Is Atheism a Religion? Part 2
Nearly two years ago I published Is Atheism a Religion? Part 1 here at Vox Nova. At the end of it, I promised a part 2. In the first piece, I pointed out that whether atheism is considered a religion or not depends upon one’s definition of the terms in the question and noted some responses offered by others. I then suggested that “the real issue remains unaddressed as long as we ignore why the question is being asked in the first place and why different groups are beholden to different answers.” And I indicated I would look at such questions as the following in my subsequent post:
Why is it that many religious believers want to insist that atheism is a religion? And why do atheists wish to deny the same? And what is the functioning definition of “religion” in the background of these desires?
It seems to me that the functional definition of religion behind the question of atheism’s status is not at all what one might expect from a textbook. The basic issue is not belief in God, or sets of ritual practices, or a series of moral commitments, or convictions about the afterlife. It is not even something more general like a basic outlook or worldview that may or may not include beliefs about God and supernatural.
What is really operating in the background here is the unspoken presupposition that “religion” is a (more or less irrational) personal commitment that is just fine for you as long as it stays outside the bounds of proper public discourse. Religion, it is tacitly assumed, is by definition both private and biased.
As an aside, this is one of the problems with the USCCB’s Fortnight For Freedom. While many have noted that the Catholic understanding of freedom is not exactly how the term is used in American public discourse, I have not seen it noted that there is a similar problem with the term “religion” or “religious.” But if in American public discourse “religion” means “private irrational opinion,” then the right to religious freedom will never trump other ostensible rights. What the bishops want to argue for is the possibility of religious voices being allowed to have rational arguments in the public square, but what the public hears is a call for irrationality to be given a hearing in the public square simply because it is “religious.”
In this context, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others are in an awkward spot. There is no denying that they are religious. Indeed many within these groups will proudly wear such a badge. In certain subpopulations “religious” remains a high compliment. But they notice that their religiosity is used to marginalize their place in public discourse.
At the same time, atheist and secular movements argue for (or simply presume) an interpretation of the principle of the separation of Church and State not as it was originally intended (to keep the state from meddling in religious affairs), but as indicating that religion (or even religious people) can have no role in the public square. Atheism and/or secularism are then imagined as neutral standpoints from which to discuss public policy. The most naive forms of atheism even imagine that, if religion could be simply excluded from public deliberation, policy solutions to society’s most pressing problems would emerge quickly and easily as the logical outcome of a process based on reason alone.
In this context I suggest that the assertion of religious people that “atheism is a religion too” can be translated simply as “Hey, you’re not neutral either!” And the atheist response that atheism can not possibly be considered a religious position functions basically as an assertion that atheism/secularism actually is neutral and therefore deserves a privileged (or even solitary) place in public discourse.
So I think that the first thing that “religious” people can do in this circumstance is to argue not that atheism is a religion, but that there are no neutral spaces. Everyone, including atheists, comes to questions with prior commitments. We can then insist that we have to be able to have real discussions with those who do not share all of our presuppositions. And we should call out anyone, religious or atheist, who tries to win the argument before it starts by labeling their opponents as unable to contribute to discussion because of prior commitments.
The other thing we can do is be cognizant of how the term “religious” is heard in public (and private) discourse and exercise appropriate caution. If a pious Catholic asking if I am religious means to ask whether I faithfully practice my religion (or try to), I can comfortably say yes. But if a stranger or new acquaintance asks this in a discussion about ethics or public policy, I am much more wary and qualified in my response.
The simple fact that I am religious does not mean that I am what this person means by “religious.” At this stage I find it more helpful to engage such a person by finding out what they mean by “religious” and pointing out how the category of “religion” functions to marginalize certain points of view in public discourse, while giving a free pass to other, structurally similar but by conventional terminology non-religious, points of view.
In the end, I am inclined to reject the term “religion” altogether as a helpful term in public discourse. It has its uses within religious communities, but as a way of describing some approaches to public policy as opposed to others it is hopelessly (and often deliberately) misleading.
On the other hand, given that my own preferences are unlikely to eliminate the use of entrenched terminology, we might begin to speak more explicitly of religious freedom as a subset of freedom of conscience. I remember a speech (that I cannot find right now – links in the comments appreciated) given by Pope Francis during his trip to the US in which he uses a phrase something like “freedom of religious and other commitments.” Francis is at once recognizing that what we typically call “religious freedom” is not only for religious people and undercutting the narrative that makes religious convictions fundamentally different kinds of convictions than other human commitments.
Religion is a notoriously difficult thing to define as everything we typically include in that category is sui generis. As such, whether or not atheism (or, following Stephen Bullivant’s careful distinctions noted in Part 1, worldviews and sets of practices that include or rest upon atheism) is considered a religion strikes me as more or less arbitrary.
What is important, however, is that nobody gets to pretend that their worldview gets a free pass in public discourse by disguising itself as neutral. (And this goes for certain traditionally religious types as well!) Using language carefully and well, especially the word “religion” and its relatives, is an important step in pursuing this goal.