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.