Atheism is not a religion
This blog post originally appeared on the City Bible Forum Blog. It is reprinted in full here.
In many recent discussions I’ve had with atheists, we’ve touched on the question “Is atheism a religion?”. Many Christians propose that atheism is a religion. Yet this is vehemently denied by atheists, such as Penn Jillette in this recent article. I want to be a little controversial by agreeing that atheism is not a religion.
1. Definition of atheism. Atheism is the belief (or non-belief) in the existence of God. This does not immediately imply that atheism is a ‘religion’.
2. The opposite of atheism. One of the key reasons I suggest that atheism isn’t a religion is by examining its opposite. The opposite of atheism is theism – the belief in the existence of God. This clarification is very helpful, because I doubt many people would classify ‘theism’ as a religion. Theism doesn’t appear on our census forms and it generally isn’t understood as a religion. I wouldn’t classify theism as a religion, hence I also wouldn’t classify atheism as a religion.
3. What is religion? This discussion then raises the problem of defining exactly what a religion is. This is more difficult than appears at first glance. Keith Ward a former Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion at London University admits in his book Is Religion Dangerous? that he could not come up with a definition of religion with which to satisfy a lawyer (page 7). Ward suggests that attempts at defining religion usually either exclude things which we would ordinarily include e.g. to define as ‘belief in spiritual beings’ you eliminate Buddhism, and long vague definitions find it hard to eliminate anything at all.
Based on Ward’s observations I’d like to propose a rough (broad) starting point. It may be broad, but as I’ll point out later, many aspects of human culture are in some ways ‘religious’. I propose that “religion” has four key elements: beliefs, behaviour, devotion and and a higher purpose. The set of beliefs promote certain behavioural practices which are followed devotedly in order to serve a higher purpose.
Atheism (and theism) don’t really satisfy this definition. Both are way too broad and hence become meaningless as a religion.
4. Atheism is the foundation. Atheism is not the alternative to religion as many modern atheist commentators, such as Jillette, imply. Instead atheism is one of the two foundations on which to build a religious system. All religions are built on theistic or atheistic assumptions. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are theistic religions. The beliefs and behaviours which distinguish these religions are based on serving the higher purpose – ‘God’. Yet there are also many religions built on the foundation of atheism.
5. Atheist religions. The best example of an atheistic religion is Buddhism. Buddhism is often classified and understood as a religion and it satisfies the four key elements I outlined earlier (beliefs, behaviour, devotion, higher purpose) yet it is fundamentally atheistic – in Buddhism there is no ‘god’. Nationalism, serving the state, is an another atheistic religion. It appeared that this was the religion of Hitler and of Nazi Germany. Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, before World War II unwittingly agreed with this by claiming that, “Our religion is Germany.”
Communism, Emperor worship, and secular humanism are all forms of atheistic religions. They have a set of beliefs which require certain devoted behaviour in order to serve a higher purpose.
Yet there are other ideologies which may not be ordinarily be classified as ‘religion’, yet they function as such. For example ‘sport’, sport may be considered a religion for some. It is a collection of beliefs which require certain devoted behaviour in order to serve a higher purpose. Similarly materialism and hedonism. Within these functional religions people make decisions which serve these greater purposes – these things function as religions. Given these multiple, functional ‘religions’, the atheist world becomes polytheistic, where many functional ‘religions’ demand the worship of their followers, sport, money, career, family, science – these become the atheist religious gods.
So, yes, atheism is not a religion, but there are plenty of atheistic religions.