Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is a religion? What isn't?

By Aaron Sherman

Today, I tried to participate in a conversation where someone mistakenly asserted that atheism is a religion. Sadly, I didn't have enough time to truly engage the conversation, so let me address it here for posterity:

There are quite a few different definitions of religion, but unless you get into the really abstract sociological definitions, here are three common elements that almost everyone agrees on:

  • A religion is a cultural context that...
  • relates to a set of supernatural or spiritual beliefs and...
  • asserts a means for connecting the two (e.g. through ritual, prayer, customs or other means)
Some of the ways that religions meet the above three criteria can be difficult to nail down because of the diversity of any given religion, but defining religion without all three is nearly impossible (any attempt to do so ultimately devolves religion into a "cultural system" (c.f. Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, 1973) which could include any philosophy and even some systems that span multiple religions.

Atheism, by this basic definition, is not a religion. It does provide a cultural context and it does relate to a set of supernatural or spiritual beliefs, but it asserts no linkage between the two. At best, one could call atheism "a religious philosophy" which I would agree that it is, but that's not a religion.