It would seem something like Godwin’s law applies to the vexed question of whether or not atheism is a religion: “The longer an internet conversation about the subject goes, the probability of a “new atheist” claiming that “atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position” approaches 1.” Actually, the “longer” part is more or less irrelevant. It is very often the first thing said on the matter.
Indeed, one of the most salient features of the “new atheism” (I am going to consistently use this term in order not to paint all atheists with the same brush, but you know the person on your social media feeds that I’m talking about) is its constant resort to clichéd phrases: “We’re all atheists about 99% of the gods, atheists just go one step further;” “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings;” “ . . . flying spaghetti monster . . . ;” etc. Indeed, one could articulate a general law that “the probability of a new atheist using slogan x in response to issue y approaches 1 as soon as the issue is broached.” There are certainly several reasons for this. Here are just two.
First, the “new atheism” is, to a significant degree, a product of the internet, where catch phrases and slogans are the norms of communication for almost everyone. There is probably is a bit of a chicken-egg dynamic here as with the broader cultural and political battles of our time. As we become more divided we rely more and more on sloganeering, but we are also in possession of (or perhaps dominated by) a medium simply made for sloganeering.
Second, many of the devotees of the new atheism were convinced of or confirmed in their atheism by such sloganeering, and so they repeat it, having little or no awareness that more nuanced conversations about such matters are even possible. This is, admittedly, at least partly the fault of the shallow or even fundamentalist nature of much of the Christian formation received by those “new atheists” who were raised Christians. New atheists don’t have a monopoly on lack of nuance.
But these slogans, as effective as they may be against unarmed opponents, fail in a variety of ways. They don’t define their terms (or worse, they rely on the hope that no one listening is thinking about defining terms), they make massive generalizations, and they present analogies that rarely stand up to scrutiny.
Indeed, the question of whether atheism is a religion or not, depends immensely on the definition of the terms “atheism” and “religion.” Jimmy Akin attacks the problem from this angle and concludes that, depending on what one means by the term “religion” atheism may or may not be a religion. This is, of course, perfectly defensible. But it leaves a lot more work to be done. As Akin himself intimates, the real question is whether atheism and religion have certain features in common.
Stephen Bullivant offers a further clarification that highlights that the question under consideration is actually based on a category mistake, though not the category mistake implied by the standard “new atheist” retort. While the claim that “atheism is to religion what abstinence is to sex positions” suggests that atheism is simply the absence of religion, the metaphor at work falls apart because it actually equates theism, that is, belief in God, with religion. But one can believe in God and not be religious, or one can be quite religious and reject belief in God.
As Bullivant highlights, neither theism nor atheism can be a religion. Both are simply beliefs about the existence of God that may or may not be related to a larger structure of worldview and practice that we typically call “religion.” Bullivant even highlights deliberate attempts to create atheistic religious systems to make the point that, “Even though atheism itself is not, and cannot be, a religion, it does not follow that ‘atheism’ and ‘religion’ are necessarily mutually exclusive categories.”
Both Akin and Bullivant highlight the difficulties of defining “religion.” And it is a notoriously difficult thing to define. I want to go one step further. I want to suggest that “religion,” at least as it is being used in these debates, is a dubious concept altogether.
Of course one can make any number of working definitions of religion and then straightforwardly answer whether or not atheism is a religion according to that definition, but doing so doesn’t actually advance the conversation at all (except perhaps to clear up confusion between two parties whose use of terminology had been at odds). If a religion is having a position on the existence of God and an afterlife, atheism is a religion. If a religion is believing in God and an afterlife, it is not, though neither are other things usually called “religion.” If one is a strict Aristotelian, one would say that atheism is not a religion, that is, a subvirtue of justice wherein humanity renders to God what God is due. We could go on.
But the real issue remains unaddressed as long as we ignore why the question is being asked in the first place and why different groups are beholden to different answers. Why is it that many religious believers want to insist that atheism is a religion? And why do atheists wish to deny the same? And what is the functioning definition of “religion” in the background of these desires?
It is these questions that I will take up in Part 2.
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.