As one who writes and teaches a lot about secularism and humanism, lectures a lot about atheism and agnosticism, and directs a secular studies program, there are a few common questions/comments that come my way with regular frequency. For example: "How can you be moral if you don't believe in God?" is a pretty standard line of inquiry. And then there's always: "What about spirituality—is that religious or secular?" And another one that also often emerges is this perennial classic: "Isn't atheism just another religion?"
It’s that question I’d like to address today.
First off, the question is usually posed as a sly put-down. Its pejorative. At worst, it is meant to somehow put atheists in their place (You think religion is so stupid? Well, your atheism is just another religion, so you are also stupid! Hah!), or to expose atheists as hypocrites (You condemn religious people but you atheists are not so different, so there!), or at best, it is meant to be snarkily clever (Bet you didn't think of that mister secular smarty pants!).
But let's go ahead and assume that the question is actually put forth in complete earnestness. If that is the case, then yes, one can see some striking similarities between atheists and religious people. For example:
* Like religious people (at least religious fundamentalists), atheist are pretty convinced that they are right about God—that there isn’t one. So there is a dogmatic or “uber-convinced” quality to the conviction of atheism that seems strikingly similar to religious conviction. That is, both the atheist and the religious fundamentalist are sure that they know the truth and everyone else is wrong, at least about God.
* Just as some religious people are very public about their religiosity, some atheists are also public about their atheism: they wear T-shirts proclaiming it, they put bumper stickers on their car asserting their lack of belief in God, and some even buy billboards along highways that broadcast their atheist viewpoint.
* Finally, although most atheists are not involved with any atheist, secularist, or humanist groups, many are. And these groups—such as American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and a zillion small atheist meet-ups all over the country—do share many things in common with religious groups: people gather for a shared sense of identity, people gather to support each other’s worldview, people gather to articulate their values and actively try to promote those values in the wider society.
None of the above, however, makes atheism a religion. Just because something resembles something else in various ways, doesn’t make the two the same.
So, consider the first aspect of atheism noted above: strong conviction. Yes, it is true that atheists are sure that there is no God and they think they are right about this and everyone else is wrong. But strength of conviction does not make one religious. Most people are absolutely convinced that the earth is round, and they are sure that anyone who thinks that earth is flat is simply wrong. Such earth-is-round believers do not constitute a religion. Many mathematicians are strongly convinced of basic mathematical formulas. That doesn’t mean they are religious in their mathematicalness. In sum, while strength of conviction is certainly a hallmark of religiosity, and also atheism, it is also a hallmark of so many other world-views and beliefs and orientations, and thus does not a religion make.
As for atheists publicly proclaiming their religion on T-shirts, bumper-stickers, etc.—again, such behavior does not make atheism a religion. Sports fans also proclaim their love of their favorite teams, and people publicaly assert all kinds of things—political affiliation, nationalistic adoration, regional allegiance, pet preference, etc. Such public proclamations do not make a religion.
Finally, as for gathering with like-minded individuals—this, too, does not make for a religion. Just think of the PTA, vegan cooking conferences, annual business associations, etc.
So what does make something a religion?
Simple: the supernatural. Religions are social movements that maintain a belief in the supernatural, and religions are organizations who’s members engage in rituals and celebrations in relation to, or predicated on, shared supernatural beliefs. It is belief in God, or angels, or karma, or heaven, or Allah, or spirits, or past lives, or zombies, or Vishnu, or Satan, or Jesus, etc.—and the gatherings, rites, and activities that go on as a result of those beliefs – that make religion religion.
Atheism lacks a belief in the supernatural. As such, it is not a religion.
As many other have already said—and these are not my lines, but lines I’ve picked up over the years from various sources—calling atheism a religion is like calling abstinence a sexual position, or baldness a hair color, or not collecting stamps a hobby.
(But wait, what about Buddhism, you ask? Certain schools of Buddhism lack a belief in God, but Buddhism is still a religion, right? Another common question, and one that’ll have to wait until another blog.)