I've blogged about this before. I'm moved to do so again because the silly argument has reared its ugly head once again over at Uncommon Descent where, in between relentless plugs for her books, Denyse O'Leary rants about materialism religion.
Religion is not a synonym for a philosophy or a world view. Religion has something more. It presupposes at least two components that atheism lacks: a set of absolute moral laws and the acknowledgement of the supernatural.
Now, contrary to popular Christian belief, not all moral decisions are absolute. There most certainly are situational ethics in Christianity. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. Even the most fundamentalist Christian denominations take the position that you should not work on a Sunday unless, um, you have to. Much of the Mosaic law reads like precedent setting, situational specific, case law: if your neighbor's goat does A, then you may respond with B.
Of course, some of the ethics are not situational, but absolute. These are the apodictic laws. Apodictic laws are universally binding principles that tend to use the familiar "you shall" and "you shall not" form:
3"You shall have no other gods before Me. 4"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:3-4)
Clearly these are not conditional laws, but rather universal absolutes. There is no condition that, if it is met (or if it fails to be met) would allow a person to have another god before God. Under all circumstances, we shall have no other gods before God.
Atheism has no equivalent of apodictic law, and hence cannot be a religion. All laws to the atheist are casuistic. Atheists are, more or less, moral people. They have a sense of right or wrong. They are misguided as to the source of their own morality: they attribute it, in a just-so fashion that represents the worst of evolutionary speculation, to an adaptation. That mistake permits them to walk right up to the threshold of affirming that anything is a moral absolute without crossing over. Is human sacrifice absolutely wrong? The Christian says yes. The atheist says yes—but—who are we to criticize the Aztecs?
And of course the atheists deny the supernatural. It completely boggles my mind that anyone would want to call the utter denial of all things supernatural a religion. A philosophy? Of course. A philosophy that is attempting to impose itself? Perhaps—most philosophies do. A philosophy that is a threat to Christianity? Impossible. A religion? Never.
Of course, the reason that so many Christians want to neuter the word religion by having it include atheism is transparent. It is the favorite pastime of the modern evangelical: political activism and expediency. As one commenter on O'Leary's post wrote:
Atheism is a religion, and as such The government has no right passing a law teaching only the atheistic view of origins! The first admendment clearly states as such.
That's it in a nutshell. Logic doesn't matter. Definitions don't matter. Reason doesn't matter. If defining atheism as religion offers a political advantage: then go for it, and may absolutes be damned.