Saturday 14 February 2015

Is Atheism a religion?

Of course the correct, and simple answer to this is 'no' and that should be that. 

It is actually quite staggering how often this comes up. 

To properly answer the question 'is atheism a religion?' I think three subsequent questions need to be answered. 

1: What is atheism? 
2: What is a religion? 
3: Does the definition of atheism fit within the scope of the definition of religion. 

Let's have a look. 

1: What is atheism? 
If I ask pretty much any atheist I regularly talk to they'll say atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of gods and goddesses (or they may just say 'god'). I got so tired of this 'atheism is a religion' argument coming up all the time that I made this meme based on one of my tweets:

This really is all there is to it.  As I said in a previous post titled 'Misconceptions about atheism' there is nothing else linking atheists together. It's not a position on science, morality, or anything else. 

We lack belief in gods and goddesses and that's it, that's the only thing atheists have in common. 

I know some will say that atheism is the active belief that no gods and goddesses exist. That it's not just the position that 'lacks' belief. It's rare to find atheists who agree with this. It's far more likely that the person saying it is a theist trying to say that the atheist position is also a position of faith. However, for question three asked above, it's not going to matter whether you see atheism as a simple lack of belief in gods or goddesses or the active belief that no gods and goddesses exist. 

2: What is a religion? 

In 1983 the Australian High Court said in a ruling that: 
"For the purposes of the law, the criteria of religion are twofold: 
first, belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle; and 
second, the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief..."
I don't think that covers it all, but it's a good starting point. When we think religion we think clergy, dogma, tenets, rites, rituals, structure, hierarchy, scripture, prayer, church and faith. 

We could confuse the issue here and say that religion is anything someone is passionate about. 'Football is my religion' 'She loves her car so much, she polishes it religiously'. This is a way to convey how much time a focus someone dedicates to a hobby. In casual conversation this is acceptable but when debating whether or not something falls into a specific category, specifics matter. When people say atheism is a 'religion' they're not equating it to a passionate hobby. They're categorising it with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and so on. If you've come here thinking 'religion' and 'thing you feel passionately about' are synonymous, you may as well stop now. 

3: Does the definition of atheism fit within the scope of the definition of religion? 

Clearly not. Take the first part of the Australian High Court statement: 'belief in a Supernatural Being, Thing or Principle'. Right here atheism is out as it's not the belief in anything, let alone a supernatural Being, Thing or Principle. 

Even if atheism was the active believe that no gods or goddesses exist, it still doesn't qualify as believing something doesn't exist is not believing 'in' something. Take this to the extreme level, just for the sake of argument - even if atheism was the active belief that the supernatural being the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe it *still* wouldn't qualify as a religion, when assessed under the second criteria of the Australian High Court, and when compared to actual religions, as there are no canons of conduct that give effect to the belief. 

Of course that's neither here nor there, as atheism has no such belief. 

Atheism, as it's understood by the vast majority of atheists, has no belief at all. It has no clergy, dogma, tenets, rites, rituals, structure. These things are obvious. 

There's no hierarchy. Richard Dawkins is a well known atheist, but he was never voted a leader. People have become known as atheists because their work has been popular, not because they worked their way up through the lower ranks. 

There's no scripture. Yes, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins wrote a book. So has Sam Harris. So did Christopher Hitchens. And there are thousands of blogs about atheism. Does this qualify as scripture? Of course not. There are books and blogs about war, sport, art, photography too. There are books about books, movies, cars, and pretty much anything people have an interest in. And not one of these books is considered scripture.

There's no prayer. Sure we wish for things, we hope. But we don't pray, we have no one to pray to. 

There's no church. But what about that 'atheist church' which made the news? You may ask. Well the term 'atheist church' was used to get attention. The Sunday Assembly, as it's actually known, states on their website that it's absolutely not for atheists only. Going on to say "One of the unique things about Sunday Assembly is that it is radically inclusive – allowing us to celebrate life together, regardless of what we believe in." This is a secular event, not an atheist one. 

There's no faith. As stated atheism isn't someone having faith that there's no god, it's just not believing that there is one. I've written a blog explaining how not believing in something doesn't mean you believe the opposite to be true. You can read that here

Religion is more than a single belief. To say 'well you believe there's no god, that's your religion' is nonsense. If I believe a book is good, is that a religion? If I believe a certain team will win a football match, is that a religion? Of course not. 

Religion is more than just being vocal and passionate about something. We may be vocal about things such as the environment, human rights, or animal rights too, but wouldn't consider them to be religions. 

If not believing in the god of the bible is a religion, is not believing in Zeus a religion? Is not believing in Thor a religion? We've invented some 3,000 gods. Is not believing in each of them a religion of its own? Does a person who believes in the god of the bible but not Poseidon have two religions? Of course not, the idea that not believing in something is a religion is simply preposterous. 

If someone claims something exists, not believing them is not a religious position. 
If someone claims something exists, believing they're wrong is not a religious position. 

Take a moment to read the meme above. 

Is atheism a religion? 
Only if you misunderstand either atheism, or religion, or both. 


  1. I really like your inclusion of 'goddesses'. I use this as well, to good effect I hasten to add. The usual reaction is that my adversary will blink and need to think of a response.
    Your meme is good as well. I'll try to keep it in mind.

  2. Your blogs are incredibly insightful! I couldn't agree more with the points you've mentioned, and they are very helpful in widening the concept of people about Atheism. Take a look at how the 93-year old Ms. Simone Klugman has to say about Atheism and religion here - Simone Klugman's Smathing the Tablets.