If you’re an out atheist chances are you’ve probably had someone try to tell you that atheism is “a religion itself”. I know I’ve found myself on the receiving end of such claims, and my normal response is to point out that religions are almost always centered around the veneration and worship of a supernatural entity of some sort and therefore atheism is not a religion. I’ve generally been happy with that argument, but it turns out it’s not how the law sees it. Supernatural beliefs are not required to exist in a belief system for the courts to view said belief system as “religious”. My guess is the courts have probably avoided such a ruling because “supernatural” seems kinda judgy and nobody wants to tell their family and neighbors they worship something magical, so they’ve worked around it. Besides, how could you “prove” the supernatural in a court of law anyway? However, it seems we may have a new(ish) standard for what’s considered a religion from a legal standpoint.
The California Court of Appeals has ruled against Mr. Marshel Copple, seemingly the only follower of “Sun Worshipping Atheism”, in his claim that he was discriminated against by the California Department of Corrections on the basis of his religious beliefs. (You can read the entire ruling here.) I won’t go into my opinion of Mr. Copple’s legal arguments or the relative validity of his beliefs, but I will say the entire scenario seems like one intended to challenge the veracity of the “religious belief” exclusions commonly found in the law. If this is the case the good on him. More folks should challenge those exclusions.
But back to the question at hand: is atheism a religion? Included in the ruling was a three part “test” for determining if a belief system is indeed a religion. (This test was originally introduced in Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical Group and the court in the Copple case relied heavily on it.) So, in order for a belief system to be considered a religion under the law it must meet these three requirements:
1. It must addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.
2. It must be is comprehensive in nature; it must consist of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.
3. It’s often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.
So let’s apply this test to atheism. The first and third requirements seem to be met. The first requirement is pretty much guaranteed when it comes to atheism, since it does address the deep and imponderable matter of “Do deities exist?” This is one of the most basic questions ever pondered by humanity, one that has dogged us since before we could even truly articulate the question. Humanity has always attributed the unknowable to a deity, and a sub-set of humanity has always rejected those attributions (usually at their peril).
The third requirement is a little wobbly, if you ask me, since currently there are graphic artists graduating by the truckload and print shops on nearly every corner of any mid-sized city so formal and external signs seem easy to come by even if you don’t have a “belief system”. But of course atheism has these signs, which are generally recognized to the community, so I think we can say atheism meets the third requirement.
As far as the second requirement, since atheism isn’t a “system” in and of itself, and is isolated to the single question concerning the existence of deities I think we can say that no, atheism doesn’t meet the standard of a belief system and is indeed an isolated teaching.
So, there ya go folks. Legally, it seems, atheism is not a religion. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. Of course, this does seem to mean that the legal system can continue to carve out special legal privileges for sincerely held religious belief systems and their followers while continuing to deny those privileges to atheists, especially when it comes to labor law, so maybe that’s not such a good thing. Maybe everyone should be held to the same standard Mr. Copple was: that nobody should take a job if the requirements of that job interfere with their sincerely held beliefs, and the law should not allow anyone to carve out exceptions to those job requirements based on those sincerely held beliefs. I’m certain there are more than few pharmacists in this country who wouldn’t be so happy if they were held to the same legal standard as Mr. Copple, and more than a few women (and the men who love them) who are unhappy they aren’t.