Is atheism itself a religion?

For centuries atheism has been considered the lack of religion. Modern religion apologists, however, have turned logic on its ear and declared that atheism is itself a religion: the religion of rejecting religion! (There may be ancient roots of this practice, but I am unaware of any.) But wait, could they be right? Is atheism just another religion? If so, what difference would it make?

I am obligated to give the proposition a fair hearing, but am compelled first to recognize the sophistry that may motivate it. An example from my last post will explain what I mean. As individuals in the USA, we are guaranteed freedom of religious expression and practice, which is to say that the government does not have that same freedom. Individuals have it. But the government is a collection of individuals as is any institution, so governmental expression (for example, laws, punishments, decrees, endorsements) comes out of the mouths and actions of individuals. What a police officer directs us to do and what an elected official declares (all in their official capacities) are actions of the government. So are the actions of a public school teacher. That is why civil libertarians are adamant that teachers not declare in word or deed religious positions to students, who are captive audiences. Figures of the religious right, exercising a characteristic twist of thinking, complain that since teachers have freedom of religion just as everyone else, to constrain them from religious expression in the classroom is to violate their religious freedom!

My point is that one motivation for calling un-religion a religion is either ignorance or duplicity. But my peremptorily discarding that argument does not settle the matter. So please indulge my going further.

There is a way in which atheism can legitimately be considered a religion: When the word is very broadly defined to mean a guiding philosophy of any kind to which one is committed. (In fact, the adverb religiously conveys a compulsive attention to getting something right or getting it done.) Hence, we might say “Keynesian economics is her religion,” “Soviet Communism was a civil religion,” or “To the Tea Party, debt reduction is a religion.” Just before typing these words, I saw a bumper sticker announcing that “Loving Kindness is my Religion.”

It is in this way that atheism can be called a religion. But that stretched definition includes stamp collecting, making money, and, yes, atheism, but only by “evangelical” atheists. So this use of the word religion can be eliminated from consideration, for my concern is the description of atheism as religion in the latter’s traditional definition. It would be a screaming flaw in argumentation (though a common one) to use a word the legitimacy of which has been established in one setting as a term in another setting for which it is not legitimate.

So what is this other setting that is normally meant when a person speaks of religion in a philosophical context? Definitions can differ, of course, but the minimal requirements seem to be a philosophical position that posits (a) a powerful supernatural force that (b) demands of human beings fealty, obedience, or worship. “Force” here can be god, gods, animist entities, etc. You can see that a without b yields deism; belief in b without a yields a human dictatorship.

Thus it is that a position that expresses the absence of belief in any supernatural force (a-theism) cannot at the same time be religion. QED.

The claim that atheism is just another religion among the many Catholic, Lutheran, Shia, Hebrew, Hindu, and other versions past and present is false on its face. Therefore, proponents of the claim speak either from lack of knowledge or an intention to mislead.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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