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.




7 thoughts on “Is Atheism a Religion? 

  1. johnbestille says:

    I agree – Atheism should not be a religion, although it can be evangelical in nature. In fact, Atheism is by it’s foundation is anti-religious…not just a non-believer sect.

    Good analysis – thanks.

  2. Paula says:

    I disagree as to the second criteria. If Atheism were a single concept – there is no God – then perhaps it would not qualify. But atheism is more than that – or else it would have no real point, no real followers, and certainly no need for conferences to discuss the fact that there is no God. Indeed, Atheism is comprehensive and consists of several components of a belief system, including various combinations of the following doctrinal positions:

    1) there is no God
    2) Nothing exists that has not been proven by science
    3) Believing in God is harmful
    4) Religion is harmful
    5) Religion should be disempowered


    So, Atheism arguably is itself a religion.

    • Brenda Weber says:

      Your second question is not one that atheism considers. You are confusing Naturalism with atheism. Atheism itself does not propose any explanation about how or why anything does exist. It simply holds that deities most likely do not exist.

      Your other three questions are more commonly and correctly attributed to anti-theism, not atheism. In fact it is completely possible to believe that deities exist and still hold true your last three questions as evidenced by those people who claim a belief in deities but “hate” religion. I’ve encountered more of them than I have atheists in my life.

      So, no, atheism does not really consists of a system or various combinations of those doctrinal positions. You are conflating other philosophies with atheism. And atheism still isn’t a religion, at least not in the legal sense as described by the California Court of Appeals.

  3. d4m10n says:

    I’m not entirely comfortable with that particular three-pronged test, because it seemingly elevates the idea of imponderability over the idea that we can come to understand the universe via rational free inquiry. That said, if “imponderables” include questions about gods, spirits, angels, demons, and that lot, regardless of how you answer those questions, then clearly Secular Humanism fits all three criteria, as does Marxism, Objectivism, and quite probably neo-rationalist movements such as Less Wrongism.

  4. d4m10n says:

    Reblogged this on Blue Ball Skeptics and commented:
    Good post from a friend of the show…

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