Terminology tends to be a dry subject, and I do not wish to dwell on minutiae. However, terminology is important for establishing a common framework for discussion and avoiding misunderstandings. In arriving at my definitions, I have applied 3 principal criteria:
- A definition should be defensible based on word etymology and definitions given in major dictionaries.
- A definition should be in common usage.
- A definition should be useful, in that it serves to draw distinctions important to the discussion.
I sometimes come across people using the word religion to mean any activity pursued with zeal or devotion. For example, devoted fans may be said to watch football "religiously" on Sundays. People who use this definition tend to describe me as religious for being passionate about my atheism. I could object to this definition on the basis of all 3 of my criteria, but I object mainly on the basis of the third. If religion encompasses everything from football fans to fundamentalist Christians, it is a nearly useless term. Yes, I share passion and conviction with fundamentalist Christians, but there is also a world of difference between us, and it is that very difference that I wish to highlight and explore. Calling atheism (or at least passionate atheism) a religion is an exercise in conflation and obfuscation. Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair color.
I have particularly little patience for people who engage in word games, casually tossing around loaded terms in ways that violate my criteria without acknowledging this. Indeed, word gamers tend to keep definitions vague, so that they can be shifted when convenient -- a subtle form of a logical fallacy known as equivocation, whereby a word changes definition in the course of an argument. For example, a word gamer might say "God is love. Don't you believe in love?"; or "God is in those deep and profound mysteries of the universe. Surely you agree that there are things we don't understand?"; or "God can be thought of as a metaphor for the meaning of life. Surely you don't think that life is a meaningless, pointless waste?" If the responder agrees that yes, love exists; yes, there are things we don't understand; or yes, life has meaning; the questioner shifts the definition of God and takes the response as vindication for the God of the Bible. The ontological argument for the existence of God is a word game, relying on a vague and shifting definition of "perfection" (or "greatness", "existence", etc., depending on the version used).