Saturday, August 20, 2005


The Absence of Religion is Itself a Religion

Sorry for the long absence, folks, but duties between Nashville and Knoxville have kept me extraordinarily busy.

If you are looking for something to read, though, try the 7th Circuit's opinion in Kaufman v. McCaughtry, decided Friday. The case reiterates a point that I have long argued with laypersons, attorneys, and law review editors but that no one seems to acknowledge - for the purpose of First Amendment analysis, atheism is a religion.

What are the ramifications of accepting this judicial finding? Well, it seems to me that it sends Establishment Clause cases into a tailspin, for if a public school official rules against a practicing Christian student's viewpoint, isn't that official basically establishing atheism as the official religion of the state?

Ridiculous? I don't think so, when considering federal decisions on the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. Clearly, the Supreme Court's unwillingness to settle the law in this area causes this sort of problem, and a solution will be required by the lower courts before chaos reigns regarding religious freedoms in America.

UDATE: It has come to my attention that the 7th Circuit site will not allow my link, so I have linked to the case cite here at FindLaw. My apologies.

Yes, I do think that's ridiculous.

1. If there's a ruling against a Christian student, why must it automatically be atheist? Maybe it's Jainist or Islamist. Maybe it's just a different form of Christianity. Maybe it's just sticking to the establishment clause.

2. A-theism, means without theism. It's not a religion. Although, it's true that some people do treat atheism as a religion, but not all atheists.
vol abroad -

"A-theism, means without theism. It's not a religion."

You state that as fact, but, as you could read in the latest opinion and the string cites contained therein, you are wrong in the legal sense. I thought I made that clear in the post because I realize that most people don't care to read judicial opinions (even though they should, being that they create/restrict rights in this country).

Clarifiying my schoolhouse example, let's say that the ruling is against what we can term the "traditional religions" - Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. To ban the expression of ANY of those religions leaves atheism as the default religion.

I believe that you understood my example pitting one form of traditional religion against another, but that is not what I am saying. For instance, during an open reading period, say that a Baptist wants to read The Bible, a Muslim the Koran, etc. All are told that is not allowed. (This is based on recent events, by the way.) My argument (backed by recent court decisions) is that the official has embraced atheism, an action against the Establishment Clause.


Basically, Rob, the logical consequence of your argument is that every point of view is religious, which is fallacious, because if every belief (even a non-religious one) is religious, then there is no religion, because there is nothing to contrast religion to. That's ridiculous.

Besides, the choice between atheism and religion is a false choice. There are two other options that you fail to metion: agnosticism and a neutrality that brackets bias for the sake of fairness. I believe that public schools should be neutral, just as an umpire is neutral in a ballgame. By your logic, a ballgame cannot be played by the rules because the umpire always chooses a side even when he does not choose a side.

As I said before, that's ridiculous.
I think you make perfect sense Rob. A lot of atheists are more "religious" about their atheism than a lot of Christians are about their Christianity. If it wasn't a religion to them, why would they spend so much time fighting against Christianity. These Secular Athiests are fanatical when it comes to anything having to do with Christianity.

I know that you were making a legal argument, but I think if you subsituted the term, secular humanist, for the term atheist, then there is no doubt that this supposed anti-religion is nothing but a religion.
Glen--it seems like you are using "religious" to mean "committed to an idea," as in "atheists are as committed to the idea of atheism as Christians are to Christianity."

However, you should not be blurring terms like "religious" and "committed," because there are lots of strong commitments to things that are not religious. I'm strongly committed to changing the oil in my car every 3,000 miles or 3 months, but that commitment is not religious. That commitment is based on the high priority I have to care for my possessions so that I don't have to keep buying new ones.

I don't care what terms you substitute for "atheism," they are not "religions," whenever they are first and foremost committed to non-religious ideas. "Secular humanism" is an ideology, unless and until it identifies itself as a religion.

I don't know why some conservative Christians have to be so arrogant as to label every other idea that they oppose as "religion." What if atheists went around saying that Christianity is not a religion, but is just a form of the absence of religion? You people would reject that out-of-hand, but you seriously expect others just to accept it when you say, "A non-religion is actually a religion."

Yeah, and apples are actually just oranges.
Mike, you should wait to at least 5000 miles before you change your oil. That 3 months/3000 stuff is just advertisment to get you to buy more oil.

Seriously though, if someone really just does not believe in God, then why do they care whether or not other kids pray in school or whether there is a nativitiy scene downtown? These people are passionate about hating religion and specifically Christianity. If someone were simply a non-believer, they just wouldn't care.

Also, why are lining up with the Atheists on this one? Your not an atheist. Has defending atheism become part of the Democratic agenda now or something?
I'm not an atheist and there is no guilt by association. My Baptist upbringing taught me to fight to keep religion out of government. If they impose religion on atheists, it's only a matter of time before they start imposing something else on me. Protecting the rights of atheism protects my rights, too.

Nobody is stopping Christian children from praying a school. There are plenty of opportunties for individual kids to pause, bow their heads and pray silently, which is exactly the way Jesus told us to do it: in secret. Why are you standing against Jesus on this one, Glen?
Okay, this is the point that I disengage from this discussion. God bless you brother.
"If you are looking for something to read, though, try the 7th Circuit's opinion in Kaufman v. McCaughtry, decided Friday. The case reiterates a point that I have long argued with laypersons, attorneys, and law review editors but that no one seems to acknowledge - for the purpose of First Amendment analysis, atheism is a religion."

Curious that you would recommend others read the case when you didn't read it yourself. The decision is quite clear that atheism is only a "religion" for First Amendment purposes *and for this inmate*. Those are *two* qualifications. Not one.

That means that atheism isn't inherently a religion. It also means that atheism isn't necessarily a religion "for First Amendment purposes" in other contexts/for other people. The level of this guy's commitment to whatever his atheistic philosophy is seems to be what mattered.

Just like a person committed to a non-religious pacifist ideology gets a chance at a draft exemption under "religious exemptions," this guy gets a chance as well. You can't argue against this inmate without arguing against the non-religious pacifist, and if you do that then you're saying that only religious pacifists get a chance to avoid being drafted.

That, however, would favor religion over non-religion and that's why judges broaden the concept of "religion" to include other ideologies sometimes. Yes, it's dumb on the surface, but if politicians didn't write laws that favored religious ideologies over non-religious ones, this wouldn't happen. More general "freedom of conscience" clauses rather than "freedom of religion" exemptions would fix this.
Good post Rob and thank you. Rabbi Daniel Lapin addressed this in a recent book--

he calls it the "neutrality myth."

I wrote a column about this same issue a couple of years ago, basically saying that secular-humanists believe absence of religion is "ground zero" or the starting point. They see the issue of religion as a bar graph--with humanism being the starting point or no points/bars on the graph.

I see the issue of religon as a line graph. With one end being a country like the Taliban run Afghanistan or perhaps historical Europe where the "church" IS government and the other end being No God. The line for the graph however, is religion--in other words, there will be some sort of religion--just where on the line will we be--athiesm, the middle, or the Taliban.

There are only two choices--either looking to God as a source of our natural rights (as our founding fathers spelled out in the Declaration of Independence) or looking to man and the state as the source of our rights.

And as the Rabbi says--it is impossible to be neutral with regard to belief in a higher being or secular humanism--you're endorsing one or the other.

When the secular-humanists look to man as the sole-source--the rest of the country is oppressed or denied their belief that God is the source.

And when I say the rest of the country, I mean the 90%-95% of the nation who believe in a higher power, i.e. Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc.

S-town is being quite disingenous--what he seeks in the name of his religion--is moral relativism, which is not the argument we are having here. He seeks to solve his problem with the fact that most religions have "absolutes", by siding with those who seek to eradicate religion. To him, that seems the simplest way of dealing with theological problems he encounters.

He's arguing "brands" while the court is discussing the big picture: A country and man with or without God.
Terry and Glen-

Thank you for the excellent comments. It's nice to see that someone else out there gets it.


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