Is Atheism a Religion?

Dan Fincke, who  has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham and hosts the Patheos Atheist blog (way to go,  Catholic higher ed.) , Camels with Hammers, asks the question, “Is atheism a religion?”

Psychologists of Religion might have something to say about this question.  I would suggest that the answer hinges on the definition of “faith,” “belief,” and “religion.”

Although religious people tend to think of faith as necessarily transcendent, psychologists of religion like James Fowler, have defined faith in more secular terms.  Fowler’s definition is a little…complex, but the short version is that faith is a universal human experience that exists whether you’re a believer or not and drives the human person to search for deeper meaning.   In that sense, Atheism, as a system of thought intended to help a person make sense of it all, is almost certainly an expression of this very human, non-transcendent, understanding of faith.

Likewise, psychologists of religion would say that belief is the organization of faith (that more vague, but intensely human quest for deeper meaning) into credal statements about “the way things are.”   Atheism certainly makes certain credal statements about the way, life, the universe, and everything works, so it would appear to be a belief system as well.

But is it a religion?  Well, that question could go either way.  Psychologists of religion would say that religion is a collection of people who share the same beliefs (as defined above) and have created rituals and structures and gatherings to celebrate and advance those beliefs.  In that light, I would say that there are some “religious atheists” and some not.

Non-religious atheists, like non-religious Christians,  are those who have little interest in promoting their faith and beliefs (as defined above) unless asked/provoked.  They are satisfied with their personal beliefs and have no great desire to gather together with like-minded believers or to advance their belief system.  They have figured out “what things mean” to them, and that’s that.

Religious atheists are a different breed though.  By the above definition, religious atheists are the ones who have a need to meet with other atheists at certain times and certain places.  They long to share their holy (unholy? a-holy?) books written by atheist high priests who develop and advance the atheist creed of “how things are.”  They go to atheist tent revivals with leading atheist prophets like Dawkins, or Chris Hitchens (ahem, God rest his soul) so that they can refresh and recharge their a-theistically spiritual batteries.  They evangelize others, usually without being asked because they want a fellowship of like-minded believers.  They create rituals with these believers that bind them together and advance their belief system.  These are most-certainly religious atheists by the most rigorous, secular definition of the term religion.  Let me offer another illustration.

I have a psychologist acquaintance who is a prominent, mega best-selling author.  He is an atheist.  He has very little patience for religious people.  He tolerates me because we share a lot of other interests but he is confirmed in his atheism.  He is the son of a punitive Lutheran pastor who held court in a prominent pulpit and drummed a gospel that positive stank of brimstone into him at home and at Church.  He hates church. Hates his dad.  Hates what it all stands for.

And yet, I often marvel at how much like his dad he turned out.  He has a weekly group that meets to study and discuss his teachings.  Not a therapy group, btw.  Just a bunch of people who meet at his house weekly because they like the way he thinks and speaks.  How much like a church service it is.  Every week without fail. Same evening.  The meeting begins at the same time.  They have a reading and a sermon.  They share how it relates to their lives.  They break for refreshments.  They depart confident that they will be back next week to repeat the ritual.  In between he goes on tour to promote his gospel to admiring disciples.

He hates when I point this out.  His distaste for his father blinds him to just how religious he is.  The difference is that his religion is him, so that makes it OK.

The point is that even though atheists don’t like to admit it, by the secular definition of the term, a lot of atheists are very religious indeed.  The question, I think, is not whether atheism is a religion, but whether atheists are religious.  I believe that from a purely secular standpoint, the answer is, “yes.”


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