Some people have suggested that atheism is a religion. The reasons typically given for this view often vary, but tend to boil down to either the behavior or the opinions of atheists. Atheists are dogmatic in their disbelief, according to certain people, they have faith in materialism, they rally behind a messianic figure like Darwin, and they even have their own brand of apostasy concerning atheists who abandon atheism.
You might already recognize the absurdity of one or two of these claims. Darwin hardly qualifies for a messiah, for example, and atheism does not require acceptance of evolutionary theory. Nor does it follow that the conviction felt by some atheists about their disbelief means that atheism itself is fundamentally as religious as any other religion. No more really needs to be said on particular claims like these, so this essay will be a very brief response to the general allegation.
In addressing the idea that atheism is a religion, many atheists are quick to point to a definition of atheism. But what usually falls by the wayside is the problem of defining religion. Truthfully, this is a sticky issue that continues to inspire much debate within the academic study of religion. Mircea Eliade proposed an influential model of religion in terms of the sacred and the profane, while others like philosopher J.L. Schellenberg have sought to conceptualize religion as ultimate reality.1 Some prefer essentialist definitions, trying to get at the root of what religion is, as others opt for a constructionist approach that looks at multiple criteria, none of which may be necessary in and of themselves. Part of the issue, though, has been that personal interests, structures of power, and one’s own discipline always seem to impact how people define religion.
Why is this important? It’s important because claims about atheism being a religion, just like claims that seek to malign a religious group for being fake or fraudulent, tend to thrive off of ambiguities in the understanding of religion. For instance, not all religions can be accurately characterized as dependent on a form of faith, and not all of them have a concept equivalent to apostasy. Even if these claims were true of atheism, which is easily called into question, it is still doubtful whether or not they are reliable indicators that something is a religion.
What if we grant some flexibility in the definition of religion? Can we start to see where atheism looks kind of like it fits the bill? The trouble with this approach is that atheists can be religious, and there are in fact many Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians, and members of other religions that do not profess belief in a god. So yes, some atheists do appear religious, but it’s not clear this tells us about atheism itself. There are, after all, also theists who belong to a variety of different religions. Atheism in itself is no more a religion than theism itself is one.
Finally, it might be argued that atheists have some common beliefs and metaphysical commitments, and it’s these things that make it a religion. But what makes these defining characteristics of a religion? It does not seem reasonable to insist that any beliefs we can’t be absolutely sure of, or any metaphysical commitments we have, must be based in faith. Rather, this sounds like a presumption in favor of an essentialist view of religion, and an especially broad one at that, practically designed to fold everyone under its wings, be they agreeable or not.
1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1957); J.L. Schellenberg, Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (2005).