So, I work with a philosopher who I have been wanting to just sit down and talk philosophy with for ages.  However, I’ve been hesitant to simply run up to him and presume to monopolize his time; because I suspect that doing so would be akin to asking an IT professional about your personal computer problems or going up to a random person you know is a nurse and discussing your unexplained rash.

The magical moment arrived the other night at a regular co-worker get together, where a few of us faculty types go out and have a respectably few (one to two) drinks on an early Friday evening at a local bar.  The Chemist said, “I read something the other day about how atheism is a religion.”

“No,” I said.

Quickly, and from every direction, the gathered academics chimed in with their definitions and opinions and I realized I was all alone.

I managed to spew out a steady stream of completely contradictory crap – essentially boiling down to “it is but it’s not” and “well, sometimes I supposed” and “not by definition”- that I’m sure were influenced by being under the influence.

On a completely related note: Deschutes Obsidian Stout has an ABV of 6.4%.

Then the Philosopher asked me, “How do you define religion?”

You’d think that after wishing for this conversation for as long as I had, I would not have been caught off-guard by such a fundamental question.  But yeah, I totally was.  I also found out that starting a definition with, “Well, the connotations of…,” does not fly with philosophers.

Before I could sort out and explain the words coming out of my mouth, my phone rang and I had to leave.  I blurted out quick definitions of “gnostic atheism” and “agnostic atheism” before running off, which felt way too much like fleeing.

So now, I’m left with some homework.

What is religion?

The first thing I did was to go to all of the sources I generally tell my students NOT to go to.,, and Wikipedia all had somewhat conflicting definitions.

The definition that seemed to win-out at the get-together was, “An integrated set of beliefs.”

I don’t find that definition very useful.  In that case, pretty much every group with a mission statement is a religious group and every school of thought with a name (science, philosophy, basket weaving, you name it) is a “religion”.

It’s like “What is art?” and “What is music?” all over again.

And like “art” and “music”, perhaps religion can also be operationally defined.  In other words, you can only define it when you see it in action.

Art and music are defined based on how human beings interact with the thing.  A rotting baseball on the side of the road is just a rotting baseball on the side of the road until it is experienced as “art”.  Then, it’s art.  Silence is not music until it is experienced as “music”.  Then, it is music.

“An integrated set of beliefs” is as much a religion as the sound of plate breaking at a restaurant is music; so we can stop right there.

However, atheism cannot even be considered a religion with this extremely board definition.  Even gnostic atheists (who make a positive assertion that there is no god or gods) are identified as gnostic atheists by adhering to *one* belief – that there is no god or gods; not a set of beliefs that are integrated into a belief system.  Agnostic atheists (who make no positive claim of the non-existence of god or gods) are defined as agnostic atheists by a lack of belief – not a belief, much less an integrated set of them.

Furthermore, just to be clear, theism is not a religion either; and I’ve never heard anyone describe theism as religion, simply because it describes one belief.  Certainly there are religions that are theistic, but theism itself is not a religion.

So what exactly is a frickin’ religion?

What is the missing component that makes a “set of integrated beliefs” a religion?  If a huge tangled mess of white wire binders ripped from discarded day-planners became art when I put it on my desk and said that it was “art”; can we just point to a “set of integrated beliefs” and call it religion and it magically becomes religion?


Just to be clear: no.  I don’t buy that circular definition.  It’s not CALLING it art that made it art; it’s the fact that it was experienced as art and it is being used as art.

Religion has a cultural purpose.  It is strongly tied to culture in ways that are difficult to separate.  If an integrated set of beliefs is experienced by its adherents as a preeminent social driver within their cultural context, it is religion.

Yes, this means that a group of Star Trek fans could experience Star Trek fandom as a religion; if it’s adherents experience a set of beliefs as the dominant social driver creating a distinct sub-culture.

This is no joke.

Yes, this means that individual spiritual practice is not “religion” but I doubt I’ll get many complaints from solo-practitioners that generally use the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe themselves.

Yes, this means that ultra-nationalism is religion and North Korea is full of extremely religious people.

Yes, Secular Humanism is a religion under this definition.  I’m going to get a bit of a fight there from a few, only because it is one of the few groups that fit the definition that I’m using but not dictionary definition #1.

I respect that some groups do not wish to self-identify as a religion due to the connotations of the word; neither do most self-identified atheists (which ironically is evidence that it is a religion, with a set of shared beliefs: there is no compelling evidence for the existence of the supernatural, science is sort of cool, atheism isn’t a religion, Johnny Depp is sexy, the sky is blue during a clear day….)

If adherence to a set of values or beliefs define in-group and out-group status; if a set of characteristic cultural norms or common activities has arisen among adherents; if significant social support is provided due to in-group status; then your “set of integrated beliefs” might be a duck.

But “atheism” alone?  Heck’s no.

Is Ayn Rand the same religion as Bertrand Russell?  Is S.E. Cupp the same religion as Greta Christina?

Does a bear pee on the international space station?


So, that’s what I mean by it is and it isn’t and it can be but it’s not, when I’m a little drunk at a bar.