Monday, March 12, 2012

Atheism: The next big religion?


In her post on March 10th, L.A. radio host Kennedy described the public reaction to her comment on Real Time with Bill Maher, that Atheism is a religion. The reaction to the comment was dramatic; to say ther least, with Kennedy’s Facebook and Twitter feed becoming “engorged with angry responses.” the question posed by this blog, over whether or not Atheism is a religion, could have far reaching effects on how the First Amendment is interpreted and applied.
The United States has been trying to deal with the position of religion since its inception and, as Kennedy points out, a lot of the difficulties that arise can be attributed to the lack of a clear definition of religion. Sadly, if I have learned anything as a Religious Studies student, it is that defining religion is as easy as telling someone who had never had a banana what a banana tastes like. The fundamentally subjective nature of religion allows the definition to be tailored to the user’s purpose. For example, one could argue that religion is the belief in a god or gods, which control human destiny. Based on this definition, Buddhism, one of the world’s largest religions would be excluded, due to its lack of a central deity(s).

The argument over the religious nature of Atheism appears to be a problematic one at first glance, but that issue disappears when you examine the definition of theism which according to the OED, means, Belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism. Atheism then would fall into the same category as Buddhism, with there being no “divine” deity. While some might argue the Buddha is their deity, I would respond by saying that there are many Buddha’s and everyone has the potential to achieve this state. In fact, for a long time the U.S. court systems would not accept witness testimonies from Buddhists because they did not believe in a god, negating the swearing in process.  Since then Atheism has become a religion in its own right, and is an active participant in “religious” debates.

I believe the strong reaction to the argument that Atheism is a religion stems from Atheism’s adversarial position in relation to Theistic religious traditions, and the hostile nature that frequents their dialogues. The only impediment I see in Atheists succeeding is the number of self-identifying Atheists, who also identify with recognized religious traditions. Kennedy points out in her post that both sides are in agreement as to the non-religious status of Atheism, seemingly making this a moot point. I would argue that much of the publicly stated positions for both sides, are merely instances of posturing within the context of their appearance to the public and the consequences thereof.

13 comments:

Emrah K said...

If the essence of the description of a religion is 'faith', atheism is a religion because its faith is to believe in nothing. If the essence of the description of a religion is 'belief in god', Buddhism and atheism are not religion because they do not have a god. In this point, the important think is your viewpoint. I think if the definition of religion is made as a completed system rather than just a belief or feeling, we can talk about better about it. But for that, we need theology because according to academic definitions of religion I can be a prophet tomorrow!

Aanal P. said...

Considering atheism a religion will obviously, as the author said, have a drastic effect on the interpretation of the religion clauses of the first amendment. I also agree that the definition of religion is very important in determining whether atheism can be considered a religion. But what is more important is whether atheism considers itself a religion. Calling atheists religious beings is making the same mistake as assuming pueblos having a religion. It isn’t how the world sees a faith, it is how the faith describes itself. The only thing we know about atheists is that they don’t believe in god. This, in my opinion, isn’t enough to define some lack of a belief, a religion. However, when we consider the 1st amendment, it almost becomes necessary that we recognize atheism as something close to a faith so as to avoid treating atheist disadvantageously. Because religion is given a special place in law, to get a group with a certain belief recognized, defining it as a religion is the easiest way to get it to be recognized. This may be the reason that some may want to consider atheism as a religion.

bethd said...

According to Black's Law Dictionary religion is defined as follows, " man's relation to divinity' to reverence, worship, obedience, and submission to mandates and precepts of supernatural or superior beings. If this is the defination that is used in the legal laws than atheism, which is defined in the broad sense as the rejection of belief in the existence of deities would clearly not fit the discription of religion. since atheism does not have an organized set of practices e.c.t. I believe it would cause quite a problem with tax exemption clause, because it would be difficult since it is not an organized religion. Would the government than be forced to allow any organization claiming to be atheists to recieve tax exception?

Angela S. said...

By that definition Beth Deism and Pantheism both seem to fail to count as a religion and I’m sure that someone with more knowledge than I have could find other groups that fail to fit under that definition as well. As for do Atheists consider themselves to have a religion that likely depends on the ones that you ask. The ones that I’m most familiar with are the ones that form the Church of Satan. Despite the fact that they call themselves a religion and participate in various rituals there is still debate over whether they really are a religion or not since you have to be an Atheist to be a full member. The matter of tax exemption is one that I keep hearing, but why should an organization be tax exempt based solely on their being a religion? If the answer is because religions perform a lot of charity work you don’t need to be a religion to receive a tax exemption as a charitable organization.

Amisha P said...

It is very tricky in saying whether Atheism is a religion or not. It all comes back to defining what religion is. As I have learned many authors will try to define religion, but there is not one clean definition. The definition stated in the previous comment would not consider Atheism a religion. When it comes to being tax exempt I believe it should be left up to the individuals. There are certain Atheist who gather and perform ‘rituals’ and there are others who do not gather with other Atheist. For the ones that do gather in a specific location it is important for them to be classified as a religion for tax reasons. This may cause friction within the Atheist; this is all just a tricky situation.

crunchycheetos said...

Basic physics tells us "for every positive reaction, there is a negative reaction." I think you can apply this to religion as well.

Although atheists may not follow a god(s) that does not make their beliefs illegitimate nor should it exclude them from religious debate. The absence (or presence) of a god is not the only determining factor of a "religion" in the first place. The absence of the belief in god(s) does not equate the absence of a religion altogether.

Not to generalize but I'm still perplexed on why Judeo-Christianity seems to be the only "legitimate" religion. THERE ARE OTHER VALID RELIGIONS PEOPLE!!

The author of this post said this, "The fundamentally subjective nature of religion allows the definition to be tailored to the user’s purpose." I think this statement could not be more true in defining religion. The beauty of religion is we define it for ourselves and adapt it to fit our lives more comfortably. I would take this a step further and ask if religion's purpose is comfort?

Preston L.

Sachin G said...

Inst religion a private thing? Then, why are we making an issue of atheism being a religion. If religion is defined just "belief", then atheism in my opinion is a religion because they believe in no god. A belief is a belief, don't matter in super-being or no-being. Atheist are kind of like Romantics, who rebel the traditional societal values and rules and they just conform to their own individualism.

Gabe AB said...

Although it depends on your definition of religion, it seems to me that Atheism being a religion is illogical. Atheism is a view that rejects religious views of life in favor of scientific or empirical evidence. If Atheism is a religion, then so is Nihilism - its Atheism on a much more extreme level. However, I believe atheists deserve just as much protection under the First Amendment as people who practice a religion. For instance, an atheist who is testifying in a court case should not have to swear on a Bible, an oath before the judge is just as effective. By giving Atheists the same protections as a Religious person, they would not be able to complain about being discriminated against. This is only necessary because the First Amendment language protects the Freedom of Religion, not the Freedom of Personal Philosophy.

Gabe AB said...

Although it depends on your definition of religion, it seems to me that Atheism being a religion is illogical. Atheism is a view that rejects religious views of life in favor of scientific or empirical evidence. If Atheism is a religion, then so is Nihilism - its Atheism on a much more extreme level. However, I believe atheists deserve just as much protection under the First Amendment as people who practice a religion. For instance, an atheist who is testifying in a court case should not have to swear on a Bible, an oath before the judge is just as effective. By giving Atheists the same protections as a Religious person, they would not be able to complain about being discriminated against. This is only necessary because the First Amendment language protects the Freedom of Religion, not the Freedom of Personal Philosophy.

Alicia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alicia said...

While I do agree with categorization of atheism as a religion, that is less important for the discussion than are the legal implications of that categorization. The Supreme Court has actually dealt with this issue and ruled in several cases that atheism does qualifies as a religion for the purposes of the First Amendment. In a 2005 case, Kaufman v. McCaughtry, the Court ruled that atheism was a religion for the appellant, referencing the Court’s previous ruling that a religion need not require a belief in a supreme being. Thus, it would seem that Kennedy’s statement that “atheism is a religion” isn’t too far off from the legal interpretation of atheism by the Supreme Court.

Nicole S. said...

I'm glad to see this is an issue being discussed. During class today, when Dr.Weiner discussed the two applications of neutrality, the first being no preferential treatment among denominations or faith and the second being no preferential treatment between religious people and non religious people, I was wondering what the legal implications would be if atheism were simply considered to be a religion. By considering atheism a religion, we would be able to define neutrality solely in the first sense of no preferential treatment among religions, rather than distinguishing religious people from nonreligious people.

jacobr said...

Is Atheism a Religion? To be honest I do not know and I do not care. However if Atheism ascends to the level of established religious institutions then it would run the risk of justifying its existence on a spiritual basis. Since one of the basic principles inherent to all Atheists as the non-belief in the spirit and/or God, that contradiction would rot the very foundation of the new religious establishment.