This time around, he’s digging into a classic question from the church-state wars of the past few decades, care of a reader named Tyler:
Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?
That was the Christmas story in year three that focused on the cultural and personal roots of faith. At one point, the town’s crusty old storekeeper informs the Jewish Dr. Joel Fleischman that, while everyone else in town seems to really dig the Native American Raven pageant at Christmas time, she remains an atheist (though she retains a belief in a female divine force of some kind that has never taken human form). The doctor replies, as I recall the quote: I’ve always admired people who are atheists. I think it takes a lot of faith.
There’s a similar line, if I recall, in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the part where the Woody Allen character faces his own mortality and begins to doubt his doubts. Right?
Anyway, Ostling replies that the key question is:
… What is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that. …
Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. … Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.”
The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.
But there are some interesting complications, notes Ostling.