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Monday, August 4, 2008

On Free Exercise of Irreligion

Dan, over at Debunking Atheists, made a post last week about how the court has ruled that atheism is a religion and therefore atheism is a religion. This is, obviously, absurd to anyone who has had even the basic introduction to jurisprudence. He made yet another post on it, though, and this time trying to attribute certain things to the "atheist religion" (though, with his methodology everything including libertarianism, philosophy, computer science, and candle stick making is a religion).

He doesn't seem to grasp the point I was trying to make, so I thought that I would expand it into a full blog post. Within a few days I will also make a post on the history of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Contrary to what Dan believes, this is not the first time the questions of "what is religion" and "does atheism, philosophy, and other irreligious beliefs covered under the protection of the First Amendment." There was, in fact, nothing new in the court case mentioned in his post. You can read my original comments there.

Technical terms vs lay terms

One of the many things I found interesting about Dan and this whole the courts have decided "atheism is a religion" episode is that it's so much like the battle of terms in evolutionary theory with the public. We know the difference between a lay theory and a scientific theory, so I won't go into it here. If you don't know the difference or have made the argument "evolution is just a theory," I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article on theory vs fact, wherein evolution is used as an example.

The same problem is happening here. The Court considers atheism a religion in a legal sense: for the purpose of protection under the First Amendment. The Court also considers corporations persons in a legal sense as well. Does this mean that, since the Supreme Court has ruled that "corporations are persons" (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific R. Co.), corporations are literally people as we understand the term in the laity? Obviously, according to Dan, yes we should.

The mentioned case, Kaufman v McCaughtry

What is interesting about the case he mentions in his blog post, Kaufman v McCaughtry, the judge has actually said that atheism is not a religion, as we understand religions. I have emphasized the portions when it discusses that atheism is only going to be considered a religion for the special purpose of protection under the First Amendment.
An inmate retains the right to exercise his religious beliefs in prison. The problem here was that the prison officials did not treat atheism as a "religion," perhaps in keeping with Kaufman's own insistence that it is the antithesis of religion. But whether atheism is a "religion" for First Amendment purpose is a somewhat different question than whether its adherents believe in a supreme being, or attend regular devotional services, or have a sacred Scripture.


Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of "ultimate concern" that for her occupy a "place parallel to that filled by... God in traditionally religious persons," those beliefs represent her religion.


We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. ("If we think of religion as taking a position on divinity, then atheism is indeed a form of religion.")


The Supreme Court has recognized atheism as equivalent to a "religion" for purposes of the First Amendment on numerous occasions...

The Establishment Clause itself says only that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," but the Court understands the reference to religion to include what it often calls "nonreligion." In McCreary Country, it described the touchstone of Establishment Clause analysis as "the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion."


As such, we are satisfied that it qualifies as Kaufman's religion for purposes of the First Amendment claims he is attempting to raise.
And just why was he raising First Amendment claims? Because he had tried to form an atheist study group which would work "to stimulate and promote Freedom of Thought and inquiry concerning religious beliefs, creeds, dogmas, tenets, rituals and practicies." They were denied the official form which they submitted, entitled "Request for New Religious Practice." While they were rejected, actual religions were allowed, including "Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Wiccan" groups.

Since atheism is considered a religion for the purpose of protection under the First Amendment, Kaufman's rights were clearly violated. It's a win for baby-eating atheists everywhere.

Example of how America views atheism as a religion?

The real kicker to all this, though, is that Dan used it as an example of how America views atheism as a religion. The prison officials, though, had denied the request as they didn't view atheism as a religion. As such, they subjected it "under the procedure for forming a new inmate activity group."

The Next Time On DisComforting Ignorance...
As I mentioned at the beginning, I will soon make a post on the history of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the First Amendment with regard to the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. The history is quite interesting, as it starts with a polygamy case. I will focus especially on its treatment of irreligion under the First Amendment.

1 comment:

Doug Indeap said...

You are entirely right to observe that people define terms, including "atheism" and "religion," differently depending on the context and the purpose. Depending on how one defines those terms, they may or may not overlap.

Defining terms in a legal context for the purpose of interpreting and implementing a statutory or constitutional provision may lead to definitions quite different than one would use in ordinary conversation, scientific study, or philosophical discussion.

In the context of theists trying to define atheism, some people appear to want to label atheism a religion with the thought of attributing to atheism some of the characteristics of theism, particularly those characteristics commonly criticized by atheists, in order to argue, I suppose, that atheism is just as bad as theism in these regards.

Apart from the problem of varying definitions depending on purpose and context (as you point out), there is another fundamental logical flaw or futility in this characterization effort, which is that it is simply beside the point. Whatever characteristics atheism shares with theism can and should be discussed on their own merits. These merits are not augmented or diminished one wit merely by choosing to, or to not, label atheism as religion.

An inherent limitation of characterization as a form of argument is that merely calling something a name does not mean that it then necessarily shares all of the attributes of other things called by that name and thus should be treated like other things called by that name. It remains to look behind the label at the underlying realities to really discuss and determine the merits of the issue.

While off topic, one prominent, if controversial, example of the use (actually misuse) of characterization as a form of argument is in the debate on abortion and related issues. Many argue with much passion about whether this or that stage of pregnancy should be called a "baby," "life," "human being," "zygote," "fetus," or the like--as if attaching one or the other label somehow reveals or establishes whether abortion is right or wrong, good or bad, in any or all circumstances.