The taunt that atheism is religious thinking in disguise undermines its claim to be a better way to run the world. The truth is more complex than you might imagine
I RECENTLY discovered that I am a member of a downtrodden minority, one of the most mistrusted and discriminated-against in the world. As a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gender male, this is not something I’m used to. But my minority status is undeniable. I am an atheist.
I’m not complaining. I live in one of the world’s most secular countries and work for a science magazine, so it hasn’t got in the way. But for atheists living in societies with a strong religious tradition, discrimination is a real problem. In the US, atheists have one of the lowest approval ratings of any social group. Non-believers are the only significant minority considered unelectable as president – and “unelectable” turns out to be a pretty low bar.
Even when atheists don’t face open hostility or discrimination, we often have to endure put-downs about the sincerity of our (lack of) beliefs. One of the most common is that “atheism is just another religion anyway”. There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of god, the argument goes, so to deny it is a leap of faith. Ergo, atheism is just like a religion.
“This idea turns up all the time, and it is very loaded,” says Lois Lee, who directs the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. “When people say ‘atheism is just another religion’, they normally mean it in a pejorative way.” The subtext is clear: atheists are hypocrites.
But this is more than a personal slight. If atheism really is just another religion, its claim to be a superior way to run