Religion has to do with what a person thinks or believes about first or ultimate things. German theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was especially insightful and instructive on this, saying that religion has to do with what he called "ultimate concern." "Our ultimate concern," he wrote, "is that which determines our being or not-being." Furthermore, "every human being exists in the power of an ultimate concern, whether or not he is fully conscious of it, whether or not he admits it to himself or others." In this sense of religion, religion is unavoidable because every person does have an ultimate concern and therefore has a religion.
The first mistake that Eby makes is that he tries to equate religion with belief itself. Eby thinks that religion is an "ultimate concern," and since everyone has an ultimate concern, then everyone has a religion. To Eby, it is not possible to have a religion only because he mistakenly equates the concept of religion with the concept of mere belief (regardless of what the belief is).
If Eby is correct about this definition of religion, then doesn't the word itself become superfluous? Why even talk about religion when the word belief, or the phrase "ultimate concern," will suffice?
To help illustrate my objection to Eby's article, I would like to use an analogy: hair. Let's equate hair with religion. There are different hair colors and styles that represent different kinds of religions. So what would atheism be? Atheism would be baldness. With this analogy, one could indeed be bald (or "without hair") and therefore have no religion. But Eby wants to redefine the definition of the word "hair" so that it instead is synonymous with the word "scalp." This causes all kinds of problems, and the most notable problem being that the word "hair" would no longer be usable to identify whether or not anyone has any actual hair on their heads.
To look at the analogy more technically, the word "hair" is a positive claim in that it denotes the existence of hair on one's scalp, while the word "bald" is a negative claim in that it denotes the absence of hair. Eby is attempting to remove the positive and negative distinction between the theistic and the atheistic in the same way that redefining "hair" would remove the distinction between having hair and being bald.
But regardless of any attempts by Eby to remove the positive and negative difference between theistic and atheistic claims through the redefining of the word "religion," there still needs to be a way to differentiate between the two. Redefining the word "religion" creates a vacuum in which another term must take its place in order to fill the void. What happens if we let Eby get his way? We need to find a replacement word.
I would suggest "faith" as a replacement word. If Eby is right, and everyone is indeed "religious" even if they are atheists, then we can help differentiate between camps with the word "faith." The positive and negative uses of the word would be "faithful" and "faithless" accordingly.
But what would happen if both Eby's shifting of "religion" and my shifting of "faith" were to take place? I have no doubt that the Ebys of the world would try to redefine "faith" so that it includes the faithless too! These people are constantly trying to include atheists in the "religion" camp, in part, to help share the burden of proof, and also in part to remove the distinction between camps because it makes theists uncomfortable to hear atheists use the word "religion" as a label against them. It is another way for theists to say, "You make fun of us for being 'religious,' but you are actually in the same category, so you are just as silly as we are!"
Atheists most definitely have an argument advantage through their lack of religion, and this is because of the burden of proof. The only way to share that burden is to remove the positive and negative distinction between atheism and theism, and the only way to do that is through the redefinition of words, which of course removes the meaning and the defining powers of those words.
In reality, there isn't much for us atheists to worry about. This is because the faithfuls' attempts to redefine the word "religion" will likely not succeed if only because it makes the word powerless and superfluous. In addition, there are likely many theists who will not be aware of the burden of proof and will not want to be placed in the same "religious" category as those who have no faith. And finally, even if the redefining of "religion" does succeed, it will create a vacuum, which will have to be filled by another word out of pure semantic necessity. Essentially, a new word will "take over" the definition that the word "religion" used to have, and the word "faith" looks like a good candidate. To be sure, the faithful would likely attack whatever word fills that vacuum, but it doesn’t matter, because the vacuum will always remain, vacuums tend not to want to exist, and there will always be more words -or even new words- to fill that vacuum.
No matter how you cut it, there will always be a need for a word like "religion." Simply redefining the word that fulfills this need will not remove the need itself. Lloyd Eby will probably have to learn that the hard way.