In preparing applications for 501(c)(3) status for various entities, I have often come across the statement that there is no definition for a “church” in the Internal Revenue Code; the examiners who determine whether a particular applicant for tax-exempt status is really a “church” or not just kind of eyeball it. Since “churches” receive favorable tax treatment, it would seem discriminatory of the government to make that favorable treatment available to groups of people who possess a favored belief about matters of religion (viz., “theists”) but to deny that same treatment to people who possess a disfavored belief (viz., “atheists”).
Now, I know that certain atheist groups are organized as “churches” for purposes of the Internal Revenue Service, but this has always seemed faintly ridiculous to me. Atheism, after all, is not a religion but rather the absence of religion – it’s been a common quip among non-believers for a while that atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.
But still there are many who insist that no, atheism is a religion – one, because atheists invoke the religion clauses of the Constitution to assert their rights; two, because atheists do make propositions and claims (albeit sometimes more modest sorts of claims than their detractors would have the public believe) about the supernatural; and three (most bizarrely), because they think that not believing is somehow a more strenuous exercise of faith than believing.
And to be sure, a significant number of people who have only recently realized or publicly disclosed their atheism act a lot like the way recent converts to a more traditional sort of religion do – they “evangelize” and try to convince others to adopt their view of the world, they broadcast their thoughts on the issue repeatedly and unprompted, they exhibit scorn towards their former belief system and those who still adhere to it. One might call such people “angry atheists.” I prefer to be a “friendly atheist,” and I try not to give in to the occasional impulse to “anger.”
So in reading Popehat earlier today about NPR’s sacking of Juan Williams, (and drilling down into the links), I found that there is a legal definition of “religion.” And, sad to say for the professional Muslim-haters, the United States Government believes that Islam is a religion. The definition was an elaborate checklist of attributes about the subject matter, the likes of which are only produced by and for the benefit of lawyers. A religion is something that has:
(1) Ultimate ideas: fundamental questions about life, purpose, and death;
(2) Metaphysical beliefs: beliefs addressing a reality which transcends the physical and immediately apparent world;
(3) Moral or ethical system: proscription of a particular manner of acting or a way of life that is moral or ethical;
(4) Comprehensiveness of beliefs: an overarching array of beliefs that coalesce to provide the believer with answers to many of the problems and concerns that confront humans;
(5) Accoutrements of religion: the presence of various external signs of religion, including
(a) a founder, prophet or teacher,
(b) important writings,
(c) gathering places,
(d) keepers of knowledge,
(e) ceremonies and rituals,
(f) structure or organization,
(h) diet or fasting,
(i) appearance and clothing) and
United States v. Myers (10th Cir. 1996) 95 F.3d 1475, 1484. Alternatively, I also learn that the Third and Ninth Circuits define religion differently, looking at only three factors: (1) whether the belief system “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters;” (2) whether the system “is comprehensive in nature;” and (3) whether it is recognizable “by the presence of certain formal and external signs.” Alvarado v. San Jose (9th Cir. 1996) 94 F.3d 1223, 1229; Malnak v. Yogi (3d Cir. 1979) 592 F.2d 197 (Adam, J., concurring).
Well, now that the Courts have spoken, we can finally answer the question of whether or not atheism is a religion! This, in turn, will help me answer the question of whether a group of atheists organized into some kind of formal community, can be a “church.” Let’s use the more elaborate Tenth Circuit test first:
(1) Ultimate ideas: Yes, atheism purports to answer fundamental questions about life, purpose, and death. It posits that there is no evidence for a supernatural creator of life, no evidence that life has an objective purpose, and that the best evidence available is that death is a final, irrevocable, and permanent loss of existence as a conscious, self-aware entity. While atheism properly understood does not posit these positions as certain truths, it’s probably fair to say that most atheists consider these propositions to be very likely to be true.
(2) Metaphysical belief: Yes, atheism addresses a reality which transcends the physical and immediately apparent world, by saying that there is no evidence for any such reality. Again, properly understood most strains of atheism would not flatly deny that such a reality exists, but would rather say that it is extremely unlikely to exist.
(3) Moral or ethical system: Nope. While atheists are at least as moral and ethical as theists, taken as populations and understanding that within both populations there are aberrations and outliers, there is no moral or ethical code which logically flows or is incorporated in a world view that is deeply skeptical about the supernatural.
(4) Comprehensiveness of beliefs: I don’t see it. Just as with a moral code, disbelief in the supernatural – at least, on its own – does not lead one to reach “answers to many of the problems and concerns that confront humans.” An atheist may be free to look to other ethical or moral or economic or philosophical systems for such answers, and indeed may be free to find such systems without regard to doctrines, teachings, or traditions to which their theistic counterparts might feel obliged to adhere, but atheism on its own does not offer such answers.
(5) Accoutrements of religion: Not a lot of these:
a. Founder, prophet or teacher? None that I know of. Maybe Socrates?
b. Important writings? I suppose a lot of people have read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins recently, but you don’t have to have read or agree with Dawkins to be an atheist and there were lots of atheists before Dawkins wrote that (or any other) book. Moreovery, Myers says (93 F.3d at 1483) of important writings of a religion that they are “seminal, elemental, fundamental, or sacred writings. These writings often include creeds, tenets, precepts, commandments, prayers, scriptures, catechisms, chants, rites, or mantras.” That doesn’t sound much like The God Delusion to me.
c. Gathering places? I wish. One of our biggest problems with our local freethought group is finding a regular place to meet. That was also something of a problem back in Tennessee, where the group had to change venue when a local civic building was taken away and looking at their website now, it seems they are having to use more private homes as venues than a facility at the local community college.
d. Keepers of knowledge? The Myers case indicates that this means “clergy, ministers, priests, reverends, monks, shamans, teachers, or sages. By virtue of their enlightenment, experience, education, or training, these people are keepers and purveyors of religious knowledge.” Meyers, 95 F. 3d at 1483. If there are such people for atheists, no one has ever sent me the memo.
e. Ceremonies and rituals? What would this be – sleeping in on Sunday? I know there are some atheist groups that have a silly “reverse baptism” ritual in which a newly-announced atheist is treated with a blow-dryer. But no, there is no standardized or even commonly-accepted ritual for becoming or being an atheist.
f. Structure or organization? If you think atheists have structure or organization, you’ve obviously never tried to organize or impose structure on a group of atheists. “Herding cats” is a metaphor that comes to mind. Feeding them helps.
g. Holidays? Not so much. No atheist has ever gone to his boss and said, “I want off work tomorrow to celebrate Darwin’s birthday.” At least, no atheist who wanted to keep his job ever has.
h. Diet or fasting? No way! Why would we do that?
i. Appearance and clothing? I’ll concede that some atheists have a tendency to wear T-shirts with amusing slogans. But aside from that, no.
j. Propogation? “Most religious groups, thinking that they have something worthwhile or essential to offer non-believers, attempt to propagate their views and persuade others of their correctness. This is sometimes called ‘mission work,’ ‘witnessing,’ ‘converting,’ or proselytizing.” Meyers, 95 F.3d at 1484. While no one makes them do it and some of us find it tiresome when they do, there are some atheists who do try to “de-convert” their friends who are faithful and who explain why they find atheism to be a superior world view to theism. So I guess that yes, we have this accoutrement.
But overall, I don’t think atheism meets the Myers test. Atheism lacks a moral or ethical system, a comprehensiveness of belief, customary gathering places, formalized keepers of knowledge, ceremony and ritual, structure and organization, holidays, diet and fasting, and distinctive appearance and clothing.
What about the Ninth Circuit’s simpler three-part test in Alvarado? As it turns out, while it’s phrased differently, Alvarado is a simplified form of the Myers test, with one very interesting omission:
(1) Does atheism “address  fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”? Yes. See points (1) and (2) above under my Myers analysis.
(2) Is the atheistic system of belief “comprehensive in nature”? No. See point (4) in the Myers analysis.
(3) Is atheism recognizable “by the presence of certain formal and external signs”? No. Some atheists like to wear “scarlet A” T-shirts, but most do not. For the most part, we look and dress and act just like the rest of you! In fact, there might be an atheist sitting right next to you right now and you’d never know it! More to the point, atheism lacks most of the “accoutrements of religion” described in point (5) in the Myers analysis above.
So there you have it – in at least eighteen states and three territories, atheism is not a religion as that term is legally defined by controlling legal precedent.
I teased you before about the difference between the circuit tests. Here it is: in the Third and Ninth Circuits, a religion need not necessarily include a moral or ethical system. I suppose that some understanding of ancient pagan belief systems were fundamentally amoral, but even then, the pagan gods from time to time condemned or punished humans for their immoral conduct. Nevertheless, it does raise an issue of whether an ethical or moral code must be integrated into a belief system in order for that belief system to be a “religion.”
And if it’s the case that you need not have a moral or ethical system in order to be religious, why should atheists be given any grief about their alleged lack of “objective” morality?