Just as many atheists say that “atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods” is one phrase that irks me to no end, another common statement that I’ve always found troubling is “atheism is a religion like off is a TV channel”. Along a similar vein, “atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color”. Aside from being childish, they’re not correct. And they also assist to undermine the legal protection of the First Amendment to which all atheists are entitled.
This is the proper comparison: atheism is a religion like not speaking is speech. Let me explain.
I’ve already explained how the freedom of speech includes the right to withhold speech. The Supreme Court of the United States has numerous times defended the freedom of speech against laws that compel people to actually say something:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
— West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 US 624 (1943) at 642
They have also defended the freedom of religious expression against laws that compel a person to proclaim belief in a deity:
We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”
— Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 US 488 (1961) at 495
The right of a person to not speak is a right considered so sacred that law enforcement is required to inform you of that right before you are interrogated, though whether you actually exercise that right by shutting up is up to you. Clearly the idea that you cannot be compelled to speak, except under certain conditions (such as an oath of office, being sworn into the military, etc…), is so sacred that to say “atheism is a religion like off is a TV channel” or something like that is just completely stupid.
Again atheism is a religion just as not speaking is a form of speech. You cannot be compelled to speak and you cannot be censored except in very, very rare circumstances. Both are protected by the First Amendment. No person can be prescribed to or proscribed from proclaiming a belief in a deity as well. And as atheism is not believing in a deity (it’s not a “lack of belief” as so many atheists assert, continually), the proper assertion is that atheism is a religion just as silence is speech.
So yes, atheism is a religion. Not in the same way as Christianity, as so many Christians like to assert. Instead, again, atheism is to religion what silence is to speech. Plain and simple.
And let’s shoot down a couple common retorts before they have a chance to rear their ugly heads. First, not teaching Christianity is not the same as teaching atheism – i.e. not telling a student that the Christian god exists is not the same as telling them no deity exists. That’s like saying not teaching a child that oranges exist is the same as telling them they don’t exist. Sorry but it doesn’t work that way.
And teaching evolution is not teaching atheism. Evolution is not the “atheist creed” either, as many Christians – especially creationists – like to assert. Atheism doesn’t have any creed – though if the Atheism+ people have their way, that’ll likely change.