This is something that I have had many MANY people say to me. Every thursday I set up an Ask An Atheist booth on campus at Iowa State University, and one of the most common things that people say to us is some version of this comment/question. That said, it is probably a good first question for this blog. Welcome once again by the way…
Let’s start with some context.
: the belief in a god or in a group of gods
: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
So, there we have the Merriam-Webster definition of religion. I am not going to address the first two entries, as I think even the most clever linguist or philosopher would not try to claim that atheists believe in a god. So the question pivots on how atheism relates to the third entry. “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”
The short answer to this question, then, is, sure! Why not?
If “religion” is stretched far enough that the only significance that it carries definitionally is “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group” then my work as an atheist activist is done. The problem is that when people accuse atheists and agnostics of being “religious” they are not doing this because of some semantic issue. This charge is usually tossed at atheists to suggest that we are just as strict, dogmatic, and close minded as religious folks. In THAT context the answer to this question is a resounding NO! (though there are of course exceptions individually, turns out atheists are not immune from having jerks poorly represent us on internet forums)
There is no doctrine of atheism, there are no rituals of atheism, and there is nothing sacred in atheism… So in the common understanding of the word “religion”, which is much closer to the first two entries above rather than the much broader third entry, atheism does not qualify in any meaningful way. The common response to this refutation is usually something like, “you worship science,” “you have to have faith in scientists,” or “you have faith in the big bang…” There are many other similar responses.. I apologize that this isn’t a more exhaustive selection. You get the point though.
What these responses almost inevitably do is conflate trust and faith. Trust is something that we all do. Trust is something that is earned, based on experience, and can be taken away. Faith is defined as “belief that is not based on evidence.” We all TRUST. We have to trust as a matter of survival. We trust our parents when we are young and cannot take care of ourselves, we trust drivers on the highway to stay on their side of the road, and we trust in science and the scientific method to produce results that map to reality more effectively than any other system thus far conceived by man. THIS IS NOT FAITH. Faith is necessarily divorced from evidence. To make the claim that atheists are “religious” and have “faith” does nothing more than strip any meaningful definition of those words away.. We do not make the claim that abstinence is a sexual position, we do not call not playing basketball a sport, and we do not say silence is our favorite kind of music.
The broad definition of religion included above is likely in response to the colloquial sense that religion has come to be used in… “I watch Sons of Anarchy religiously,” “He votes Democratic religiously”… In this context anything can be a “religion.” So, if that is the context people want to call me “religiously atheistic” in then I will not argue. I’m apparently also a religious Atlanta Braves fan, Iowa State Cyclone fan, and wearer of pants (usually)…. I just don’t think that this is helpful to the conversation that these people really want to have… it is, afterall, nothing more than using a false premise to try and level the playing field, all in an effort to say “you are just as bad as we are!”
Though if I can get tax exempt status for being religiously atheist just like churches do based on their faith?? pssshhhh there will be a breeze from how quickly I change my position!!