7 reasons why atheism is a religion

Atheism[1] will be defined as not just the lack of belief in a god, but the insistence about the non-existence of any gods, spirits, or divine or supernatural beings. Atheists in this sense are metaphysical naturalists, and as will be shown, they DO follow a religion.

Religion is a difficult thing to define. Various definitions have been proposed, many of which emphasize a belief in the supernatural.[2] But such definitions fail to deal with religions which worship non-supernatural things in their own right (for example Jainism, which holds that every living thing is sacred because it is alive, or the Mayans who worshiped the sun as a deity-among others); they fail to include religions such as Confucianism and Taoism which focus almost exclusively on how believers should live, and have little to say about supernatural issues such as the existence of an afterlife; they also don’t deal with odd-ball movements around UFOs—which believe that aliens are evolutionarilyadvanced (but not supernatural) beings.

Determining if a worldview is a religion is widely accepted by anthropologists and researchers of religion as broadly covering the various aspects of religion, without focusing on things unique to specific religions. We need to look for certain characteristics that religions have in common. Ninian Smart[3] has proposed seven dimensions that are narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. Not every religion has every dimension, nor are they all equally important within an individual religion.

1)    NARRATIVE: Every religions has stories explaining where the universe came from and what humanity’s part in it is. Evolution is an explanation of where everything came from: the cosmos (came out of nothing at the big bang—nothing exploded and became everything); humans evolved from non-human creatures, hence humanity’s place in the cosmos is being just another species of animal.

2)    EXPERIENTIAL: There are two aspects to the experiential dimension. The first is the events experienced before someone founded a religion (for example the Disciples physically saw and touched the resurrected Jesus). It is often asserted that Charles Darwin, after observing evidence from around the world during his voyage on HMS Beagle, developed the theory of evolution. The second aspect of the experiential dimension concerns the experiences of latter adherents. Many people feel certain emotions when they participate in certain religious ceremonies. Atheists often believe that Atheism is freedom from religion, and some Atheists have reported feeling liberated after converting[4]. Atheistic denial of the divine entails denial of an afterlife. If there is no afterlife,[5] then ultimately there is no higher purpose in life for Atheists than to be happy. Belief in evolution also causes people to aim for self preservation and to spread their own genes.[6] You can include in experiential include ‘faith’ which is often twisted to make it mean things it does not. In Christianity, faith is logical, being defined in Hebrews 11:1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is not blindly believing the impossible (which is how many Atheists define faith), but rather trusting the promises of God, whose past promises have all been fulfilled. On the other hand, Atheism requires ‘faith’ (using their own definition) that the laws of chemistry, physics and biology were once violated and life arose from non-life via chemical evolution.

3)    SOCIAL: The social dimension of religion looks at the hierarchies and power structures present within the religion. It also includes how people get converted and how missionaries go about their work. Contemporary Atheism has been fueled largely by authors promoting their Atheistic beliefs. In the preface to The God Delusion, Dawkins says “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Dawkins is saying he hopes that his book converts ‘religious’ people to his worldview—exactly what a missionary of any religion hopes to do. Atheism is also taught to children in many schools in science classes as evolution. As atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse admits, “evolution is a religion”, and it could be considered the narrative dimension of Atheism. Thus teaching evolution is teaching Atheism. Several Atheists even support teaching lies, as long as the end result is more children believing evolution.[7]

4)    DOCTRINAL: Doctrines are the beliefs and philosophies that develop out of a religion. For example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, while not directly stated in the Bible, is logically derived from it. In 1933, some prominent Atheist philosophers realised the effects the lack of a belief in a god would have on the morals of society and wrote what they believed would be a suitable set of beliefs and goals for a secular society in the 20th century. Atheists believe and adhere to the things written in the Humanist Manifesto, after all, many Atheists do want to do what is good. The doctrines, ethics and goals outlined in the Humanist Manifesto, while being atheistic and accepting evolution as true, are opposite of what would be expected if they were solely derived from the evolutionary narrative. This is because Humanism also makes the assumption that humans are basically good.

5)    ETHICAL: Atheism is a morally relativist religion. Most Atheists adhere to one ethical system or another, but in Atheism there is ultimately no foundation for morality, as many leading atheists admit. Many systems of ethics have been proposed; utilitarianism is probably the most popular one. Some people have taken a further step by creating ethical systems based on the evolutionary narrative and the principle of “survival of the fittest”. A world governed purely by Atheistic, evolutionary ethics has been shown by history to be a horrible place to live. Most Atheists recognise this and choose to live by the ethical systems of other religions instead, or at the very least, live by the laws enforced by the government.

6)    RITUAL: Ritual is the only dimension which on the surface might appear to be absent from the religion of Atheism. Because Atheism is a relatively recent movement, it doesn’t have much of a history to commemorate. In other religions, rituals such as sacrifices and dances are done to appease the gods or the spirits. Because Atheism denies the existence of gods and spirits, it doesn’t have the second type of ritual either. Many Atheists do practice ‘secular holidays’ of other religions such as the Christmas and Easter public holidays of Christianity, but this is usually to simply maintain the tradition of a public holiday, and the original meaning of the celebrations are rejected. It’s noteworthy that in recent years, the atheists’ public commemoration of the anniversary of Darwin’s birth each February (and even of the publication of his Origin of Species in November is rapidly becoming something of an annual ritual.

7)    MATERIAL: The material dimension of religion includes all the physical things created by a religion such as art and buildings, and also natural features and places treated as sacred by their followers. While Atheism by its nature of denying the divine can’t have objects that represent the divine (such as icons or idols), oftentimes nature is treated as sacred by some Atheists. There are two extremes in the range of ideas held by Atheists on the ‘material’:

  1. natural resources are here to be exploited because of ‘survival of the fittest’ and humans are obviously the fittest species; or
  2. we should respect all of nature, particularly living things because to kill them is tantamount to murdering a cousin. This second view essentially holds that all life is ‘sacred’.

An Atheist’s view of the material dimension is strongly influenced by their view of the ethical dimension.

Atheists often claim that their belief is not a religion. This allows them to propagate their beliefs in settings where other religions are banned, but this should not be so.

Contemporary Western Atheism unquestionably has six of the seven dimensions of religion, and the remaining dimension, ritual, has also started to develop. Other than the denial of the divine, there is little difference between Atheism and other worldviews typically labelled as religions.

The dichotomy that Atheists try to create between science and religion is false. The conflict is between interpretations of science coming from different religious worldviews. Atheism shouldn’t be taught or enforced in settings where other religions are banned and shouldn’t be favoured by laws which imply a religiously neutral government.


[1] Rowe, WL. ”Atheism”, in Craig. E Routledge, Ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, 1998.

[2] For example Cline, A., 30, October, 2009 What is Religion? Viewed on 15, March, 2010. http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/definition.htm

[3] Smart, N., 1996. Dimensions of the sacred: an anatomy of the world’s beliefs. HarperCollins, London.

[4] Colbeck, R. 8, December, 2006. Book answers atheists’ prayers. Viewed on June 15, 2014. http://richarddawkins.net/article,399,Book-answers-the-Atheists-prayers ,Robert-Colbeck.

[5] Provine, WB. 1994. Origins Research 16(1), p.9.

[6] Dawkins, R., 2006. The Selfish Gene. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[7] As per my previous posting: https://larryemarshall.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/outrageous-or-predictable/


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