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What constitutes religion?

“There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” – C. S. Lewis

One of the fashionable fallacies of our time is the idea that secular humanism, atheism, call it what you wish, is “neutral” and should be the ultimate arbitrator in modern pluralistic democracies. As R√mi Brague explains in “The Impossibility of Secular Society” (First Things, October 2013), “For the game to be fair, it must be secular. The space of our democratic societies is flat. Nobody is allowed to stand higher than others. The first to be excluded is the One Above, especially when people claim to have received from him some message or mission that puts them closer to his divine reality – and thus higher.” This is evidenced by the call (usually by a belligerent atheist), to rid public life and policy of any shred of theistic religious influence. This fallacy trades on a narrow definition of religion that only includes theistic beliefs. It has resulted in many modern liberal democracies endorsing secular worldviews when they are in fact functionally religious.

Decisions handed down in the US courts shed some light on how we should look at what constitutes a religion. One of the earliest cases that implicitly endorsed the narrow theistic definition of religion was the 1890 Supreme Court case of Davis v. Beason. The Court ruled that “‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will” (Davis v. Beason, S.Ct. 1890: 133 U.S. 333, 342). This definition limits religion to belief in a Creator since it assumes there is one.

We have to fast forward over sixty-five years for a case that rightly broadened the definition. The question in the 1957 case of Fellowship of Humanity v. County of Alameda (Fellowship, Cal. App. 1957) was whether “Religious Humanism” (secularism) could be classified as a religion. In his decision Judge Peters rejected the idea that religion should be limited to a belief in God. Judge Peters maintained that a belief system is religious if it functions in the lives of its adherents in the same manner as traditional theistic religions function in the lives of their adherents. This case is of extreme importance. Judge Peter’s functional definition of religion was adopted by the US Supreme Court (U.S. v. Seeger, S.Ct. 1965: 380 U.S. 163, 176). It was later embraced in a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (Washington Ethical Society, DC Cir. 1957: 249 F. 2d 127), by an Alabama Federal District Court (Smith, D. Ala 1987: 655 F. Supp. 939) and by the Texas Court of Appeals (Strayhorn, Tex App. 2003: 110 S.W. 3d 458).

If we limit the definition of religion to theistic worldviews we unwittingly endorse non-theistic worldviews as “neutral” when they are in fact competing religious views. This classification problem has effectively allowed educational institutions to all but ban theistic worldviews from the public realm. Atheism trades under the label of science when in fact it is scientific materialism or scientism they worship. This telling quote from Harvard population biologist Richard Lewontin explains, “We take the side of science [code for scientism] in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. […] Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.”

The narrow definition of religion then, is anything but neutral. Based on fifty years of investigation, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Roy Clouser in “The Myth of Religious Neutrality”, notes that all religious beliefs start with a belief about the “unconditional non-dependent reality.” For the theist it is God, for the atheist it is matter. All religions, theistic and non-theistic, must speak to origin, meaning, morality and destiny: Where did we come from? What purpose, if any, do we have? How should we live and what makes objective moral values binding? What is our ultimate end? That being the case, atheists really should not be such eager beavers in their attempt to not “allow a divine foot in the door.” Theirs might very well be the first to have the door slammed shut in its face if we examine how their narrative speaks to each question.

-Adrian Sobers

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