Is atheism a “religion”? Is the Pope Protestant?

TYLER (listing no location) ASKS:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?


May seem like asking, Is the Pope Protestant? But this is actually a complicated matter. Tyler notes the Merriam-Webster definition of atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of Deity.” More important, what is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that (more below).

Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion…. Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.” The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.

Nonetheless, there’s something creepily “religious” about shrines that display the embalmed corpses of totalitarian atheists like Lenin, Mao, Ho, North Korea’s first two Kims, and (temporarily) Stalin. And in fact a person can be “religious” without belief in God, especially in the U.S. with its creative and latitudinarian — another great word The Guy has been itching to use — free market for faith.  Consider:

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles state that it draws from “religions” and teachings that “call us to respond to God’s love.” But note that adherents don’t need to actually believe in any god. The denomination says “atheists and agnostics are welcome in Unitarian Universalism and can find a welcoming, supportive faith community” and a godless “spiritual path.” Leaders of Ethical Culture (a.k.a. Ethical Humanism) depict it as “a religion” that likewise involves “faith” but do not mention any sort of deity. Scientology, which refers to a “Supreme Being” as the vaguely impersonal “urge toward existence as infinity,” won a long campaign for government tax exemption as a “religion” rather than a secular therapy business. Let’s not neglect the Universal Life Church’s “Instant Online Ordination” granted to 20 million instant reverends, presumably including atheists since no belief is required.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with definitions in the intriguing United States v. Seeger case from 1965, when America’s Vietnam entanglement and the anti-war movement were both escalating and the military draft was still in force.  Traditionally, the U.S. has granted conscientious objector status to followers of pacifist faiths, mainly the Quakers and certain baptistic groups like the Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites. The Guy considers this a glory of America’s unique religious liberty heritage. Congress loosened rules in 1948 to allow individualized draft exemptions based upon “religious training” and “belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation,” though not for “political, sociological, or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code.”

Daniel Seeger was convicted of draft evasion under that doctrine. He had some Quaker background but on the required belief in a “Supreme Being”  he couldn’t say either yes or no. He said his “skepticism or disbelief in the existence of God” didn’t “necessarily mean lack of faith in anything whatsoever” and professed “religious faith in a purely ethical creed” but “without belief in God, except in the remotest sense.”

The justices must have scratched their heads over Seeger’s un-credo but unanimously overturned his conviction by adding this new basis for draft exemption: “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies.” Since not-quite-an-atheist Seeger qualified, it’s a good guess that the Feds could certify a flaming atheist if the draft is ever re-imposed.

Further, Justice Douglas pondered the status of atheists who follow the Buddhist religion, and of Hindus who worship numerous deities rather than the law’s solo Being. Justice Clark’s main opinion cited Union Theological Seminary liberal Paul Tillich, who thought “God does not exist” in the sense of any entity that “religion” talks about. Tillich mused about “meaning within meaninglessness” and “certitude within doubt” and, sounding somewhat  like a Scientologist, “the ground of the subject-object structure of being” as a replacement for the old God.

Maybe the Pope can be Protestant after all.


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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • thin-ice

    Sorry, your arguments for dragging atheists into the realm of the religious doesn’t work. The examples are very weak: in case of the totalitarian (usually communist) cultures that describe themselves as atheist, the “religious feel” you cite comes from their political dogma, doctrine, and culture, not from their atheism. And any atheist who chooses to hook up with an established religion such as Buddhism or Universal Life Church, is religious ONLY BY THAT ASSOCIATION, as much as that religion will desire that the adherent assents to an organized, systematic set of beliefs, whether or not a god is mentioned.

    Even by your definition lifted from the American Collegiate Dictionary, atheists aren’t religious. There is no systemic beliefs common to atheists, no universally accepted theory of morality, no rituals, nothing. About the only thing we all agree on, is that the likelihood of a supreme concious being is very remote. And, as you’ve no doubt heard many times, LACK of belief in something, is NOT a belief. Just the way even religious people wouldn’t call a lack of belief in fairies, a belief. Why do you treat us atheists any differently?

  • Theodore Seeber

    Strictly speaking, you don’t need to believe in God to be a Catholic. You don’t even need to be pro-life.

    The Church has a definition of what is a practical Catholic. Those are called the five (and sometimes seven after 1990) Precepts of the Church:
    1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
    2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
    3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
    4. You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
    5. You shall help to provide for the material needs of the Church.

    And the new two:

    VI. To obey the laws of the Church concerning Matrimony.

    VII. To participate in the Church’s mission of Evangelization of Souls.(Missionary Spirit of the Church)

    Now personally, I don’t know why a non-theist would WANT to do those 7 things- it is hard enough to get cradle catholics who believe in God to do them. But I do know at least ONE “closeted” atheist yet Practical Roman Catholic, and I’ll bet there are several others. (Though he does admit to struggles with VI- he’s in Massachusetts and there is a great disconnect between secular and sacramental marriage there).

    • Steve

      What does any of this gibberish have to do with whether or not atheism is a religion?

  • John Huffman

    You do such good work Dick! I benefit from everything I read that you write. Thanks so much!
    John Huffman

  • Shaun

    Categorically though, in the same way that it would be nonsensical to call theism a religion, it would also be nonsensical to say that atheism is a religion. These are positions with respect to the claim: a god exists, not the ideologies that might be built around either of the two positions.

  • Steve

    Atheism in and of itself is nothing more than a disbelief in the existence of god, and is no more a religion than ‘A-santa-ism’ (disbelief in Santa Claus) or ‘A-Superman-ism’ (disbelief in Superman).

    Perhaps you can take alternate definitions of ‘religion’ and attempt to apply them to schools of thought that are common (though not universal) amongst atheists, however using the definition of the word as it’s most commonly understood (ie. with regards to god worship & supernatural events) atheism is very clearly NOT a religion. Suggesting otherwise is simply taking a peculiarity of the english language (words have multiple definitions) and attempting to say something that doesn’t really have any substance to it. It’s as if you’re flipping through TV channels and ask whether or not ‘OFF’ is a channel. It just doesn’t make sense.

    That people like Mao, Stalin, etc. were atheists, does not in anyway mean their shrines have the slightest bit to do with atheism. Lenin’s tomb is no more an atheist landmark than the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial is a Christian one. That some churches don’t want to exclude members from their tithe pools for the simple fact that some of their members might think all this god talk is rubbish doesn’t somehow qualify atheism as a religion (again using the common definition of the word). That the government might find sense in widening the ‘conscientious objector’ parameters beyond those specifically applying to religious beliefs (which in itself implies a difference between the two), does not make atheism a religion.

    • John T

      Thanks for saying this better than I could!

  • F

    Those dictators you mentioned were enshrined because they had a personality cult built around them. It had nothing to do with atheism.

    • Ray Ingles

      And they were all leaders of communist regimes. Communists are almost always atheists, but many, many atheists are not communists. To turn it around, Muslims are monotheists, but not all monotheists are Muslim.

    • Richard Ostling

      The Guy suspects that when atheists achieve totalitarian power over government, culture, media, and education, banishing worship of a God or other supernatural reality outside oneself creates a vacuum that quite naturally fosters those worshipful personality cults. North Korea is an obvious example. Veneration of a dictator or race or nation makes such ultimate claims that devoutly atheistic regimes cannot tolerate competition by allowing religious freedom. Embalmed corpses of tyrants are obviously the equivalent of religious relics and — as with sins of omission in some religious hagiography and hagiolatry — the atrocities under such atheistic saints is simply ignored. This is absolutely NOT to say educated atheists in free societies embrace any of this nonsense.

      • Ray Ingles

        devoutly atheistic regimes cannot tolerate competition by allowing religious freedom

        And this is different from ‘devout’ theocracies?

        It’s widely claimed that Europe is basically atheistic now, yet religious freedom is allowed there. I suppose those are “atheistic regimes”, but not “devoutly atheistic regimes” Or maybe just not “totalitarian” “atheist regimes”?

        • Richard Ostling

          Yes culturally Christian regimes have been theocratic –but not in recent centuries. Islam, of course, is a different story. Post-Christian Europe allows religious freedom, but suppression of faith groups or even murder of clergy have been all too common when atheistic ideology has gained power in modern times; still so in 2013, alas. Not the case if non-believing rulers are not “devout” meaning consumed by zeal to enforce atheistic ideology. As stated, none of this mars the record of atheists in free society.

      • Ray Ingles

        It’s rather unclear to me why The Guy rejected my previous reply. I didn’t think I was being rude or off-topic…

        • Richard Ostling

          oh please understand I didn’t “reject” you or anyone nor consider your remarks “rude or off-topic, just sought to further explain my own thinking about a form of
          religiosity seeping into regimes that profess to be atheistic

  • Voidhawk

    An atheist can be religious but atheism in and of itself is not a the same way that ‘theism’ is not a religion.

  • Ken

    The American College Dictionary definition of religion sounds a lot like a very generalized anthropological definition of religion, and not the popular use of the word “religion”.

    In anthropology, we often talk about philosophy of life religions vs revealed religions. It’s not that revealed religions can’t have a philosophy of life aspect to them, but they must contain a supernatural revelation of some kind. Most people think of revealed religions when someone simply specifies “religion” since they are the most common.

    Atheism, however, doesn’t qualify under either definition. It (obviously) rejects any kind of supernatural revelation, but it also doesn’t specify any formal philosophy of life. It’s simply the rejection of all supernatural revelations.

    All people, however, do have some kind of philosophy of life to guide moral decision making. Many atheists tend to gravitate towards humanism to satisfy those needs. You could argue that humanism is a philosophy of life religion since it’s a formal philosophy with guiding principles. That still would cause confusion since the common usage of the word “religion” is a revealed religion.

    So no. Atheism isn’t a religion in any sense. Humanism, however, could be viewed as such, but only with the clarification that it isn’t a revealed religion. And many atheists are humanists.

    • Jerry

      Ken, Thanks for that post. I was groping to write what you’ve clearly written.

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  • cvg

    I doubt very much that most atheists can be coined a religion. I do, however, believe that some small groups of strident (evangelical?) atheists would generally fit. For example, Dennet’s and Dawkin’s followers seem to fit many characteristics that circumscribe various religious movement definitions. The most obvious critique is that of supernaturalism: However, most of this group’s focus on immutable rationality provides little functional difference. Their utopian ideal just isn’t embodied.

    • Richard Ostling

      It’s worth pondering that some of the “New Atheists” want government to interfere with parents’ right to educate their children in their own faith. This won’t happen in the USA due to the Constitution. But would “New Atheists” want to equally outlaw transmission of atheism to atheists’ children? They seem to display a “religious” sort of zeal on this point, no?

  • JoFro

    I would agree with a few commentators here. Atheism is not a religion any more than Theism is a religion. I believe rather religion is what is created under those two categories – hence Theism would cover everything from Shamanism to Islam while Atheism would cover everything from Humanism to Communism – essentially atheism and theism are two world views – under them lie all the religions, both theistic and atheistic