Tract #16: Is Atheism a Religion?
Download tract #16: Is Atheism a Religion (PDF). See page #3 for printing instructions.
Is Atheism a Religion?
Is atheism a religion? Can atheists speak against religion without speaking against themselves? If atheism is not a religion, is it still legally protected?
Let’s start with what religion is. Dictionary.com defines religion as, “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
Let’s take these elements one at a time.
A set of beliefs. Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity and nothing more. If it is a set of beliefs, it is an empty set.
Concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. Atheists generally stick with science on the cause and nature of the universe, so atheism would not be a religion on these grounds unless science is also a religion. Atheists do not believe that a purpose has been given to the universe, so the atheist belief about the universe’s purpose is that there isn’t one.
Creation of a superhuman agency. Not something an atheist believes in.
Devotional and ritual observances. Atheists have no being to be devotional to, but some do participate in ritual observances as part of their culture or for a feeling of community.
A moral code. Atheism does not have a moral code of its own. Such things are up to the individual atheist.
Because atheism fails to meet most of the criteria in the definition of a religion, it would seem to not be a religion. The only way to consider atheism a religion would be to define religion as any set of beliefs about the nature of the universe, no matter where they come from. But to do that would be to invite the possibility of astronomy or physics being classified as a religion, and that clearly would be problematic.
If atheism is not a religion, is it protected by the U.S. Constitution, which bans the government from making laws concerning the establishment of religion? Or may the government promote religion so long as it does not promote one religion over another?
Not having religion is a decision about religion, even though it is not a religion in and of itself. For this reason, atheism should be protected under the Constitution even though it is not a religion. Similarly, if there were a constitutional requirement that the government not interfere with individuals’ choice of a car, the government could not pass a law requiring people to purchase a car, since having no car is a legitimate automobile choice.