Saturday, January 28, 2012

Question: Is Atheism a Religion?

It is no secret that I spend a fair amount of time at the Huffington Post website deep in discussion with those with whom I politely describe as believing "differently". One of the topics that keeps coming up over and over is the First Amendment battle being wages between Christianity and Atheism. The premise is always that Christians (those who believe in superstitions and "creation myths") or "Believers" are always trying to force their beliefs on the Atheists (those who do not believe in superstitions or "creation myths") or "Non-Believers".

Lately the discussions have revolved around a Rhode Island high schooler, the Atheist in this story, who was distraught at being force to have gaze upon a banner containing a prayer that was hanging in the cafeteria of her public high school**. It upset her so much that she had to sue the school system to have it removed. Of course, we all know that this case is based on the First Amendment argument of separation of church and state. But, as is becoming more common today, the argument is being distorted to include a much broader interpretation of separation of all perceived religious beliefs or religious references from any state-funded institution.

These kinds of cases always baffle me, because I see this young woman imposing her religious belief on others too. So I need your help in defining exactly what "religion" is exactly:

Discussion: Using the same broad interpretation, if one defines "religion" as a system of strongly-held beliefs, should Atheism be considered a religion too?

**FYI - Did I mention that this banner has been hanging in the cafeteria of her high school without incident since 1963?


AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Religion isn't just a strongly held system of beliefs, it's a belief in a deity or deities. Thus, by definition atheism is not a religion.

That said, there are some atheists who aren't true atheists so much as alternate-theists. They basically adopt all the trappings of religion but rather than naming their deity "God" they call it "reason."

BUT LET ME BE CLEAR, I am not attacking reason at all or people who try to reason through the meanings of the universe. Nor am I suggesting that reason must accept the existence of a God -- it in fact need not accept such a thing.

What I am saying is that these people worship what they call "reason" but it's as irrational as the religious beliefs they criticize. Basically, they have just swapped one religion for another and then pretend to be "beyond primitive religion" and all about logic even though they they have no grasp of reason or logic. They've basically traded God for fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I read something recently that stated, "If atheism is a religion, then 'off' is a TV channel."

We actually talked about this once at dinner in NYC (I miss the city dearly!). I joked that, while I really have no problem with anyone and their beliefs (provided they don't shove it in my face), I thought it was funny anytime I read about a group of atheists who wanted a place to talk or who met somewhere and brought some kind of literature. A group of people who believe in the same thing meeting somewhere to read out of a book? Who woulda thought?! ;-)

Having said that, what bothers me are the occasional polls that list atheists last in the "People whom you can't trust" category. Really? This is where we're at? On one hand, I guess I can understand the idea that, if Person A doesn't believe in a higher power, then that person doesn't feel accountable and how can you trust someone with an attitude like that?

But as I'm fond of saying, there are plenty of nice, law-abiding, responsible people who don't believe. Accountability is just hard-wired into us and whether that's through evolution or some otherworldly influence, I can't say.

BevfromNYC said...

I knew it. My define religion differently from many others. As you can see, I take a very broad view. I actually define religion as an act of faith beyond reason. In the case of standard organized religions like Christianity, it is the act of faith that there IS a God or deity, and in the case of Atheism, it is the act of faith that there is no God or deity. Neither can be proved right or wrong by reason or science.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I think that definition is too broad. There is a difference between faith and doubt. Faith implies a willingness to believe something that cannot be proven. That's why it's called faith, because you are willing to accept something as true even without proof.

But not believing something for which there is no proof is not an act of faith. It takes no faith to doubt the existence of something which has not been proven. That's simply a matter of observation. And to see it as a matter of faith is simply bias on the part of the believer in trying to turn a rational observation into an irrational assumption.

Also, if you define religion as simply being about faith without requiring the faith to be about a deity or something similar, then you end up turning all kinds of things into religions... indeed, we'd all be unicornists because we either believe or don't believe in their existence.

Unknown said...

Bev: It truly is largely a matter of semantics. Most theologians and philosophers require that a religion have a supreme deity or deities of some sort. Without that, they are belief-systems or philosophy. But the average person is not that technical. That is why there was such an uproar when the Pope correctly but unfortunately said that Buddhism is not actually a religion. It is, to most of those who practice Buddhism and in the mind of the average person.

Even the New Testament describes "faith" as a virtue but not a religion. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It is a key element of religion, but does not define the religion itself. One must have faith in God(s), not merely have faith.

Since agnosticism questions the existence of God, and atheism outright denies the existence of God, neither can be a religion by any classical standard. On the other hand, using "religion" as shorthand for a belief-system is both commonly understood and makes the overall discussion easier. Thus we have the discussions of "secular religion," which is a thing that is classically and philosophically impossible, yet everyone understands what the gist of the conversation is.

And then there's the Catholic/Protestant argument over whether one can have faith without religion but cannot have religion without faith.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew, I define "faith" as belief in something beyond reason or science or in other words something that cannot be proved by science or fact. Something that you cannot see, taste, smell, hear, or touch.

And having faith is a conscious decision or action of faith. It is not passive. Christians profess their faith in God. Atheist make a conscious decision and profess their lack of faith in God or other deity.

For me, it is the act of that conscious decision of to have faith that makes it a religion.

And by the way, there are many religions that DO believe that there are unicorns. Are they any less a religion?

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, The problem with that is that you are asserting a belief in something and then claiming that others are a religion because they refuse to join you in your own belief. That's not faith on their part. Faith is believing in something which cannot be shown. It is not refusing to believe what others take on faith.

Tehachapi Tom said...

Basic religious tenants are concerned with why we are here, what is the nature of our being and what is our relationship with the creator of the universe.

Atheists discount all of those reasons and relegate us to the equivalence of a dog or elephant.

With no points to hold to support by faith, being faithless, Atheism does not meet the requirements to be a religion.

As for the argument of separation of Church and State that is not what the First Amendment says;
"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;".

Removal of the flag under guise of law is unlawful as is removal of prayer in a public forum.

darski said...

Secular humanism (which is atheism in a pretty dress) has already been deemed to be a religion by courts.

A religion is a belief about God/gods so Atheism is a religion and it is why Buddhism -which is atheistic- can be called a religion.

Faith does not involve a blind leap - do you consider getting onto an airplane a leap of blind faith. You believe that the plane will get you where you are going because you have seen evidence of this process. Likewise Christians have a hundred million sunsets as proof that a designer did that.

Did you ever notice that the only God Atheists don't believe in is Yahweh? Ganesh never comes into the discussion.

BevfromNYC said...

No actually I am making the definition of religion as the activity of the profession of the faith, not faith itself.

When one says "I am an Atheist and I do not believe in a deity", one is make an active profession of a belief and faith that there is no God.

Doug Indeap said...

An effort to label "atheism" a "religion" and then suppose atheism must then be regarded a religion for any and all purposes is overly simplistic. It just does not get you where you apparently want to go.

Whether "atheism" should be regarded a "religion" depends not only on how one defines "atheism" and "religion," but also the context and purpose of labeling it one way or the other. Religion can be defined various ways, some broad, e.g., a world view providing a systematic approach to living, and some more specific, e.g., such a world view associated with faith and belief in a deity or higher power. For purposes of discussing philosophy, whether one treats atheism as a religion likely depends on how one defines "atheism." To the extent atheism is defined as the lack of any belief in god(s), it doesn't seem to qualify as a religion in the sense of a philosophical world view any more than the absence of any belief in all sorts of other things, e.g., unicorns. Those lacking a belief in god(s), though, generally have other beliefs, e.g., materialism (the philosophical sort, not the consumer sort) or paganism, that together may be regarded a religion. Fair enough--though I'm not sure "atheism" is the right label for such a religion.

For purposes of determining whether all persons, believers and nonbelievers alike, enjoy the First Amendment's protection of free exercise of religion, courts have decided to treat atheism as a religion so the Amendment equally affords atheists and theists the freedom to exercise their "religion." It should hardly be supposed, though, that the courts' interpretation of the scope of the First Amendment to cover atheists as much as theists means "atheism" should be regarded a "religion" in any and all contexts and for any and all purposes. Hardly.

In any event, all this focus on atheism is quite beside the point of whether the school acted lawfully by hanging a religious banner. It should not be supposed that keeping government and religion separate somehow means the government endorses atheism. There is a difference between the government (1) remaining neutral in matters of religion and leaving individuals free to choose, exercise, and express their religious views without government intrusion and (2) taking sides in matters of religion and promoting one view (whether theism [in one, any, or all its various forms], atheism, or whatever) to the detriment of others.

Those (not all of whom are atheists; hardly) who call on the government to act in accord with the Constitution do not thereby "impose" their religious beliefs on others as you seem to suggest. It is important to distinguish between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class or principals hanging banners in schools), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

AndrewPrice said...

So when I tell you there's a monster in my basement and you tell me you don't believe me, you're faith in my being wrong creates a religion?

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - Only if you said it was Satan in your basement...then it would be a matter of religion.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, If Satan was in my basement, my heating bill wouldn't be so high. :(

BevfromNYC said...

Scott - I think you are right that accountability can be hard wired, but religious training is the physical manifestation of that hard-wired-ness. It helps reinforce those synapses in the brain that controls accountability.

Ethics are just the secular version of the 10 Commandments.

Cuttlefish said...

Doug Indeep, I have seen your comments before, on the Camp Pendleton Cross issue. I must say, I am impressed. Not only are you right, but you are clear and concise, and a pleasure to read.

Thank you ... for making it such that anything I might have written is now superfluous.

BevfromNYC said...

Tom, I do not have faith that the "Removal of the flag under guise of law is unlawful as is removal of prayer in a public forum". Prayer, even a prayer that has been on a banner for 50 years is under attack, but one person with a mission.

And for me it's not even about the prayer itself. It is more that one person's individual beliefs carry more weight over another to the point of the irrational. Instead of moving to more inclusion, we are moving in a direction of ever increasing exclusion.

Brought to this illogical conclusion, the demand could be to take down the Lincoln Memorial because of the carvings on the wall that make religious references.

BevfromNYC said...

Cuttlefish - Thanks, you beat me to it! And I completely agree.

Doug - Thanks and welcome! The word that I could not come up with is "neutral". I realize that my definition is simplistic and overly broad, but then so have the definitions of our First Amendment rights.

T-Rav said...

I would say it is, in some ways.

I think it's important to distinguish between agnosticism and atheism. Agnosticism, theoretically, is keeping an open mind about the existence or non-existence of God but not seeing any reason to believe. A lot of them are actually out-and-out atheists, but never mind. True atheists not only don't believe there is a God, but sincerely see it as wrong to believe in a deity.

Most of the non-religious people I've met in my life fit into this dichotomy. The agnostics/skeptics are people with whom I strongly disagree, but we can have reasonable discussions about this, and many of them genuinely respect those who do have faith. Most of the hard-core atheists, however, from my experience, seem to become truly angry whenever they see a display of religious belief and are determined not to have any such thing in their presence.

This leads me to say that while atheism cannot quite be defined as a religion, in that it rejects the supernatural realm, it often has all the devotion and zeal of a religion.

T-Rav said...

I see I was very late to this discussion. Oh well. :-)

As for this particular case, I don't know quite everything about it. However, I did read that a local business--I think it was a florist or something--refused to do business with the girl in question as a form of protest. So, naturally, she filed a discrimination lawsuit against the business. (facepalm)

darski said...

I once noted that I would never vote for an avowed atheist because they are absolutely devoted to removing my God-given right to worship my God and to have my faith a part of the public discourse.

Like everything else on the left - and Atheism is lefty- it is always about tolerance for me but not for thee. Atheists love themselves too much to be comfortable in society where all should be respected. Atheists want to put parents in jail for taking children to Sunday School. What is not to love about such thoughts???

I still find it interesting that when science was about discovering the truth in God's universe we got Newton; when Science is about the glory of man we get AGW.

darski said...

The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion.

that is not true. Your first amendment constrains "congress". and Congress cannot in all honesty be construed to be your local school board or the local court house for that matter. It is not government (all inclusive; all the time) it is specifically your Federal government.

AndrewPrice said...

darski, The Supreme Court has ruled since the beginning that the Bill of Rights (first ten Amendments) apply to the states as well, i.e. any level of government. They are basically considered individual rights which the Federal government is obligated to protect and guarantee to every individual in the country at all levels.

Otherwise, states could just ignore things like Free Speech and the right to trial.

Unknown said...

Darski: And I should add that Fourteenth Amendment incorporation of "fundamental rights" (the Bill of Rights) pretty much guarantees that the states are bound by the same rules as Congress.

Individualist said...


re·li·gion   /rɪˈlɪdʒən/ Show Spelled[ri-lij-uhn] Show IPA
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially 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.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Individualist said...


So since Athesim is a set of beliefs concerning the cause nature and purpose of the universe it technically meets definition number one.

More evidence is found in the religion of Jainism. Related to Hinduism (from what I learned in Religions of Asia class at Stetson U way back) it is a beeleif in KArma and rebirth with the ultimate goal to achieve oblivion or nonexistence. Jainism has certain spirits and individuals that become enlightened whose purpose is to help other move on. However, the religion teaches that there is no God or gods that create everything. The world just is.

Furthermore the ancient chinese belive in Ch'ien the will of Heavan. It is beleived that this is the order of the universe that controls everything. However, it is just a set of rules, it is not personified. There are gods in the celestial court but they answer to the will of Heaven.

So Given these examples I would say yes Atheism is as much a religious beleif as any other religion.

But I am sure they do not see it that way.

Individualist said...

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

While we are on this topic this is a pet peeve of mine. There is no separation of church and state. Rather the ammendment states there is a separation of state from church. This meanss that the government cannot stop people from expressing their religion. Whether tax payers paid for the grounds is not relevant. Especially since all the government has to do to ban religion would be to decree that all land is no longer private but government owned and that even your house was nerely leased to you by the government.

The example I use is that a graduation ceremony is a one in alifetime event. By banning a benediction you effectively refuse people from asking for God's grace at that time. An event that has a religious significance to people. All of this because supposedly someone is offended at your religion.

This to me is the very thing the first ammendment was put into place to protect. That you have a right to practice your religion without fear of someone who wants to ban it because it offends them. IF the argument is that taxpayers fund the schools then to me the legal remedy is that the government should be banned from running schools since people would otherwise have their religious freedom compromised.

Individualist said...

To clarify my last point and I apologize for the long posts

The governemnt would assume you rent your house becuase you have to pay property taxes on it. Therefore it belongs to the government.

As silly as this sounds to my mind Warren's decision about Churcvh and sTate seems equally contrived. All you have to have are justices willing to accept this argument and you can't hang a crucifix on your living room wall.

T-Rav said...

It should be noted that the phrase "separation of church and state" has a long and complex history. It did not originate, as Indi and others have correctly noted, in the Constitution. The earliest real mention of it (at least by a Founding Father) came in Thomas Jefferson's letter to a Baptist congregation in Danbury, CT around 1800. The exact phrase Jefferson used was "creating a wall of separation between church and state," significant because "walls" were important to the theology of the Baptists at this time, symbolizing barriers put up against the government and the established church. Point is, the phrase was not only a figure of speech to establish commonality with a particular denomination, it was meant to keep the government out of religious affairs, instead of regulating them as the ACLU and the girl in Rhode Island would like.

Unknown said...

Indi: But the definition specifically says "especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies." That implies the existence of god(s) or some other form of supreme being/agency which created earth and man. Atheists specifically deny that existence.

Still, I think we've gotten bogged down in defining atheism to the point that the original question has been lost. "Using the same broad interpretation, if one defines "religion" as a system of strongly-held beliefs, should Atheism be considered a religion too?. The answer to that is probably yes, though the discussion on this thread would indicate that opinions vary. The important issue in determining whether atheism is a religion for legal purposes has been settled by the Supreme Court over many years and many decisions. All belief systems are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech, but only religions which have some belief in some sort of supreme being(s) are specifically protected by the freedom of religion provisions. We may disagree on what comprises a "religion," but the high court has its own definition that we must abide by until they rule differently.

Individualist said...


Atheists tend to replace supernatural agencies with physical laws but the way they do tbhis is to offer science as proof there cannot be a God. It tends to work out. As for the moral code if one reads Asimov's Foundation novels there are specific sets of moral codes put in place.

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent"
comes to mind form the end of the first novel.

Beyond that especially only means that most religions follow that standard. however the example of Chinese polytheism and Jainism which I do not believe can be considered non religious in nature are an exception that provesd the rule.

But as you know I question the legal logic employed. I understand that legally this is the stated standard but unfortunately I find too often that the legal standard is simply a veil for imposing a certain political belief without having to go through the complex process of getting people to vote for it.

I agree this started in the 40's with the Warren court but I still have issue with it.

tryanmax said...

Of course I would be otherwise engaged when this topic came up. Of all the things I ponder in my “thinking box” (a.k.a. the shower) the meaning of “religion” seems to enter my mind the most. Most anything I would have said has been except for one thing:

We’ve seemingly identified two definitions of “faith” – 1) a secular definition that means confidence or trust based on prior knowledge or experience, and 2) a religious definition that means belief without proof or reason. The problem with the latter definition is that no such faith exists, at least not in the affirmative.

For starters, remove the religious angle for a moment and consider that even the former definition of faith exists without proof. I sit in this chair because it has supported me in the past. But I still lack proof that the chair will hold me this time until I actually sit. All past experiences and present inspections are merely evidence as to what is likely to occur when the fateful seating occurs.

Reinserting religion, no one practicing any particular religion would ever claim to believe its tenets in defiance of proof or reason. The proof might not meet scientific muster, but science is not the only method of studying phenomena. Proof might exist in the form of past prophecies that have come to pass, prayers that seem to have been answered, or simply a greater sense of well-being while practicing.

These forms of proof, however they may be regarded, form the basis of reason for following a religion. If it ever seems that one practices in defiance of reason, he will most likely have a ready counter to that observance. It may come from a logic that is not necessarily acceptable or even sound, but the fact remains, the religious practitioner does not observe without proof or reason that he is able to accept. Only from the standpoint of an alternative belief can one deride another belief as illogical or baseless.

tryanmax said...

I should note that I, of course, left out the possibility of challenging another's faith in any number of ways. I did not see the need to address it because, if it were not possible, there would be no converts in the world. Still, one can only be converted from one belief to another. There is on "off" when it comes to belief. ;) @ Scott

tryanmax said...

Scott, the TV metaphor is fascinating to me. (As all metaphors are.) It's probably a better metaphor that the original speaker meant, because it beautifully sums up the anti-theist sentiment. There is no denial of the TV signals, there is only a refusal to tune in to any. (And, implicitly, a belligerence against those who do.)

darski said...

I'm sending a link to Sermon for some lectures by R.C. Sproul.^R.^C.^Sproul&SpeakerOnly=true&currSection=sermonsspeaker&AudioOnly=false&sortby=added

if you register, you can dl all of his lectures on "The consequences of ideas" it is a series on the development of Philosophy over millennia. Granted, he speaks from a Christian perspective but this is his area of expertise and he follows this development honestly.

and if the link fairies could do what they do best ;-D

Patriot said...

Let me weigh in here......... Why is this "right" even mentioned in our founding documents? Because in recent (to the founders) history, the state, in the form of the church of England, compelled it's subjects (citizens) to belong to it, and not the Holy Roman Empire (Catholicism). It's subjects were not free to exercise their beliefs, or they would face the power of the state. thus, the religious dissenters, of which my direct ancestor was one, went to the Netherlands where they were free to practice thmove religious believes.

Bottom line, this country was founded by religious fanatics who took great risks to settle here, with the express condition that they be able to practice as they wished. If you read up on Penns Quaker experiment in what was to become Pennsylvania, he opened up his lands ( that were ceded from the crown in payment of a loan Penn the elder lent to the crown) to anyone of all faiths, not just Quakerism.

So I think, and researching my families history, this country has a strong history of separation if church and state.....from ANY religion. We fought over the wording and placed in our Constitution that the state would not create a Church of England here (Church of America) yet allow our citizens the right to practice whichever religious belief they wanted to. Any......not one in particular that the state apprOves of.

As religious people, the Founders held their beliefs differently.....Jefferson the Deist, others Anglican, others Puritan, even Atheists. All free to practice as they wished without state interference.

The difference was the Church they followed....a congregation of individuals with similar beliefs. Quakers had their Meeting Houses (had a relative that was kicked out of Boston in the late 1690's due to his Quaker beliefs), Puritans had their meetings, etc.... With the state sanctioning none, and all, of them.

Now we have state sanctioned institutions (Govt schools) where one religion is given preference over another (In Jesus' name Amen) in direct contravention of our founding beliefs. While this hasn't been a real issue until the last century, it is something we must address.

So, we must be free to have our beliefs, free of government approval (yes, this includes even the Musselmen) and meet to share our faith with other like minded followers......but all measures must be taken to ensure that those differing beliefs are not forced/coerced on those who do not follow the same.

So, my take on the school banner, is take it down. Because someone followed our system and sued to remove it, does not make that system suspect. That is also their right. Ad you know what, if others in the community then shun her, shame her and her family, and refuse to serve them, that is also THEIR right under our Constitution......the ability to be free to choose whom they serve. And before it is brought up, I have no problem with a restaurant stating they do not serve specific groups ( smokers, whites, blacks, Muslims), but they will suffer the economic and social repercussions of their actions. When the state starts to codify these societal choices (as they have) we devolve into the b.s. Sate of affairs we have today in this country.

We can never go back, but we can de-codify if you will, some of the more egregious laws and regulations that have sprung up since the 1920's Supreme Court decisions......all in the name of fairness to some group or other.

Sorry for the long exposition of my thoughts on this matter, but you guys asked for it by having such an interesting and insightful blog.

Unknown said...

Indi: Warren was actually appointed to the Court in 1953 and didn't start feeling his oats until 1956. Eisenhower called the appointment his biggest mistake while in office. Warren was already exhibiting secular activist, "living Constitution" tendencies even before joining the Court, but it took the appointment of Harry Blackmun in 1970 to push Warren completely over the "progressive" edge.

There are many philosophers who have said that if there isn't a god, man will create one. That is the source of so much of what conservatives (including myself) tend to call "secular religion." Whether God is Marx, or Gaea, or "the people," climate change or green energy, atheists will find an elusive something to fill that need. For Christians and Jews, "man proposes, God disposes." For atheists, man does both.

You and I are on the same page about the transition from "no establishment of religion" to "no religion, period." But that said, we're still stuck with the Supreme Court's definition of religion until it changes. And once again, the most unspoken importance of the coming presidential election may very well be who gets appointed to the Supreme Court.

BevfromNYC said...

Individualist - Please don't ev er apologize for being "long winded". All of the comments have been enlightening and it thrills me. It is rare to have civil discourse on topics of religion and our Constitution.

BevfromNYC said...

Patriot - I believe North America was settled by religious fanatics, but our Country was founded by educated people who understood WHY it was important that even religious fanatics be allowed their freedom to worship separate from the dictates of the State. Our Founders separated the Church from controlling the State and from the State controlling the Church. OR from the Church AND State conspiring against "the People". THat is why I think, probably wrongly, that our Founders did not expect this to follow to every state run entity. Communities until the mid'50's were almost always founded around a religious belief and a religious building whether that building was a Church, Cathedral, Synagogue, or Mosque.

But all that being said when did we get to be so petty and weak-minded that we are fighting over a banner that has been hanging in a school cafeteria for 50 years. And when did the fact that this banner has been hanging unmolested for 50 years can now suddenly rises to the level of being harmful and/or coercive? Are there people whose beliefs or lack of same are so tenuous that a prayer on a banner is threatening to undermine their beliefs?

Doug Indeap said...


It is important to distinguish between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class or principals hanging banners in schools), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

Individualist said...

Doug InDeep

I agree with you that one cannot have goverrnment sanctioned religion. For instance, my Catholic school forced everyone to take Catechism as a class in fifth period form the 6th grade on. Forcing student to do this in a public school would be out of bounds. That said not allowing a majorityu of students who are inclined to take that class as a high school elective voluntarily in the name of not establishing a religion is to my mind violating the first ammendment.

I understand Patriot's concern but to my mind if students wanted to post the banner and like minded atheists were not barred from posting a banner positive to the message of Atheism then they should be allowed. The school can state they do not sanction it only allow it. This is freedom.

My example of a prayer at graduation I think is another good example. I grewe up where it was still OK and everyone strove hard to have a non denominational prayer that just said Lord or God and asdked for a blessing on the students going forward. To a religious person this prayer is a benediction. It is a religious act that is observed at a particular time (the commencement ceromonies). It can't be done otherwise.

So if we state that schools cannot allow any prayer or religious observance because tax payers pay for it then don't wer first have to ask the question if the government taking taxes from people that they could otherwise use to fund private religious schools is not somehow depriving them of religious education. Should not the remedy be to disallow public funding and therefore taxation to fund schools because it de facto impedes someone's right to religious education.

This is the problem I have with the argument in general and the leftists who bring cases like this to bear in particular. It is about controlling someone's freedom by finding reasons to ban their religious expression because they don't like it.

Personnally I don't beleive we need either of the two extremes. I think the correct answer is for the judge to lecture the person bringing this suit to "get a grip" and respect that other people have their beleifs and want to express those beleifs to like minded people publicly and there is nothing wrong with that and to then dismiss the case on the grounds it has no merit.

But then again as Lawhawk correctly points out. This is not how they interpret the law. Find by me, I still think it is wrong. Oh well...

AndrewPrice said...

Doug, Well said. And welcome to the site, by the way. I think you are making some excellent distinctions.

tryanmax said...

Atheism is hiding in a crevice of technicality. Because it denies the existence of a deity, it can claim to not be a religion. Yet it cannot claim not to be a religious belief because it is specifically a belief on a religious matter. Oddly, the belief does seem to have a tenet of proselytization, the very tenet of other religions that atheism reacts most vehemently against.

What the atheist pursues is some sort of affirmative action of religion where all belief systems are expressed within the institution equally. Of course, the surest way to achieve that is to prevent any expression whatsoever. Rather parallel to ensuring equality of wealth by preventing its accumulation, don’t you think?

This might be okay if it weren’t for the fact that Congress (and by extension, the States) is expressly forbidden to make any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There is no caveat allowing prohibition of free exercise within a government institution, even by its administrators. The founders did not merely intend to prevent the creation of a state religion. They intended the relationship of government toward religion to be entirely lazes faire.

This is where I have to part slightly with what Doug offers. Without the force of law behind it, I find it a stretch to claim that even the expression of faith by an official in their official capacity is equivalent to sanctioning a religion. The Amendment is clear and concise and even Doug’s argument requires much inference.

This isn’t merely a matter of the shoe on the other foot. The prohibition of free expression is patently unconstitutional. The question of whether atheism is or is not a religion is entirely moot.

Individualist said...


Well said...

that is very succintly the point I was clumsily lumbering to make.

Thank You

tryanmax said...

Don't mention it, Indie. That took me an hour to write.

Doug Indeap said...


I'm not understanding your point. While the distinction between individual and government speech and action is critical, indeed absolutely necessary, to any meaningful implementation of the First Amendment, the constitutional separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

Notwithstanding sometimes lofty rhetoric by courts and commentators about an impenetrable wall of separation, as maintained by the courts, that wall is low and leaky enough to allow various connections between government and religion. Indeed, the exceptions and nuances recognized by the courts can confuse laymen and lawyers alike, occasionally prompting some to question the principle itself, since decisions in various cases may seem contradictory (e.g., depending on the circumstances, sometimes government display of the 10 commandments is okay and sometimes not).

Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. It covers these and other aspects of the law. I commend it to you.

tryanmax said...

Doug, I agree that the distinction between individual and government speech and action is critical, but I disagree that it is all that difficult to ascertain. Government speaks and acts through legislation. If a thing appears not in the legislation, then it is not spoken or acted by government. Simple as that. If government officials are to behave in such a way as to establish religion, then they are in breach of the law. Also quite simple. (I might add that there is nothing in the Constitution regarding "promotion" of a religion, probably because then as now the word has to broad a meaning to foster specific understanding.)

So then the question becomes whether a government official or entity acted unlawfully in the display of a banner containing a prayer. Since the law was originally intended to be interpreted by reasonable people, and since there has been no formal move made to change that--in spite of whatever norms may have arisen in the intermediary--and also since I suspect most reasonable people would not find the mere display of a banner to effect the establishment of a religion, I should think, no.

Let us not forget that the law is established to facilitate discourse between reasonable individuals. There is no facilitation of discourse with the unreasonable. That is why we must stop electing such people.

Individualist said...


I think that one of the distictions that has to be made is that simple expression of a religious nature by an individual even if they are a gov3errnment authority does not constitute an attempt to force religious views upon others.

There is an assumption by people that one should not show religious displays because they offend some people. Thus a banner that says Praise God or a Christmas Tree on the city hall steps or a Menora in the government lobby then should not be there because someone does not like those religions.

But here is the problem with that. The reason these people are offended by the Religious expression tends to look a lot like religious bigotry. So there are two conflicting legal premises to evaluate. Is it "imposing" religion by the religious perrson or is it it bigotry by the person making the complaint.

This leads to I think contradictory rulings by the bureaucratic class. Christians are banned from being able to say a prayer at a graduation ceremoney but Muslims are allowed to pray to Mecca five times a day in school. The Christians by virtue of being deemed the "majority in charge" are considered to be unable to be the victims of bigotry so the Complainer wins the day. But the Muslim by virtue of being a minority is consdiered to be the victim of religious bigotry so then the complainer is penalized.

In the end there is no difference between the two. It is just religious people expressing their religion.

Doug Indeap said...

While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

In his Detached Memoranda (~1820), Madison confirmed not only that he understood the Constitution and the First Amendment to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government,” but also that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

Individualist said...

Doug Indeep

You are correct that the government is forbidden to establish a religion but that is not what I believe is at issue.

In 1820 and before there were no government schools. Schools back then would be considered non-governmental agencies today. Taxes enacted by the government were nowhere near the 50% of income that it is today for most middle class Americans.

Count up 7.65% employer share of payroll the .8 to 5.2% unemployment tax paid, property tax, sales tax, use tax on cars, not to mention income tax it adds up to that. Effectively by placing so much of the public life of an individual under government supervision to have a situation where religious practice is banned and this is not the purpose of that amendment.

As an aside parochial education has become very expensive today compared to prior decades because of increased government regulation and the fact that fewer and fewer middle class families can afford private school. I don't think it cannot be argued that government overstepping has pushed religious schools out of business. My father assists my sister with my nieces because the cost is 5 grand for two children. When I went to school Catholic children paid $60 a month.

Furthermore I do believe that the notion that a Judge could not have a plaque showing the 10 commandments in his office would have been something Madison found to be beneath contempt. I think Madison would have made the distinction between personal expression of religion by those on public grounds and state sponsored Proselytizing.
So how would you answer the middle class family of say a Cop and a Teacher who want to send their child to receive a religious education but can’t afford it. Yet they are forced to pay taxes for public schools where the cost per child spent is double the cost of the parochial school (10 grand). Then to add insult to injury if they want to put out a flyer than expresses their religion or celebrates a religious holiday they are told they can’t. How exactly is this protecting anyone’s right to practice their religion.
The recent example of Illinois requiring adoption services to allow gay parents to adopt is another example. The Illinois law requires that charities that adopt fall under a public system (even if privately funded). The Church was either forced to abandon their moral beliefs or abandon the service they provided. They chose the latter. Now, people can make whatever judgment they want of people’s religious beliefs but the fact of the matter is this. In Illinois a mother who wants to put her child up for adoption has no right to decide what type of home that child goes to. This is not protecting Freedom. This is controlling people and telling them what they have to think and how to live their lives. And the leftists that are behind this do not care for your arguments which are very cogent. They don’t care about Jefferson or Madison or anything else. They just want religion banned and side stepped politically. Sorry but that is how it appears to me.

Doug Indeap said...


You are right to observe a difference between the way things were at the time of the founding and the way they are now. That difference with respect to the societal effects of separation of religion and government has come about, I think, largely for two reasons. First, with the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and the Supreme Court's decision in 1947 that one effect of the amendment is to extend the First Amendment's principles to the states, the occasions for church-state issues to arise multiplied greatly, since state and local governments have long played a larger role in society. Second, as governments, both federal and state, have grown in modern times and have played an increasing role in more and more aspects of our daily lives, the occasions for church-state issues to arise multiplied even further.

While the increased role of governments in our society is a fact of modern life, the Constitution continues to guard the separation of government and religion--for all the good reasons noted earlier. While some may prefer religious touches (prayers, banners, observances, events, etc.) in many aspects of their daily lives, still they should not expect such touches to be provided by government. That is just not its business. That said, the government of course should not prevent individuals from freely exercising and expressing their religious beliefs--publicly and privately--and ought to reasonably accommodate individuals' efforts to do so. So, for instance, students at public schools should be free to pray in school at times and in ways that do not interfere with school programs and activities; they should not expect the school, though, to sponsor or organize prayers or other religious activities. Drawing the line is sometimes tricky, and reasonable people may differ on where to draw it in particular circumstances, but that is the line that nonetheless needs to be drawn.

For those who simply want more religion in their daily lives and feel something lacking when participating in government-run activities, e.g., public schooling, I can only say they should take advantage of the freedom they have and, beyond that, look to people and institutions other than the government for religious matters.

tryanmax said...

Doug, I have to admit I am vexed because everything you've stated agrees with what I've said before, but it is stated in such a tone as to indicate that you think we have some disagreement.

Individualist said...

Tyranmax (and Doug)

I think the issue is in the cognitive perception of the effects of the argument. Doug is right in that if we allow school prayer to be read over the intercom every day in a manner where all children are to be respectful of this then it would be attempting to establish a state religion.

I will use the term establishing state religion for two reasons. The first is it actually uses language that is in the First Ammendment and the second reason is that Separation of Church and State has an opposite meaning for me. Separation entails what the liberals are trying to achieve a ban on religious expression.

Doug is worried about this.

From our perspective (I think) we are both seeing that the things being done are merely individual expressions and not state sponsored. Perhaps we are wrong, I don't really know.

To my mind though the real question is not asked. Why is the government invloled. And even if the government acts as a middleman for the payment of services why can't those monies directed to an individual not be used for a religious based service.

Schools were not run by any government at the time of the founders, not even state or local ones. The Idea that the government could take money from you for the purpose of providing a single monopoly run service (such as nationalizing eduction) which they regualated and then for this reason religious institutions and charities could not be involved would have been anethma to the founders.

This perspective is not addressed in the national argument regarding this issue. It is ignored at best and many times it is attacked. So I think that in some small part it may be difficult to truly communicate one's meaning. I know that just five years ago I myself would be in Doug's camp. I would never have considered the issues with how separation is put in place.

Since I have joined the Tea Party however I have noticed that many of the memes about our laws that I have accepted are just not in the constitution. Seeing Obama's administration abuse it so Orwellianly has also helped to bring a new perspective.

What Doug is saying is an argument I have heard many times and have been told is constitutional gospel. I now reject that gospel but I guess I can understand how others may not view it that way since once upon a time even as a conservative I accepted it.

tryanmax said...

Indie, you've returned the favor. I too had to come to those realizations, but it is already basic in my thinking, so it doesn't always come to the fore of what I write.

The argument over what does or does not constitute establishment of religion is so superficial to the real issue that even the First Amendment becomes a smokescreen for what the Founders ultimately intended to prevent: government overreaching into every facet of daily life.

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