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Not a Religion

There are certain subjects which appear over and over again in atheism/science/rationality versus religion debates, and one of the most persistent (and therefore annoying) is the idea that atheism is just another religion. So I think I should cover the subject here and maybe refer those who disagree to this instead of just repeating the same thing over and over.

The usual problem with these discussions is defining what the words specifically mean, so I will do that and make my case based on that technical argument. But I will also make a second case based on a more tenuous argument which is more related to the usual meaning of the question.

So to the definition: religion noun (mass noun). Definition 1: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” and 2: “a particular system of faith and worship” and 3: “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion: [for example] consumerism is the new religion.” (Source: Oxford Dictionary of English 3rd edition)

Clearly atheism doesn’t fit into definition 1 because atheism specifically rejects the idea of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god (from the same dictionary: “atheism: disbelief in the existence of God or gods.”). Some people try to bypass this by saying “science is your god” or “evolution is your god” or something similar, but this is nonsense. A god must be a supernatural entity, not just some natural force or phenomenon. Twist the words enough and you can make anything mean anything else.

A similar argument applies to definition 2 which is really just a slightly different grammatical use of 1 which refers to the establishment or system supporting the pure religious phenomenon. Again the essential element is the supernatural which atheism rejects.

Definition 3 is a bit more problematic though. The problem is that this is really an imprecise use of the word and could almost be seen as a metaphor. Religions are followed with devotion so anything else which also involves great devotion is like a religion. But no one really thinks it is a religion. In the example consumerism is said to be a religion and maybe science or atheism could be used in that context as well. But there is no supernatural element here and that is the key difference.

So anyone who thinks atheism is a religion based on that definition would also have to accept that watching certain TV shows, or listening to a particular pop band, or drinking beer, or playing a computer game is also a religion and I think that shows how ridiculous that suggestion really is.

Looking at the dictionary definition then, atheism clearly isn’t a religion unless you want to extend the definition of the word to a point where it loses its real intent. And if you want to start pushing into that sort of area you could say that a [put any noun here] is a type of [insert any noun here which can be used to categorise things] and that really doesn’t prove a thing.

There are a couple of other points I want to make here beyond the dictionary definitions.

First, religion usually involves faith. I know some people might deny this but it does seem like a common statement and it is often the ultimate retreat for those who have been shown that there is really no other reason to take their belief system seriously.

Some apologists will claim that atheism and science also involve faith but I disagree. These involve confidence and practical philosophical insight. Think about it. Science has given us antibiotics, and computers, and a space program, and a million other things. What has religion given us? An amusing myth? A social construct which has been useful on occasions? The two aren’t really equivalent and that’s why atheists have confidence in science instead of faith in religion.

And second, atheists are rarely emotionally attached to their worldview. Unlike religious people who get comfort or closure or an easily understood explanation of the world from their belief, atheists tend to be atheists simply because there’s no good reason to believe anything else (there is absolutely zero good empirical evidence of a god existing).

It must be so easy if you can convince yourself that there is a supernatural entity controlling the world and looking after you. There is no need to try to understand the real origin of the universe because you just have to believe a childishly simple myth instead. You don’t have to spend time thinking about what is right and wrong because it’s all spelled out in an old book instead. And you avoid having to be responsible for helping yourself because god will look after you.

So atheism is the more difficult approach because it involves a lot more moral strength and independent thought. In many ways religion is just the easy way out: it involves no original thought, no difficult examination of individual moral codes, and no understanding of difficult scientific concepts. It just involves remembering some childish myths from an old book. What could be easier?

In summary, it seems to be that by any reasonable definition atheism is not a religion. Anyone who makes the claim that it is will probably also try to say that god exists because the laws of physics are like a god, or that the Bible is just a metaphorical version of the real history of the universe, or that all religions are the same attempts at describing a true spiritual force present in the universe, or some other total nonsense. But that’s all it is: nonsense. It’s playing with words to the point that there is no meaning left. Atheism is most definitely not a religion.

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