I've heard it said that atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.
It's a witty remark, but how true is it? Let's break out the analysis tools and conduct an assay.
First, note that many people who identify as atheist also wish to identify themselves as non-religious, and this particular aphorism is one they might trot out to bolster their case. In fact, that's the only context in which I can ever recall it being cited. This is usually in response to a person who identifies as a member of a theistic religion, and who has said that atheism is a belief about the existence of God (i.e. he doesn't exist), which is enough to make it a religious position.
It's possible for these two positions to merely adopt differing definitions of "religion" and thus not contradict each other in a proper sense. Like most words, "religion" has more than one meaning in general use. I have a second edition Macquarie Dictionary at hand, and its first definition is, "the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases, the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or world view relating the quest to the environing universe." This fits the mould of certain forms of atheism quite well, particularly the kind of naturalistic scientism promoted by Richard Dawkins: his ideal is something along the lines of a world free of ignorance and superstition, with scientific thinking being the means to the end, and a theology/world view of naturalism (the denial of the supernatural).
The second definition talks about particular systems in which this quest for the ideal life has been embodied, and "atheism" is not a particular system, but merely a possible characteristic of such a system -- but this is also true of theism. The third definition speaks of "recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power." Theism is religion in this sense, whereas atheism is anti-religion, specifically denying such a thing. Further down the list we have definitions relating to feelings, and then "a point or matter of conscience, esp. when zealously or obsessively observed." In that sense, Richard Dawkins has more religion than a lot of people who profess to be Christian. Lastly, the dictionary regards as obsolete the use of the word to mean "the practice of sacred rites or observances."
That's all well and good, and it's important to recall that we need to agree on the meaning of a term before we disagree over whether something is representative of that term. Do any of these definitions fit with the alleged parallel that atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby? Well, I suppose we should see what latitude the dictionary offers us in terms of "atheism" while we're about it.
Looking at the same source, I'm offered three alternatives for "atheism". The first is, "the doctrine that there is no God." Ouch: "doctrine" is a pejorative term to the kind of people who say it's like not collecting stamps. Next, we have "disbelief in the existence of a God (or gods)." Might "disbelief" count as lack of belief? A quick side investigation into "disbelief" gives us "a refusal or inability to believe", so we can expand the definition as, "a refusal or inability to believe in the existence of a God (or gods)." I have met atheists who profess an actual inability to believe in God, and others who refuse to believe unless irrefutable proof is provided, but refusal and inability are not quite the same thing as a simple lack of belief. A person who is undecided on the matter, for example, lacks belief in God, but may be willing to entertain the possibility of his existence. Such indecision is neither theism nor atheism. Lastly, the dictionary offers "godlessness" as a synonym for atheism. I think it's safe to assume that those identifying with atheism do not intend it in this (usually pejorative) sense.
That little analysis doesn't leave us with any obvious combinations which would make the statement a good analogy. The clear intent of the analogy is to say that not collecting stamps is an example of not engaging in a hobby; in parallel, atheism is an example of not engaging in religion. The best (non-obsolete) meaning of "religion" to choose from in this case is probably the third, since this is the one that puts theism and atheism in opposing positions as relates to religion. Unfortunately, "opposing positions" is not what the analogy requires: the appropriate analogy in that case would be, "atheism is religion in the same way that being actively opposed to the collection of stamps is a hobby". Theism is to philately as atheism is to anti-philately.
Theism is to atheism as North is to South, but the analogy wants us to consider the things to be orthogonal rather than opposite: i.e. theism is to atheism as north is to up. This won't work, because the two are clearly opposites: you can't be both. If theism is religious, then atheism is also religious in the sense that it is anti-religious. This is not what the analogy demands, however: it demands that theism is religious, and atheism is non-religious. But theism is to philately as atheism is to anti-philately, and while it's true that anti-philatelists do not collect stamps, there's more to being an anti-philatelist than not collecting stamps.
I don't collect stamps, but I'm not an anti-philatelist. A certain philatelist has tried to engage my interest in the subject, and I've listened politely as he went on at some length about extremely minor variations in printing which are indicative of forged stamps (or something along those lines -- I wasn't giving it my full attention). Despite his proselytising efforts, I still have no interest in becoming a philatelist, nor any interest in opposing philately. Frankly, I'm happy to leave those philatelists to their wacky stamp-collecting ways, while dedicating none of my own time to philately, either for or against. You won't catch me attending any stamp exhibitions or protesting outside them.
If it so happens that your attitude towards the existence of God is like my attitude towards philately, then it's fair to say that your attitude is a religion in the same sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby. Such a position is characterised primarily by disinterest, and anyone who has decided "I'm an atheist" has already shown enough interest to disqualify themselves. If someone is genuinely not interested, he declines to classify himself.
Not caring whether God exists is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Atheists care. Therein lies the fallacy.
The Famous Brett Watson -- firstname.lastname@example.org