There has been much confusion over whether atheism is a religion. With the recent population growth of atheists these days it important to understand what this group really believes. For those who are an atheist this is a silly question, but for others this seems to be very confusing. The hope of this article is to put this mystery and confusion to rest.
Terms and definitions are very important, and if a proper definition is not given to a term, then terms can mean something different for everyone and when this happens it obviously causes much confusion. It’s hard to imagine that in a time where information is so easily accessible this can happen, but it does happen when people who are ignorant or have an agenda define a word they know little about. The definition of atheism on (Merriam-Webster online) is:
1) archaic: ungodliness, wickedness
2) a: a disbelief in the existence of deity
b: the doctrine that there is no deity
This definition is disturbing for many reasons, first – ungodliness is accurate but it assumes that it is a bad thing by adding wickedness. Assuming most people who aren’t atheist are a mono-theist, that is like a Jehovah’s witness telling a Moran they are wicked for not believing as they do or vice versa, or insert any two religions of your choice. Until one religion is proven to be true, who is to say ungodliness is a bad thing? For those living in Greece but didn’t believe in Zeus, where they wicked? Back then many would say yes, but of course we would not say that today.
It is interesting that people who are religious have a bigger problem with atheists than they do with those who believe in a god other than their own. If not believing in a god makes someone wicked, than wouldn’t not believing in the “true God” and following a false god make them wicked as well? Some religious people would say yes, but since they are taking their belief on faith and can’t prove their god is real, they don’t want to point the finger at other religions since that would mean putting their own belief under the microscope as well. So until one of the many God’s is proven to be real, it is ridiculous to say those who don’t believe in a god are wicked.
The definition then says atheism is “a disbelief in the existence of deity”, while this is true the definition fails to mention the disbelief is due to a lack of evidence for believing. But to be fair, people can be atheist for reasons other than a lack of evidence such as simply not being interested. It is understandable that the definition doesn’t mention a lack of evidence being a reason for disbelief, but if it is going to use words such as “ungodliness” or “wickedness” to define atheism it should mention why most are atheist.
Definition 2) b: says, “the doctrine that there is no deity”, I’m unaware of any doctrine for atheist because there is no such doctrine. But let’s take a look at the definition of doctrine on (Merriam-Webster online):
1) archaic: teaching, instruction
2) a: something that is taught
b: a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief : dogma
c: a principle of law established through past decisions
d: a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations
e: a military principle or set of strategies
I think we can all agree on this definition and I think particularly 2) b is a very accurate definition and is most likely how doctrine is being used when in the definition for atheism. However, atheism has no principles or position or body of principles in a branch of knowledge of system of belief. For those who don’t believe in UFO’s we don’t say they follow a doctrine, they simply just don’t believe in them due to lack of evidence. No one is born with knowledge of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Scientology, Judaism etc. these are all taught. We are all born atheist, until indoctrinated with a religion. Therefore, atheism has no doctrine.
Now let’s look at the definition of religion as defined at (Merriam-Webster online):
1) a: the state of a religious
b: (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural
(2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3) archaic: scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
4) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
While it should be obvious that atheist do not worship a god or the supernatural, it can appear at times that they do have some sort of belief or practice that they follow since many do share the same views on a number of topics, but these shared views have nothing to do with atheism and is a reflection on how they make decisions and process claims. Since atheist do not normally take things on faith and base their understanding of reality on science and reason they tend to come to the same conclusions on many issues. It is because of these shared views that many assume they follow some form of doctrine.
It can be confusing since there is a label for the non-existence of a religious belief. When we see list labeling groups such as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Hindu, atheist etc., it appears atheist have their own belief system since lumped in with other religions. But think how we would label those who don’t fall into any of those religious categories if the word atheism didn’t exist. We would use words such as “non-believer” or “don’t follow a religion”. But religions such as Christianity call anyone who doesn’t believe as they do “non-believers”, so that term could be confusing as well and “don’t follow a religion” is wordy. So we use the word “atheism” to describe this group. However, the word “non-theist” is starting to be used more these days in hopes to reduce this confusion.
While that should be enough evidence that atheism is a lack of a certain belief and not a religion, I believe there is another reason why this simple fact continues to be misrepresented and misunderstood. Many religious leaders will say that those who have lost their faith in God and have turned to atheism are “being misled by the ways of atheism” or some various form of this statement in order to give the impression that atheism is its own belief. Whether they do this on purpose or it is their own ignorance of the word, it allows them to get around the real reason people become atheist which is the lack of evidence for the claims of a god. Religious leaders do not want to have that discussion because it brings up many difficult questions that they cannot answer, and it is easier to misrepresent atheism in order to avoid those tough issues.
An accurate definition of atheism for Merriam-webster.com could better been defined simply by “the lack of a belief in a god or the supernatural”. It really is that simple, the word atheism is not meant to describe what a person believes but answers the question, “do they follow or believe in any form of theism or a god?” If their answer is no, they are (a)theist, meaning not a theist.