Making the Application of Principles: Defining “Religion”, Part 6

(For earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

We need to revisit a statement made previously by Atheist Alliance International.

“‘Theism’ means ‘belief in a gods or gods’. Believers usually sign up to the values and principles of a godly belief system: it’s an ideology. Theistic ideologies are commonly known as faiths or religions. Many ideologies have the suffix ‘ism’; for example, liberalism, socialism, and communism but, in the case of ‘atheism’, the ‘ism’ ending has merely been inherited from its root: ‘theism’. The prefix ‘a’ turns the meaning around to a negative, that is ‘not a belief in a god’, so ‘atheism’ is as far from a faith or religion as it’s possible to get.

What we need to ask, what I implied when we first considered this statement, is it true?

As was noted, the definition that they wanted to appeal to, was one that involved a measure of special pleading in order to get around various elements. The organization wants all of the tax benefits that organizations who recognize that they are religious have, but wants none of the so-called baggage that those organizations get saddled with, no matter how deserved or undeserved it may be.

Atheist John Gray, notes in his book Seven Types of Atheism, that ,“[religion] is universal”. More than that, he notes that atheism has shifted its meaning throughout time and that its modern iteration should not be confused with any particular mention of it throughout time because its modern iteration doesn’t really share any particular relationship to what came before.(15)

So, if we’re going to answer the question of whether or not the assertion that, “…atheism is as far away from faith or religion as it’s possible to get,” is true, we need to run a test. This test is not one that is dependent upon a cherry-picked definition form a dictionary, or a set of arbitrary legal assumptions; rather this test is one that runs through the common elements of what is commonly understood as “religion” and see if an application can be made. But there is a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed.

Common Misunderstandings About Religion

Probably one of the greatest modern misunderstandings of religion is in relationship to magic. Some might argue that to be one implies the other and vice-versa, but this is not necessary the case, in fact the acceptance of one can cause one to reject the other. While they are often found together as a cultural element, it has been noted that they serve entirely different functions.(16) The primary difference being how they approach the concept of the transcendent, namely as to whether or not such is intrinsic or utilitarian.(17) As I discussed in my review of Michelle Goldberg’s article in the New York Times , or in this response to J.H. McKenna, there is a level of conflation between the two that is clearly evident, but these are distinct manifestations of belief that occupy two separate spheres.

As this chart indicates, magic occupies one realm of belief and religion—properly understood—occupies another, and in fact presume entirely different facts in regard to reality.

However, what seems related to magic is the modern concept of “spiritual, but not religious”. While many, if not most religions have a “spiritual” aspect to them, this new form does not reject religion outright, as much as strict, organizational forms.(18) That means that most arguments about religion are anchored around some experience and the ability to comprehend it or explain it.

For part 7


15. John Gray. Seven Types of Atheism. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publishing. New York, NY.

16. Keith A. Roberts and David Yamane. Religion in Sociological Perspective, 5th edition. Pine Forge Press. Thousand Oaks, CA. 2012. p.12

17. Ibid. p.13

18. Ibid. p.15