As with so many other questions nowadays, the answer to whether atheism is its own religion depends on two things: who you ask and how you define your terms. While our question seems like a simple and straightforward one requiring only a yes or no answer, such definitely is not the case.
The thing you have to remember about words is that they tend to mean what the people using them want them to mean. This put us into an immediate Tower of Babel situation where we’re all using the same words, but no one understands what anyone else is saying.
So let’s start by agreeing, at least for the purposes of this blog post, on what we mean when we use the word “religion.” However else you may define a religion, you should have no problem agreeing that one has the following three fundamental characteristics:
- It is a belief system; I.e., it can’t be proven via empirical evidence.
- It takes a stand on the existence of God (or a god or gods).
- It takes a stand on the existence of an afterlife.
If this is our definition of a religion, then atheism definitely is one because it encompasses all three of these fundamentals.
But we can break down religions into the following types as well:
A single-positive religion takes a positive position on the existence of God (or a god or gods) but either rejects or doesn’t address the existence of an afterlife — or vice versa. For instance, Suddacee Judiasm asserts the existence of the God who created the universe but rejects the existence of an afterlife. Theravada Buddhism, conversely, asserts the existence of an afterlife, i.e., reincarnation, but rejects the existence of God or a god or gods.
Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all double-positive religions. Why? Because Christianity and Islam both assert the existence of the monotheistic God who created the universe and Hinduism asserts the existence of many gods. And all three of these religions assert the existence of an afterlife — resurrection in the case of Christianity and Islam, and reincarnation in the case of Hinduism.
Under this approach, atheism once again qualifies as a religion. It rejects both the existence of God, god, or gods, and it also rejects the idea of an afterlife. For an atheist, the universe is all there is. Your life is all there is to your life. When you die, you die. That’s it. The end.
A Rose by Any Other Name
In the West, the word “atheism” has its etymological root in the ancient Greek word atheos, meaning “without god(s).” Originally it referred to people who either had no belief in or commitment to God or gods or to people whom God or the gods had forsaken. The modern, much more narrow meaning of the word “atheism” first appeared in the 16th century as a result of the spread of free thought, skeptical inquiry, and criticism of religion in general and various religions specifically.
Finally, in the 18th century, people started self-identifying as atheists during the Age of Enlightenment. The French Revolution of 1789 became the first major political movement to ever advocate human reason as the ultimate truth.
But here again, even a non-belief (in a Supreme Being) such as atheism might qualify as a religion, not only due to its double-negativism, but also because of its practitioners’ strident adherence to their belief system.
Back to our original question: Is atheism its own religion? Probably the last person you should ask is a non-atheist. Just let it go. After all, you don’t need his or her permission to believe as you do, any more than that individual needs you to believe as he or she does. But a word to the wise: Actions do often speak much louder than words.