Church of Atheism might worship science, but it is not a religion, court decides

The Church claimed it should be a charity because its activities contribute to the 'advancement of religion,' which is one of four purposes sufficient to get charity status

A self-styled “church of atheism” has been denied charitable tax status after the Federal Court of Appeal agreed with the Minister of National Revenue that it is not actually a religion. Getty Images

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A self-styled “church of atheism” has been denied charity tax status after the Federal Court of Appeal agreed with the Minister of National Revenue that it is not actually a religion, even though it claims to have a minister, 10 commandments, and a worshipful relationship to the “sacred texts” of what it calls “mainstream science.”

The Church of Atheism of Central Canada put up a determined fight in its appeal. It made a Charter argument that the ministry’s denial was discriminatory, which failed because non-profit corporations do not have the same equality rights as people do in Canada.

The Church claimed it should be a charity because its activities contribute to the “advancement of religion,” which is one of four purposes sufficient to get charity status.

But “religion” is otherwise undefined, so it was left to the court to decide whether this particular expression of atheism qualifies. A three-judge panel, including Justice Marc Nadon whose appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada was overturned in 2014 on eligibility grounds, found it does not.

“For something to be a ‘religion’ in the charitable sense under the Act, either the Courts must have recognized it as such in the past, or it must have the same fundamental characteristics as those recognized religions,” reads the judgment, written by Justice Marianne Rivoalen. “These fundamental characteristics are not set out in a clear ‘test’. A review of the jurisprudence shows that fundamental characteristics of religion include that the followers have a faith in a higher power such as God, entity, or Supreme Being; that followers worship this higher power; and that the religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.”

Claiming to venerate “energy” as an unseen power just does not cut it, the ruling shows.

In 2009, a group of atheists posted controversial bus ads suggesting that God ‘probably doesn’t exist.’ Handout

The new ruling is a reminder that atheism has never made it very far as a formal religion, and not for lack of trying.

There have been moments in recent history when formal disbelief in a deity seemed to be on the verge of widely adopting the grand trappings of the more familiar religions, such as doctrine, observances, and soul-stirring use of art, literature and music.

Back in 2012, for example, as a promotional stunt for his book Religion for Atheists, the writer Alain de Botton even claimed to be moving ahead with construction of a Temple to Atheism in central London. It was to be a 46-metre-tall, open-air structure representing the age of the Earth, with fossils lining the interior walls, the human genome inscribed on the exterior, and a millimetre-thick band of gold at the bottom to put humanity’s lifespan in perspective.

It was a catchy idea for atheists, who then seemed to be on the cultural rise. But the charmingly fire-breathing arch-atheist Christopher Hitchens had just died, and the other Three Horsemen — Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins — all lacked his charisma. In time, as with many movements enabled by the Internet, New Atheism turned increasingly nasty and lost its cultural momentum. The Temple was never built.

Since then, atheist groups have tended to pitch themselves as the Church of Atheism of Central Canada does, as a self-help club.

In denying it status as a religion, the court did agree with earlier rulings that the Charter’s section on freedom of conscience and religion does protect the right of atheists to practice their beliefs however they see fit. But it also found that denying this group status as a charity does not interfere with that right in any more than a “trivial or insubstantial” way.

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The Church of Atheism of Central Canada “can continue to carry out its purpose and its activities without charitable registration,” the court ruled. Charity status is actually a tax subsidy by the government designed to encourage the charitable behaviour. It is not the right of any non-profit group that seeks it.

The Ministry that initially denied the status evidently had some trouble with the church’s professed beliefs, such as “our Ten Commandments of Energy are sacred texts because they were created by a wise human being who consists of pure, invisible Energy and has acknowledged Energy’s existence.”

An actual deity is not required to call a group a religion, as Buddhism exemplifies, the court noted. But the Church of Atheism could not even demonstrate that it has a comprehensive system of doctrine and observances.

“Mainstream science” was not a sufficient system under the law, as it is neither “particularly specific nor precise.”

The Church of Atheism of Central Canada is hardly a big player in the atheism world. A website once listed for it has gone blank. It has a Twitter account with zero followers. Its address is a rural property with a single family home and a garage in McDonalds Corners, between Kingston and Ottawa. No one was answering the phone there on Wednesday.

The Church was represented by Christopher Bernier, who lives at the property and is identified in an online profile as the Church’s Minister of the Gospel of Atheism. He could not be reached for comment.

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