February 1, 2010

Atheism as Religion

religion.jpgLet me be very clear at the outset of this post: atheism is not a religion. It has no core dogma, no "sacred" texts, no leaders, no rituals, asserts no supernatural entities, requires no faith of any sort, and so on. Quite simply, atheism is in no way a religion.

With that out of the way, it is important to acknowledge that some people would like to redefine atheism as a religion, transform it into something like a religion, or even call it a religion when it is obviously not. In this post, I'd like to address two current efforts to redefine (or at least label) atheism as a religion.

Some Christians Insist that Atheism is a Religion

One of the most puzzling things about the sort of right-wing Christians currently afflicting the U.S. is that many of them are determined to debase atheism by bringing it down to their level, the level of religion. This has to baffle international observers because it seems that these Christians are defending their religion by arguing that atheism is "just another religion." Indeed, they are trying to have it both ways by simultaneously claiming that religion/faith are wonderful but that atheism is merely another religion/faith.

ZOMBIE JESUS.jpgThis claim is sufficiently absurd that we can dismiss it outright. I'll not waste additional space on it except for one additional point concerning the evangelical fundamentalists who refuse to admit that Christianity is a religion. You know them as the "personal relationship crowd." I'm not sure how many ways there are to say this, but anyone who genuinely believes that they have a "personal relationship" with an individual who has either been dead for over 2,000 years or never existed in the first place is deluded to the point of needing psychiatric treatment.

Christianity is a religion, and this statement remains true whether you admit it or not. If you are a Christian, you are an adherent of the Christian religion. Again, this statement remains true whether you admit it or not.

Some Atheists Seek to Make Atheism a Religion

This is another one that is likely to puzzle those of you outside the U.S., but there is actually a sound line of reasoning here. In the U.S., religion confers certain legal rights. Anti-discrimination laws explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, tax laws provide special exemptions for religious clergy, and religious clergy have additional rights in terms of being able to perform weddings.

Most of those who wish to transform atheism into a religion are not doing so to change the nature of atheism but to gain additional privileges under U.S. law. Imagine an atheist couple who wants to get married but refuses to set foot in a church and would rather not hold their ceremony in a government building. Without some sort of "ordained atheist minister," their options may be few in some states. And what if you could be fired from your job because of your atheism, which because it is not a religion, may not entitle you to protection under the law?

If most of the atheists who want to turn atheism into a religion do so solely for legal matters such as these, a smaller number seek to do so more for social reasons. They want "atheist churches" to provide the same social benefits as religious churches but without all the pesky god belief. I do not happen to agree with them that this is in any way necessary, but I'd be remiss not to mention this rationale at all.

My Recommendation: Make it a Legal Question

It is a bad idea to attempt to modify atheism to make it into a religion, and attempts to do so are going to fail miserably. But what about those who might want only to label atheism as a religion in order to derive the various legal benefits mentioned above? In my humble opinion, the only sensible way to resolve this matter is by making it a legal question.

If calling atheism a religion would entitle atheists to certain legal rights that we do not currently enjoy, what are these rights and is gaining them worth the re-labeling? It seems to me that this would be the critical question.

H/T to Blag Hag for getting me thinking along these lines

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