Is Atheism A Religion? Why Or Why Not?

I asked that simple but controversial question on Facebook last night and went to sleep. Actually, the full post was:

Is atheism a religion? Why or why not? Just finished “The Happiness Hypothesis” and… I’m kind of thinking it is now. The problem is with defining religion.

Follow [this link] to see or add to the conversation there.

It was interesting to see how quick (I’m assuming) Atheists were to point out how Atheism is not a religion or state that Atheism is lack of a “belief in deities.” I also enjoyed all the “ready made” points like (all from the Facebook thread):

  • Atheism is a religion the same way not having children is parenting.
  • Atheism is a religion, like not collecting stamps is a hobby.
  • [Atheism is a religion like] Bald is a hair colour.

Even got some photos!




The fact that there are clever canned responses to the question makes me think Atheism is closer to being a religion than not. What’s worse, is while all of the above statements seem to be making valid arguments on the surface, they totally fall apart upon closer inspection.

They all utilize the format of Atheism is a religion like X is Y, where X is something that cannot be Y based on the definition of Y. Which brings us right back to my original statement:

The problem is with defining religion.

What Is A Religion?

It’s unfortunate that so many supposedly “great minds” have reduced the complexity of religion to simply being an “organized way to believe in a higher power” (or something simple like that). What seems obvious to me is that one can be an atheist or a theist without aligning themselves with a particular religion (whatever the definition may be). One can also be an atheist or a theist while aligning themselves with a particular religion. In fact, most religions require a person to either be atheist or a theist.

This seems to be a language problem more than anything else. For example, here are some religions we all call religions which don’t require belief in a god (or gods):

  • Hinduism
  • Jainism
  • Buddhism

So a religion doesn’t necessarily include the belief in a higher power.

Also, I don’t think religion is dependent on it’s external structures (like churches and the like). For example, I would categorize philosophical daosim as a religion even though it has no set structure, physical structures and one doesn’t need to believe in a higher power. I’m far from a religious scholar, but I’m certain there are numerous smaller tribal societies which would be classified as having a particular religion that is just built into the culture with varying degrees of structure and structures.

So if a religion doesn’t need to have churches, hierarchy, belief in a deity or have all the external qualities that we normally associate with a religion, what exactly is a religion?

Before I offer my proposed definition, I want to share some thoughts from some people who have thought about the issue of religion much more than I. Googling, I stumbled upon [this paper] (it’s a doc file) by (I’m assuming) [Micheal Toth] titled “Durkheim on Religion” (it may be a work in progress…) Here’s an excerpt from it:

“For we know today that a religion does not necessarily imply symbols and rites, properly speaking, or temples and priests. This whole exterior apparatus is only the superficial part. Essentially, it is nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with a certain authority.”
(1973, p. 51 [excerpt from “Individualism and the Intellectuals”])

“The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, the last major work published by Durkheim, five years before his death in 1917, is generally regarded as his best and most mature. Where “Suicide” focused on a large amount of statistics from varying sources, “The Elementary Forms” used one case study in depth, the Australian aborigines. Durkheim chose this group because he felt they represented the most basic, elementary forms of religion within a culture.

Durkheim set out to do two things, establish the fact that religion was not divinely or supernaturally inspired and was in fact a product of society, and he sought to identify the common things that religion placed an emphasis upon, as well as what effects those religious beliefs (the product of social life) had on the lives of all within a society.

Durkheim’s finding that religion was social can best be described by this excerpt from The Elementary Forms:

“The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought. At least — for in the actual condition of our knowledge of these matters, one should be careful to avoid all radical and exclusive statements — it is allowable to suppose that they are rich in social elements.”
(Thompson, 1982, p. 125 [excerpt from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life])

Religion seems like it can, at times, be synonymous with culture. Then, as we evolved (genetically and culturally), religion became a specific branch of culture. The branch in charge of defining the morals and values. Priests, churches and ritual all grew out of it, but it’s really all there just to help keep people in sync with a set of morals and values.

I’m beginning to think it’s not a question of whether or not a person is religious. It’s about which religion a person subscribes to.

If you fill in the blanks while thinking about where you draw the majority of your values and culture, I think you will have found your religion(s).

I am a ____ and a ____.

The more specific you are the better. I bet most (if not all) people who seriously fill in those blanks will hit the group where they draw the majority of their values/morals from. Adding more blanks will further refine your personal religion.

Atheism Is A Religion

There’s my answer. The reason why is because I know it can be used in my formula for finding religion above. I know for some people it would be the first or second thing that would come to mind.

I personally feel we need to broaden the idea of what a religion is instead of making it something to look at so negatively. In doing so I think we would see the common bond we all share in that we’re all religious. Upon identifying our own personal religions and how they relate to us I think it would make it easier to understand how and why a person can identify with a religion that just seems… wrong (when looked at in the context of religion being about WAY more than whether we’re here because of evolution or intelligent design).

Here are a couple religions that you might identify with:

  • Americanism
  • New York Cityism
  • Sports Fanaticism
  • Martial Artistcism (or one of it’s many branches like Judoism, Karateism, Taichism or BJJism… heh Jism)
  • or, perhaps your personal favorite Atheism 😉

I admit I could be wrong. I’d love to here about why Atheism is not a religion. Note, that I’m not saying that if you’re atheist it makes you Atheist (you might be Buddhist). This really isn’t about Atheism at all, it’s more about what a religion is or is not. I believe what a religion really represents leaves plenty of room for Atheism and pretty much any -ism that gets people operating on the same page using the same set of rules.

There’s my answer. What’s yours and why?

Religion ≠ Belief In God(s)

IF your argument for why Atheism is not a religion is because the group known as Atheists don’t believe in a higher power, that’s fine. My question for you then is what do we call the currently labeled religions who also don’t believe in a higher power? And whatever we call them, why is Atheism not that?

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6 Responses to Is Atheism A Religion? Why Or Why Not?

  1. Penney Morse says:

    Hmm….I don’t know. I think religious practices and beliefs evolved to explain the unexplainable. What is unexplainable keeps moving as science explains things that used to be a mystery. What’s unexplainable moves more to the interior.

    • miltownkid says:

      That’s only true for some religions, not all. Even for the religions where that is true, it doesn’t seem like explaining the unexplainable is primary function of the religion.

      Religion is a part of the glue that keeps groups of people working together. It used to be the primary ingredient, but things shifted as we evolved.

      I’m not sure if you’re saying Atheism could be categorized as a religion or not. Even Atheists “explain the unexplainable” through science. Just like there are many systems of belief (religions) among theists there are many systems of belief among atheists.

      I don’t think being an atheist AND not participating in what we currently label religion frees a person from grip of the function that religions serve (molding the morals and virtues).

      For example, I’m sure there are a lot of atheists that would be hesitant to burn an American flag (in private with 0% chance of anyone knowing). Why?

      Or atheists that would flip out if you turned off the television during a sports game. Or atheists that many any number of things “holy” or “sacred” (collecting things, respecting things, etc.)

      Also, even within the Atheist community I’m sure there are things they hold sacred (the non-belief in god(s), for example ) and have all the trappings of religion. If there is truly a religion that’s about all things anti-religion, I don’t think Atheism is it.

      The fact that Atheists have fans (followers) and preach a message means isn’t only a step or two away from being a full blown religion. I mean, someone’s already organized a church of atheism.

      My point about religion is that I think it’s a REQUIREMENT for human growth and development. We’ve evolved genetically to fit the cultures that have evolved with us. Like Durkheim said above “religion is something eminently social.” It’s not about the spiritually, it’s about the society.

      I think we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking religion was about “god” because there was/is such a need to break away from that “god thinking” to make room for science thinking. I think the scientists are just now starting to see the mistake of separating religion and science.

      The void of not participating in what we currently describe as a religion just gets (or attempts to get) filled with something else. I’m saying that religion isn’t so much the externally manifested “thing,” it’s a space in human consciousness that needs to be filled with something.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Casey, thank you so much for this. You’ve presented what I see as an unbiased and well thought out opinion on a topic that angers so many people. I say that because when I’ve said Atheism is a religion I’ve gotten the same passionate responses I receive when I say opposed to either Islam or Christianity (not in a bad way).

    I would love see how you could incorporate two things into your thought.

    1) The organized group American Atheists. I’ve run into quite a few people who have associated themselves with this group but yet explain that they are also against organized religion.

    2) The amount of money and time spent on billboards and radio advertisements during Easter and Christmas directed at “believers” in an effort to push the Atheists viewpoint.

    These, to me, are examples of religion for many of the reasons you mentioned.

    Good stuff.

    • miltownkid says:

      You know what’s funny? I didn’t google “Atheist Church” before I wrote this post (I did shortly after though, before seeing your comment). Check this out: >a href=”http://firstchurchofatheism.com/”>First Church of Atheism or Britain’s ‘Atheist Church’ Set to Go Global. The UK also has proposed (or perhaps already constructed) temples and monuments.

      Between what’s going on in the UK and what sociologists have to say on the topic (and points like the one you made above), I don’t see how an atheist (large or small A) can NOT see Atheism as a religion. I mean… they’re suppose to be about rational/scientific thought and “if it walks alike a duck and quacks like a duck…” What’s worse is it doesn’t even seem like a religion needs to walk or quack like a religion to be one, but Atheism fits just about all the descriptors necessary for being a religion (other than the belief in deities).

      The problem is the numbers. I’m certain 90+% of people who identify as being religious (in the US) are also theists (I wanted to write 99.9%). So it’s easier to just paint all religious people (and religion in general) as being “anti-atheist.” Hence (I’m sure their flawed logic goes) “How can I be a part of a group that I’m against?”

      The problem is they’ve made belief in a higher power synonymous with religion (in their minds and in the language they use among other atheists).

      I’m happy to say they’re just completely wrong and I look forward to the “statistically higher IQ of the Atheist Church” to tell me otherwise. 😉 lol

  3. jdv330459 says:

    reminds of me something I’ve heard before…

    “the more you think you’re different, the more you are the same”

  4. Pingback: I’m an Atheist Who Believes in Gods | miltownkid.com

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