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I have heard this statement used by Christians. Atheists counter that the lack of belief isn't a religion or belief system. Is there a logical justification for the charge that atheism is a religion?

I'm looking for more than just appropriately defining the terms to make the sentence technically correct.

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closed as off-topic by James T, El'endia Starman Jun 25 '14 at 1:47

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Often it just means atheism is a world view. –  Neil Meyer May 15 '14 at 12:08
@NeilMeyer So why do atheists reject the statement? –  mojo May 15 '14 at 12:36
This is not a question about Christianity. It is about atheism, or arguably, it could be a question about philosophy. I don't think it's right for this site. The general absence of the topic of Christianity in the answers is also evidence to that effect. –  James T Jun 25 '14 at 0:37
@JamesT I thought this question was borderline. I erred that it was asking why many Christians justify filing Atheism a belief while most Atheists insists that it is not. It's a "why do Christians say this" sort of question, which have been received with mixed results in the past. Usually, they are listed as too broad. –  fredsbend Jun 25 '14 at 6:51

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Atheism is a belief system which makes claims about spiritual things. Atheism says there are no gods, but so do other belief systems which no one denies are religions, such as some forms of Buddhism. Atheism contrasts with religions, rather than social or political movements like egalitarianism, anarchism, communism, so it makes sense to classify it as a religion. In a way, atheism is the religious parallel of anarchism - just as anarchists deny political structures as being valid, atheists deny spiritual beings as valid. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be classified as political and religious systems respectively.

There are some belief systems which are harder to classify as a religion or a philosophy, such as Confucianism. Compared to that there is no doubt which box atheism belongs in: the truths it claims are solely about spiritual things, and there is no shared philosophical or ethical framework among atheists.

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This answer is correct with respect to positive/strong/hard atheism but not negative/weak/soft atheism (see Wikipedia), the latter of which is more like agnosticism (in fact, I'm not sure how it differs). –  Nick Stauner May 28 '14 at 3:15
Yes I'm only talking about actual atheists, not agnostics or apatheists. –  curiousdannii May 28 '14 at 4:44
Nice post, but this is confusing: "atheists deny spiritual realities as valid." Not that I don't understand what you are saying, but saying someone denies a reality is different than saying they contest the reality of something. Do you see the difference? –  fredsbend Jun 24 '14 at 21:40
@fredsbend Hmm yes, I meant "realities" in the "possible worlds" sense, which is confusing. I have been considering whether to change it for a while. Now that you've commented I definitely will. Just have to find the right phrase... –  curiousdannii Jun 24 '14 at 21:44
One of the reasons I avoid saying I am an atheist is that it seems much to close to a religion for my liking. I think this answer captures the belief system that many atheists hold. –  user27239 Jun 25 '14 at 1:46

I am not sure about the word religion, but one can argue that (a form of) atheism is a belief system.

A belief system is a system of beliefs. Some beliefs depend on others, forming an interrelated set of beliefs and their implications.

Strong atheism is defined as belief that there are no gods. Many call this just "atheism". Well, this belief has implications. For example -- how did life arise on Earth? It had to have happened in a "natural" way without intelligent design, etc.

A person may claim to have "no belief" but when they perform an action, there is usually a belief behind it. If I want to accomplish X, and I do Y, it is because I believe Y will bring about X. If someone tells me X will happen if I do Y, and I do Y anyway, it's probably because I don't fear X. For example, when atheists on youtube write blasphemous stuff, they are essentially believing that they won't be punished. That is part of their belief system.

Some call that a "religion" but it's more accurate to call that a belief system. Every person has a belief system, and just like individual belief systems can vary from Christian to Christian, with some commonality, same goes with atheists.

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What's the functional difference between a "belief system" and a "religion"? –  mojo May 15 '14 at 5:03
A belief system doesn't have to be a religion –  Gregory Magarshak May 15 '14 at 6:01
Consider the second submeaning from dictionary.com. What distinguishes a religion from a belief system? What does a religion have that a belief system doesn't have to have? –  mojo May 15 '14 at 6:13

Re-appropriating the term atheism is what is causing the issue. If we break the word down it is clear that the first definition should be "a belief that there is or are no god(s)." The prefix a has long been used as a reversal, or negation, for the term that follows it. The suffix ism has long been used for any kind of belief or organized thought system. The actual term is derived from the Greek word for god.

Here's what we are left with:

  • Theism is a belief in god.
  • Atheism is a belief in not god.

The confusion leading to this re-appropriation is from misplacing the negation. If we were to say that atheism means not a belief in god (notice the misplacement of the reversal/negation) then we are not being true to the word's structure and implied definition. The ism suffix already implies what it is, a belief or school of thought, and placing the negation on that is contradictory. The a does not negate the ism; it negates the root, theo. It is akin to saying that it is not a belief or school of thought, but (and the following might be better on philosophy.se) that is the same as saying that atheism and theism are in fact not opposites and are therefore in a different class of terms, which can lead one to think that they are not mutually exclusive, however their regular use suggests otherwise.

Atheists who want to re-appropriate the term's meaning are insistent that what they hold to is not a belief (however they might likely accept school of thought), so to overcome the above contradiction they replace the negation with the word lack, leading us to the second definition, "a lack of belief in God."

There is already a word for that, however: agnosticism. Agnosticism (also a school of thought, but not necessarily a belief) is characterized by confessing uncertainty on the topic entirely. Essentially, saying one is agnostic is the same as saying that one is unsure on whether there is a god or not. The term literally means "a school of thought that is without knowledge." They are unsure if belief in a god is warranted, therefore, there is a lack of belief.

If one would characterize his opinion on the topic as certainty that there is no god (notice the negation placement) then one should rightly call oneself atheist. If one would characterize his opinion on the topic as not having a belief or opinion (notice the negation again) or a lack of belief or opinion then one should rightly call oneself agnostic.

And the inverse of atheist is theist, where one's opinion on the topic is certainty that there is/are god(s). We cannot call theism a belief and not also call atheism a belief.

This will naturally not convince any Atheists. They will still use the term freely, defining it as "the lack of belief," and adamantly insist that they are not believers in anything.

A compromise: Skepticism is an appropriate word for an agnostic who might believe if there was convincing evidence. Add on scientific skepticism and that would be appropriate for the apathetic position that some have toward all religion, because, in their mind, it cannot be scientifically supported.

This gets more complicated when looking at the historic use of the word Atheism. Centuries ago it was difficult for people to fathom a literal belief in the non-existence of any gods. And such a belief, which is somewhat common today, was rare at best then. The words that are often translated Atheism are often more used in the same sense as heathen. The ancients often used the word to describe that kind of person who "walked without religion." They were likely believers in something, but they did not participate in the rituals, the sacrifices, festivals, etc. They are "without religion".

In today's modern society, there is actually a sound argument for the non-existence of any god, based on scientific skepticism. But scientific skepticism is a relatively new concept. The method by which scientists reach conclusions only really met its potential starting about 200 years ago. Hence, terms are being forged and redefined to describe this "new" school of thought.

Now this is a sensitive topic for some people. Trying to place what you believe into a single word is difficult at best and laying down the three terms, theism, atheism, and agnosticism, and demanding that all persons fit neatly into only one of them is not fair to them and does a great disservice to the greatest of all human quests: finding meaning in our lives.

But with that said, the re-appropriation of atheism is confusing at best and completely redefining it at worst. It would be best to stick to the original meaning, the first definition I supplied, and if one finds oneself not quite fitting into the mold of one of the three then err on agnosticism when forced to use a single word and speak up to be heard when there is no such restriction. Even coin your own phrase if necessary; it might catch on.

The content of this post has been edited from one of my earlier posts on English.SE to match this question.

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What you've said is a sound lexical analysis and is interesting. Regardless of what the word ought to mean based in its construction, however, the people who use the word as a label (though not uniformly in agreement) might not care if one tells them they are using the wrong word or change their position to conform to proper English construction. –  mojo Jun 24 '14 at 21:28
@mojo Yep: "This will naturally not convince any Atheists. They will still use the term freely, defining it as "the lack of belief," and adamantly insist that they are not believers in anything." Unfortunately, almost everyone is stubborn and slow to admit they are wrong. –  fredsbend Jun 24 '14 at 21:30
No matter what word is used to describe someone who is not an actual agnostic, it seems like it ought to be possible to construct a sound, logical argument demonstrating that asserting even "lack of belief" is, in fact, a positive assertion about something one believes on the matter. –  mojo Jun 24 '14 at 21:30
@mojo Yes, you could start such assertions, saying that everything one thinks is belief, but then some will say things like: "I do not have belief or unbelief; I have knowledge and am without knowledge." Now, I think this gets off-topic for this site, as this is very philosophical. There is a philosophy.se, though I have never visited it. –  fredsbend Jun 24 '14 at 21:33
@mojo I realize now that I did not address the assertion that Atheism is a religion. I think that false. A religion is characterized by order and/or hierarchy and prescriptive and proscriptive actions for certain scenarios. Religion necessarily includes ritual, where I don't think Atheism does. –  fredsbend Jun 24 '14 at 21:37

We define religion differently than they do. They define their set as an anti-set and we define it as an opposing set. The two definitions are incompatible and cannot be resolved.

Athist view themselves as a set which does not contian relgion

enter image description here Christians view atheism as the worship of secular humanism an opposing force

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How can you be sure that resolution is impossible? Is there no logical argument to demonstrate that a claimed lack of belief is, in fact, a positive belief assertion? –  mojo May 15 '14 at 5:12
do you understand what the difference is between the opposite set and the anti set? –  caseyr547 May 15 '14 at 5:25
Since you're asking, I guess not. I couldn't find pertinent definitions, so I'm attempting to infer the meaning. My comment is asking whether or not the idea of an anti-set in this context is logical. Atheists may say, "we lack belief (in gods)." What those same people don't affirm is that they believe something in its place, as if the lack of belief about gods doesn't have logical implications about some positive belief concerning gods. –  mojo May 15 '14 at 6:07
@mojo an atheist rejects most if not all irrational behaviour when they reject religion –  caseyr547 May 15 '14 at 6:24
Would you assert that it is rational (for an atheist) to assume that unempirical belief is irrational, or is there empirical evidence to support the assumption? (Or is it a conclusion and not an assumption?) I guess what I'm getting at is: does atheism stand on any more solid logical footing than what they call "religion?" It seems like restricting "rationality" to empirical evidence is an unprovable assumption, and thus not empirically different than the assumptions that "religions" make. –  mojo May 15 '14 at 6:28

They believe that a Religion needs to have a God to be considered a Religion. So they would more correctly be considered an organization. I have talked to many atheists, and most of them believe in reality. I believe that reality is the Face of God. So technically they really do believe in God, they just do not define reality as God.

So in one position you could consider that since they believe in reality, and reality is God, then they really are a religion. Yet since the do not consider God to be reality. They won't accept that God means thing, and that all things are God.

Yet opposite equal reactions are their law the same as opposite equal reactions is the ancient laws that are still in play. They will believe Newton, who proved that the law is always consistent.

They also are under work related laws that uniformly correspond between Christianity and also Atheism. For example:

Christian: Thou shall not bow down to an Idol.
Atheist: Correct Lifting Procedures.

Christian: The Spirit opposes the Flesh.
Atheist: Sexual Harassment Policies.

Christian: Repent of Sin.
Atheist: Follow Harassment Policies.

Christian: Witchcraft do not enter into heaven.
Atheist: Drug Users do not get to go to work.

Christian: Drunkards do not enter into heaven.
Atheist: No Alcohol usage on the Job(few exceptions), Do not come to work Drunk(few exceptions).

So like it or not they are under the Law of Error and Death. Yet it is better not to argue with them, For they will come to Christ by the Happiness that the Christians display upon there face.

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