This is something that is often mentioned in the debate circuit between Theists and Atheists. And it is something that I have written about before (called out a popular Atheist Youtuber for dishonestly “correcting ” this misunderstanding). But this is also something that deserves its own piece (not written in a tone of annoyance, unlike the one to Dusty), simply because I believe that both sides can be wrong on this.
Let us first start with the word as defined by Merriam Webster:
: the belief in a god or in a group of gods
: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
I chose that source out of convenience, but really, it does not matter what source you choose because all of the dictionary based sources come back with the same result (I checked in previous research on the topic). It is also covered on more secular oriented sites, but they often jump around, and almost never include the last point. But I will move on to the misunderstandings.
For the theists, I can see this happening mainly because most people find it hard to see the world outside of their own context. They believe in what they know as a “religion”, so therefore this thing called “Atheism” that other people apparently “believe” in must also be a religion.
Which is indeed, an ignorant understanding of Atheism as a philosophy. If I use the old definition then its a statement of disbelief in a god or deity. If I use the newer one, its a “lack of belief” in a god or deity. Either way, the analogy of Atheism to Theism is Apples to Oranges, 2 entirely separate philosophies.
HOWEVER, we come to “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group”. When you look at the growth of the Atheist community online (and elsewhere), and the behavior of many within that said group, you can’t help but to note that Atheism in a sense COULD be seen as a category of religion.
This is more or less what I mean when I use the term “mainstream Atheism”. Many Atheists are confused by this and regurgitate the definition (“its a personal philosophy, nothing more!”). Actually, its a minority group within many nations that is continuously growing and becoming more organized. Groups and organizations big and small, online and off, are growing bigger and bigger.
Though it is true that there is no “doctrine” to Atheism, the doctrine that can make this an ideology falls in many Atheists inability to accept someone who refuses to make a decision on belief (the whole, middle of the road “there is no middle ground, your either Atheist or Theist!” thing).
That is relevant here, because it is a conclusion that is quite common within “mainstream Atheism”. Another conclusion that tends to be common, is the very thing I am writing about (this vicious opposition to the religion label). And of course denial of any “ideology” being associated with Atheism is another common thread.
While none of that is inherently religious in the way that most Atheists obviously view the word, that is changed when the last part is considered. Being an Atheist is certainly very important to many people. It is a defining characteristic for a great many.
Given all of that, it is entirely reasonable that someone could call Atheism a “religion”. It is still but a philosophy, and entirely possible to follow the philosophy but not be part of the quote “religion” (I consider myself in that way).
I know that religion is a word that many want to avoid, because it is a loaded word in more ways then one. First you have the idiots who will say “HA! Atheism IS a religion”. And of course you have the heinous acts of past and present entities of religion, that provide a further reason to dump the categorization.
But it does not have to be. All it means, is that your one of many like minded people with largely the same goals. The group varies right from one extreme to the next (just like any other group containing many people of different viewpoints), but I think most Atheists generally want the same thing.
In fact, the whole secular community is united in that regard.