Is Atheism a Religion? That Question’s at the Heart of a Lawsuit Over Housing Credits for ‘Ministers of the Gospel’

For a couple of years now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been in a legal battle to end the “parish exemption” that allows ministers to deduct the cost of their mortgage/utilities/parking/furnishings from their taxable income. FFRF argues that this shows preferential treatment for religious leaders.

In fact, FFRF’s own board has paid its co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor $15,000 each as part of their housing allowance, but because they don’t qualify as “ministers of the gospel,” they’re arguing that the law doesn’t apply to them and, therefore, it’s illegal. (For what it’s worth, they didn’t try to obtain the exemption and get rejected; they’re simply speaking on principle.)

I typed ‘atheist’ and ‘house’ into Google and this is what came up

In a recent twist to the case, the U.S. Department of Justice is arguing that atheism is a religion, so Barker and Gaylor should be able to qualify for the exemption:

Non-theistic beliefs, including atheism, may qualify as “religious” beliefs in various contexts because they pertain to religion and fulfill a similar role in a person’s life:

Because [FFRF] can show no facts to suggest that the IRS will apply terms like “minister” and “religious organization” as if they turn on adherence to some theistic belief or other content, this Court should not presume that the IRS would act inconsistently with the governing law regarding whether atheism a religion for purposes of an atheist’s claim…

So how is FFRF responding to that claim?

No thanks, says Gaylor.

“We are not ministers,” she said. “We are having to tell the government the obvious — we are not a church.”

Philosophically, she’s right. As the saying goes, if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color and “off” is a TV channel. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman offers another mark against that claim:

Atheist groups can be religion-like, [Zuckerman] said. They have regular meetings, shared ideology and even revered symbols — like the Darwin fish or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a symbol that satirizes intelligent design.

They also can be true believers about their cause, in the same way that soccer or music fans can seem to worship their idols.

But there’s no real belief in a supernatural power, he said. That’s where the comparison to religion breaks down.

“Soccer fans don’t really believe that David Beckham was born of a virgin,” he said. “They don’t really believe Jimi Hendrix is a god.”

Exactly. Atheism isn’t a religion, unless the definition of “religion” changes so much as to become almost meaningless. However, in the legal system, atheism has been — and should be — treated like a religion. It’s a little easier to understand if you say that all belief systems are equal under the law. The government can’t promote Christianity over Judaism or theism over atheism, and that’s why FFRF should be fighting this “parish exemption.”

There are two possible ways to resolve this problem.

The government is saying, “The law, as it stands, is illegal, so let’s include FFRF and other atheist groups in the housing exemption.”

FFRF is saying, “The law, as it stands, is illegal, so just strike it down altogether.”

I know I have a bias here, but FFRF’s argument just makes the most sense. It’s easy to see the slippery slope if the government’s argument wins out here. What happens when a Pastafarian group wants the housing credit? Can atheist non-profit groups stop being transparent with their finances? Can they advocate for political candidates like churches seem to be able to do without punishment?

It’d be better for everyone if we just stopped giving churches (and, if it were the case, atheist groups) special treatment. Forget the housing exemption. And forget the tax breaks, too. We could find a much better use for the $71,000,000,000 we’d get in return for taxing churches.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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