Is atheism a religion? This question seems to be of interest to atheists as evidenced in an unscientific Twitter poll I recently ran that generated around 10,000 impressions and 1,500 engagements. 79% of respondents indicated that atheism is not a religion; 10% indicated that atheism is a religion; 5% indicated that they did not know or care whether atheism is a religion and 6% indicated that the poll made them mad. The comments that filled my notifications about the poll highlighted the importance of identifying the correct definition of a religion. Accordingly, I will present several definitions of religion to determine whether atheism should be considered a religion. I will further present reasons why atheists should want to be considered a religion.
Merriam-Webster defines religion in four ways: (1) the state of a religious; the service and worship of God or the supernatural; the commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; (2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious beliefs and practices; (3) scrupulous conformity; and (4) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. If the first definition is endorsed, atheism would not be a religion. If the second, third, or fourth definitions are endorsed (and if the supernatural requirement is omitted), atheism would be considered a religion. The third definition of “scrupulous conformity” applies to atheists who conform to the notion that there is no God or higher power.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines religion broadly (c.f., Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition) as ultimate ideas about life, purpose, and death. Atheists (excluding those in Buddhist or Jain sects or sects with similar beliefs) place a premium on this life and do not believe in the next (or a higher Godly purpose), so they live their lives accordingly. Their beliefs about life, purpose and death therefore differ from theists’ beliefs.
Because of the EEOC’s broad definition, the EEOC includes atheism among the protected religious groups under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act prohibits discrimination in employment against workers or job seekers due to their sincerely held beliefs. Employers cannot make employment decisions that adversely impact people due to their religious beliefs unless the religious beliefs are considered bona fide occupational qualifications. For example, a Baptist church may require a Baptist pastor as a bona fide occupational qualification.
Accordingly, it is to the atheists’ benefit to be defined broadly as a religion, so why do atheists resist being defined as a religion? Firstly, they may resist due to their conception that religion follows Merriam-Webster’s first definition and includes the worship of God or the supernatural. Secondly, they may resist because if atheism is defined as a religion or system of beliefs instead of a “lack of belief” in God, they can’t claim that theists have the burden of proof to provide evidence for the belief in God. In my opinion, it is the second reason that drives many atheists to reject the assertion that atheism is a religion…even though they may reap legal protections, tax benefits, and stronger rights when defined as a religion. In other words, I would advise my atheist friends to consider themselves part of a religion.
Before I close let me note that it is curious that some atheists care more about the burden of proof than their legal rights. Or maybe not. I also care more about God’s justice than ours.
Thank you for your time.