Atheism is not the opposite of religion

Are you religious, or are you an atheist? It’s a pretty common question, and it goes hand-in-hand with a pretty common assumption: you’re either one or the other. Well, that’s not completely right: space has been made in our culture for the “spiritual but not religious” crew: those metaphysical in-betweeners for whom the organized cultural trappings of religion are either burdensome or distasteful, but who nonetheless like romanticize the unknown. But even so, the atheism-religion dichotomy is deeply ingrained in the way we think. If you identify as “an atheist” you are presumed to not be religious, and if you identify as “religious” then you are presumed to believe in some kind of god.

The idea that atheism and religion are opposites is, however, completely wrong.

The first clue should come from simple linguistics: the opposite of an atheist is a theist. A “theist” is simply someone who believes in a god, and it’s certainly possible to believe in a god without belonging to any particular religion. This is the very spirit of deism, the philosophy held by many of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Benjamin Franklin believed in god, certainly, but was very critical of the organized power structures and trappings of Christianity and other religions. “I cannot conceive otherwise,” Franklin wrote in 1728, “than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us.” Deists would be examples of areligious theists: people who believe in a god, but do not align themselves with a particular religion.

The flips side is true as well: there are religions that do not involve belief in a god. Traditional examples of such religions include Buddhists and Wicca, who believe in divine forces or supernatural agents. But there are some modern religions that go even farther and reject supernaturalism altogether: Modern Satanism and Christian Atheism are two examples. Both involve symbolic frameworks, ritual and a distinct moral lens through which to view the world, but completely reject any kind of supernatural powers, forces, or beings (including gods). These are therefore, by definition, atheistic religions.

The religious-areligious distinction is actually completely independent from the theistic-atheistic distinction. To use the language of mathematicians, they are orthogonal: they can exist in all possible combinations with one another. And when you throw in the fact that atheists can either believe in the supernatural or not, the picture becomes even more complicated.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

These are some difficult distinctions to understand if you have spent your entire life assuming that all religious people believe in a god, and that all atheists shun religion. So to help out, I’ve created a little chart to map out just a few of the many, many philosophical options that are out there for various combinations: atheistic religions, areligious theisms, supernaturalist atheistic areligious philosophies, and so on.

So where do you fall on this chart?