By Mathew Goldstein
Gary Berg-Cross recently commented on the question "is atheism a religion?". He concluded that, while there is no one correct answer to what qualifies as a religion, a reasonable way to tackle this question is to look for various indicators of religion. One is a reliance on faith as a way of knowing. Another is the notion that there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities. More generally, there is the belief in some non-natural power. This approach implies that theism is "a religion", but it is not.
A problem here is that atheism and theism are particular beliefs and a particular belief is not necessarily unique to a particular religion. A religion has a name that is capitalized. So asking this question about theism, or atheism, is a category error. Instead, we can properly ask if theism, or atheism, is a religious belief.
Gary's thoughts on how to address the question, so re-worded, are good. The conclusion we reach is that individual atheists who think faith is a valid way of acquiring knowledge, who think there are concepts and judgements which are measured and defined by non-human entities, and the like, can be considered to be religious. Otherwise, Bill Maher is correct. Atheism, unlike theism, is usually not a religious belief. It depends on how the atheism is held and the overall context of beliefs in which the atheism is embedded.
But does this answer really address the original question? Why do some people seem to think this is a significant question? What difference does it make if atheism is deemed to be a religious belief or not?
One place where this question has significance is the law because the first amendment calls for no establishment of religion and free exercise of religion and the tax code gives special benefits to religious organizations. So let's not beat around the bush and pretend that "is atheism a religion?" is a direct philosophical question. It is really about those laws and their applicability. What the people who are asking this question do not appear to fully appreciate is that nouns can have different meanings in legal contexts than they do in everyday contexts. That is the case here. The people who are asking this question are actually asking if the no establishment clause, the free exercise clause, the tax benefits, apply to atheists and atheist organizations. Gary commented only very briefly on these questions in his article.
Let's tackle tax benefits first. There is no proper justification for treating different beliefs differently in the tax code. We can properly make distinctions on various other criteria, but not on the beliefs of citizens regarding the nature or existence of gods. Ideally, our tax code would distinguish between profit and non-profit organizations, and between organizations that advocate for or against candidates in government elections and those that do not. The tax benefits that are unique to religious organizations, such as the tax return filing exemption and the parsonage exemption, are unfair and should be eliminated. If an organization is religious or non-religious should be irrelevant to the IRS. But for now, given that the tax code does make this distinction, atheists are fully justified in insisting that we are fully entitled to all of the same tax benefits as theists. So in the tax law context, religion includes both theism and atheism.
In the non-establishment context it is important to recognize that the first amendment does not refer to "a religion", it refers to religion in the plural sense. We can only identify what is religion in this plural sense by identifying the presence of, and the role of, a religious belief. Furthermore, in a legal context, a partisan belief is always paired with its opposing belief. We can either assent or dissent to a partisan belief, and there is no difference in the legal standing of assenting and dissenting. So here again, since theism is a faith-based, religious belief, and atheism is the dissenting belief relative to theism, both theism and atheism are covered by the noun religion in the Establishment Clause.
The Establishment Clause is paired with the Free Exercise Clause, so atheism also has the same free exercise protections as theism in principle. However, in practice, atheism makes few, if any, free exercise demands against secular laws. Protecting free exercise will tend to favor assenting religious beliefs over the corresponding dissenting beliefs. Free exercise protection should not be allowed to interfere with the health, general welfare, or civil rights freedoms of other citizens. Therefore, free exercise should have lower priority than most other civil rights protections. Free exercise should prevail over secular laws only when such accommodation of religious beliefs otherwise does no significant harm.