“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.

Defining Atheism

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.

Defining Religion

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.