Many theists claim that atheism is a religion, but that claim is inherently a dishonest one. As evidence, they often refer to the following Merriam-Webster definition of religion.
re•li•gion \ri-ˈli-jən\ noun
[Middle English religioun, from Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back — more at rely] 13th century
1 a : the state of a religious 〈a nun in her 20th year of religion〉
b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
They acknowledge that definitions 1 and 2 don’t apply to atheists, and they focus on definition 4. But let’s dissect the definition.
- Is atheism a cause, principle, or system of beliefs? One can certainly define it as a cause for some, as well as a principle. It is not a system of beliefs, however. “Atheism” only defines one thing that the person does NOT believe in. It says nothing as to what the atheist DOES believe. But given this was a statement of “or”, this part of the definition is applicable to atheists.
- Is the disbelief in god(s) held to with ardor and faith? Well that depends on the person. Many atheists give little thought to their atheism, just as they give little thought to their disbelief in Santa Claus. Some (obviously including this author) give it much more thought. We argue against theism because we object to theist attempts to insert their religion into our schools, install their icons in our public spaces, and attempts to set public policy based on the musings of primitive men. So yes, there can certainly be some ardor involved. But if the atheist is arguing against theistic claims, and overreaching (noted above) by theists, that’s not the same as saying that the beliefs themselves are held with ardor or faith. As we know, many of the American founding fathers were theists, but were adamantly opposed to theocracies
Is there faith involved? Those who argue that atheism is a religion say yes, claiming that the atheists hold their beliefs with blind faith. But that’s only remotely true for SOME atheists. Atheism is commonly subdivided into two forms: Gnostic Atheism, where individuals claim to KNOW there are no gods, and Agnostic Atheism, where individuals argue that we cannot know for certain whether god(s) exist, but who choose to disbelieve in god(s) due to the absence of objective evidence.
One could reasonably argue that the gnostic atheist is acting on faith, when he claims (in the absence of proof) to know there are no gods. But it’s absurd to ascribe faith to the agnostic atheist.
I’ve seen no surveys on what percent of atheists are gnostic vs agnostic. I fall into the latter group, as do the vast majority of atheists I know, or whom I’ve had discussions with on social media. It’s rare that I come across gnostic atheists. Christian apologists seem to be of the opinion that most are gnostic atheists, based on the misinterpretation of (sometimes intense) vocal opposition. But as I’ve noted, intense opposition to unsupported theistic claims, and to theist overreach is not a valid indicator of atheistic gnosticism.
So in summary, the claim that atheism is a religion is applicable, at most, to gnostic atheism, which I believe is a small subset of the atheist population.
But this brings us to the other major problem with the claim. Even if we stipulate that gnostic atheism is a religion (under definition 4), it is not a religion in the same sense that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. are religions (under definition 1).
In fact, if we go back to Merriam-Webster, we can see an enormous difference in the meanings, by looking at the examples:
Examples of religion in a Sentence
- Many people turn to religion for comfort in a time of crisis.
- There are many religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.
- Shinto is a religion that is unique to Japan.
- Hockey is a religion in Canada.
- Politics are a religion to him.
- Where I live, high school football is religion.
- Food is religion in this house.
Those who argue that atheism is a religion, are using it in the same sense that hockey, politics, football and food are religions, NOT in the same sense as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Shinto. The use of the word “religion” under definition 4, arose as a metaphorical term, rather than in any literal sense.
It’s both logically and semantically wrong to claim that theistic religions and atheism are qualitatively the same, when one isn’t using the same definition of the word. Equating the literal religions of Christianity, Judaism, etc. with the metaphorical religions of atheism, hockey, etc. is patently absurd. And it’s dishonest.