Is Atheism a Religion? Part 2

Nearly two years ago I published Is Atheism a Religion? Part 1 here at Vox Nova.  At the end of it, I promised a part 2.  In the first piece, I pointed out that whether atheism is considered a religion or not depends upon one’s definition of the terms in the question and noted some responses offered by others.  I then suggested that “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.”  And I indicated I would look at such questions as the following in my subsequent post:

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 seems to me that the functional definition of religion behind the question of atheism’s status is not at all what one might expect from a textbook.  The basic issue is not belief in God, or sets of ritual practices, or a series of moral commitments, or convictions about the afterlife.  It is not even something more general like a basic outlook or worldview that may or may not include beliefs about God and supernatural.

What is really operating in the background here is the unspoken presupposition that “religion” is a (more or less irrational) personal commitment that is just fine for you as long as it stays outside the bounds of proper public discourse.  Religion, it is tacitly assumed, is by definition both private and biased.

As an aside, this is one of the problems with the USCCB’s Fortnight For Freedom.  While many have noted that the Catholic understanding of freedom is not exactly how the term is used in American public discourse, I have not seen it noted that there is a similar problem with the term “religion” or “religious.”  But if in American public discourse “religion” means “private irrational opinion,” then the right to religious freedom will never trump other ostensible rights.  What the bishops want to argue for is the possibility of religious voices being allowed to have rational arguments in the public square, but what the public hears is a call for irrationality to be given a hearing in the public square simply because it is “religious.”

In this context, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others are in an awkward spot.  There is no denying that they are religious.  Indeed many within these groups will proudly wear such a badge.  In certain subpopulations “religious” remains a high compliment.  But they notice that their religiosity is used to marginalize their place in public discourse.

At the same time, atheist and secular movements argue for (or simply presume) an interpretation of the principle of the separation of Church and State not as it was originally intended (to keep the state from meddling in religious affairs), but as indicating that religion (or even religious people) can have no role in the public square.  Atheism and/or secularism are then imagined as neutral standpoints from which to discuss public policy.  The most naive forms of atheism even imagine that, if religion could be simply excluded from public deliberation, policy solutions to society’s most pressing problems would emerge quickly and easily as the logical outcome of a process based on reason alone.

In this context I suggest that the assertion of religious people that “atheism is a religion too” can be translated simply as “Hey, you’re not neutral either!”  And the atheist response that atheism can not possibly be considered a religious position functions basically as an assertion that atheism/secularism actually is neutral and therefore deserves a privileged (or even solitary) place in public discourse.

So I think that the first thing that “religious” people can do in this circumstance is to argue not that atheism is a religion, but that there are no neutral spaces.  Everyone, including atheists, comes to questions with prior commitments.  We can then insist that we have to be able to have real discussions with those who do not share all of our presuppositions.  And we should call out anyone, religious or atheist, who tries to win the argument before it starts by labeling their opponents as unable to contribute to discussion because of prior commitments.

The other thing we can do is be cognizant of how the term “religious” is heard in public (and private) discourse and exercise appropriate caution. If a pious Catholic asking if I am religious means to ask whether I faithfully practice my religion (or try to), I can comfortably say yes.  But if a stranger or new acquaintance asks this in a discussion about ethics or public policy, I am much more wary and qualified in my response.

The simple fact that I am religious does not mean that I am what this person means by “religious.”  At this stage I find it more helpful to engage such a person by finding out what they mean by “religious” and pointing out how the category of “religion” functions to marginalize certain points of view in public discourse, while giving a free pass to other, structurally similar but by conventional terminology non-religious, points of view.

In the end, I am inclined to reject the term “religion” altogether as a helpful term in public discourse.  It has its uses within religious communities, but as a way of describing some approaches to public policy as opposed to others it is hopelessly (and often deliberately) misleading.

On the other hand, given that my own preferences are unlikely to eliminate the use of entrenched terminology, we might begin to speak more explicitly of religious freedom as a subset of freedom of conscience.  I remember a speech (that I cannot find right now – links in the comments appreciated) given by Pope Francis during his trip to the US in which he uses a phrase something like “freedom of religious and other commitments.”  Francis is at once recognizing that what we typically call “religious freedom” is not only for religious people and undercutting the narrative that makes religious convictions fundamentally different kinds of convictions than other human commitments.

Religion is a notoriously difficult thing to define as everything we typically include in that category is sui generis.  As such, whether or not atheism (or, following Stephen Bullivant’s careful distinctions noted in Part 1, worldviews and sets of practices that include or rest upon atheism) is considered a religion strikes me as more or less arbitrary.

What is important, however, is that nobody gets to pretend that their worldview gets a free pass in public discourse by disguising itself as neutral.  (And this goes for certain traditionally religious types as well!)  Using language carefully and well, especially the word “religion” and its relatives, is an important step in pursuing this goal.


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  • David K

    In my experience, arguing that atheism is a religion is from folks who want to advance their cause. To paraphrase: “If religion is removed from school and government, then so should the religion of atheism” – Then they will argue certain aspects of science (Evolution, Big Bang) are atheist beliefs. They will argue that anything without “God” is “atheist”. I had one guy argue that public schools are “atheism schools”.

    I also see how “secular” and “atheist” are being used interchangeably. Secularism is just the separation of our Government from religious rule, religious teaching. The government just remain neutral on matters of religion. It does not mean it is an “Atheist Government” but again, I’m sure someone can argue that a government without god is an atheist government.

    I am in the process of blogging about the Enlightenment Era and in the process, I found this quote which I ‘d like to share:

    “‘Secularization’, the process whereby religious observation became an optional rather than a necessary dimension of social life.”
    (The Enlightenment – John Robertson pg 15).

    People tend to forget how people were not free to believe based on their conscience. They were subjected to their governments religion and/or under religious rule. If you were a Catholic in a Protestant colony, you were subject to their laws. You could have been persecuted for your differing belief.

    Everyone should and does have a voice in our Government. It is when one group attempts to subject other groups to their beliefs that this becomes an issue. If people could separate what is right for them with what is right for all, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    What are we talking about again? lol
    Atheism means different things to different people. I look at it as a worldview, my atheism is irreligious with exception to the interest in the history of religion. People like Richard Dawkins make it seem like a religion because they speak for many atheists, they are bringing it front and center. The funny thing is, take most peoples definition of religion and you can claim fans of the Chicago Cubs make a religion! :-)

    • brettsalkeld

      With regard to your first paragraph, I agree. I think these people are mistaken, but I think their mistake is reinforced by mistakes on the other side that sometimes (not always) do try to make public institutions effectively atheistic by positing atheism as neutral. I think they have been confused by the fact that “religion” is being used in a way that they can’t define and are grasping at something that is slippery. In effect, I think the phenomenon you describe is an example of people trying to say, without having the categories to do so, that “You’re not neutral either!”

  • Mark VA

    A well considered point, Brett.

    My experience (as someone who attended a state controlled atheist grade school for eight years, and then had the good fortune to think about it) suggests that calling Atheism a religion is neither here nor there. It certainly does have the whiff of “… but you are as irrational as I am!”.

    I would propose that a good starting point for the religious type is to recognize that the seriously committed atheist is likely to view him as mentally less evolved (in a very Darwinian sense). Arguments may be given to test the subject’s “mental development capacity”, but if “superstitious thinking” persists beyond a certain point, no further discussion is likely.

    I believe that for the atheist, this shutting down of the discussion (and the subsequent labeling) is both an effective defense mechanism, and an exercise of power. (Ditto for the religious type who’s not worth his salt).

    However, we should notice how much atheists like to focus on the real, exaggerated, and the invented shortcomings of religions (Catholicism being the perennial favorite). At the same time, they fiercely resist a fair parallel comparison. Thus, I wager more on the knowledge of history and the ability to convey it effectively, than on the more analytical methods.

    • brettsalkeld

      Agreed. I’ve had arguments with atheists that go something like:
      Me: The basic story we hear about Galileo is not accurate.
      Them: We can assume it is accurate and, in fact, it doesn’t matter if it is accurate or not since it is a great example of what the Church always does.
      Me: Always does when? And you’re not allowed to use Galileo as your example.
      Them: . . .

  • Mark VA


    Some of the most pleasant and challenging discussions I’ve had were with, what I like to call, “contemplative atheists”. They offered substantive challenges to my faith, knowledge, and logic, and in turn did not hesitate to put their thinking “on the table”. Regretfully, we have enough “crusaders” on both sides to make such experiences rare.

    As I age, a paradox of sorts is developing in my head: while the spiritual unsustainability of Atheism becomes even more apparent to me, the sympathy for its passion increases. At least they give a damn about something more than the mundane and the utilitarian, and are willing to engage with the big questions.

    The story of Galileo Galilei ought to be better known, especially to the college students, who often encounter the idiocy of “The Catholic Church is against science”. For example, these parts should be better digested: the historical context (Reformation), the distinction between the license to teach a hypothesis and a theory, historic scientific objections to Heliocentrism (the apparent lack of stellar parallax), the interlocking factions within the Church (guardians of orthodoxy, the clerical scientists, the Pope), and the characters of main players, to mention a few. My opinion is that only a Simplicio would defend what we now see as errors, or make poorly informed accusations.

    OK, what I really want to know, how did the Queen get involved with Galileo?