What should you say when someone asks “What religion are you?” or “What church do you attend?”
Someone named “Laptop Jesus” on Yahoo! Answers has a good suggestion: “One easy thing to do is to smile and laugh and say ‘Oh no! My mom taught me to never talk about religion, sex or politics! And I always listen to my mom!’ Only a really rude person would pursue it after that.”
That’s especially good if you’re into the passive-aggressive style of politeness, where you make a big show of being polite while subtly implying that the other person is being rude. I don’t like to do that myself (I like to think it’s because I’m honest, but I suspect it’s because I’m a wimp with no social skills), but it seems to work for some people.
Of course, you can always just say, “I’m an atheist,” but there may be some situations where you don’t want to call that much attention to yourself. A less “in your face” answer is something like, “I’m not really religious,” but that can still lead to a discussion you and the other person might both wish you’d skipped.
Personally, I’ve been known to deflect the question by saying, “I’m a Methodist.” That’s not entirely false (I was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, so I can claim it as my background), but not entirely true, either — but then, isn’t that kind of the point of etiquette? To gloss over uncomfortable truths in order to get along with people?
Atheism is not a religion (any more than “bald” is a hair color), but it’s a belief about religious-type stuff, just like Christianity or Buddhism or whatever. And like any religious belief or belief about religion, it implies a belief about what other people believe.
No matter how tolerant your belief is, it implies that there are other people whose beliefs are wrong — and the person you’re talking to might very well be one of those people. Everyone has beliefs about that stuff (even if it’s just the belief that you haven’t seen a belief worth adopting), and your average person is sensible enough to refrain from pointing out to acquaintances, or even friends and family, that he thinks they’re going to hell, even when he does actually believe that.
Likewise, if you believe that acquaintances or friends or family members are deluding themselves into believing in some sort of ludicrous voodoo magic, you’re not required to inform them of your opinion, any more than they’re required to remind you that they think you’re going to spend eternity in hell or be reincarnated as a bug.
Everyone has flaws. And everyone has to deal with other people. People with acquaintances can deal with their acquaintances’ flaws, and people with friends and family can accept and love (or at least deal with) those people without mentioning those flaws.
That’s what lets people get along with each other despite their flaws (and despite even disagreeing on which traits are flaws, and which are virtues).