Recently I’ve been introduced to a debate that really made me think about what it means to be religious: can atheism be considered a religion? My World Religions professor has brought up the question a few times during lecture, and my Christian friend is adamant that atheism is in fact a religion. Her reasoning is that atheism is its own system of beliefs, even if the system is actually a lack of belief. It has its own answers to deep, fundamental questions about reality, which is what religion functions as: a set of answers about who we are and what the ultimate nature of reality is.
The problem is that my friend’s reasoning is rooted in her definition of religion and her preconceived notions of what it means to be an atheist. To be fair, religion is fairly tricky to define, but to simply define it as a system of beliefs that offers ultimate truths and answers about reality and life is much too broad. If that’s the definition we’re sticking with, any branch of philosophy or any approach to thinking about human existence could qualify as a religion. Is Marxism a religion? What about Freudian psychoanalysis? Maybe existentialism or social Darwinism? I think the vast majority of people would not consider these things religions, so we need a definition of religion that’s more specific.
Many scholars of religion offer their own definitions of religion that can differ in subtle ways, but one widely accepted approach to defining religion comes from scholar Ninian Smart (http://www.mmiweb.org.uk/hull/site/site/pot_sessions/smart_dimensions.html), who proposed seven main “dimensions” of religion: the mythic (a sacred narrative), the doctrinal (or philosophical), the ethical, the ritual, the experiential (or emotional), the social, and the material (religiously significant objects like rosary beads or a cross). This gives us a nifty checklist we can use to analyze atheism as a possible religion.
First and foremost, atheism has no mythology. There is no sacred narrative about how we came to be here that atheism proposes. I’m sure my friend and those who agree with her would suggest that Big Bang cosmology or evolution would fill in this blank, but that’s a big misconception. A sacred narrative that a religion turns to in order to explain humanity’s or the universe’s beginning involves a higher power (or powers) that is supernatural, which by definition goes beyond science and the laws of nature. Big Bang cosmology and evolution are not supernatural explanations for how we got here—they’re scientific ones, existing on a different plane than God making the world in seven days. When we think of sacred narratives about creation, we think of the book of Genesis or Greek mythology, not the Big Bang or evolution.
The doctrinal (or philosophical) dimension is a little less obvious. One could argue that humanism—a philosophy that emphasizes human goodness that comes from rationality rather than supernatural beliefs—could be the doctrine that links together all atheists. But humanism would be basically the only doctrinal aspect we could assign to atheism, whereas with an organized religion like Christianity, there is an entire laundry list of doctrines one must follow, like the salvation of one’s soul through the acceptance of Christ, or belief in the Holy Trinity, or the doctrines laid out in the ten commandments, to name a few. There is technically a doctrinal component to atheism, but it is not nearly as extensive and demanding as that of Christianity or Judaism or Islam. The only thing all atheists agree upon, by the exact definition of atheism, is that there are no supernatural deities that influence human life.
The next few dimensions are straightforward. Atheists don’t have a guidebook (and no, my Christian friend, The God Delusion doesn’t count), like the Bible or the Torah or the Quran, from which we learn the rules of living a moral or righteous life. There is no code of ethics that every atheist agrees to live by when they “convert” to atheism. No dietary restrictions, no thou shalt not do this or that, so the ethical dimension of religion doesn’t apply. We don’t have any rituals either—no ceremonies for when one of us hits puberty, no special rites when one of us dies, no specific set of traditions for when we tie the knot. So the ritual dimension doesn’t apply either. The experiential (emotional) could maybe apply, if contemplating a universe without a higher power evokes some emotion from an atheist who’s feeling reflective, but that’s on an individual basis, so I can’t really say much about that.
The social dimension would certainly apply; atheists have their own communities, whether that’s on Reddit or within a student organization or at a convention. Atheists gather in places like these to discuss topics like the separation of church and state or experiences with religious bigotry or just to hang out with like-minded people. And of course, last of all, we don’t have any objects that we assign any special or sacred value to. There is no atheist equivalent to a cross or a Buddha statue. So we can cross out the material dimension too.
All in all, only one dimension of religion can be applied to atheism definitively, and that’s the social, which by itself does not justify calling something a religion. The other two that could apply are a grey area. The doctrinal is up for debate since atheism only has one belief that could be called a doctrine—the belief in no deity—as opposed to a complex system of doctrines like Christianity. And the emotional could apply, but it, along with the social, cannot be a lone reason for calling atheism a religion. One out of seven isn’t exactly a great score.
There is a more nuanced, complex approach to defining religion that I’ve been noticing. I personally think it’s unnecessary to overcomplicate how we think about religion. It’s not that I can’t accept subtlety or grey areas, it’s that you can only be so liberal in defining something as religious before it starts to get ridiculous. Atheism is not a religion, because religion involves supernatural explanations for how we came to be, explanations that cannot be understood through science or the laws of nature. It involves a strict, clearly laid out system of practices, traditions, rituals, and ethical principles, almost always presented in the form of sacred texts or scriptures. Atheism has none of these things. A common saying floating around on the internet is “if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color.” Or, as Bill Maher once brilliantly put it, “if atheism is a religion, then abstinence is a sexual position.”