Atheism is not a religion

Posted in , Society at 21:22 by RjZ

Atheism: n 1: the doctrine or belief that there is no God [syn: godlessness] [ant: theism] 2: a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

This artifact of the English language has a political consequences. When the religious right defends the role of religion in public life (read paid for by our taxes) they can resort to the statement that atheism is a religion too. It is defined as a belief that there is no God. Therefore, they continue, to remove any preference for one religion or another from public life as is demanded by the first amendment is to leave us with atheism, a religion.


A lack of belief is hardly a belief. I do not believe in unicorns. Does that make me a-unicornist? It’s not a common religion, I know, but according to this logic I must be a beleiver. If I do not believe that Jesus is my savior, does that make me muslim? A Jew? (an atheist?)

It is common, in the west especially, to see things from the dualist point of view, even if we frequently notice that life is more complex than that. Not A doesn’t equal B. Not Republican doesn’t equal Democrat. Without God or gods means only that people are most comfortable defining things in terms of what they already know and not that I need a god in order to deny it.


  1. dan clegg said,

    September 30, 2005 at 9:06

    Good point. I can’t think of a single additional example where the lack of belief is one of the varieties of belief. Maybe I should say I don’t believe in paying taxes, so that I could just become an ataxpayer. That should be given equal weight as all those zealous taxpayers, shouldn’t it?

  2. Penelope said,

    September 30, 2005 at 20:59

    I would love to be an ataxpayer! I’m sure the Supreme Court will uphold our interpretation!

    R.J., where did that definition come from? I’m sure it’s some standard dictionary, and I don’t doubt its authenticity, but it would be nice for us readers to know, for the sake of argument and all.

    Interesting problem, this. The word “atheist” is inaccurate because it was created by people who couldn’t actually conceive of what it means. In a culture that largely can’t imagine what it would be like not to believe in any god, the only way they can describe that belief system is in reference to what they know.

    What word should we use? I challenge Ron and his readers to suggest better ways to describe people who, um, live free of spirituality. (It’s really hard to describe it without referring to gods. How frustrating our language is!)

    “Skeptic” is the best that comes to my mind right now, though it describes agnostics better than atheists. “Materialist” may be better, but that’s not quite right either. Should we create a word that doesn’t yet exist, but whose roots make it a better description? What do y’all think?

  3. Rachel Robson said,

    October 1, 2005 at 16:52

    I think the phrase you’re looking for here is “false dichotomy.”

    I’ve heard a subtle distinction mentioned in discussions of this topic: some *don’t believe* in god, while others *believe* that god does not exist. I see the latter as more akin to a religious quality of belief–if makes a specific, faith-based claim about the supernatural. Merely not believing in god does not make such a strong, unverifiable claim.

    The weaker version of atheism (i.e., the atheism that *doesn’t believe* in god rather than making claims about the existence of god) comports well with an adage I know you’ll appreciate if you haven’t already run across it: “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.”

    Also, re: Penelope’s comment that “The word “atheist” is inaccurate because it was created by people who couldn’t actually conceive of what it means.” Various authors have pointed out that there’s a strong tradition of skepticism and, indeed, atheism running throughout western culture & history. It’s not until the relatively recent (early 1900s) rise of fundamentalism in western religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) that this idea that atheism is a modern invention even got started. (Part & parcel of fundies’ nostalgia for a mythical good-old-days when we were all true believers, before we became so corrup & decadent.) Traditionally, religions haven’t required *belief* in anything–just faithful obedience to various commandments. Karen Armstrong’s “The History of God” is a good source for more on this topic.

  4. Penelope said,

    October 2, 2005 at 16:23

    Although I have a slightly larger than average, general American vocabulary, I do not know how to use a single word that has Chinese roots. By saying this, I am not suggesting that Chinese Americans do not exist, or that Chinese immigrants and their progeny have not made enormous contributions to American history. All I am saying is this: 1) Chinese speakers are a small minority of Americans, and 2) while some of their words may slip in here in and there (just ask the shlimazel I used to date), minority groups generally do not get to write the language.

    According to Wikipedia, the word “Atheist” comes from “atheos” in ancient Greek–that would be a multifaceted culture that, while it certainly contained many atheists, executed their most remembered philosopher (Socrates) for a variety of charges, the heaviest of which was atheism. The word slipped into the English language around 1587, when the word athéisme was borrowed from the French. France was, at the time, a monarchy entrenched in the idea of the divine right of kings, a political concept which presupposes the existence of God. The majority of French people at the time were Roman Catholic. In fact, although the French government today is a highly secularized democratic republic, a great majority (83-88%, according to Wikipedia) are still Roman Catholic.

    Of course there have always been atheists, but in the history of the development of the English language, there has never been a time when they were the majority in power. I have not read Armstrong’s book, but if I do, I think it’s unlikely that she will show me evidence that atheists created this silly word for themselves.

    And while I will concede that, for most of the time Western culture and the English language have been evolving, people practicing religions probably did largely just obey commandments and carry out rituals without stopping to think about what they believe or whether any alternative exists or makes sense, I think this only shows how deeply rooted the assumption of the existence of God is in Western majority culture. An assumption that one never thinks about is a far deeper part of one’s psyche, and far more difficult to shake, than a conclusion that has been considered and adopted.

    I was raised in the United Methodist Church, perhaps the wishy-washiest example of going through the motions to prove to your neighbors that you’re a good person that our culture has to offer. From the election-based doctrine, to Holy Communion with white bread and Welch’s grape juice, to the annual handing out of a Bible to every 8-year-old present for no reason that anyone is willing to explain, very little in my religious upbringing required belief or even careful thought. Still, although I see no logical reason to believe in Him (and I do tend to assume, against all reason, that God is male, and not a being beyond gender) I find it very difficult to wrap my mind around the possibility of a universe without a Christian-type God, let alone one with not superior being or intentional creator at all. It’s a huge stretch for anyone who is not from the tiny minority of families who choose to raise their children as atheists from the start.

  5. RjZ said,

    October 2, 2005 at 20:26

    It is frequently argued whether or not children are born atheists. Check out this article by Richard Dawkins paying particular note to the comments on children. Dr. Dawkins certainly doesn’t pull any punches!

  6. Rachel Robson said,

    October 8, 2005 at 20:01

    Penelope: I disagree. Minorities add new words to the lexicon all the time. For instance, just from this entry: “blog” and “wiki” are two words invented by the tiny minority of the American population who are computer geeks (and I of course mean “geeks” in the most flattering way possible). Shakespeare dreamed up a whole bunch of words all on his own.

    And, as Methodism shows, even if your group does get unfairly saddled with a pejorative nickname by your opponents, that’s no reason why it can’t be embraced & redefined as one’s own.

    In any case, I don’t see that “atheism” is actually incorrect–the way “anarchist” is a good word for someone who opposes government, in general, or “anemic” is a good word for someone who’s low on blood. We don’t need another word for anemia that defines that condition without any reference to blood–because lack of blood is what defines the condition. Lack of belief in god/s is what defines atheism/fill-in-word-here, so I’m not seeing why “atheism” is an incorrect term, if “theism” is the correct term for the opposite.

    But, following the (I think) commutative property of logic, that still means that Ron’s correct in this entry–if believing in god/s is theism and thus religion, doesn’t it follow that not believing in god/s is not theism and thus not religion? Hmm.

  7. RjZ said,

    October 8, 2005 at 21:52

    If atheism we’re meant only as a comparison between religious views, like anemic is a good word for someone who is low on blood, I would have no problem with it. Indeed, this is a frequent usage of the atheism.

    I am encouraged by your logical construction, it is too easy to argue against. while believing in god/s is theism and therefore religion, not believing in god/s can also be a religion, for example some forms of animism or shamanism, or, if I remember correctly, druidism!

    Lack of belief in god/s only defines an atheist’s philosophy to one who does believe in god/s and is ridiculous to the atheist in much the same way that barbarians are only barbarians from the point of view of those speaking about them and not from the barbarian’s side.

    If atheist really is sufficient as a word, and they have to be saddled with it simply because the assumed reference point is religious, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the atheists choose to call theists (and other religious people) gullible ignoramuses. From their point of view, and taken in reference to the atheist philosophy, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Fortunately the majority of atheists I meet are more polite than this….

  8. Joey said,

    October 19, 2005 at 13:25

    I agree, why name yourself for something that you are NOT. Rather, naming yourself for something you are FOR makes more sense. I know several other atheists and a few I would consider more as “spiritual” than atheist. This is because they believe in varios things that would be considered metaphysical – ESP, ghosts, karma, chi, crystals, sould, etc. To me they should at least call themselves “spiritual”.

    Ron, in your case, there is nothing religious, metaphysical or spiritual that you believe in. You are the most skeptical athiest that I know. Therefore you are the exception to the rule and it would be correct and proper for you to call yourself athiest. If you want to avoid confrontation, perhaps “Freethinker” would be the best way to describe yourself. But I’ve never known Ron Zimmerman to be a nonconfrontationalist either. ;-)


  9. Traveling Hypothesis » Happy universal day of gift exchange said,

    December 21, 2005 at 17:03

    [...] But doesn’t forcing religion out of schools and court houses automatically support the religion of secular humanism? It continues to be frustrating to me that any deeply held belief is considered a religion. Just because the vernacular uses the word religion as such doesn’t make it so. A Boulderite with an almost religious fervor for rock climbing is not a member of the rock climbing religion even if he calls the crags his cathedral. Capitalism is not a religion. Members of the Republican party are not (necessarily) part of a religion. Atheism is not a religion and even the Supreme Court admits that secular humanism is not a religion: In this 1994 case, a science teacher argued that, by requiring him to teach evolution, his school district was forcing him to teach the “religion” of secular humanism. The Court responded, “We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are `religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes.” The Supreme Court refused to review the case; they refused to reverse a ruling that secular humanism is not a religion. [...]

  10. Lee said,

    March 26, 2006 at 15:37

    Must have really Gotcha

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