Is Atheism a Religion? 

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.



The Marriage Trap, Part 2

Recently members of the secular community here in Oklahoma, many of them our leaders, have been reminding us that they are ordained in the state, authorized to perform marriages as an ordained “minister” under Oklahoma law, and are willing to do so for non-believers. They, along with several churches and religious leaders, have been doing this in response to recent legislation and made it clear that they will perform marriage ceremonies for atheists in order to allow us the opportunity to comply with this bill.

I have three words for my leadership:




As I’ve mentioned before, a bill establishing new restrictions on how marriages are licensed in Oklahoma has been introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature. In its original form HB 1125 by Rep. Todd Russ gave the authority to issue marriage licenses exclusively to ordained pastors, ministers, and other religious authority figures. But while the fact that the bill was subsequently amended to once again add judges to the list of folks allowed to issue marriage licenses, along with reports that the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, are positive signs that marriage won’t be restricted to the religious any time soon in Oklahoma, these reminders that there are secular officiants out there willing to perform pseudo-religious ceremonies for non-believers are not helpful in the fight against this abhorrent legislation. 


The State has no compelling public policy reason to limit marriage licenses to those undergoing religious ceremonies or that said marriages must be sanctioned by real or pretend religious leaders, and leaders in the secular community shouldn’t be giving tacit approval to this effort by announcing they are “ordained”. The impulse here is, I assume, to let us all know that non-believers can avoid this blatantly unconstitutional action by the State by participating in a quasi-religious ceremony officiated by a phony religious leader. But that’s the wrong impulse. Our leadership should be calling this action out for what it is: an egregious breach of the wall of separation between Church and State.


Look, I understand that there are lots of folks out there who’ve left their faith but want to keep the ceremonies, rites and events that came with that faith. There are others who like big parties or want the traditional ceremony without the religious talk. I think it is marvelous that there are people willing to perform those ceremonies, and I’ve recommended several of them to friends who want this service. My best friend is ordained to perform marriage ceremonies (and an atheist), and my own husband is halfway to being ordained as a Dudist Priest. It’s all wonderful so long as participation in such activity is a choice.

But the State is attempting to take away that choice. Making it easier for the State to do this and trying to divert the damage this legislation does by offering these services to the community should not be the actions of our leadership. I know people have their heart in the right place here; I believe they are trying to mitigate an ugly action by being positive. But seriously, stop. Just stop. 

I know we can all just go through the motions, pretending to uphold the spirit of the law while patting ourselves on the back about how we’ve fooled the powers that be and faked our way through their illegal requirements. But its phony, and nobody should be forced to fake their way through the most important and life-changing decision they will ever make. They certainly shouldn’t be forced to do so by the State.


Our leadership should be representing the best interests of the community, and in this case they’ve failed. They should be standing up to make it harder for the State to implement violations of the Constitution, not easier. Start fighting for the rights of the people to be free from government imposition of religious ceremonies in order to access civil rights and privileges. It’s what a leader would do.

EDIT:  It occurs to me that as a co-organizer of the Lawton Area Secular Society I should include myself in this failure. I did write a personal blog post about this legislation at the time it was introduced, but LASS should have issued a statement on it as well. That is my failure and I’ll own it. 


P.S. This bill was originally intended to prevent same-sex marriage equality by putting marriage exclusively in the hands of the Church. I guess the authors didn’t realize there are literally dozens and dozens of ministers in the state more than willing to perform marriages and issue marriage licenses for homosexual couples. If this bill passes it will actually have exactly the opposite outcome than the original intent. Legislating is hard when you only see the world from one viewpoint, isn’t it?