Deeper into the Neverending Well of Lies
Viewpoint: The religion of atheism
Mr. Eby has now decided that he knows better than all us poor deluded atheists, and has basically parrotted the common theist canard that all people have religion - whether they know it (and like it) or not. Please note the despite all this fluff and nonsense Mr. Eby has failed at proving how neutrality in regards to religion is giving privledge to atheism.
WASHINGTON -- My article "Giving privilege to atheism in today's America" in the World Peace Herald (www.wpherald.com/storyview.php?StoryID=20051123-091553-1212r) provoked numerous responses and comments from atheists who claim that this article misrepresents what atheism is and what atheists actually believe.
If we accept the usual or most prevalent definition of religion, a definition in which religion is explicitly tied to belief in and/or service of a supernatural god or supreme being, then atheism could not be a religion because active atheism can be defined or described as the positive rejection of the existence of any supernatural god or supreme being. Atheism is the active belief that there is no god. As one atheist put it, "Atheism is the rejection of supernatural belief. As an atheist, I do not believe in the reality of any supernatural being, and as a result of this, reject religion."
That usual or most prevalent definition of religion is defective, however, because it is too narrow. Religion has to do with what a person thinks or believes about first or ultimate things. German theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was especially insightful and instructive on this, saying that religion has to do with what he called "ultimate concern." "Our ultimate concern," he wrote, "is that which determines our being or not-being." Furthermore, "every human being exists in the power of an ultimate concern, whether or not he is fully conscious of it, whether or not he admits it to himself or others." In this sense of religion, religion is unavoidable because every person does have an ultimate concern and therefore has a religion. The theist finds his ground of ultimate concern in a supernatural supreme being or God. The active atheist asserts, tacitly if not explicitly, that no such supernatural supreme being exists so his ground for ultimate concern cannot be found in or rest on such a being. Both the theist and the atheist do make an assertion, tacitly if not explicitly, about ultimate concern, although they find or ground that ultimate concern in very different places. So they both do hold a view that is properly understood as being religious, in this extended and more accurate understanding of "religious."
The situation of the atheist with respect to religion is similar to that of the logical positivists in philosophy, who declared that metaphysics is meaningless and should be eliminated. The problem is that this statement or declaration is itself a metaphysical statement, so the logical positivist program could not succeed because it was internally inconsistent and possibly even incoherent. In a similar way, the religious fundamentalists who declare, for themselves, "I have nothing to do with philosophy," do in fact have something to do with philosophy because their statement is itself a philosophical one. It is the same for atheists: Their statement, "I do not believe in any religion or any god," is itself a religious statement.
In discussing atheism we do need to distinguish between passive and active disbelief. Passive disbelief is to be uninterested in the question, to have no opinion one way or the other. If I know nothing about X or am completely uninterested in X, then I cannot have either an active belief or active disbelief in X. Some atheism is indeed of that sort in that some people have no opinion about or interest at all in any supernatural being or any received religion. But those are not the atheists who agitate for changes in American law so as to eliminate references in it to God or religion. The atheists who do such agitation are active atheists or active unbelievers, and it is those active atheists I am concerned with here.
One atheist objected to my article that, under the definitions given in it and taken from Webster's, where religion is defined as "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith," and faith is defined as "allegiance to a duty or a person; loyalty; fidelity to one's promise,' then - as this respondent wrote - "anything that one clings to fervently can be a religion: Naziism, fascism, Ba'athism, communism, even capitalism could be considered a religion under this definition." That respondent is correct. Nazism, fascism, Ba'athism, communism, even capitalism function as religions for many people who adhere(d) to them or have (had) an ardent faith in them. For those people these things do function as what Tillich called their "ultimate concern," and thus they are indeed their religions, at least functionally.
One commentator wrote, "What boggled my mind in your piece was that you attempted to show that "A" and "not A" are equal. Quite a feat. In your world 0 = 1. So, by your peculiar logic, to be with god (theism) and without god (atheism) mean the same; they both mean religious."
Although this respondent's way of putting his point is misleading - I do not and did not say that 0 =1 or that "A" and "not A" are equal - he is correct in attempting to say that I hold that active belief and active disbelief are logically equal. Each can be fully expressed in terms of the other. To say that I actively believe in the existence of X (the theist position with respect to God), for example, is exactly the same as saying that I actively disbelieve in the nonexistence of X. To say that I actively disbelieve in the existence of X (the atheist position with respect to God) is exactly the same as saying that I actively believe in the nonexistence of X.
I do indeed hold that theism and atheism are both religious. The atheist who thinks otherwise is mistaken because he is using a tendentious or incorrect definition of religion, a definition that attempts to privilege atheism and give it a logical, legal, and evidential status over the usual notions of religion. But that is unwarranted. The theist cannot prove that his belief is true; his belief is metaphysical and a statement of faith that goes beyond the observable evidence for it. And the atheist cannot prove that his view is true either; his belief is also metaphysical and a statement of unbelief that goes beyond the observable evidence for it.
Over about the past half-century the courts in the United States have moved to acceptance of the view that atheism constitutes a religion, at least for purposes of law and public policy. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the US Supreme Court said that a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being; the Court described "secular humanism" as a religion. Two cases dealing with defendants who claimed the status of conscientious objectors to military service, decided during the Vietnam War, dealt at least indirectly with this question. In United States v. Seeger (1965) the US Supreme Court held that adherence to some form of religious orthodoxy is not necessary in order for the person to be a legitimate conscientious objector. Five years later, in Welsh v. United States (1970), the Court held that "A registrant's conscientious objection to all war is 'religious' ... if this opposition stems from the registrant's moral, ethical, or religious beliefs about what is right and wrong and these beliefs are held with the strength of traditional religious convictions. In view of the broad scope of the word 'religious,' a registrant's characterization of his beliefs as 'nonreligious' is not a reliable guide to those administering the exemption."
Most recently, in August, 2005, a federal court of appeals ruled that Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat his atheism as a religion. "Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being," the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said, deciding that the inmate's First Amendment rights were violated because the prison refused to allow him to create a study group for atheists.
Concerning this last case one respondent wrote, "While it is true that some atheists claim that they follow a religion, as you cited with the prison inmate, this is usually done for some cynical purpose." But this is incorrect. The locution "cynical purpose" is tendentious because the commentator does not know what was in the mind of this prison inmate; it is entirely possible and even likely that the inmate was totally sincere. Moreover, using the words "cynical purpose" assumes what the commentator needs to prove, namely that any atheist who admits that his belief is a religion is mistaken and is doing so for some untoward reason.
The conclusion then is that the courts have finally gotten this issue right. An atheist's faith and belief system is and should be on the same logical, evidential, and legal status as Roman Catholicism, Islam, Methodism, and every other religious belief system, protestations of atheists to the contrary notwithstanding. And, since Article VI coupled with the First Amendment are properly understood as requiring government neutrality with respect to religion, it must not privilege atheism either.
One respondent did see correctly where this leads us. He wrote, "While I will not dispute that Atheism can be considered a religion, I don't think that the absence of a God alone constitutes Atheism. If that were the case, then we would really have a problem in America because the Government would have to by that view endorse a religion." He is correct. I doubt that it is possible for government to be completely neutral on this question. Government does indeed have to endorse religion, at least to some extent.
For that reason the view that government could and should be completely neutral concerning religion and religious issues does tend to break down because that view was built on a foundation that is legally, logically, and philosophically weak and perhaps even incoherent. The courts thus have to tread very cautiously here. They should be especially wary of attempts by atheists to privilege the atheist position at the expense of their theistic opponents. The so-called naked public square with respect to religion - religion now understood in the usual theistic sense -- is not really so naked after all; it is instead a public square that has a high probability of having given undue regard and privilege to atheism.