What’s the Difference Between Atheism and Religion?

Other than the whole “not believing in God” thing

Joe Omundson
Jan 18 · 14 min read
Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

you’ve spent enough time listening to religious apologists, you’ve probably heard one of them say “atheism is just another religion”.

As an atheist, it would be easy to pull up a few definitions of the word “religion” and make a case for why this claim isn’t true; or, I could use a quick rebuttal like “if atheism is a religion, bald is a hairstyle.”

However, I want to examine the logic behind this claim instead of dismissing it outright, because glossing over criticism is a sign of dogmatic thinking.

To gain a better sense of what this “atheism is a religion” logic is all about, I read some articles written by religious folks. Many of them, from websites such as Answers in Genesis and Conservapedia, were poorly organized and full of baseless assertions. I won’t spend time on these articles (even though they might be entertaining to tear apart) because I don’t think they represent the strongest version of the argument.

Any reasonable exploration of this question must recognize the importance of how we define the words “atheism” and “religion”. It’s tricky because definitions can be a slippery thing — who decides them, and what makes one definition the “official” one? They can be manipulated by either side to give the desired answer; and yet they are necessary to deal with if we want to analyze questions like these.

I found a few articles that began with definitions. Of those, I felt the strongest one was from beliefnet.com.

While I wasn’t convinced by the reasoning, this article at least made an honest attempt at a nuanced argument. I will pull some quotes from it and give my response.

What is atheism?

Like any religion, atheism is somewhat difficult to accurately define. There will always be self-identified adherents who disagree with a single definition. Christianity, for example, could be defined as “those who believe in Jesus Christ.” This definition could also include, however, Christian Witches who see Christ as the God and another deity as Goddess. Most self-identified Christians, however, would not consider these Christian Witches to be true Christians. A more detailed definition of Christianity, however, could accidentally include Protestantism, for example, but exclude Catholicism.

Other than the first three words (which assume the answer before examining the question), I agree with this point. It is true that within both atheism and Christianity, there are conflicting opinions about what it means to be an atheist or a Christian. This does make it tricky to know exactly who and what we’re talking about.

In the next paragraph, the author decides on a definition to be used for the rest of the article.

Most definitions of atheism are rather simple, but they are widely accepted by both atheists and non-atheists. These definitions generally include what can be called the three tenets of atheism: 1) God or gods do not exist, 2) there is no life after death, 3) this material world is all that exists. Some self-identified atheists will accept that there are spiritual beings of some sort but reject any notion of a creator God or gods. Most atheists, however, reject any idea that there is a world beyond this one or beings beyond the natural. As such, the three fold definition of atheism is the one that will be used here.

I appreciate how the author recognizes it’s possible for some atheists to hold spiritual views. Also, those three perspectives are indeed popular among some types of atheists.

However, I was disappointed the author settled on this definition. It’s not at all true that this three-tenet definition is “widely accepted” by atheists, and it’s not necessarily true that most atheists adhere to it, either.

I’ve been an atheist for 12 years and I’ve never heard of “three tenets” I was supposed to be following.

A more complete way to understand atheism is to look at “strong” and “weak” atheism.

Strong atheism is the positive rejection of the existence of God/gods, and therefore usually the afterlife and the spiritual realm as well. The kind of atheism described by this author would fall within strong atheism. A strong atheist might say “there is no chance that a god could exist.”

Weak atheism is simply the lack of any belief in God/gods. Many people do not firmly reject the idea of God or the supernatural, but do not hold a specific belief in those things either. Agnostic atheists — such as myself — might say “I suspect there is no god and no afterlife, but I have no way to know for sure.” These people are still included in atheism.

When the author says “Most atheists reject any idea that there is a world beyond this one or beings beyond the natural”, that’s not necessarily true. I’m not sure if anyone knows how many atheists are strong vs. weak. It could very well be the case that most atheists are on the agnostic side.

There’s nothing in particular you have to believe in order to become an atheist. The label is descriptive, not prescriptive, and applies to anyone who does not hold a belief in deities.

The problem with this article — and all the other articles I read — is that it starts out by defining atheism as a firm, specific, dogmatic belief regarding the supernatural, when it is really something much more vague than that.

Of course, defining it this way comes in handy later in the article when the author makes the case that atheism is a religion.

Maybe this is done intentionally to prove their point, which would be a shame because it’s intentionally deceiving.

Or, perhaps the author is genuinely confused about what atheists are.

A Christian might only know they’ve encountered an atheist when they meet someone who argues against their beliefs. Those who are motivated to speak out against religion are more likely to be on the strong-atheist side of things. It would then be natural to assume that’s what most atheists are like. What a believer might not realize is that their favorite barista at the coffee shop, or the coworker in the cubicle next to them, is also an atheist. They just stay silent at the mention of God because they’d rather maintain the peace than enter yet another metaphysical debate.

In either case, proceeding through the article we must understand that when the author says “atheist”, they really mean a specific type of strong atheist who actively denies gods, the afterlife, and the spiritual realm.

What is religion?

Religious scholars have struggled for years to agree on a single definition that answers the question “what is religion?” Early attempts at a definition claimed that religion was simply a belief in God. This, of course, was not a definition that could encapsulate the religions of the East. Buddhism, for example, does not hold to belief in a single creator god, but no one today would claim that Buddhists are not religious. As such, the definition of religion continued to evolve over the years.

Based on some of the earliest definitions of religion, atheism is not a religion. Neither, however, is Buddhism, Hinduism, Goddess worship or, by some early definitions, Catholicism. Other early definitions, however, would also exclude atheism, but they would also count common superstitions, childhood nightmares, nationalism and the products of psychotic breaks or hallucinations as religions. Most people today would not call these religions either. According to later, more nuanced definitions of religion, however, atheism is a religion.

I think this is mostly fair, although plenty of people make the argument that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion.

The author is right: there are quite a few traditions, experiences, organizations, and worldviews that could either be described as religious or non-religious depending on how you define the word religion. It’s a surprisingly ambiguous word.

In my opinion, this is the hardest part of the whole question. What are we saying exactly when we call something “a religion”? Is a cult different from a religion? Does having a “religious devotion” to an idea count as being religious? Is every worldview a religious one by nature of being a worldview?

As I mentioned earlier, the tricky thing about definitions is that they can be chosen and tweaked to support just about any conclusion you want to reach.

I could go through the four definitions of religion given in the article and explain why the arguments are flawed, but it would basically just be me pointing out repeatedly that the author is relying on a false characterization of atheism as having some kind of unified theology. It’s also unclear how those four definitions of religion were chosen or why they were given special consideration, because some of them are problematic for the very reasons the author already identified. If you’re interested, by all means, go have a look, but I won’t respond in detail here.

I think intuitively we all know what kind of things religions are, and we don’t have to dive into a lot of abstract wordplay to understand the point in question.

I think most people can agree that Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Sikhism are examples of religions.

Even this simple list could spark debate (“Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” or “Buddhism is a philosophy”). Questions could be raised about whether we should include modern fringe religions like Scientology.

However, I think the vast majority of people would give a list of words like this in response to the question “what are some examples of religions?”. This is what “a religion” means to a typical English speaker.

Very few people are going to list things like “the Republican party, Yankees fans, and people who show dogs” as religions. These things might have some similarities with religions — like intense group-think, shared values, zealous devotion, or strict rule-following — but we intuitively know they don’t meet enough criteria to count as actual religions.

Without getting too technical, religions seem to have a few things in common.

They all have some kind of origin story and tradition. A special person, or series of people, more closely connected to the divine than most, had a sacred spiritual encounter or managed to learn the secrets of the cosmos in some way. Their teachings were seen as profound and important, and were passed down through time.

Religions have holy texts. It is urged that people must read these spiritual truths in order to live a complete life (or to access a desirable afterlife).

To be part of a religion, you must have specific knowledge of the relevant characters in the story, some metaphysical concepts, and various traditions that shape the behavior of the adherents. Without access to this information it would be very difficult to follow any religion because you wouldn’t know anything about it.

Religions have leaders, and they have structure. Popes, pastors, bishops, imams, lamas, swamis, gurus — these have spiritual authority, and the masses learn from them.

Religions claim to have knowledge about how reality works that is beyond what can be observed first-hand, generally relating to deities and the afterlife. Some initial amount of faith must be placed in the claims made by the tradition, and then once that faith has been established, this version of the truth might take over in their mind as the only truth, or at least the most important truth.

Is atheism a religion?

Someone who wants to conclude that atheism is a religion could certainly go through the above points and find ways to apply them to atheism.

Maybe the “spiritual leaders” of atheism are the people like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett; or maybe Darwin. The “holy texts” are the books these folks have written.

Maybe the knowledge-tradition one must learn about is scientism and empiricism; one must accept without evidence (because how can it be proven?) that the material universe is all that exists, and everything that happens has a physical cause. One must accept that it was actually the big bang that created the universe instead of God, despite the lack of anyone being there to witness it. The scientific method might take over as the only kind of truth an atheist values.

There are atheist organizations, atheist Sunday-morning meetups, and atheist “evangelists”.

There are blogs (like the one you’re reading now) committed to sharing deconversion stories and information that counters religion, similar to how you might see religious blogs sharing conversion stories and articles that support faith.

So, with all of these similarities, is there a case to be made that atheism is a religion?

The short answer is no.

Darwin and the other four I mentioned did not invent atheism and have no special powers. Atheism has no origin story. The lack of a belief in a god was always the normal state of life on Earth, until human brains developed the complexity to conceive of the idea of a god. Specific gods with names we know today have only been conceptualized for a few thousand years.

Even in animist tribes many thousands of years ago when religion was first invented, there were likely some people who thought “you know, I don’t really think these beliefs are true.” Some tribes held no belief in gods all along. As early as the 6th century BCE, Buddhists and others developed systems of thought that didn’t rely on deities, and similar stances were considered in ancient Greece as well.

A feral child who has had no contact with human tradition could not be a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, but they could easily be an atheist by lacking any belief in a god. They just wouldn’t know there’s a word for it.

Becoming an atheist takes no special knowledge. There are no tenets you have to learn about, no rules to follow, no rituals to perform, no prophets to recognize, no organization to join, no beliefs you have to hold. All it takes is for a person to decide “I’m highly skeptical about God being real” and suddenly they fit the definition of an atheist. There is nothing that unites atheists other than this simple lack of belief.

There is no atheist equivalent to religious communities. Meetups exist, and people look for ways to create atheist alternatives to church, but access to these things is nowhere near as universal as the religious spaces that exist in nearly every town in the world.

Personally, I do not revere any atheist leaders. I have never read a single book about atheism. I don’t listen to atheist podcasts, watch atheist vs. religious debates, attend atheist meetups, or buy atheist merchandise. Most of my atheist friends similarly lack an interest in any of this.

Sometimes theists say that atheists have faith in the supernatural because they accept the scientific assumption that the universe is governed by unseen laws of physics; they trust that some mysterious, unifying laws just so happen to exist and conveniently provide for us a habitable universe, against all odds.

Of course, not all atheists trust science or the laws of physics, either. There is indeed a good degree of overlap between atheists and those who trust the scientific method, but they are not the same group, and many theists trust in science and the laws of physics as well. These “laws” are only models of what we observe, based on repeatable tests and measurements, and they are different than religious beliefs because they can be proven wrong and improved to better account for reality.

The more you learn about fields like cosmology, the more you realize our understanding of the universe is quite shallow. Despite how much we’ve learned, scientists will admit there are massive, basic questions we can’t answer (What is dark matter? What is dark energy?). Recognizing the limits of our knowledge, and seeking to expand it by gathering more directly-observed data, is a fundamentally different reaction to that uncertainty than what is found in religion — where holy books and traditions are believed to contain all the answers we need.

Anyway, even if some atheists did have the same kind of supernatural faith as theists, it still wouldn’t mean atheism endorses a belief in the supernatural. There is very little common ground in atheism and no central doctrine. It’s really just the lack of positive belief in deities. People can take that in any direction they want.

For these reasons, I don’t think it is fair or accurate to say that atheism is a religion. It doesn’t have any kind of unifying tradition, dogma, or supernatural claims. It hardly has anything in common with religions.

However, I will agree with one point religious writers make: there are some atheists who interact with their worldview in a way that is indistinguishable from religious devotion.

Some atheists are extremely zealous about their worldview. They automatically accept atheist literature as fact without any independent consideration, treat atheist leaders with a high level of reverence, and display atheist symbolism via clothes, tattoos, or bumper stickers.

Despite the presence of 2 trillion unexplored galaxies in the observable universe, they insist that a few hundred years of scientific knowledge on Earth has led us to a complete understanding of the nature of the universe and what it contains. Their social circles are an echo chamber. They defend their beliefs with talking points rather than considering new information with an open mind. And they think doing all these things makes them more intelligent than anyone who believes in God.

Yikes!

These people may lack the supernatural beliefs typically associated with religion, but their blind devotion and superiority complex make them just as frustrating to deal with as many religious people, in my opinion.

I prefer to engage with people who value critical thinking, who listen, who display some humility in recognizing the limits of their knowledge, and who maintain empathy for those who think differently. I’d rather be friends with a Christian who has those qualities than an atheist who lacks them. People matter more than beliefs, and I think it’s unhealthy to ever be so dogmatic.

These hardcore atheists don’t represent what “atheism” is, as a whole, though. Nobody voted to make them the ambassadors of atheism. Unfortunately, they’re the loudest ones sometimes.

They’re just humans who bear the same inclination towards zealotry and dogma that turns others into religious fanatics. Every religion has them; every philosophy and worldview and subculture has them. It’s a psychological phenomenon that affects some percentage of the population, including atheists. Humans tend to be drawn to a sense of tribal belonging. They seek answers to the unknown, and crave a stable platform for their worldview so they can get on with their lives. Some people take that to an extreme.

Most people who fall under the umbrella of atheism are not so intense. They are normal people who go to work, enjoy their hobbies, raise their kids, and try to make the world a better place like anyone else.

or me, and many like me, atheism has not been a new religion to graft myself onto after pruning myself away from Christianity. I left religion because I wanted the freedom to think for myself; to grow as my own tree.

The only reason I say I’m an atheist is because it’s the quickest way to get the point across that I don’t ascribe to any particular faith tradition (if, for some reason, it becomes relevant to the conversation).

The only reason I bother to write about atheism at all is because I know firsthand the trauma religion can inflict, and there’s a major shift going on in our culture where many people are re-evaluating and looking for help and information. If I lived in a world where fundamentalism wasn’t destroying lives, and atheism was seen as a perfectly legitimate perspective, I’m sure I’d rather write travel stories instead.

What surprises me is that any religious person wants to insist atheism is a religion. It’s not meant as a compliment, so it seems to imply that they see religion as a downgrade from atheism. “You atheists think you’re superior, but you’re right down here on my level!”

If a believer really thought religious faith was the best path to truth, and wanted to cast doubt on atheism, wouldn’t they make the opposite argument and insist that atheist arguments are inherently inferior because they lack a rooting in faith?

ExCommunications

Stories from ex-believers, doubters, and those recovering from religion.

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Joe Omundson

Written by

Religion, society, lifestyle, and travel. Nomad stories on Patreon: linktr.ee/joeomundson | Email: joe.omundson@gmail.com

ExCommunications

Stories from people who have questioned their beliefs, left their faith, navigated doubt, and changed their minds about religion. Some are atheists, some agnostic, and some embrace a different kind of belief. All of them are recovering from religion.

Joe Omundson

Written by

Religion, society, lifestyle, and travel. Nomad stories on Patreon: linktr.ee/joeomundson | Email: joe.omundson@gmail.com

ExCommunications

Stories from people who have questioned their beliefs, left their faith, navigated doubt, and changed their minds about religion. Some are atheists, some agnostic, and some embrace a different kind of belief. All of them are recovering from religion.

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