Atheism is not a religion. I repeat: atheism is not a religion.
It seems that the effort that has been put into getting this point across would have born more fruit, but my experiences tell me this message is still not getting across to a wide variety of people. Whether on TV, online forums, Twitter, there is a relatively constant assumption that 'not believing in god(s)' is simply the other side of the coin to 'believing in god(s)'. This is incorrect, but I feel that the reasoning behind the equivocation is rarely made explicit (though I've seen enough relevant memes pop up online to know people are aware of the issue). I have touched on this issue lightly in the podcasts, but I feel it bears a more robust discussion here.
The difference between stating ‘there are no gods’ and ‘there are gods’ is much greater than the word ‘no’. By stating the former, one disqualifies deities from one’s ontology, but nothing else is necessarily implied. You have not ruled out immaterial objects, such as souls, angels, ghosts, and the like. You have not positively described anything or subscribe to anything except the negation of gods within your metaphysics. You’ve pulled gods from reality but left every other possibility on the table.
Now consider the opposite: by stating that there are divine beings you are committing to a positive statement, and those statements come with metaphysical baggage that may be more than you want to carry. By acknowledging gods (in the traditional sense, as I’m not going to get into a semantics argument here), you are necessarily stuck with immaterialism. You have to allow for immaterial objects in your ontology, because otherwise gods couldn’t be as they ought to be. This difference is critical.
If the two worldviews were compared in a diagram, the similarities could possibly very close, with the simple exclusion of gods on one side.
Everything else could be allowed to exist without internal contradictions within the metaphysics of either camp. The possible differences are, however, huge. For example, by disavowing a divine explanation for reality’s existence in my personal ontology, I have opted to remove all immaterial objects from it. Having gone this far, I feel immaterial things as a category of objects are explanatorily unnecessary. Going back to the diagram, the potential areas of similarity are now substantially reduced.
The kicker is that the things that don’t overlap are entirely on the side of the theist, meaning they are committed to a host of things I need not be. This means that atheism allows for but does not mandate anything except for one simple statement: gods do not exist. Based on that belief we only commit to the first diagram. That’s it, end of story. There is no logical entailment for a rejection of anything else, at least necessarily. Does atheism make it easier to reject immaterialism and all of its attendant objects, as found in the second diagram: YES. Does it require it? NO.
What does this mean, going back to my original point? It means that defining someone as an atheist is borderline meaningless. It is the same as defining someone as an a-unicornist. All you've done is point out one single belief that person holds: there are no unicorns. A religious person is in an entirely different camp, however, because of what theism requires for one’s ontology.
Keep in mind that all of this baggage is independent of the beliefs about a given god. This isn’t about Christianity or Islam or paganism. This is about how a simple, one sentence statement can have dramatic implications for one’s philosophy and those implications are greater and greater the more specific one becomes. For all that believing in a higher power entails, believing that higher power died for your sins has many, many more. Think of the absurd doctrines defended (I’m think of the Christian Trinity, personally) because of the logical implications of layer after layer of religious beliefs and tenets.
Being an atheist has none of this, nor does atheism in the abstract. It is a simple statement regarding one class of objects. There is no altar raised at which we all worship by believing gods do not exist. The beliefs of one atheist and another regarding most anything else can be worlds apart because we are not bound to a positive statement. Acknowledging a negative is far, far different than affirming a positive. Religion requires the latter, atheism only the former.
Unlike religions, which are founded on a set of positive statements and beliefs, atheism is a single, negative belief that commits one to nothing beyond a godless reality. I hope I’ve shown that lumping us all together in our un-belief is ineffective and ultimately meaningless for describing us as a group. And if you can’t even do that, how can atheism be a religion?
Featured Image by Krzysztof Dobrzański.