Bruce over at Fallen from Grace posted a response to David Lose’s article for the Huffington Post arguing for atheism as a religion, and now I feel compelled to chime in with my two cents as a religious historian.
I agree with Bruce on several of his points, but I think there’s a serious problem in discussing the question of ‘is atheism a religion’, that there are three distinct but inter-related ways of looking at ‘what is a religion’. One is personal, one is academic and one is legal. Bruce’s response is primarily from the personal perspective, which is really the first and most important one. I wholeheartedly believe that people should be allowed to identify themselves.
The problem arises from the academic perspective on religion, that is a damn hard to come up with an academic definition for ‘a religion’ that includes all of the things we want to include that doesn’t also include atheism. Any definition that includes Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, central Asian shamanic cults and Hellenic polytheist reconstructionists will probably be so broad that atheism will be included, as well. Atheism has a set construction of divinity and of mankind’s relationship to that divinty. It has organizations and communities that gather together because of their shared beliefs. There are atheists books, atheist publications and, I would argue, with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, atheist missionaries.
If this were merely an academic issue, then on some level it wouldn’t matter. In the academic study of religions, we routinely set functional definitions that we recognize might not be acceptable to members of the religion, but which are nevertheless useful for academic consideration. In particular, in studying the history of religions, scholars are often the most concerned with trying to demarcate the borders between religions – what distinguishes first-century Christianity and Mandeanism? First-century Christianity and Judaism? What are ‘the Abrahamic religions’ and how does this concept change over time? These questions have very clear answers for members of the various religious traditions, but for scholars, there is interesting historical information to be mined from the overlaps and disparities between these traditions.
The whole issue becomes far more complicated when we include the issue of a legal definition of religion. If it were merely an issue of the personal conviction versus the academic definition, we could all happily go our separate ways. However, for various reasons, not least among which is the US Constitution, there are times in which the government needs a definition of ‘a religion’. And again, we’re faced with the same problem that any definition broad enough to include everything we want to include would probably include atheism, as well. Unless, of course, we specify that atheism is not a religion.
But honestly, I think that would cause as many problems as it would fix. I know it’s become fashionable in the US to argue that religion is constantly being forced on people, and I grew up in the right part of the US to know how that feels. But there’s a similar problem being faced by religious communities in the US, who feel that atheist organizations aren’t playing by the same rules, that they’re being allowed to missionize to people about their conception of God in circumstances in which a religious group would never be allowed to do so. I don’t think that intentionally excluding atheism from any set definition of religion would be a benefit to anyone, except possibly atheist missionaries.
Really, sometimes I think that, as much as I love my subject, we do make everything more complicated. Perhaps if there weren’t people like me running around trying to define what a religion is, and isn’t, everyone could just identify themselves. So, I guess, sorry? . . . Our bad.