Is atheism a religion? At first glance, this seems like a strange thing to ask. Yet when you debate believers, mainly Christian apologists, you’ll find that many actually claim that atheism is no different from any other religion. They also claim that atheism requires faith, as much or even more so than their own religion does. For instance, David C. Pack does this in a video I have blogged about earlier. So is atheism a religion? Let’s find out.
To begin with, let’s have a look at the dictionary definitions of the words atheism and religion. I am using the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary.
atheism (noun): Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
Let’s also have a look at the etymology of both words.
atheism: from Greek atheos, from a- ‘without’ + theos ‘god’.
religion: from Old French, or from Latin religio(n-) ‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’.
It should be clear to anyone that the difference between atheism and religion could hardly be greater if these definitions and word origins are anything to go by. Religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a personal god, whereas atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a personal god. Based on this, it is hard to understand how someone could equate the two. So is atheism a religion? No, not by the looks of it.
Does it take faith to be an atheist?
Remarkably, theists claim that it takes as much if not more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a theist. This is because atheists believe in evolution and there is no proof of evolution, they argue. Atheists also believe that something came from nothing in the Big Bang and that this something then organized itself into the universe we now see, which is impossible. Two things are wrong about these statements.
- Neither the theory of evolution nor the Big Bang theory have anything to do with atheism. It’s perfectly possible not to believe in a god or gods while also not accepting evolution or the Big Bang. Granted, I think such a position would be rare because most atheists trust in the scientific method but it is by no means a given.
- Neither statement is an accurate representation of current science. There is ample proof for evolution, so much so that it is pretty much an open and shut case. The Big Bang theory does not claim that something came from nothing. It doesn’t explain where our universe came from, it only describes a stage in its development. Only theists claim that there is no evidence for evolution and that the universe exploded into being. Whether they do this because they don’t understand either theory or because they deliberately misrepresent it, I can’t say for sure. All I know is that religious apologists have nothing to gain by accurately representing either theory.
So it is faith to accept scientific theories as true? Let’s see what the definition of faith is.
1) Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
2) Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
While it might be argued that trusting science meets definition 1, it should be clear that this is not what theists mean when they say that atheism requires faith, particularly because they support this claim by saying that there is no evidence for evolution, for instance. While their faith meets definition 2, trusting science does not. If anything, scientist back up their claims by evidence, religion does not.
So is atheism a religion? I’m still convinced it is not.
None of the things
When you ask people to think of things related to religion, they will come up with a list that includes some of the following: religious symbols, rituals, mass or other religious service, places of worship, prayer, holy books, gods, priests, prophets, evangelizing, pilgrimage, tenets, miracles, etc.
By contrast, atheism has none of these things. To be called an atheist, all you have to do, is not believe in a god or gods. That’s it. Couldn’t be easier. Atheism has no holy books, no tenets you must keep, no places of worship, no prophets, no priests and no arcane rituals. Yes, some atheists may display a symbol to show they are atheists but if that means atheism is a religion, than so is a being a member of a football team.
Is atheism a religion? Since atheism lacks most of the outward signs people associate with religion the answer must still be “no”.
Atheists have faith
Another sometimes heard argument is that atheists still have faith. Using the argument that “everyone believes in something”, theists argue that atheists also believe in something. For instance, I have seen the argument that atheists have faith that God does not exist. They can’t prove God does not exist so they don’t believe in God on faith that he doesn’t exist.
Obviously, this argument does not hold water. For one, not all beliefs are created equal. Not believing in something by lack of evidence is a rational position. Believing in something on no or very shaky evidence is not rational. Simply replace the word ‘God’ with the word ‘unicorn’ and this becomes obvious. No sane person would argue that it is acting on faith when people proclaim a disbelief in unicorns.
Secondly, this is not the kind of faith people usually think about when you use the word ‘faith’. Ultimately, this argument is little more than word play, where theists use the word ‘faith’ where they should perhaps be using the word ‘trust’. Atheists don’t have proof that God doesn’t exist but since there is no proof that he does, atheists trust he doesn’t.
Is atheism a religion? No, that still does not seem like a viable premise.
Atheists simply repress their faith
Another argument sometimes heard, is that atheists don’t exist. Every human being has an innate belief in a supreme being and atheist simply repress this belief or replace it with a different belief. The reasoning behind this argument appears to be that God has imbued each human being with the belief in a supreme being (Romans 2:14–15). So atheists aren’t really atheists, they are Christians who suppress their faith.
The problem with this argument is that it is based on a biblical text. That means that it is simply an argument of faith, since holy books aren’t proof. There’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a Christian, such as atheists, to give this argument any consideration.
Is atheism a religion? Still no.
Is atheism a religion?
We’ve explored several common arguments for why atheism is a religion and one argument for why atheists are really just Christians. We’ve also seen that these arguments simply do not hold up upon closer examination. Atheism simply doesn’t meet any of the characteristics of being a religion. It is nothing more than a position of disbelief. I am an atheist, so I do not believe that a God or gods exist. It’s as simple as that. Not believing in something is not a religion, it’s the opposite.