My friend Dave Muscato, PR director for American Atheists, posted the following to his Facebook wall:
What is it with Christians insisting that atheists are religious? I’ve heard this at least three times in the past couple of weeks, if not more.
Two problems with this: First, atheism is not a religion, and neither is secular humanism, by any standard definition. Religion requires some sort of belief in SOMETHING supernatural, which secular humanism categorically rejects, and which atheism doesn’t address, except for the narrow disbelief in gods specifically.
Second, the way Christians say it, it’s like saying we’re religious is an *accusation.* It’s like they’re saying, “You’re religious, too!!” Well, even if it were true that we are (it’s not)… what are you saying? That being religious is bad and we should be ashamed to be religious? Are you sure you want to pursue that argument? LOL.
Somebody explain this to me.
Here was my response:
Amongst those of us who are scholars that study religion, the term ‘religion’ is actually hotly contested; some are of the opinion that the term can’t really be defined in a way that applies cross-culturally and should be rejected for that reason.
Amongst those who do think that it can be a defined, there are a number of challenges. These include:
1. There are plenty of things which traditionally have been called religions, but lack a belief in life after death. Early Judaism is a good example.
2. There are plenty of things which function as religions do, but belief in the supernatural is not a requirement. It’s also not clear that our post-Enlightenment conception of the supernatural would even apply to pre-modern Western religions.
3. Not all religions include a belief in a god or gods.
4. Not all religions include the concept of faith.
5. Not all religions have a distinct body of doctrines or dogma.
6. Not all religions emphasise believing in the right sort of things (orthodoxy) — some emphasise participation in particular sorts of rituals or behaviors (orthopraxy);
7. Not all religions include a holy book (in fact, the vast majority do not).
Sociologists and anthropologists usually understand religion to be a particular sort of social institution with a particular set of functional characteristics. Relevant models would be Peter Berger’s “Sacred Canopy” or Emil Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane, both of which are worth your time to google. There’s also William James’ contention that religion consists of a particular sort of experience as opposed to a social institution. Anyone who claims that they can be spiritual but not religion should contend with the fact that this is not a distinction which is made in the academic literature.
One way to approach Dave’s original question is to ask whether atheism or secular humanism falls under either of these models. Atheism certainly does not; but neither does theism. Rather, theism is an umbrella term for many different religions. Neither atheism nor theism are social institutions or experiences. Does secular humanism fall under these definitions? I think that depends; there are organised secular humanist groups and there are distinctions made between the things which secular humanists value and that which they de-value. Humanists do provide themselves with a narrative and a place in the cosmos — both of which are part of Berger’s Sacred Canopy. However, strictly speaking, there is no sacred canopy in Peter Berger’s sense, and it is questionable whether the things which humanists value can be described as “sacred” in Durkheim’s sense of the word. However, there are humanists who describe having spiritual experiences like those described by James in “Varieties of Religious Experience”. To the extent that we think James’ definition works and to the extent that humanists have spiritual experiences in virtue of humanism, we might think that humanism is, at least, functionally a religion.
But I honestly don’t know why that’s a bad thing. What it means is that the psychological and social function of religion is met by Humanism for some people. Those Humanists who conceptualise themselves and their relation to others in that way can make a further step that traditionally religious people cannot make; that is, they can recognise what they are doing on a scientific level and try to ensure that their actions do not harm others. Furthermore, they can make explicit efforts not to be dogmatic and to avoid accepting anything on the basis of faith.
As a last caveat, I don’t think that this is what Christians have in mind when they claim that either atheism or Secular Humanism are religions. I think that the claim they are trying to make is that atheists/secular humanists also have faith, often in an ill-conceived effort to enforce religious toleration. In ecumenical circles, religious toleration is often enforced by noting that “everyone has faith” and so no one is really different from anyone else. However, this isn’t really toleration because true toleration celebrates and brings about the understanding of the differences between people instead of erasing them. It’s really only a superficial toleration that erases differences.
Alternatively, they could be trying for a kind of reductio; i.e. the atheist says that religion is a bad thing, to which the theist responds that atheism is also a religion so that the atheist is being self-defeating.
I think the proper response is to ask the theist for their definition of `religion’ and proceed from there.