Often, when one talks with atheists and asks them to defend their worldview, they will shoot back, “I don’t have to because atheism isn’t a religion or worldview.” Not only will such atheists be offended by the dreaded R-word, “religion,” but even a seemingly more neutral term such as “worldview” will draw their ire. The reason why they wish to avoid saying that atheism is a worldview is because if they admit that, then it becomes clear that they have some sort of system of beliefs. If they have a system of beliefs, then they need to make positive arguments for those beliefs, something that, as I’ve pointed out, they want to avoid because that requires more difficult argument and also implies that they are not as wholly objective as they want to come across as. You’ll hear it or see it on the Internet all the time: “Atheism isn’t a religion/worldview; it’s a lack of belief. Duh!” Is this really true and are atheists not required to give a positive case for atheism?
This answer can somewhat depend on how one uses the terminology. We use “religion” in a variety of ways, sometimes to connote simple devotion to something, but in this case it seems clear that we are talking about “religion” proper. In that case, a religion normally has some sort of explicit concept of worship, and if so, it is true that not all forms of atheism should be a called a “religion,” even if many atheists certainly act as fanatical and devoted as they think religious people act.
Thus, I’m fairly comfortable saying that atheism is not a religion. Is it a worldview? Is it a system of beliefs and a grid by which atheists interpret the world? This seems pretty clear, with some added clarification.
I think the problem here is that atheists are partially right but are also speaking disingenuously. As I heard one Christian theologian argue, the terms “theist” and “atheist” can be useful in many philosophical contexts but are so broad that they do not tell us much about what someone actually believes. Nobody is simply just a “theist” or an “atheist;” they are a certain kind of atheist or theist. Christians are, for example, Trinitarian monotheists, which is a different concept from Islamic monotheism, Aristotelian monotheism, theistic deism (often, deism is contrasted with theism, but theism can also be viewed as the broad category under which deism can still fit), all forms of polytheism, etc. The Christian idea of God even has significant differences with Judaism, although they are deemed related enough that we often talk of the broader category of “Judeo-Christian” theism. Therefore, while it still has utility to talk about general theism, it only hits at the surface of what someone’s worldview really is.
Likewise, there are many forms of atheism. There is Buddhist atheism (though many Buddhists or religious scholars will argue that it is better to call Buddhism “non-theistic” rather than “atheistic”), materialistic/naturalistic atheism, atheistic ancestor worship, some “New Age” kinds of atheistic spiritualism, etc. There can be further distinctions made in these, such as different forms of materialistic atheism like Marxist-Leninism, objectivism, and secular humanism. Considering these factors, “atheism” is indeed too general to tell us much about what someone believes.
However, here is why these atheists who use this argument are being disingenuous: We have normal connotations for the word “atheist” in our time and culture, just as we have normal connotations for the word “theist.” When I identify myself as a theist without further clarification here in the West, it carries with it the normal meaning of Judeo-Christian monotheism (with the emphasis more on the Christian). Unless I specify otherwise, like if I were a deist, then it’s not a bad assumption from others that I believe in something like the most familiar forms of monotheism. As an illustration, if I simply say I went to the University of Texas, without specifying which one, it is a safe bet that I mean the University of Texas at Austin because it is the flagship campus and most well-known. It is not as important for me to specify in that situation, but if I went to another UT campus, such as UT-Arlington, UTEP, UTSA, UTD, etc., then it’s important for me to clarify (I’m not denigrating these other campuses, which are good schools, but merely showing that there are generally understood meanings to terms).
We know what “atheism” means in a normal context, all things being equal: It means materialism. That is why when I write about atheism, I sometimes specify materialism but sometimes I don’t because I have said that it’s fairly standard for our time and culture to view the most common form of atheism as materialism. Materialism, far from merely being a “lack of belief,” makes very real claims on reality, namely that nature and matter are all that there is or at least all that we can possibly know. And if you make claims, you should be prepared to defend them or at least make sense of them. In fact, I would still argue that even speaking of a more generalized atheism that it consists of positive claims that should be argued for, but it just becomes so much clearer when looking at more specific kinds of atheism.
And to be frank, most atheists who use this tactic are not concerned about the nuances of the term “atheist,” because if they were, they would quickly see that this would also apply to the word “theist.” They are using this tactic in order to avoid defending their claims. The amusing thing is that if it were really true that all atheism consists of is a “lack,” then it’s an empty position that warrants no consideration, which obviously atheists do not want to say. If there are atheists out there who do not want to be confused with naturalists, then that’s fine; they need to specify what kind of atheist they are. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong, given our context, with seeing “atheism” as closely linked with materialism, which is absolutely a worldview that makes claims. Avoiding making a positive case for atheism with elementary etymology on the word “atheist” and oversimplified definitions of “a lack of belief” is rather silly and confused.