Is Atheism a Religion?
One of the issues that arises at times is the question of Atheism as a religion. Many adamantly oppose that classification, arguing that Atheism is an explicit denial of religion. Others claim Atheism should be considered as a religion just like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the rest. Upon reflection, it would appear that the difficulty lies not in what the various camps believe about Atheism, but in the definitions used when referring to “religion.”
In the dictionary, the most common definition of religion is something like, “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” By this definition, Atheism is clearly not a religion. However, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that Atheism warrants the same protection as all other religions, and has spoken of “religions based on a belief in the existence of God [and] religions founded on different beliefs." This, obviously, contradicts the main dictionary definition.
Additionally, there is “religion” as a sense of morality, as in “ree has religion.” This is similar to the use of the adjective form of the word: religious. If someone is described as “religious,” one usually thinks of erm as a person who goes to church to worship some almighty power. But “religious” also has the definition of “passionate” or “zealous,” and “scrupulous,” as well. This variability in definitions is the problem in the “Is Atheism a religion?” question.
To clarify this issue, these three different definitions must be carefully kept in mind as the matter is discussed, since any lack of rigor in maintaining them as separate entities will lead to confusion and disagreement. Additionally, under the American Constitution, failing to strictly segregate these definitions may result in the loss of basic legal protections. Finally, if ending the prejudices that exist against Atheists is a goal, the sliding between definitions (which occurs quite often) must be avoided.
As just recognized, Atheism is obviously not a religion under Definition #1 (“D1”), i.e., where “religion” requires worship of God. Thus, those who wish to specifically highlight the fact that they place no credence in unproven notions of supernatural forces are somewhat offended – and rightfully so – when others classify them as “religious” under this definition. “Atheism is not a religion, and we are not religious!” they emphasize. But that sets them up for denigration, as D3 is unwittingly brought in by those raised to believe that Atheists are “bad.” “Look – they have no religion.” (D1). So they’re clearly evil (since “they have no religion.” (D3)).” This is a very real problem, often exacerbated by the “morality comes from God” dogma of many Monotheists. It’s bad enough that those people think that theirs is the only plausible view. When the Atheists admit they have no religion (D3), it makes it worse.
Of course, Atheists are not admitting they have no D3-religion. On the contrary, Atheists – like (all) “religious” individuals – believe their morality is superior. In the Atheist’s view, they have the “truth” that the D1-religious lack. But by using the same word, “religion,” to represent these two very different ideas – i.e., morality as opposed to belief in God – the debate goes nowhere.
The same confusion arises in the legal context. This was readily seen during the oral argument in Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court case heard in the Court’s 2003-2004 term. That case involved the State of Washington’s decision to prohibit disbursement of state scholarship moneys to students who choose theology majors, while funding everyone else. The Court seemed to struggle with the fact that it has already decided that the government is forbidden from treating people differently on the basis of religion … including religion versus non-religion. The problem is that the “religion versus non-religion” distinction is prohibited only in D1-religion. In D2-religion, the exact opposite is the case; government is required to discriminate between religion and non-religion.
D2-religion is that realm of opinion and knowledge that has to do with D1-religion, regardless of whether or not there is a belief in some deity. In other words, anything that has to do with basic questions of human relations, the meaning of life, the beginning of the universe, etc. – when related to the concept of some higher power (whether or not that higher power is believed in) – is D2-religion. And this entire subject is what the United States Constitution sets apart in its First Amendment. Thus, whereas James Madison successfully blocked Patrick Henry’s Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion, he wouldn’t have blocked a Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of Mathematics, of Art History, of Geology or of any other non-“religious” topic.
This may be elucidated best with set theory. There is the big set - all human opinion and knowledge. Within that, there is a subset of opinion and knowledge that is related to the supernatural … whether it is believed or not. This subset (D2-religion) is what the Religion Clauses require the government to treat differently from all other opinion and knowledge matters. However, within that subset are sub-subsets, including the one that accepts the existence of an “Almighty” (D1-religion), and the one that denies such an entity. It is the differential treatment (by government) of those sub-subsets that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses forbid.
Thus, Locke v. Davey is really an easy case. Treating theology majors differently from non-theology majors is precisely what the First Amendment presupposes, just as Madison treated Teachers of the Christian Religion in a manner unlike teachers of any non-D2-religion subject. Washington State may not give money to majors in Atheism while denying money to majors in Monotheism. That would be a D1-religion problem, where government is prohibited from making distinctions. But Washington not only can – but must (under the Federal Constitution) – discriminate in terms of D2-religion.
In summary, then, if one is asking if Atheists believe in supernatural powers, the answer is, “No – Atheism is not a D1-religion.” If one is asking if Atheists should be protected by the Constitution, the answer is, “Yes, Atheism is a D2-religion.” And if one is asking whether Atheists can be moral, the answer will depend upon the participants’ D1-religious views. If an individual contends that belief in God is a requirement for a person to have D3-religion, the answer will be “no.” If that person accepts that morality is a human quality, that needs no supernatural approval, the answer is “yes.”