religion without an atheist knowing it.

    • godlesspaladin November 27, 2012 at 7:48 am #

      You make a well thought out, convincing, and hard to refute argument. I can see reasoning is one of your greatest skills.

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