Over the years, I've come to realize that the loose definitions that friends have in their minds about what constitutes a religion tend to vary. So...I decided to look into it a bit....what exactly IS a religion?
Before I researched the topic, I probably would have said something about it being the worship of a supreme being or beings, which is probably what many people would say.
The U.S. Supreme Court has resisted defining "religion", but has been backed into doing so by a series of court cases dating back about 75 years. The loose definition currently in use came into existence about 35 years ago.
That definition states a religion must have the following characteristics:
- It must address the meaning of life
- It must be a comprehensive set of beliefs
- It must have special services or customs
That's it. That is really all that is required! Various court cases have added elaboration to that definition to make it clearer, such as a religion:
- Has beliefs creating a system of moral practice
- Is a cult that expresses their beliefs
- Uses an organization to observe the tenets of their beliefs
- Serves the purpose of characterizing man's nature, his place in the universe, or addresses human existence
Note that worship of a supreme being is not mentioned at all. The court has also stated that it is impossible to give an exact definition, and that each case must be examined independently to make a determination. Fair enough.
So...how did we get here? What decisions led us to this juncture? I'm glad you asked!
1957. Tax Exemption
In 1957, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that a religion need not worship a deity in the Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia (1957) decision. After being denied tax exemption by the Tax Court, the WES filed a lawsuit and won. This case established non-traditional organizations as a religion under US law.
"...The only way the state can determine the existence or nonexistence of 'religious worship' is to approach the problem objectively. It is not permitted to test validity of, or to compare beliefs. This simply means that 'religion' fills a void that exists in the lives of most men. Regardless of why a particular belief suffices, as long as it serves this purpose, it must be accorded the same status of an orthodox religious belief... Religion simply includes:
(a) A belief, not necessarily to supernatural powers
(b) A cult, involving a gregarious association openly expressing the belief
(c) A system of moral practice directly resulting from an adherence to the belief
(d) An organization within the cult designed to observe the tenets of belief
The content of the belief is of no moment. Assuming this definition of 'religion' is correct, then it necessarily follows that any lawful means of formally observing the tenets of the cult is 'worship', within the meaning of the tax-exemption provisions." Fellowship of Humanity v Alameda County (1957)
1961. Exclusion From Office
The Supreme Court did start down the path of defining religion when ruling on whether an atheist could be excluded from the office of notary public because he refused to attest to a belief in God:
"...neither a state nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to 'profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.' Neither can they constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on other beliefs." Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
1965. Military Draft Exemption
When three men were denied conscientious objector status because they did not believe in a supreme being, the lawsuits they filed led to further definition of religion as something that did not require belief in a supreme being:
"We believe that under this construction, the test of belief 'in a relation to a Supreme Being' is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption." U.S. v. Seeger (1965)
In other words, it is the ROLE that the belief plays in the person's life, not the CONTENT of the belief.
1972. Compulsory Education
In this case, three Amish students from three families stopped attending New Glarus High School at the end of the eighth grade due to religious beliefs. The court ruled that the fundamental freedom of religion outweighed the state's interest in educating children past the 8th grade. The ruling continued the court's definition of what is religious and what is not, in part by discussing Walden Pond:
“To have the protection of the Religious Clauses, the claims must be rooted in religious belief. Although a determination of what is 'religious' belief or practice entitled to constitutional protection may present a more delicate question, the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests. This, if the Amish asserted their claims because of their subjective evaluation and rejection of contemporary secular values accepted by the majority, much as Thoreau rejected the social values of his time and isolated himself at Walden Pond, their claims would not rest on a religious basis. Thoreau’s choice was philosophical and personal rather than religious, and such belief does not rise to the demands of the Religious Clauses.” Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
This paragraph points out a problem -when is a person's belief religious, and when is it philosophical or scientific? Categorizing beliefs in this way is much more difficult than it appears on the surface.
There have been cases, in fact, where a group was claiming to NOT be a religion but was found in fact to be one. New Jersey high schools had books that contained text by Majarishi Mahesh Yogi on the subject of creative intelligence and transcendental meditation. The court found it was religious in nature and thus it was removed from the school.
“The broad reading of 'religion' in Torcasa was drawn upon in Founding Church of Scientology v United States. There, Scientology, a belief system providing a “general account of man and his nature comparable in scope, if not content, to those of some organized religions”, was found to be a religion for purposes of the free exercise clause. Judge Wright was willing to accept, as religious, ideas that are sufficiently comprehensive to be comparable to traditional religions in terms of content and subject matter. But it must be added that he did so only after observing that the government did not contest Scientology’s religious nature, or rebut prima facie case for religious classification made by its supporters."
It would thus appear that the constitutional cases that have actually alluded to the definitional problems, like the selective service cases, strongly support a definition for religion broader than the theistic formulation of earlier Supreme Court cases. What that definition is, or should be, has not yet been made entirely clear.”
“It seems unavoidable, from Seeger, Welsh, and Torcaso, that the Theistic formulation presumed to be applicable in the latest nineteenth century cases is no longer sustainable. Under the modern view, 'religion' is not confined to the relationship of man with his Creator, either as a matter of law or as a matter of theology. Even theologians of traditionally recognized faiths have moved away from a strictly Theistic approach in explaining their own religions. Such movement, when coupled with the growth in the United States, of many Eastern and non-traditional belief systems, suggests that the older, limited definition would deny 'religious' identification to faiths now adhered to by millions of Americans. The Court’s more recent cases reject such a result." Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
"If the old definition has been repudiated, however, the new definition remains not fully formed. It would appear to be properly described as a definition by analogy. The Seeger court advertently declined to distinguish beliefs holding 'parallel positions in the lives of their respective holders.' Presumably beliefs holding the same important position for members of one of the new religions as the traditional faith holds for more orthodox believers are entitled to the same treatment as the traditional beliefs. The tax exemption cases referred to in Torcaso also rely primarily on the common elements present in the new challenged groups…as well as in the older unchallenged groups and churches. In like fashion, Judge Wright reasoned by analogy in crediting the prima facie claim made out of Scientology…The modern approach thus looks to the familiar religions as models in order to ascertain, by comparison, whether the new set of ideas of beliefs is confronting the same concerns, or serving the same purpose, as unquestioned and accepted 'religions'”. Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
“It might be possible to show that a self-proclaimed religion was merely a commercial enterprise, without the underlying theories of man’s nature or his place in the Universe which characterize recognized religions.” Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
First Indica: Addresses Ultimate Concern of Man's Place in Universe
“…one of the conscientious objectors whose appeal was coupled with Seeger, submitted a long memorandum, noted by the Court, in which he defined religion as the 'sum and essence of one’s basic attitudes to the fundamental problems of human existence.'”
“Expectation that religious ideas should address fundamental questions is in some ways comparable to the reasoning of the Protestant theologian Dr. Paul Tillich, who expressed his view on the essence of religion in the phrase 'ultimate concern.' Tillich perceived religion as intimately connected to concepts that are of the greatest depth and utmost importance. His thoughts have been influential both with courts and commentators. Nor is it difficult to see why this philosophy would prove attractive in the American constitutional framework. One’s views, be they orthodox or novel, on the deeper and more imponderable questions – the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the Universe, the proper moral code of right and wrong – are those likely to be the most 'intensely personal' and important to the believer. They are his ultimate concern. As such, they are to be carefully guarded from governmental interference, and never converted into official government doctrine. The first amendment demonstrates a specific solitude for religion because religious ideas are in many ways more important than other ideas. New and different ways of meeting those concerns are entitled to the same sort of treatment as the traditional forms.” Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
There you have it! To determine if something qualifies as a religion:
- Does it serve the same purpose as a traditional religion?
- Does it characterize man's nature? His place in the universe? The fundamental problem of human existence? The meaning of life and death?
But not everything that addresses those areas is a religion. In 1979, the court continued:
“Certain isolated answers to 'ultimate' questions, however, are not necessarily 'religious' answers, because they lack the element of comprehensiveness, the second of the three indica. A religion is not generally confined to one question or one moral teaching; it has a broader scope. It lays claim to an ultimate and comprehensive 'truth'. Thus the so-called 'Big Bang' theory, an astronomical interpretation of the creation of the universe, may be said to answer an 'ultimate' question, but it is not, by itself, a 'religious' idea. Likewise, moral or patriotic views are not by themselves 'religious', but if they are pressed as divine laws or part of the comprehensive belief-system that presents them as 'truth', they might well rise to the religious level.” Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
“A third element to consider in ascertaining whether a set of ideas should be classified as a religion is any formal, external, or surface signs that may be analogized to accepted religions. Such signs might include formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with traditional religions. Of course, a religion may exist without any of these signs, so they are not determinative, at least by their absence, in resolving a question of definition. But they can be helpful in supporting a conclusion of religious status given the important role such ceremonies play in religious life. These formal signs of religion were found to be persuasive proofs of religious character for tax exemption purposes in Washington Ethical Society and Fellowship of Humanity, discussed supra. They are noted as well in Founding Church of Scientology, supra. This, even if it is true that a religion can exist without rituals and structure, they may nonetheless be useful signs that a group or belief system is religious.”
“Although these indica will be helpful, they should not be thought of as a final 'test' for religion. Flexibility and careful consideration of each belief system are needed. Still, it is important to have some objective guidelines in order to avoid ad hoc justice.” Malnak v. Yogi (1979)
Further definition was given to the definition of "religion" in 1981, when prison inmate Frank Africa claimed a right to a special fruit and vegetable diet due to his religion. He was a member of the revolutionary organization MOVE whose communal residence was bombed by the Philadelphia police on August 8, 1978 causing a fire that burned multiple city blocks.
The court found that MOVE did not meet the third indica either: it lacked almost all of the characteristics of most recognized religions. Move had no special services or customs.
The court found that MOVE consisted of a single governing idea, best described as philosophical naturalism. MOVE included a desire to live in a pure and natural environment - this Africa's request for a special diet - which is a noble desire, but not a religious desire.
"Prevailing world religions map" by The original uploader was LilTeK21 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons