Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Survey Results: Can Atheism Be a Religion?

Out of 83 votes cast on my site, 14 say “Yes,” that religion can be a religion, while 69 say “No.” He he he… 69…

Anyway, I think this is one of those times where people didn’t think too hard before responding. Maybe I’m wrong, but I bet most of the people who said “No” were atheists who are both sick of religious people calling atheism a religion and read the question as more like, “Is atheism a religion [to you]?”

I didn’t vote, but if I had, I would have voted “Yes.” Of course atheism can be a religion. Come on people, all someone would have to do is form a religion, call it atheism, apply for tax-exempt status, and boom: atheism is a religion. So yes, in a superficial and near meaningless way, atheism can be a religion, like how a Lamborghini can be turned on its side and used as a section of fencing or a telescope can be used as a murder weapon.

But in a less facetious, literal sense… will atheism become a religion? That’s a question worth exploring.

There are people trying. I hear they aren’t doing a great job, and I’m unfamiliar with their work, but apparently there is an entire branch of “atheology” wherein atheists are trying to adapt aspects of theistic religions for use by atheists. From what I have observed, there is a general distaste for these types of atheists in the overall community, and I sense that most who are not hostile to such actions are like me: disinterested.

Still, some types of atheists I have encountered make me fairly confident there will be a movement of atheist-based religion (and I don’t mean pre-existing religions which are atheistic, though those may gain influence and acceptance as atheism itself becomes more popular).

How many others of you have interacted with people who describe themselves as “atheist but spiritual?” It’s reminiscent of “spiritual, but not religious.” There is a great range of beliefs covered here, from those who believe in reincarnation or some form of afterlife (and by extension, belief in some eternal part of us, akin to the idea of a soul) to those who simply see a need for organized community and morality.

In a world where the majority is atheist (a reality I see happening someday, even if not in my lifetime), there may be a push from the masses towards forming some kind of Atheism (with a big A) that people can rally around. In fact, it will probably happen before a true majority is achieved. It is hard to imagine a movement becoming very popular without some form of organization behind it, even if it’s decentralized, egalitarian, and non-religious. Many would point out it’s already happening.

The real question, I think, is how does one define religion?

I have noticed that people who haven’t studied religion formally have a drastically different way of defining religion than those who take the time to learn about many religions. The average person sees religion in the context of the religions they see and interact with, ignoring a vast spectrum of faiths which are undeniably religions, but would be unrecognizable as such according to the definition of an average person.

And yet, the definition given by many academics is not much better. I have tried to no avail for years to try to adopt it, and I have verbalized an acceptance of it, but I don’t feel it. Academics are focused on the notion of ritual as religion. I find this view vague, because while all religion has ritual (which is why this aspect was chosen by those who study many religions), there is a problem in determining if a ritual is religious or not, because not all ritual is religion.

Basic hygiene is full of rituals, and many religions prescribe elements of proper hygiene, but hygiene itself wouldn’t be viewed by most people as “religion.” There is something else almost intangible which makes a set of rituals a religion.

Many people (I imagine atheists in particular) might jump to say that the presence of gods is the missing piece, but this is erroneous. Gods have little or nothing to do with what makes a religion a religion. You can believe in gods without practicing any religion at all (and indeed, irreligiosity has existed far longer than atheism). You can also practice a religion without believing in gods.

So… ultimately, you cannot use gods to define religion, even though most religions we are familiar with rely upon them. Saying “religion relies on the belief in gods” is basically as false and narrow minded as saying, “religion relies on the belief in God.”

This is ultimately why I know atheism can be a religion. If religion was defined as “the belief in gods,” then obviously atheism could never be a religion, but that is not a working definition for religion, it is the definition for “theism.”

Ultimately, it almost seems as though “religion” is a meaningless term. Every definition appears to be too narrow or too ambiguous (religion is in good company, though, alongside “life” and “love,” as being simultaneously undefined and accepted as real). I have never seen a proper definition that includes all religions while also excluding all non-religions. How meaningful is the word, then?

Perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, but perhaps religion is just one’s worldview in practice. If this is the definition, then all people have religion, or rather, all people who are able to think and make decisions have religion. This doesn’t mean that an atheist’s religion is atheism, though. I know for me personally, going by this definition of religion as worldview, my religion wouldn’t be atheism, it would be liberalism.

Liberalism is my worldview. That is the outlook that informs my opinions and decisions. There is very little I do because of atheism, and almost none of it goes on outside of this blog. Few of my opinions of the world, other people, or ideas have anything to do with atheism. Yet I don’t know if liberalism should be considered a religion (except by those who would like to deride it).

Strangely enough, if you look back through history, what we call “religion” would have been seen by those living under it as merely “the law.” Politics and religion were one in the same for all of recorded history before the Englightenment, and it took many efforts to separate the two in Europe and then the US before it became common practice to run government in a secular manner, independent from religion.

So then, what is a religion? Well, as near as I can tell, it’s a political philosophy that doesn’t have to pay taxes. That’s the best definition I can come up with, and it’s bullshit (though bullshit that is at least true).

Will atheism ever be a religion? I don’t know, but perhaps if people started truly seeing it as one, atheists could argue their points with the full, undeniable weight of religious freedom and fair treatment on their side (even though I think that is what we are due, anyway). In many ways, it may help atheism if it were seen and accepted as a religion, even though most atheists cringe at the thought.

What would Atheism, the religion, look like? I can tell you what I would like it to look like. I would like it to be everything religion is not. Oh the irony…

I would want Atheism to be concerned with universally applied equal rights. I would want Atheism to be uninterested in judging a person by their gender, race, age, sexuality, nationality, language, disability, class, political affiliation, or even religious views. I would want the outcome of a person’s actions to represent them, not superficial perceptions or even their well-intentioned motivations. I would want Atheists to be charitable, and to aim their efforts at helping those who have the most difficulty in this world. Finally, I would want Atheists to have a sense of humor…

… because our religion would be a joke.


  1. You should have stepped in to my FB post are welcome there, you know.

    1. Oh no... do I have Alzheimers? I have no recollection backing away from something (that doesn't sound like me).

      If you can leave some sort of link to the post, I'll show up fashionably late.

  2. I only had myself and another...most of my friends are either somewhat religious, afraid of entering the conversation, or ignoring Facebook. Heh.
    Clancy's always good for a riling.!/variable.potpourri/posts/342862965765228

    1. What a small world. For those interested, there's an article from the perspective of an annoying blogger named Kennedy I have seen on Teal Time with Bill Maher a few times here. She kind of makes some of the same points, though in a more obnoxious and ill-informed way than I do (if you can believe that...).

    2. Wow, in fact, if I had read hers first and then mine, I would say I plagiarized her. It's eerily synched at times (she even ends on a remark about a sense of humor).


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