British Columbia

Is atheism a religion? The Ministry of National Revenue is a non-believer

They're a church of atheists, who for tax purposes, were hoping to be treated like a religion. But their arguments left three judges and Canada's Minister of National Revenue non-believers.

Appeal court says Church of Atheism of Central Canada failed to meet bar for charitable status

In this file photo, a billboard erected in Oklahoma City promotes atheism. A Canadian church dedicated to atheism has failed to get the charitable status accorded to some religious institutions. (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

They're a church of atheists, who for tax purposes, were hoping to be treated like a religion.

But their arguments left three judges and Canada's Minister of National Revenue non-believers.

Canada's Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the bid for charitable status from the Church of Atheism of Central Canada after finding the organization failed to demonstrate the necessary elements of a belief system.

The short, unanimous decision — written by Justice Marianne Rivoalen — details the philosophical legal hoops the atheists tried to jump to argue they should be treated as a non-religious, religious charity.

A belief system is one of three elements the courts have found to be "fundamental to religion."

And so the non-believers argued that they believed in something: mainstream science.

"Mainstream science is neither particularly specific nor precise," the decision said, noting that the Minister of National Revenue had been unimpressed with what the church described as its "Ten Commandments of Energy."

The court decision issued last week doesn't elaborate much on the Ten Commandments of Energy.

'Faith in a higher power'

According to the ruling, the Church of Atheism of Central Canada was founded "to preach atheism through charitable activities in the city of Ottawa, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and whichever province shall from time to time be designated as part of Central Canada."

The Minister of National Revenue denied the church's initial application for charitable status. The church appealed on the grounds that the denial was unreasonable and in breach of rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In order to qualify for charitable status the Church of Atheism argued that it should be treated like a religion. But Canada's Federal Court of Appeal found the atheists lacked a belief system. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Under the Income Tax Act, organizations founded for the purpose of "the advancement of religion" or "certain other purposes beneficial to the community" can be defined as charitable. 

A lot of the arguments came down to the definition of the word "religion."

"For something to be a 'religion' in the charitable sense under the (Income Tax) Act, either the courts must have recognized it as such in the past, or it must have the same fundamental characteristics as those recognized previously," Justice Rivoalen wrote in the decision. 

"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."

'Similar to the Bible'

The courts have protected the rights of atheists to practice their beliefs, and the church pointed out that Buddhism is "a recognized religion that does not believe in a Supreme Being or any entity at all."

Rivoalen said she agreed that "the requirements that the belief system have faith in a higher Supreme Being or entity and reverence of said Supreme Being is not always required when considering the meaning of 'religion.'"

But that left the belief system.

The Minister of National Revenue said the church had provided "no detailed information as to the particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship."

The church argued that a "religion" shouldn't need an authoritative book "similar to the Bible" — but the government saw that as further proof the atheists didn't "have a comprehensive and particular system of faith and worship."

The Church of Atheism also argued that its activities were beneficial to the community "as a religious self-help group."

But the judges said the activities provided were "for their members only and are not rehabilitative or therapeutic."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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