WWROD: So is atheism a belief system or not?

It's time for another GetReligion visit to the online domain of the Ridgewood Religion Guy, as in the weblog of former Time and Associated Press religion-beat maestro Richard Ostling. This time around, he's digging into a classic question from the church-state wars of the past few decades, care of a reader named Tyler:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?

The minute I read that question I thought of a scene in one of my all-time favorite episodes of "Northern Exposure," called "Seoul Mates (check out the "may your dog talk" clip)."

That was the Christmas story in year three that focused on the cultural and personal roots of faith. At one point, the town's crusty old storekeeper informs the Jewish Dr. Joel Fleischman that, while everyone else in town seems to really dig the Native American Raven pageant at Christmas time, she remains an atheist (though she retains a belief in a female divine force of some kind that has never taken human form). The doctor replies, as I recall the quote: I've always admired people who are atheists. I think it takes a lot of faith.

There's a similar line, if I recall, in "Hannah and Her Sisters," the part where the Woody Allen character faces his own mortality and begins to doubt his doubts. Right?

Anyway, Ostling replies that the key question is:

... What is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that. ...

Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. ... Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.”

The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.

But there are some interesting complications, notes Ostling.

For example, what does one do with the those "creepily 'religious' ... shrines that display the embalmed corpses of totalitarian atheists like Lenin, Mao, Ho, North Korea’s first two Kims, and (temporarily) Stalin"? Are these, in fact, secular shrines that contain atheistic relics with emotional power for followers?

Also, where is the line between an ordinary atheist and an atheist who is active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation or, perhaps, a Reform Jewish temple? What is the tax status of an atheist minister ordained through the Universal Life Church’s “Instant Online Ordination” option, which is open to all no matter their beliefs or lack of same?

More from the Religion Guy:

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles state that it draws from “religions” and teachings that “call us to respond to God’s love.” But note that adherents don’t need to actually believe in any god. The denomination says “atheists and agnostics are welcome in Unitarian Universalism and can find a welcoming, supportive faith community” and a godless “spiritual path.” Leaders of Ethical Culture (a.k.a. Ethical Humanism) depict it as “a religion” that likewise involves “faith” but do not mention any sort of deity. Scientology, which refers to a “Supreme Being” as the vaguely impersonal “urge toward existence as infinity,” won a long campaign for government tax exemption as a “religion” rather than a secular therapy business.

And what happened when a question related to this reached the U.S. Supreme Court?

Read it all.

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