My usual response to this claim is simply to say that if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. This is a witty little retort that has been floating around the internet for some time. I am not sure where it originated, probably with one of the popular atheist authors like Sam Harris or Dan Dennett. However, this doesn’t quite do the trick all the time, so I hope the following extended metaphor will.
Before I delve into the meat of it though, I want to make a rather funny observation. It seems very strange to me that, when someone criticizes religion, an acceptable response from a religious person is, “You have a religion, too!” as if this were an insult of some kind! Of course, I am a little insulted—maybe this is too strong a word. Peeved?—when I hear this, but if you are taking on the mantel of ‘defender of religion’ why would you want to use the term ‘religion’ to insult someone? Wouldn’t that be a complement, coming from a religious person? What an ineffectual thing to say!
Okay, so for the purpose of this post, I am going to compare religion to American football. One can imagine that the various NFL teams are individual religions—we can say that the Vikings are Islam, the Bengals are Christianity, the Saints are Judaism, and the 49ers are Hinduism. The supporters of these teams can be considered the religious people. Obviously, some supporters are going to be more vocal than others. The ones who never miss a game, who talk about football at work and at home, who sit in front of the TV watching game after game when they should be spending time with their families or working, who allow their support for their team to affect every corner of their lives, can be thought of as the extremists or radicals.
Every once in a while, a ‘radical’ supporter from one of these teams will start a fight at a game with a supporter from another team. We can look at this as religious war or terrorism, like the kind we have seen in Gaza or Northern Ireland or the Balkans or in New York City on the morning of September 11th. Can these fights be attributed to simple acts of natural human aggression? Absolutely. Can all people who like football be blamed for these fights? No. But can anyone honestly say they would have happened if there was no football for people to get worked up about in the first place? Of course not. Here is the first place where my analogy succeeds: Although not all football fans are violent, all violence at football games can be attributed to football. Or, although not all religious people are violent, all religious violence can be attributed to religion.
Now, there are also football fans that are not radical or crazy about their teams. These are the religious moderates, people who watch a game on Sunday, who like football because it gives them something to look forward to on the weekends, but who don’t get completely worked up about it and who know how to prioritize work and family over their team. These are much like the people who go to church on Sundays, who feel that religion gives them something to look forward to after life, but who know how to prioritize work and family over their faith.
Then there are the folks who really don’t have a team that they support. Perhaps they are slightly partial to the team that is closest to home or the one their parents supported, but they just enjoy the game. These can be thought of as the pantheists—people, like Oprah or Jesse Jackson, who believe that all religions are just different expressions of god, and whichever one you choose is a matter of personal taste.
And, of course, we can’t forget the guys out on the corner of the stadium on game day, scalpers selling tickets for three times their face value. These guys may or may not really be interested in football, but they do know a money-making opportunity when they see it. We can think of these people as the Chaucerian frauds, cynical exploiters of the gullible religious masses, people like former-hapless-journalist-turned-wealthy-best-selling-creationist Lee Strobel, the (thankfully) late Jerry Falwell, and Ray “Banana Man” Comfort.
Now, where do atheists fit into this picture? Atheists can be seen as people who just don’t like football at all. Perhaps even people who rather dislike football. They don’t root for one particular team; they just don’t participate at all. They opt out. Perhaps they often talk about their irritation at constantly having football shoved down their throats during the season or their feeling of exclusion when others talk about their teams, perhaps just as much as football fans talk about their enjoyment of the sport. But would it make sense to accuse someone who dislikes football intensely of being just as much of a fan as someone who roots for the Bengals or the Vikings? Of course not. They are too entirely different things. Likewise, it does not make sense to criticize someone who sits on the outside of religion, criticizing it for being divisive or exclusive or causing violence, for being just as religious as any follower of Christianity or Islam.
I think people who accuse atheism of being a religion are conflating a religion with a philosophy, or even an ideology. Religion is quite a strictly defined word. It pertains to a set of beliefs in a supernatural agent that requires worship or devotion of some kind. In order to have a religion, you have to 1) believe a supernatural agent exists and 2) worship that supernatural agent. Atheism, which is just the absence of belief in any gods, meets neither of those criteria.
Now, what would be fair of critics of atheism to say is this: You (me) are just as passionate about your atheism as some believers are about their religions. I can accept that. But it is not acceptable to conflate passion for an idea with worship of a supernatural agent. By this standard, we could assign certain people to the religion of Democrat or Republican, or the religion of communism or animal rights activism, or, indeed, the religion of Bengalism or Vikingism, all of which everyone would (presumably) agree are not religions.