“I’m not religious. I’m an atheist.” This is a common statement today, especially in the West, but it is at heart an oxymoron. While atheism does not look like Christianity or Islam, the two largest religions in the world, atheism is a religion. This, of course, is a statement that has earned ridicule, slander and rage more than once. Many atheists will argue that the very definition of atheism is “non-religious.” While it is true that atheists do not believe in God, that does not mean that they are not religious.
Like any religion, atheism is somewhat difficult to accurately define. There will always be self-identified adherents who disagree with a single definition. Christianity, for example, could be defined as “those who believe in Jesus Christ.” This definition could also include, however, Christian Witches who see Christ as the God and another deity as Goddess. Most self-identified Christians, however, would not consider these Christian Witches to be true Christians. A more detailed definition of Christianity, however, could accidentally include Protestantism, for example, but exclude Catholicism.
Most definitions of atheism are rather simple, but they are widely accepted by both atheists and non-atheists. These definitions generally include what can be called the three tenets of atheism: 1) God or gods do not exist, 2) there is no life after death, 3) this material world is all that exists. Some self-identified atheists will accept that there are spiritual beings of some sort but reject any notion of a creator God or gods. Most atheists, however, reject any idea that there is a world beyond this one or beings beyond the natural. As such, the three fold definition of atheism is the one that will be used here.
Religious scholars have struggled for years to agree on a single definition that answers the question “what is religion?” Early attempts at a definition claimed that religion was simply a belief in God. This, of course, was not a definition that could encapsulate the religions of the East. Buddhism, for example, does not hold to belief in a single creator god, but no one today would claim that Buddhists are not religious. As such, the definition of religion continued to evolve over the years.
Based on some of the earliest definitions of religion, atheism is not a religion. Neither, however, is Buddhism, Hinduism, Goddess worship or, by some early definitions, Catholicism. Other early definitions, however, would also exclude atheism, but they would also count common superstitions, childhood nightmares, nationalism and the products of psychotic breaks or hallucinations as religions. Most people today would not call these religions either. According to later, more nuanced definitions of religion, however, atheism is a religion.
“By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.” – James George Frazer
Frazer’s “Golden Bough” is an older work that studied religion and had a number of flaws, many of which are unsurprising in hindsight considering when the book was written. His definition of religion, however, continues to make its way into secular universities today.
Atheism fits Frazer’s definition of a religion. Most atheists believe in the proven laws of physics and scientific theories such as evolution and natural selection. These natural laws are beyond human control and are seen as controlling the material world.
“[Religion is] the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” –William James
Atheists do not believe that there is a divine. This, however, does not mean that James’ definition of religion does not hold true for atheism.
James makes it a point to explain that religion is about action as well as belief. Atheists do not believe in a god or in gods, and they act accordingly. So, they feel a lack of belief and experience only this world, which leads them to act as though there is no world but this one.
Note as well that James points out that these experiences are individual. A belief system does not need a structured hierarchy to be a religion. It just needs to be a collective set of beliefs and experiences. Those beliefs can certainly be a belief that this material world is all that exists, and those experiences can be the experience of a lack of any sort of divinity.
“[Religion is] a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values.” –Catherine L. Albanese
The creed of an atheist can be described in three points: there is no divinity, there is no afterlife and this material world is all that exists. Many atheists would tack “and this material world is governed by natural, understandable laws” onto the end of that creed. This creed, when laid out in simple terms, looks a great deal like the tenets of any other religion. These tenets, then, are how atheists in general “orient themselves in the world.” These three beliefs govern atheists’ lives and are used to help them make sense of both everyday phenomenon and to study that which is not yet understood. In the same way as other religions, atheists work to fit the entirety of their experience into their worldview. What other people experience as miracles, atheists turn inside out in an effort to explain with natural law, and they insist that there is a way to explain the unexplainable with their creed. Other religions attempt to make sense of the world in the same way.
“A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” –Clifford Geertz
“Symbols” is a somewhat vague term, but the rest of the definition is clear. Religion is a pattern of thought in people that helps them understand the world and becomes so ingrained in them that anything else seems unnatural. This is atheism to a tee.
Atheism has “conceptions of a general order of existence.” Those conceptions are generally the natural laws that science has identified. Just like some of the basic tenets in other religions, most atheists do not question these basic underlying assumptions. They cannot bring themselves to question neither natural laws nor the idea that life is based solely upon them even when those natural laws have been shown to be flawed and imperfect. When confronted with that fact, atheists will do the same mental gymnastics to justify their beliefs that they accuse Christians of doing when confronted with an unpleasant Bible verse.
Atheists also fit the second part of Geertz definition perfectly. “The moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” Atheists often claim that believing in deities is like believing in fairy tales. Their religion, the religion of atheism and natural law, is the only one that is rational or based in reality. Their beliefs, experiences and feelings seem to be “uniquely realistic.”
Atheism in Practice
Atheism fits many theoretical definitions of religion, and it is also practiced like other religions. In daily conversation, atheism is equated with other religions. When asked, “Are you a Christian?” most atheists will respond with “No, I’m an atheist.” Atheist, then, becomes a religious label just like “No, I’m a Buddhist.” Atheists also evangelize, though they do not want to use that word to describe their conversion attempts. “Evangelize” is most commonly used in relationship to Christianity, but it can be used to describe other religion’s attempts to gain converts, and atheism aggressively seeks to create new converts. Many atheists feel a sense of obligation or desire to “open people’s eyes” to what they see as the folly of other religions. There is no difference between an atheist attempting to get a Jew to admit there is no God and a Christian seeking to get a Hindu to denounce the idea of reincarnation. Both people are trying to convert a person from one belief system to another. Atheists’ conversion attempts are also blatantly religious because they are focused on beliefs about and in God.
Zealotry and Theological Debates
Like adherents of all religions, atheists run the gamut from moderate to zealous. Many atheists are happy to live out their beliefs quietly. Others, however, are zealots who insult, degrade and curse other religions. They see other religions as a plague on the earth that needs to be destroyed and replaced with worldwide atheism. Many of these are personally offended or angered by any signs of other religions, especially in a public area. As such, they seek to remove these reminders that other religions exist either through working to enact laws unfriendly to other religions or through vandalism and threats.
Atheists will also argue in favor of their beliefs until they are blue in the face, and they are often unable to bring themselves to empathize or understand the religious beliefs of another. This is because their own beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they struggle to contemplate that another set of beliefs might contain some truth. “That isn’t logical” becomes much the same sort of rote response of denial that atheists mock when Christians claim something “isn’t in the Bible.” Similarly, atheists will only accept what their religion values as “proof.” The rejection of all evidence beyond what their own belief system accepts is once again a sign of a zealous, and, in some cases, fanatical, religious adherent.
Atheism fits some of the most widely used and highly respected scholarly definitions of religion, and it also acts as a religion in practice. Atheism influences every aspect of its adherents’ daily lives just as Christianity or Buddhism does for Christians and Buddhists. It is not, however, often considered to be a religion. The most common misconception that keeps people from correctly labeling atheism a religion is the idea that religion is confined to beliefs in God, not beliefs about God or the actions taken as a result of those beliefs. Were religion merely beliefs in God, then Christianity, Islam and Judaism would technically be the same religion, and no one with any sense is going to argue that those three are actually one religion. As such, perhaps it is time that the list of major world religions is expanded to include the latest serious player on the religious stage: atheism.