The question of whether atheism is another kind of religion seems to pop up with surprising regularity. I’d like to spend a few moments sharing my understanding of what atheism is (and isn’t) along with some ideas about where points of confusion may arise.
I find it useful to think about atheism in relation to other *theisms. There are a lot and I won’t include them all but … there’s theism, which is the belief in one or more gods who are usually creators that get involved in human affairs. There’s monotheism, which is a belief in one god. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are examples of monotheistic religions, although some might debate Christianity on the grounds of the Trinity. Polytheism is the belief in more than one god, as in Hinduism or the ancient Greek pantheon (Zeus, Poseidon, etc.). Anti theism is an opposition to a belief in any gods. Pantheism is the belief that “god” is essentially another word for describing nature or the universe. Atheism describes an absence of belief in any gods.
None of the *theisms are in themselves religions but instead describe a position on a belief in god or gods. However, religions may have a stance on the existence of gods. For example, all Muslims are monotheistic (as far as I’m aware) but not all monotheists are Muslims. So it follows that atheism, as an absence of a belief in gods, is not a religion, but a religion could be atheistic. All we can say about monotheists for sure is that they believe in one god, although not necessarily the same one. Similarly, all we may say about atheists for sure is that they have no beliefs in any gods. Why one person is an atheist might be completely different from why another is. Atheists, like monotheists, polytheists etc. don’t necessarily believe the same things or base their beliefs on sound reasoning.
So why is atheism sometimes spoken about as though it’s a religion? I think confusion about definitions of atheism can explain this to an extent but I also think that many atheists draw on science, reason and logic when discussing religion, which some people may see as a system of belief that is analogous to religion. It could be that the repeated pairing of the word “atheist” with “science” facilitates this misconception. Science is of course no more a religion than atheism but like religion, science is in the business of saying things about existence. A core difference between science and religion is the means by which we get there. Religions, particularly those based on holy books, make claims about existence from a position of assumed authority. Things are true because an authority says so. Believers may be promised rewards and non-believers might be threatened with punishment. It is a way of looking at the world based on subservience and faith. Scientists make claims about existence from a position of questioning. They observe, hypothesise, test, and theorise as part of an ongoing “chipping away” at the truth. There is no reward or punishment for believing but there is the utility of discoveries. It is a way of looking at the world based on scepticism and evidence. Another important distinction is that when scientists make new discoveries and new evidence arises, scientific claims are amended and improved, whereas many religions aren’t (easily) able to change in response to new discoveries. Good examples are geology, the fossil record and evolution, which for many casts doubt on creationist explanations of human origins (sometimes called intelligent design).
In my first post I talked a little about how I stopped believing in god. My reasons for not believing were not terribly scientific but were sort of empirical. I had prayed many times in my life but had never observed a response. Nor had I seen or heard anything that could be called evidence for the existence of a god. This was enough to spark a wider interest in religion and to cause me to critically engage with some of the claims made by religions. I share the view that there is no reason to believe something without compelling evidence. This is why I identify as an atheist. However, I don’t think you need to be an atheist to question religious claims to knowledge. In fact many religious people, to their credit, are critical for example of the sexism and homophobia they observe in holy books and daily life.