Religion Today

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Religion of Atheism

Back in December 2008, Tom Morton of Westchester, NY opened a new front in what Bill O’Reilly calls the “War on Christmas.” Tom knew that the town’s seasonal display of the Christian nativity scene and the Jewish menorah was legally required to accommodate the seasonal observances of all citizen groups requesting it, so he obtained permission from the town manager to put up a display representing his faith.

As the New York Times described, it was a “humble little sign,” with a copper-colored tin in the shape of the sun, and the greetings “American Atheists Wish You a Very Merry Winter Solstice.” Mr. Morton is the president of the New York state chapter of American Atheists, an organization dedicated to the belief that there is no god. His purpose, he told the reporter, was “to educate his neighbors about the existence of nonbelievers like himself….he [was] trying only to let the community know that atheists exist.”

Since this was not a court case, for the city readily gave permission for Mr. Morton’s sign, it established no legal precedent. Despite this, Mr. Morton accomplished more than the erection of a sign, he demonstrated that atheism is a religion!

Definition: A religion is a group of people who join together because they share a belief about the nature of god or gods, in order to encourage each other in that belief. When we use a definition like this, we usually think of it in terms of religions that believe in at least one god. Islam is a religion because it believes in Allah. Hinduism is a religion because it believes in Krishna, Shiva, Durga, and other gods.

But the definition also applies to religions that believe in no God, such as Zen Buddhism, a religion which sees Emptiness as the Ultimate Reality. Indeed, several other religions lack a belief in an supreme being yet remain classed as religions because their members “share a belief about the nature of god.”

Atheism also meets this definition. Like Zen, its members share a belief about the nature of the divine realm, namely, that there isn’t one. But this belief remains insufficient to meet the definition, for any individual can believe there is no god, that does not make that person into a religion. A religion must consist of a group of people who hold the same views about god who come together because of that belief. They encourage and support each other to adhere to that belief and to live their lives in a manner consistent with that belief. Just like any other religion.

In other words, what Tom Morton accomplished by gaining permission to put up his sign was the recognition by the town manager that the people who belonged to the American Atheists were a group, and a religious one at that. It was not as an individual that Mr. Morton gained the right to put up a sign at the Christmas display, otherwise everyone in the town could put up their own sign. It was not as a non-religious group, like the stamp club or the girls’ soccer league, that Mr. Morton was allowed to put up a seasonal display. It was only as a religious group.

This designation of atheism could have important legal ramifications, for courts have to now treated atheists as secular. If they were reclassified as a religion, that would change their treatment in a court case, such as the 2004 attempt to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. The judge could disallow the challenge because the wording change would actually favor atheism and hence violate the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause. In other words, rather than the change being understood as a secularizing move, it would become a theologizing move, recasting the Pledge to follow the theological beliefs of the religion of atheism.

11 Comments:

  • Since this was not a court case, for the city readily gave permission for Mr. Morton’s sign, it established no legal precedent. Despite this, Mr. Morton accomplished more than the erection of a sign, he demonstrated that atheism is a religion!

    Nonsense.

    Definition: A religion is a group of people who join together because they share a belief about the nature of god or gods, in order to encourage each other in that belief.

    I haven't seen any dictionary with such a terrible, bizarre definition of 'religion'. Where is it from, the Merriam-Strawman College edition?

    But the definition also applies to religions that believe in no God, such as Zen Buddhism, a religion which sees Emptiness as the Ultimate Reality. Indeed, several other religions lack a belief in an supreme being yet remain classed as religions because their members “share a belief about the nature of god.”

    Sorry, you're still wrong.

    There are religions, like Unitarian Universalism, where some members believe in a god, and some members do not. Oops, guess they aren't a religion according to your made-up definition.

    In other words, what Tom Morton accomplished by gaining permission to put up his sign was the recognition by the town manager that the people who belonged to the American Atheists were a group, and a religious one at that.

    And if Morton put up a sign about his bowling club, it would show that his bowling club was a religion. Oh, no it wouldn't.

    It was not as an individual that Mr. Morton gained the right to put up a sign at the Christmas display, otherwise everyone in the town could put up their own sign.

    They probably do. I sounds like Westchester has established an open forum.

    It was not as a non-religious group, like the stamp club or the girls’ soccer league, that Mr. Morton was allowed to put up a seasonal display. It was only as a religious group.

    That's ridiculous. If a city has an open forum, anyone can put up their own displays.

    This designation of atheism could have important legal ramifications, for courts have to now treated atheists as secular.

    No, for many LEGAL purposes, atheism is often treated as if it were a religion, even though it isn't, in the same way corporations are often legally treated as persons, even though they aren't.

    For example, public schools can't promote atheism any more than they can promote religion.

    If they were reclassified as a religion, that would change their treatment in a court case, such as the 2004 attempt to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. The judge could disallow the challenge because the wording change would actually favor atheism and hence violate the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause.

    Wrong.

    Removing "under god" makes the pledge neutral; even if atheism were a religion, it does not promote atheism to remove "under god" from the pledge.

    In other words, rather than the change being understood as a secularizing move, it would become a theologizing move, recasting the Pledge to follow the theological beliefs of the religion of atheism.

    So if a teacher says that 2+2=4, without mentioning gods, that's promoting atheism?

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

    By Anonymous Brian Westley, at 2/17/2009  

  • What constitutes a religion is an interesting question. One way would be to hold that a religion must have some belief in the supernatural. However, this would leave out some asian religions/philosophies, e.g. buddhism.

    As an atheist I do not want atheism to be considered a religion, as that seems insulting.

    Atheism is not about some positive claim: i.e. "no god". Rather it is simply a rejection of claims that god exists.

    p.s.
    Glad I found your blog - thanks for the read.

    By Blogger unimatrix0, at 2/18/2009  

  • I've been a long time reader of your column and enjoy it primarily to reaffirm my views on things. This one struck a nerve, though, because you don't have the definition of atheism right. It's a shame because the other hundred or so posts I've read seem to be very well thought out and researched.

    Atheism, plainly and simply, is the absence of a belief in one or many gods, which is an important difference from how you defined it. Here are some metaphors that may help.

    If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color, hunger is a food, silence is a song, and barefoot a kind of shoe.

    If atheism is a religion, then unemployment is a career, not collecting stamps is a hobby and health is a disease. (all taken from atheism.about.com)

    By Blogger Dave, at 2/18/2009  

  • No. His sign said nothing about religion. It was a simple greeting. I don't understand your leaping from that to "Atheism is a religion."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/19/2009  

  • Atheists do not share ANY beliefs. How hard is this to get? Are we all in a religion because we don't believe in Zeus? Or because don't believe the world is flat?

    STOP TRYING TO DEFINE AND PIGEON-HOLE ATHIESTS WITH YOUR NONSENSE DEFINITIONS OF US!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/25/2009  

  • I wish atheism was a religion...then it might qualify for tax exempt statuts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/25/2009  

  • I am a little confused about your definition of a religion.

    "Definition: A religion is a group of people who join together because they share a belief about the nature of god or gods, in order to encourage each other in that belief."

    So if I belong to a group who studies Greek mythology and we all encouraged each other on the idea that it was great literature but also all advocate to each other that the gods depicted did not actually exist, we would be a religion?

    Funny, I always thought of us as Greek Literature enthusiasts.

    Hmm, I wonder if the UN will now give us protection from those who blaspheme Homer?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/04/2009  

  • As a scientist I find that most atheists also have a belief that a subset of the physical world is sufficient to explain eveything of importance. This subset is called materialism and is impeding scientific progress in neuroscience because it makes the strange claim that conscious experience is not found in the brain. See Materialists should read this first

    By Blogger Thoughts, at 4/08/2009  

  • I agree with Mr. Westley's (and several other's) points about the mistaken definition of what a religion is. I've been checking dictionaries, and have yet to come across any work that supports the definition mysteriously plucked from the air by Dr. Flesher. The continued mistakes in reference to the legal ramifications of allowing Mr. Morton's display further convince me of just how nonsensical this article was. Please Dr. Flesher, get some help the next time you try to address atheism, as this attempt doesn't do much for your reputation.

    By Blogger Jacob, at 4/08/2009  

  • Dictionaries? A bit non-specialized don't you think? If you wanted to understand evolution, would you go to a dictionary? No. You'd go to a Biology book. If you wanted to understand Ontology, would you go to a dictionary? No, you'd go to a Philosophy book. So why would you think a dictionary would give a useful definition of a religion? Go to a scholarly book on Religion, even an Introduction to World Religions book. You won't find this exact definition, but you will find more helpful ones than you would in a dictionary!

    Paul Flesher

    P.S. If you really want to tackle an interesting definition of religion, go read Clifford Geertz' essay, "Religion as a Cultural System."

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 4/08/2009  

  • One person who happens to not believe in god(s) or follow any religion does not speak for all others who also do not follow any religion or believe in god(s).

    Maybe this person was putting himself into a camp, but that does not put him in a camp WITH EVERYONE ELSE WHO DOES NOT BELIEVE IN GOD (or every other atheist if you will).

    In fact, some atheists (like myself) are slightly (or more than slightly) un-comfortable with the term 'atheist' as it seems to say more than it is. In other words, I do not feel that I am in a group or club with other non-followers of religion.

    Also, political groups come together out of shared beliefs and values, but they are not religious. Religion requires some sort of un-explainable phenomena(such as the existence of a supreme being or spirit world of which there is little or no empirical or scientific evidence). Atheism is the absence of at least the said supreme being.

    By Blogger Laura, at 10/10/2009  

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