Atheism is Not a Religion

By Michael Hawkins

Despite popular belief, there is actually hardly anything which links atheists together.

It has become all too common to claim that atheism is a religion. This usually acts as a purely rhetorical tool to use against atheists. The implication is if there is agreement that something must be true (and there usually is), and all things are religion, then some religion must be true. It’s a form of false equivalence, like a creationist claiming that evolution and creationism are equally valid ways of looking at the (obvious) evidence.

Consider for a moment that there are approximately 14 million Jews in the world. The lobbying and political power of this group is owed in large part to the organizing principle of religion (not to mention a devastating past). But contrast this with the 350 million or so atheists (1.2 billion if you consider “non-believers”). There is little to no organizing power behind atheism. The reason is simply that atheism does not offer a system of belief.

Behind Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are central beliefs. First there is the Abrahamic God. From that follow a number of dogmas and various collections of doctrine which act to centralize belief. The same is true of all religion with substitution for specific god(s).

Atheism only has one common thread holding people together – the lack of belief in any deities. Nothing specific follows from this. Some atheists find religion to be a bad thing, others don’t. Some find that monetary success is the most important thing, others don’t. Some find that family comes before all else, others don’t.

If it were enough to say that statements on the existence of God define something as religion, then the deistic and (most) agnostics would be religious. The statements “the creator is hands-off” and “maybe” constitute claims about the existence of God. All belief, except perhaps the most strict “I don’t know” agnostic waffling, would then be religious in its nature. At best this is a confusion with metaphysics. At worst, it’s just a political and rhetorical ploy to pull atheism down to the lowly level of religion.

Fundamentally, that’s what this is all about. Call atheism a religion, and the claim by many – but not all – atheists that all religion is wrong is conveniently side-stepped. If everything is religious in essence, and something has to be right (sorry nihilists), then atheism becomes a whole lot easier to dismiss as just another wrong religion.

So of course atheism does not display any of the defining characteristics of religion – no more than clear displays any of the characteristics of colors. But there is a silver lining here. The implication that something is lost in atheism when it is deemed a religion actually has some appeal. While I cannot speak for the non-unified, disparate beliefs of any fellow atheists, the notion that there is something negative about religion seems nothing less than perfectly fitting.