Is atheism a “religion”? Is the Pope Protestant?

TYLER (listing no location) ASKS:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?

THE GUY SAYS:

May seem like asking, Is the Pope Protestant? But this is actually a complicated matter. Tyler notes the Merriam-Webster definition of atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of Deity.” More important, 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 (more below).

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.

Nonetheless, there’s something creepily “religious” about shrines that display the embalmed corpses of totalitarian atheists like Lenin, Mao, Ho, North Korea’s first two Kims, and (temporarily) Stalin. And in fact a person can be “religious” without belief in God, especially in the U.S. with its creative and latitudinarian — another great word The Guy has been itching to use — free market for faith.  Consider:

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles state that it draws from “religions” and teachings that “call us to respond to God’s love.” But note that adherents don’t need to actually believe in any god. The denomination says “atheists and agnostics are welcome in Unitarian Universalism and can find a welcoming, supportive faith community” and a godless “spiritual path.” Leaders of Ethical Culture (a.k.a. Ethical Humanism) depict it as “a religion” that likewise involves “faith” but do not mention any sort of deity. Scientology, which refers to a “Supreme Being” as the vaguely impersonal “urge toward existence as infinity,” won a long campaign for government tax exemption as a “religion” rather than a secular therapy business. Let’s not neglect the Universal Life Church’s “Instant Online Ordination” granted to 20 million instant reverends, presumably including atheists since no belief is required.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with definitions in the intriguing United States v. Seeger case from 1965, when America’s Vietnam entanglement and the anti-war movement were both escalating and the military draft was still in force.  Traditionally, the U.S. has granted conscientious objector status to followers of pacifist faiths, mainly the Quakers and certain baptistic groups like the Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites. The Guy considers this a glory of America’s unique religious liberty heritage. Congress loosened rules in 1948 to allow individualized draft exemptions based upon “religious training” and “belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation,” though not for “political, sociological, or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code.”

Daniel Seeger was convicted of draft evasion under that doctrine. He had some Quaker background but on the required belief in a “Supreme Being”  he couldn’t say either yes or no. He said his “skepticism or disbelief in the existence of God” didn’t “necessarily mean lack of faith in anything whatsoever” and professed “religious faith in a purely ethical creed” but “without belief in God, except in the remotest sense.”

The justices must have scratched their heads over Seeger’s un-credo but unanimously overturned his conviction by adding this new basis for draft exemption: “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies.” Since not-quite-an-atheist Seeger qualified, it’s a good guess that the Feds could certify a flaming atheist if the draft is ever re-imposed.

Further, Justice Douglas pondered the status of atheists who follow the Buddhist religion, and of Hindus who worship numerous deities rather than the law’s solo Being. Justice Clark’s main opinion cited Union Theological Seminary liberal Paul Tillich, who thought “God does not exist” in the sense of any entity that “religion” talks about. Tillich mused about “meaning within meaninglessness” and “certitude within doubt” and, sounding somewhat  like a Scientologist, “the ground of the subject-object structure of being” as a replacement for the old God.

Maybe the Pope can be Protestant after all.

 

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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