February 1, 2010

Atheism as Religion

examining religious traditions
Atheism. Whatever the heck it is, I think we can probably agree that it is not a religion. It has no core dogma, no "sacred" texts, no leaders, no rituals, 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 efforts to redefine (or at least label) atheism as a religion. They come from very different sources, and they have very different motives. I do not agree with either of them, but I will acknowledge that one might at least deserve our attention.

Some Christians Insist that Atheism is a Religion

One of the most puzzling things about the sort of right-wing Christians currently afflicting much of 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 and that atheism is merely another religion/faith.

This 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 fundamentalist Christians who refuse to admit that Christianity is a religion. You know them as the "personal relationship crowd" or "Christ followers." 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 probably shouldn't be taken seriously. Or at least, we should probably stop electing them to political office.

Christianity is a religion, and this statement remains true whether any particular Christian admits it or not. If you are a Christian, you are an adherent of the Christian religion. Again, this statement remains true whether you want to 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 rights or 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, might 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.

Make it a Legal Question

I believe it is a bad idea to try to modify atheism so that it might qualify as a religion and that attempts to do so are going to fail. 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 expand atheists' rights under the law (and I am not at all sure that it would), we should identify these rights and ask ourselves whether gaining them is worth this bit of dishonesty. We should also consider the possibility that there might be a downside to going down this road and claiming that atheism is a religion when we all know it is not.