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Atheists Get Religion:

Court Ruling a Head-Scratcher

Week of August 22, 2005


            There are several ways to view the decision in the case of Kaufman v. McCaughtry, a head-scratcher from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declaring atheism a religion.  While not entirely unprecedented, the ruling could set a new standard for the up-is-down, black-is-white judicial philosophy popular today.

            It will surprise no one to learn that Webster’s New World Dictionary says an atheist “rejects all religious belief,” nor is it much of a shock that a court would morph known definitions of the English language to fit its own will.  I’d add little to mankind’s collective knowledge by pointing out that religion and atheism are in fact opposites.  Not that I haven’t written my share of “Duh” columns, but even the obvious needs enough suspense to hold someone’s interest for 600 words.

            It might be interesting to consider who will be most offended by the ruling, believers or atheists.  I’d guess atheists.  Given the time, effort, and cash that have gone into attempts to eliminate prayer from public meetings, “God” from the pledge of allegiance, Ten Commandments monuments across the nation and so on, I think they’ll be none too thrilled at being lumped in with the likes of Baptists and Catholics.  A column on that wouldn’t tell anyone much they didn’t know.

             Instead, let’s gaze into the future to see what the ruling might mean.  The case was brought by James J. Kaufman, an inmate at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.  To its credit, the 7th Circuit declined to overturn the lower court’s ruling that the prison could withhold homosexual pornography that Kaufman admitted fell under a rule covering “sadomasochistic abuse, including but not limited to flagellation, bondage, brutality to or mutilation or physical torture of a human being.”  Prisons generally discourage these activities; the courts are less predictable.  The court also upheld a finding that the prison did not wrongly interfere with Kaufman’s legal correspondence including a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, which was not involved in the case.

            Where things went wacky was the reversal of the lower court’s dismissal of Kaufman’s claim he was entitled to hold atheist study groups under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which actually forbids an official federal religion.  According to the decision, “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,” demonstrating that inmate Kaufman has a better grasp of the obvious than the honorable members of the 7th Circuit.

            I have no problem with inmates holding atheist study groups but not under the guise of the Establishment Clause, which could only be considered relevant by the kind of person who thinks atheists are religious.  But rather than fight it, I would like to welcome my atheist brothers and sisters to the fold.

            Yes, you too may now shut up.  Oh you can still speak, as long as you’re careful about saying why.  Bye-bye to legal abortion, which could not exist without the now-religious idea that there is no soul.  Forget federal funding of embryonic stem cell experiments, which treats human embryos as if they are of no more eternal value than rats. 

            The debate over teaching evolution, the cornerstone of modern atheism, is over.  One can hardly support indoctrinating unsuspecting youths with the newly religious notion that life created itself, a suggestion even Charles Darwin rejected.  And the next time James Kaufman gets a letter from the ACLU, it will be threatening legal action over his religious atheist study group

            Of course it probably won’t happen this way; courts are as practiced at hypocrisy as they are in doublespeak.  At least as a non-atheist religious person, I can pray.






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© 2005 Brent Morrison