Meet one of America's largest religious groups — by the way, they DON'T believe in God

Here's a question for you, dear GetReligion readers: Would you consider atheists a religious group?

My first thought: Nope. 

I mean, how could people who — by definition — deny the existence of a supreme being or beings be described as religious?

This is the related entry in the Associated Press Stylebook, "the journalist's bible":

agnostic, atheist An agnostic is a person who believes it is impossible to know whether there is a God.
An atheist is a person who believes there is no God.

So what sparks my question?

A recent story by CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke explores a clash between white evangelicals and atheists over President Donald Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. My GetReligion colleague Julia Duin has critiqued overall media coverage of Gorsuch — see her posts here and here — but I wanted to focus on a specific line in Burke's piece that drew my attention.

Here's the relevant chunk of Burke's report:

In nominating Gorsuch, Trump fulfills a campaign promise to a powerful voting bloc, white evangelicals, a whopping 81% of whom voted for him. Overall, white evangelicals composed 26% of the electorate in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.
Gorsuch, an Episcopalian, has been on the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit since 2006, when he was nominated by then-President George W. Bush. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, the judge said his faith and his family "are the things that keep me grounded at life's peaks and have sustained me in its valleys."
If conservative Christians praised the judge, particularly for his opinions on two religious freedom cases, atheists just as quickly condemned him. Both non-believers and evangelicals view the Supreme Court as essential to their political future, and the early clash between two of the country's largest religious groups forebodes a fierce battle over Gorsuch's Senate confirmation.

Did you catch that? CNN refers to evangelicals and atheists as "two of the country's largest religious groups." Wait, what!?

I tweeted Burke (one of my favorite Godbeat pros) with my question:

His reply:

And my response:

Pew includes "nones" (atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular”) in its research on religious groups. 

So I certainly understand why Burke used the language he did. Still, I'm not sure I'd choose that same terminology. Even with his explanation, I lean more toward my first thought that I wouldn't consider atheists a religious group.

If this discussion seems a little (or a whole lot) esoteric, I'll confess that I once served as chairman of The Oklahoman's newsroom style committee. We spent hours debating matters such as how to refer to directional street names or whether to abbreviate Oklahoma as "Okla." or "OK" in news copy. (Don't get me started on the insanity of "OK," which was the style at one point.)

In any case, we at GetReligion believe that words matter in journalism. Precision matters. So I'll ask a slightly tweaked version of my original question: For the purposes of a news story, would you consider atheists a religious group? I look forward to your responses.

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