What is atheism?

I am going to argue that atheism is not a religion but a religious outlook.

Religion is notoriously hard to define and i shall not attempt to here. I will call upon Wittgenstein’s idea of a family resemblance and say that there are many things that make up a religion: a metaphysics, holy books, meeting places, an ethics, rituals, gods, saints, etc. and to call something a religion you need to have a fair number of them.

I have been calling atheism a religion. That was at best misleading. Atheism is no more a religion than theism is. It doesn’t have meeting places, holy books, or rituals. Theism denotes a type of religion. Atheism does too, or at least would, were there any specific instances of a-theist religions with holy books, rituals and meeting places.

(Of course, confucianism is usually pointed out as an atheist religion and there are atheist strands in hinduism and buddhism. Marxism and Maoism had holy books, meeting places, and saints, though perhaps no rituals. We are however here slowly moving towards “things” that do not have quite enough religious characteristics to still call them full-fledged religions.)

The problem with defining atheism, like theism, as simply “a type as opposed to an instance of religion” is twofold:

First, very few people go around calling themselves theists, but more and more people identify themselves as atheists (or agnostics). This might be because atheism as we now know it has seemingly become a rallying banner for all those who are dissatisfied with religion in general. Atheism is for some, and only for some!, more an anti-theism or an a(nti)-religion. One could perhaps call this positive atheism. It is certainly not the only possible type of atheism, but certainly the most vocal one – and the one i dislike. This type of atheism is much more than a simple type of metaphysical belief, let alone a single non-belief. It is a platform, a cri de guerre and a worldview. It is almost a(n anti-) religion.

Many people do not care about god(s), haven’t ever thought about them much, but do not consider themselves atheists. They are just not interested in the question. Those who do insist on calling themselves atheists and who are proud of the label do not simply “not believe in the existence of god(s)”, they have a particular existential interest in being atheist. Which brings me to the second reason why atheism is more than a simple descriptor of a possible metaphysical view.

Atheism is fundamentally the answer to a specifically religious question: “Is there a god?”. Its answer is “No.” It doesn’t ignore the question. But answers it very carefully. This is why i want to call atheism a religious outlook. An atheist is very much concerned with religious questions, though disliking all supernatural and institutionally organized answers. In that sense atheism might not be a religion, though atheists are minimally religious – otherwise they wouldn’t bother calling themselves atheists!

Now i do realize that atheism can also be viewed as an attempt to get rid of all forms of religiosity or supernaturalism. And some might object to my above description on that premise. My caveat to them is: the call to rid the world of religion sounds awfully religious. Beware of ushering in a new religion under the guise of atheism.


11 Comments to “What is atheism?”

  1. Oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with you. I’m a former agnostic, turned ‘christian’, and one thing I noticed about TRUE atheists versus proclaimed atheists is that TRUE atheists really didn’t care one way or another if there was a god, and just assumed there wasn’t; whereas the proclaimed atheists were more of a public statement, and in fact were borderline fanatics in trying to tell everyone that there wasn’t a god… as if they were trying to convince someone. Why would you try to convince someone that there isn’t a god if you didn’t believe there was… eventually it’s all going to work out, right?

  2. metaphyzxx – your thoughts about preachy atheists is what got me worked up about them way back. When all those New Atheist books came out and seeing Dawkins running around advertising atheism: it looked just like There Was No God And Dawkins Was His Prophet! The atheists were evangelizing the christians, trying to convert them, showing them the sins of their religious ways and telling them to accept the TRUTH! Nothing new under the sun… but im not so sure its all going to work out… with a bit of luck maybe…

  3. Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color. Seriously dude, atheism is the absence of religious belief. Putting atheism under a religion is like putting the American sceptics society under supersticion because they spend there time examining supersticions and discovering their validity. The reason atheists “evangalize” is because they are afraid the nutty theists will get everyone killed, plus they value truth over falsehood.

  4. Atheism and theism are very easily understood. Deceptively easy. So easy, in fact, that folks can’t accept how extremely simple they are and just go on and invent a lot of nonsense and attribute it to atheists and theists incorrectly. For example, the phrase “true atheist” is complete and utter nonsense. It contains zero semantic content. The two words are not belief-positions, or “worldviews”. Neither of them says *anything at all* about faith. There are not varying degrees of atheism and theism where someone could be “more atheist” than someone else who is “less atheist”. It flat-out doesn’t work that way. You might as well say, “that light switch is ‘more on’ than that other light switch.” See? It makes no sense. It is literally sense-less.

    The two words are merely descriptions:

    “Theism” describes a person in whom god-belief is present.

    “Atheism” describes a person in whom god-belief is absent.

    It is a binary equation. It is there or not there, on or off, a one or a zero. There is no middle ground*.

    Period. The end.

    Any attempt to tack-on additional attributes and say that all atheists believe “x”, or all theists believe “y”, are fundamentally incorrect and show a profound lack of understanding about what the actual words mean – as opposed to want we *want* them to mean.

    * (If you are thinking “agnosticism” right now is that “middle ground”, you are wrong. Agnosticism deals with the absence of god-*knowledge*, not with the absence of god belief. Conversely, “gnosticism” is the *presence* of god-knowledge. In other words, it addresses a completely different question. So, it is possible to be *both* an atheist [one who lacks god belief] and an agnostic [one who lacks positive knowledge that a god exists], and visa-versa.)

  5. “Now i do realize that atheism can also be viewed as an attempt to get rid of all forms of religiosity or supernaturalism. And some might object to my above description on that premise. My caveat to them is: the call to rid the world of religion sounds awfully religious. Beware of ushering in a new religion under the guise of atheism.”

    If we ever reach a point where wars are fought in the name of atheism, or religious beliefs are oppressed under “new atheist” governments, or atheism breeds suicide bombers, then you might have a point.

    Until then, I don’t see anything religious in wanting to rid the world of religion, any more than it’s religious to want to rid the world of smallpox. The “new atheist” movement has so far been an entirely rhetorical one, and has always supported people’s freedom to practice whatever religion they choose (with the caveat that they are free to be criticised for their choice).

    The day the first war is waged in Dawkins’ name, you have every right to say “I told you so”.

    (And South Park episodes don’t count.)

  6. “There Was No God And Dawkins Was His Prophet.” Love it.

  7. Let’s not forget that there is a political dimension to this. Many atheists – and I include myself – chose to publicly proclaim their atheism and positively campaign because of the increasing use of religion as an instrument of politics. Even now, American politicians are falling over themselves to prove their godliness in their race for the White House. (I’ll leave aside the obvious irony that the last thing that Jesus would advocate is becoming Caesar).

    With the Christian right on one side and radical Islam on the other, to name but two, what should atheist do, sit quietly?

  8. I’m an atheist and I was delighted when all those atheist books came out. I feel alone most of the time. Reading those books just made me feel like there are more people out there like me. I never try to convert anyone. Another reason I am glad there are atheist leaders is because in a lot of ways I feel persecuted. That me too strong a word. I just feel like I need to hide that I am an atheist to certain people. I don’t even talk about it with my small children because I don’t want them to tell their friends and their friend’s parents because I think they will hold it against them. One time in a job interview I felt like the job interviewer was trying to find out what church I belong to. I answered the question in a way that I didn’t really mention a church and I think it hurt me. I wasn’t offered a job. I just realized that I am basically saying that I suffer religious persecution and I am an atheist – go figure.

  9. yep, athiests don’t believe in a God(s) or religion which leaves them in a small predicament.

    What do they now believe in.


    Perhaps they believe that science, intelligent men know the right answers?

    If so, that’s their religion. Their Gods are mere humans, men.

    It keeps it simple.

    That way, when I look around at the world I can immediately measure the value of what their God’s (intelligent men) are thinking. I measure the result, the value of their religion.

    Now the Christians point of view is justified.

    Their daily prayer takes on meaning.

    “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done”.

    Certainly if the result of what I see measures the value of what the most intelligent people are thinking, (the athiests religion) then I want it replaced with something better asap.

    It makes even more sense when the bible is examined in regard to what I have said above.

    Genesis 3
    4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    The first lies! The original sin!

    You will be like God, knowing good and bad.

    We do die and we don’t have a clue what to do.

    The only way that God can resolve this dilemma is to let men do what they think is the right thing to do.

    By measuring the value of the decisions those intelligent men are making simply by looking around at what is happening in the world true Christian can now see the lie.

    The end result goes to God’s favor.

    Certainly he knows what to do!

    The thing is, now we’ll have to ask him.

    “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done”.


    because it should now be obvious that men (the athiests Gods) really don’t have a clue what to do.

    That athiests exist helps me to understand the bible.

    In a way I guess I have to be thankfull for them.



  10. and

    If the result of what I see does not measure the value of what the most intelligent men are thinking then……………..

    I guess they are not intelligent enough.

  11. I was directed here by way of a “related posts” link from one of my blog postings (see “Goodbye to God…well, not yet”) that deals in a lot of ways with many of the things you mention in this post.

    Atheists would not be so anti-religious minded if there was not a continual, forceful effort on the part of Christian fundamentalists to inject their morality and beliefs into all aspects of society. Agnostics and atheists (not to mention average, everyday skeptics) will not tolerate Christian lobbyists attacking the underpinnings of our democratic and secular ways of life. People get offended when Christianity (or any other belief which they reject) is rudely forced down their throats. Why should people sit back and let a small interest group turn our country into a theocracy where “sins” are criminalized and centuries of scientific achievement is turned on its head?

    So, in light of the efforts (and achievements) of Christians to manipulate the status quo, atheism has been forced to act contrary to how it is defined and become a rallying cry.

    But I agree that the atheistic mindset does incorporate a religious outlook. A knowledge of the Bible and other religions is necessary because people have to know what it is they are not believing in. One cannot refuse to believe in something which they have never heard of before.

    Shrugging off the religious yoke is such a laborious task for many atheists because so many people have been steeped in religious dogma from a very young age. Not all atheists are progeny of the freethinking hippy generation. A lot of them had very devout upbringings. I talk to a lot of atheists and agnostics who were educated in Catholic schools and who still attend church most Sundays. They are able to aim such quick-witted criticisms at Christians because they know the Bible inside and out.

    I do not agree with your assessment that atheism is a “type” of religion. It is definitely a trend that will most likely have lasting implications. But symposiums, books like The God Delusion and the symbolism atheists employ do not constitute the “things” you mentioned that qualify a school of thought as being a veritable religion. Atheists do not worship anything, they don’t have holy scripture or laws and commandments and they do not believe in an afterlife.

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