Folks love saying “Atheism is a religion” or “Atheism is the new religion”. This is common in anywhere from large think pieces to tweets. Some like saying it just because it pisses off atheists but others are saying it for a different reason, and I was trying to figure out why, and parse out why this is not only inaccurate, but also not a sensible use of this word.
This trick of language only works, and barely at that, under the strictest of definition of the word religious, segregated from all other definitions, and in which practically any belief one holds about anything becomes a “religious” belief, making the distinction useless.
Lets do a quick roundup of the definitions of Religion/Religious:
- Relating to or believing in a religion. Antonyms: atheistic, irreverent
- A belief or practice forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being.
- Belonging or relating to a monastic order or other group of people who are united by their practice of religion. ◦ Treated or regarded with a devotion and scrupulousness appropriate to worship.
- Having a strong belief in a god or gods
- Pertaining to or connected with a monastic or religious order.
- Appropriate to religion or to sacred rites or observances.
- A member of a religious order, congregation, etc.; a monk, friar, or nun. ◦ A particular system of faith and worship
Some of those are circular or self referential, and many overlap a bit. I’m sure you can find plenty more of them but I think these cover at least the most common uses of the word. I’ve omitting all Synonyms and Antonyms but kept the first one, where Atheistic is literally the opposite meaning of Religious.
The last one is the only one I found that could get close to working for this purpose. “A particular system of faith and worship”. If, of course, we drop the worship part. Ok, let’s take “a system of faith”. Atheists hold the belief that god does not exist. I’m not sure where we would draw the line between a singular belief and a “system”, but if we take the fact that since the belief in the lack of something that cannot be proven to exist or not exist requires a leap of faith, then believing god doesn’t exist could be seen as a leap of faith. Other than the attempt to squeeze faith into what is more a logical conclusion (I have no reason to believe god exists, I am then left to conclude one does not), the problem with that is that then any belief in anything that cannot be verified would count as a religious belief, since it requires a leap of faith.
An agnostic person specifically chooses not to adopt a belief or disbelief in god precisely because it cannot be known. An atheist (in most cases as far as I can tell) concludes that since there is no reason to believe god exists, they are left to believe god does not. This is where Russell’s teapot is a useful example. If you introduce the notion that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, and I find no reasons to believe such a teapot exists, I will believe one does not. You can introduce an infinite amount of notions, some not only hard to support or prove but also perhaps impossible to prove, like a notion of god, and in essence force me to acquire a belief they don’t exist for each one of those. Would it be useful to call a belief there is no teapot orbiting the sun a religious belief because it requires believing something I can’t know for sure?
If we take one of the least common, and narrow (or would board make more sense in this case?) definition of Religion, remove the word worship from it, and perhaps the word system as well, and use the word faith to mean any metaphysical belief or belief that cannot be verified, we end up with a definition of religion that could sort of cover atheism together under an umbrella that also covers atheiteapotism and an infinite number of beliefs. Then sure, in that case, you can get away with saying atheism is a religion. To what degree is this accurate, let alone useful?
Since this is a common saying I wondered why people say it, rather than simply saying atheism is a belief, since that is the only part of the a part of one of the definitions of religion boils down to? As far as I can tell there are 2 reasons:
- Because this annoys atheists.
- Because saying atheism is a religion derives some additional value specifically due to the word’s other definition and connotation with the exact opposite of the word atheism.
The first reason no longer bugs me as much as it used to, once I realized that’s why it’s being said. The second does bother means the reason I rail against this is for the same reason I rail against using common words with common definitions to try to mean something else, rendering conversations and mutual understanding far more difficult. This seems to be a growing and worrying trend, and after listening to two hours of Jorden B. Peterson using the word Truth to actually meaning something closer to the word Good, without budging, I realized this is a counterproductive thing to do in an environment where conversations in which we understand each other are becoming harder as it is.
Ask yourself this: Would anyone use the word religion to describe atheism if it didn’t also have a definition that refers to the exact opposite? If it didn’t have a more common definition relating to the belief in god? I don’t think so. It is precisely that built-in inverseness, that counter notion, that invites one to frame atheism this way to begin with.
If your goal isn’t trying to annoy atheists, what benefit are you getting from defining atheism as a religion, knowing the other, more common definitions of the word? It is only because there is something inverse about it, even something fun perhaps. I get it, it just seems like this clever inversion that surprises and delights you when you think about it suddenly. “Isn’t it funny that those who are most vocal about being non-religious are themselves actually religious? Oh the irony!”
Think it is sill useful and not because it just so happens to also mean the inverse as well? Let’s test this:
Everyone is an atheist in regards to some gods. If you don’t believe Zeus exists, you are an atheist in regards to Zeus, and every other “dead” god of the past, or current gods of other religions you don’t subscribe to. It follows then that everyone is religious (i.e. atheist), and in fact you can’t not be religious not matter what you do. Still a useful definition of the word?