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Atheism Is Not A Religion

Combating The Common Assertion That ‘Atheism Is A Religion’

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.04.27


This is the original version of this page. To see the updated version, click here.



Short Version: There are no reasonable definitions of “atheism” and “religion” that overlap. If you’re using definitions of these two words that do overlap, there are two solutions: (1) look up the real definitions, or (2) provide a new word that means simply “not believing in a god or gods” that we can use instead of “atheism”. Thanks.


There are many misconceptions and myths about atheism, but perhaps the most frustrating and least conducive to conversation or debate is the assertion that “atheism is a religion” or “atheism is a belief system”, sometimes accompanied by “it requires faith to be an atheist”.

It’s frustrating in the same way that it’s frustrating to attempt communication with a person who speaks a different language — if words don’t mean the same thing to you that they mean to me, then we cannot communicate. If someone asserts “ice is a liquid”, then you are arguing about definitions, not about ice or liquids.


Agreeing On Definitions


Before two parties can debate or argue — or even agree upon — any subject, definitions must be agreed upon. Most of the time, it’s simply assumed that everyone means the same thing when they use the same words, but this is not always the case.

On my definitions page, I have listed a few relevant words and what they mean. I did not invent or change these definitions, though in a few cases I simplified.

Atheism


Merriam-Webster lists only two current definitions for atheism:

• “a disbelief in the existence of deity”
• “the doctrine that there is no deity”

The etymology, of course, is from Greek atheos, which means godless or without god. Most atheists I have known or read use the first definition, as I did on my definitions page. It just means you don’t believe in gods. That’s all it means. Another way of saying it is:
“Atheism is the negative answer to one question: ‘Do you believe in God?’ ”

Religion


There are several accepted definitions of religion, especially when the word is used loosely, as in the following example: “Football is a religion to him.” I think reasonable people can agree that the word is used metaphorically in such cases — “something very important” in this example.

Religion is also used synonymously with faith or belief: “My religion is a private matter.”

However, I think most of us would agree that several factors must be present before something qualifies as a religion, in the strictest sense of the word:
  1. Belief in something supernatural — usually a god or gods, and almost always life after death.
  2. A set of rules or principles, based on the belief.
  3. An organization through which members can interact.

If you’re not convinced all three are required for something to be a religion, think about a noun defined with only two of the factors.

(1) Without the first factor (belief in supernatural), you could be describing a photography club or any social organization: they have rules and guiding principles, and they are organizations by which members can interact. (2) Without the second factor (rules/principles based on the belief), you have only an organization whose members believe the same thing. It might be part of a religion, or related to one, but isn’t a religion in and of itself. (3) Without the third factor (organization), you have only a personal belief system: things you believe and rules you follow.

Using this three-factor definition, you can accurately describe the world’s major and minor religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on, and even branches within these major religions.


Does Atheism Fit The Definition?


Even when used loosely — metaphorically — as in the football example above, it still cannot be accurate to describe atheism as a religion. If you say “Atheism is a religion to him”, the key words are “to him”, and the word religion only means “something very important”. It just means atheism is very important to one person. Atheism is very well not important to all atheists, and being important doesn’t make something a religion.

Anyone who insists that the word can be used thusly to describe atheism as a religion must also apply it to any idea, object, or behavior that is very important to someone. Collecting stamps is a religion. Farming is a religion. Eating is a religion. Photography is a religion. Electricity is a religion.

If religion is used as a synonym for faith or belief, then it cannot possibly apply to atheism, since — by definition — atheism is a lack of such a belief.
If religion is used as a synonym for faith or belief, then it cannot possibly apply to atheism, since — by definition — atheism is a lack of such a belief.

If religion is defined more strictly, in the three-factor method I described above, then again it does not apply to atheism. There are indeed atheist organizations, and I’m sure some atheist groups have rules, but there is no belief, so it doesn’t fit.

In the same way, theism is not a religion. By definition, theism simply means “believing in a god or gods”. Many people believe in various gods, but do not belong to church organizations or attend services or participate in related rituals.

So no, atheism is not a religion, though it is indeed important to some atheists, and though there are indeed atheist organizations. Atheism itself simply means not believing in a god or gods.

If to you “atheism” means something other than “not believing in gods”, then give me a new word that means “not believing in gods”, and that’s what I will use.


Atheism Is A Belief System?


This arises from a semantic shift, whereby the believer says: “Atheists believe there is no god. That’s still belief!” (And yes, they usually use exclamation points.) Yet the actual definition says not believing in a god. Again, if you use a different definition of atheism, please provide a word that means not believing in gods so we can use it.

Being an atheist requires zero belief, zero action, nothing. The definition of the word is the lack of something (belief in god).
Being an atheist requires zero belief, zero action, nothing. The definition of the word is the lack of something (belief in god). If it helps you to understand, a rock is an atheist, because it doesn’t believe in gods” and “ Anything that lacks that belief is an atheist.

Even using the second definition of atheist — “the doctrine that there is no god — it still doesn’t count as a “belief system”, because the atheist is not believing anything; just asserting that there is no god to believe in.


Atheism Requires More Faith Than Religion


Yes, this assertion is idiotic on its face, and self-contradictory. “Baldness requires more hair than being hairy” makes no sense whatsoever. But many thinking people continue to trot out this tired statement. Why?

As an example, National Catholic Register writer Matthew Warner asserts this, saying it takes more faith to find a “finely prepared meal” and assume that nothing put it there than to believe someone put it there. On that, we agree — except of course that he’s using the meal as an analogy for the universe. The analogy breaks down quickly, not only because he used the word prepared (which by definition requires a preparer), but because we don’t know of any natural processes that would result in a seemingly prepared meal, and because we know exactly how meals are made — we watch them get prepared every day. The universe, on the other hand — we’ve never seen one built, but we know of plenty of natural processes (gravity, fusion, etc.) that could result in much of what we observe. And the rest is still being studied.

Regardless, atheism doesn’t require anyone to make any statement about the origin of the universe. Again, it’s just the negative answer to one question.
Regardless, atheism doesn’t require anyone to make any statement about the origin of the universe. Again, it’s just the negative answer to one question.

A Church of Christ writer goes further, listing a bunch of things that an atheist “must” believe. The first one, like the others, is incorrect: an atheist “must believe that God does not exist.” Again, check the definition of atheism. We simply don’t believe the claims of people who say God does exist, just like I wouldn’t believe the claim of someone who said they swallowed an automobile. He goes on to say we must believe certain things about the nature of matter, how life began, etc. None of these are required for someone to be an atheist, though many atheists actually do believe much of what he says they do. The reason of course, is that there is evidence of some of them, and the others follow logically from that evidence.

But atheism itself does not require that someone has thought through all of these big questions. A baby is born an atheist; they don’t begin believing in gods until we older folk tell them about gods and tell them that gods are real.

Further, “belief” and “faith” don’t have identical definitions, which the latter writer seems to think. Faith is confidence or belief not based on evidence. Belief is an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists. The discerning reader will realize that belief doesn’t require evidence, but it can be involved. Faith on the other hand, by definition, means accepting the truth of something without evidence.

I believe all kinds of things, because I can see them, because I can verify them in some way. But I have very little faith in anything. Life has taught me to be skeptical of any claim without evidence.
I believe all kinds of things, because I can see them, because I can verify them in some way. But I have very little faith in anything. Life has taught me to be skeptical of any claim without evidence. Any claim without evidence sure could be true, but they’re untrue often enough that I no longer accept them at face value.

Not all claims need to be evaluated. If my neighbor tells me he played baseball in high school, I don’t feel a need to call around and find out if that’s true. It isn’t important (unless I’m hiring a baseball coach, perhaps). If a neighbor tells me the state has a law against owning more than four cats, again, the claim is irrelevant to me, because I don’t own cats. If I planned to buy five cats, then I would call an official or search online to find out what the law actually said.

It is entirely different to make a claim about an all-powerful deity that rules the universe and has very strict rules for my life, and who will certainly send me to either eternal punishment or eternal bliss after I die. Such a claim requires evidence, because if it is true, then it would require a change in lifestyle.


Conclusion


It’s not difficult to examine the definitions of atheism and religion and determine that atheism is not a religion. The same applies to “belief system” and atheism. Further saying that “atheism requires faith” or “more faith than religion” not only mistakes the definition of atheism, but the definition of faith.

I strongly suspect that many of the theists making these assertions are aware of the actual definitions, and are merely attempting to derail any discussion on the subject, sending atheists off on tangents about semantics and word meanings. Doing so saves the theist from having to lose an argument — because you can’t lose an argument that never happens.

It is this suspicion of mine that urged me to create this webpage. So, in future encounters or discussions, I won’t be tempted to head down those pointless tangents; I can simply link to this page.





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