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For a group of ultra-rationalists, the atheists sound downright emotional. I may sound that way too: When I called some of my Twitter/Facebook pen pals "Palins," they became particularly rankled, accused me of circular logic, and called me a Palin, to which I say, "I know you are, but what am I?"
No matter what I said to counter their statements or clarify my thoughts, by and large they refused to give me a fitting definition of religion. Nobody on my Facebook thread could tell me why it was so problematic and offensive to categorize a system of thought adhered to by a group of people about the nonexistence of a supernatural entity as a religion.
I have yet to hear a cogent response to this question: Why is it a problem if someone considers atheism a religion? How does that hurt the atheists’ claim? It's not saying you can't believe God does not exist. Knock yourself out! Some of my idols are atheists—false idols, mind you, but certainly shapers of my outlook and worldview. I do thank God for the godless.
Maybe the best treatment on Earth of the question as to whether or not atheism is a religion came from music god Frank Zappa, founder of the Church of American Secular Humanism (CASH). Secular humanism is defined as reason rejecting dogma and supernaturalism, which is a fancy way of saying it’s atheists who believe in people and not God. I am down with reason, and although I think I have psychic powers that allow my friends' dead parents to take over my emotions, I respect those who don’t believe in the supernatural. It is a lot easier to believe in fewer things than to accept a host of others on faith alone, and humanists are intellectual minimalists. They are the Design Within Reach to Christianity's Shabby Chic, and no one was more ready to clean house than Frank Zappa.
CASH began with an Alabama school textbook court case, where a judge ruled atheism was a religion that was overwhelming the school system and that Christian families deserved equal time in the classroom. Frank called their bluff. If secular humanism is a court-recognized religion, he figured, then be prepared to dole out the tax-exempt rewards along with the after-life punishments! The tenets of the faith were laid out by the judge and Frank jumped on them with devotion. He created CASH and incorporated it in the Yellowhammer State, ready to convert the faithful out of their delusions and handing out T-shirts instead of communion wafers.
Zappa's widow Gail, who has renewed vigor to restart CASH and make a go of it in California, is simply giddy when she defines atheism as "technically a system of disbelief.” CASH is not only a corporation but now, thanks to the Supreme Court, officially a person as well, and, as she puts it, "free to marry other religions' non-taxable businesses and enjoy another level of tax freedom." This seems like the best-case scenario. If humanism is a religion, and secular humanists are atheists, then why not create more formal instructional dwellings, label them churches, and lap up the tax-free nectar your peers in Scientology, Mormonism, and Catholicism have been enjoying for years?
As Gail Zappa summed it up to me in a poignant, thoughtful email, "I think it is central to true freedom of expression and true democracy that there be absolute separation of Church and State. Especially in politics, which [Frank] said is the Entertainment Branch of government." My Orthodox priest would probably give me a stern penance for saying this, but I do not have a problem with church-owned businesses paying taxes. I don't know that you have to tax every dime that hits the collection basket, but a blanket exemption seems a little clumsy.
Atheists should embrace their religiosity, recognize the biological component that drives them to make sense of the world like the rest of us, and church it up. As the Man from Galilee once put it, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. If you don’t believe in God, then you don’t owe him anything. And if my Facebook friends are any indication, you lost your sense of humor ages ago. Which means you atheists may have nothing left to lose but your taxable status.
Kennedy is host of 98.7 FM’s Music in the Morning in Los Angeles.