Defining Atheism - Cult Week

By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Debbie Allen.

“Strictly speaking, the only requirement to be an atheist is that you don’t believe in the existence of any gods,” says Dave Muscato, the Public Relations Director of American Atheists. “But other than that, they’re all over the map.”

Obviously a group like American Atheists will not meet to pray or praise religion. On the contrary, they must defend their First Amendment right not to do so. Based in New Jersey, this organization was founded 50 years ago by Madlyn Murray O’Hair after she won a Supreme Court case against mandatory Bible reading in public school.

Since then and through today, American Atheists usually handles a few legal cases at a time, aiming to enforce the separation of government and religion, defending atheists’ civil liberties, and keeping check that a single religion is not favored over others. A case they are challenging right now is the presence of Bibles in a Georgia state park that is funded by government money.

By fundamental purpose and principle, any atheist group cannot classify as a cult or religion. American Atheists is a secular nonprofit, and this definition actually brings up legal dilemmas that the organization is fighting, in regards to IRS tax policies.

“Basically, if you are a church, there’s not really much you have to do to get tax-exempt status and to have your donations be tax-deductable,” says Muscato. “If you are a secular non-profit, for example, American Atheists, there’s much more paperwork that you have to figure out in order to be tax-exempt or donation accepted.”

This policy, according to American Atheists, is discriminatory. By listing themselves as a non-profit, if they wish to be tax-exempt, they have to complete expensive and time-consuming paperwork that religious organizations do not. Additionally, people who work for nonprofits have to disclose their salary as public information, unlike those who work at a church who “do not have to reveal any information about how they spend their money or how much money they take in.”

Apart from legal matters, American Atheists houses a library and produces atheist press through literature and television shows. Its members also hold an annual conference, and work with over one hundred affiliate groups around the country. That way, interested atheist individuals have such resources available to engage and understand atheism, or meet and network with fellow atheists.

Atheism does not adhere to religious beliefs or morals, but since these atheist groups exist, people who identify as atheists will tend to form their own culture with unique principles and practices. Muscato reasons that this is a basic factor of anthropology: any people who form their own group are naturally going to produce some type of subculture.

“Most atheists in this country are very interested in science and technology and base things along that line as their inspiration,” he says. Consequently, the majority agree that “natural selection is the best explanation for the process of evolution,” and are typically politically liberal and pro-choice.

Beyond the basic belief that there are no gods, atheists differ in other spiritual and philosophical beliefs. For instance, some atheists practice Buddhism or Taoism, as these concepts do not teach the belief in any gods. Then there are metaphysical naturalist atheists who deny anything supernatural and not science-based like ghosts, spirits, past lives, superstitions.

“There are some atheists in this country who attach themselves to certain philosophies like nihilism or existentialism,” says Muscato. “It’s different for everyone.”

An atheist can be someone who works for a nonprofit group to promote secularism, a teenager who rejects religion, a devout Buddhist or a strict Darwinist – famous atheists include anyone from Bruce Lee to Ani DiFranco to Henry Rollins.

However, if a person does not believe in gods, is it really necessary them to identify as an atheist? Is it important for people to definitively call themselves atheists, and to declare “atheist” on forms that ask their religion (or lack thereof)?

“I think it just answers that single question but it doesn’t say anything about how people live their lives, or what their ethics are,” Muscato says.

Muscato reasons that everyone has an identity that they wish to define in some way, which helps them understand their place in the world. The term “atheist” is general in meaning. Likewise, if people say that they believe in gods such a statement is similarly vague.

“They could be Muslim, or they could be Christian, or they could be any number of religions,” he says. “It doesn’t tell you what they believe, it just tells you one thing.”

Apart from just what Muscato reasons about atheists versus theists, such labeling can go for any type of practice. Someone could never eat meat but not ever identify as a vegetarian, or live without using substances but not ascribe being straight-edge.

Regardless of not adhering to or identifying with theistic cultures, atheism exists as its own entity that has been organized and politicized. It has united people as an activist movement in a country that does not always adhere to the First Amendment’s base for freedom of religion. Atheism is a broad philosophical similarity amongst different people, some of whom choose to stand by the title and defend their belief in no gods.