What is religion? Most of us think we know what it is, but when we actually try to define it we run into some difficulty. Perhaps the most common definitions focus on beliefs—a religion is belief in God or spiritual beings. But several systems typically considered religions either do not include belief in spiritual beings or place no significance on them, including Jainism, some forms of Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Thus many prefer functional definitions of religion. Religions offer explanations for ultimate reality, offer spiritual benefit, provide systems for navigating life, etc. Building off of this emphasis, it is common to define religions by starting with systems typically recognized as religions and looking for similarities with others systems to determine whether or not these other systems are religions. In other words, we know that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are religions, and so is anything closely related to them. In God is Not One, Stephen Prothero discusses the kinds of things religions do:
In the family of religions, kin tend to perform rituals. They tend to tell stories about how life and death began and to write down these stories in scriptures. They tend to cultivate techniques of ecstasy and devotion. They tend to organize themselves into institutions and to gather in sacred places at sacred times. They tend to instruct human beings how to act toward one another. They tend to profess this belief or that about the gods and the supernatural. They tend to invest objects and places with sacred import. Philosopher of religion Ninian Smart has referred to these tendencies as the seven “dimensions” of religion: the ritual, narrative, experiential, institutional, ethical, doctrinal, and material dimensions. (p. 13)
So, is atheism a religion? It’s not enough to reply that atheists do not believe in God, because belief in God is not a requirement for a religion. Does atheism have enough of a family resemblance to be considered a religion? In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that secular humanism functions like a religion and, thus, merits the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion.
Prothero has an extended discussion on whether or not atheism is a religion. He highlights the New Atheists (who he calls “angry atheists”), since they have launched aggressive assaults against “religion.” Have they, under the guise of opposing religion, actually become involved in their own religion?
Do the works of Ayn Rand function like scripture for atheists? Do the various humanist manifestos function like creeds? According to one common formula, members of the family of religions typically exhibit Four Cs: creed, cultus, code, and community. In other words, they have statements of beliefs and values (creeds); ritual activities (cultus); standards for ethical conduct (codes); and institutions (communities). How does atheism stack up on this score? (p. 324)
New Atheists clearly have a creed—the denial of God’s existence. The cultus of atheism is minimal, though there are “holy days” like Bertrand Russell day, Thomas Paine day, and Darwin Day, and they functionally worship people like Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. Though they have no basis for their morality, the New Atheists are adamant that their ethical standards are superior to traditional religions. And they have multiple communities, including American Atheists, United Coalition of Reason, and the Atheist Alliance International. For atheists like this, atheism is a religion.
[For some] atheism is, in the words of German theologian Paul Tillich, an “ultimate concern.” It stands at the center of their lives, defining who they are, how they think, and with whom they associate. The question of God is never far from their minds, and they would never even consider marrying someone outside of their fold. They are, in short, no more free from the clutches of religion than adherents of the Cult of Reason in eighteenth-century France. For these people at least, atheism may be the solution to the problem of religion. But that solution is religious nonetheless. (p. 326)