Defining Religion

The American Founding Fathers gave much thought to the proper relations between church and state. They did this when they put the “no religious test” provision into the U.S. Constitution. They did it again when, a few years later, they drafted the First Amendment with its two religion clauses pertaining to “free exercise” and “no establishment.” Earlier, Jefferson and Madison did it when they drafted the Virginia statute of religious liberties.

If you had asked the Founders for a general definition of religion, they would probably have given examples: Christianity is a religion, or rather that the many branches of Christianity are so many religions. Islam is a religion, as are Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. And then there were the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome, the many religions found among American Indians, and many other religions around the world and throughout history.

They might have disagreed with one another if asked, “Is Deism a religion?” Some would have said no, arguing that Deism, while it includes a system of belief and even a system or morality, lacks a system of worship; and worship is an essential element of religion. What’s more, the objectors might add, the Deists of the world don’t constitute a sacred community, whereas all genuine religions are felt by their adherents to be sacred communities.

Some of the Founders, on the other hand, would have said yes to the question of whether Deism is a religion. Some (e.g., Jefferson) might even have gone so far as to say that Deism is the world’s one true religion. And to the objection that Deists don’t have a system of worship, they could answer that Deists do indeed worship God, not by wasting an hour or two in church on Sunday mornings, but by promoting the happiness of God’s human creatures.

As for the objection that Deists don’t constitute a sacred community, a Deist could reply: “We are a sacred community, not indeed a structured, hierarchical community, but a kind of invisible church – as befits free men and women.”

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Now, let’s say our Founders had the ability to look ahead to the 20th century. What would they have said about the Communist and Nazi parties? Would these count as religions in their eyes? After all, they provided their faithful members with some of the important psychological satisfactions that conventionally religious persons received from traditional religions. If you were a Communist in the heyday of that movement, you had the feeling that your life was meaningful.

You as a mere individual, a speck of human dust floating in this immense universe, may not be of any importance. But who can doubt that the CP is a thing of importance? And so you, as part of the CP, are important – just as a person’s finger, unimportant and meaningless all by itself, is important and meaningful as part of a living body.

Further, as a member of the Party you are given a moral code. It tells you how to conduct your life. It tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. It is right to fight against capitalism and in support of the hundreds of millions of victims of capitalism both at home and abroad. It is wrong to co-operate with the police in their defense of the capitalist-imperial regime, or to nod your agreement with journalists who defend the capitalist ideology and its pseudo-democratic political parties. It is right to violate the rules of conventional morality when these violations advance the noble Communist cause, which is the cause of mankind.

And if you were a German Nazi in the heyday of Nazism, you were able to obtain similar quasi-religious satisfactions – a feeling that your life is meaningful plus a code of ethics, even though the Nazi code happened to be somewhat different from the Communist code.

Do we have similar phenomena in the USA today – I mean thoroughly secularized ideological movements that function very like a religion? Yes, I think so. For many women, feminism has become a quasi-religion, and for many gays and lesbians, the homosexualist movement has been a quasi-religion.

I think feminism-as-a-religion, while not yet dead, is over the hill; its heyday was the 1970s and 1980s. But the LGBT movement is still going strong. My guess is that it has not yet reached its peak.

More generally, we have what is often called secular humanism: a comprehensive worldview that includes, as subsections of itself, the two movements just mentioned. This larger movement is characterized by (1) atheism or near-atheism, (2) a disbelief in life after death, (3) moral relativism, (4) a great belief that individual persons should be free to do whatever they wish, provided they don’t harm others in a tangible and obvious way, (5) a great belief in sexual freedom, and (6) a confidence that the state – properly staffed, organized, and funded – can guarantee a high degree of average human happiness.

It is clear that our Founding Fathers didn’t want the state to promote, for example, the views of the Episcopal Church to the detriment of the views of Baptist or Presbyterian churches. But would the founders be okay with the promotion of secular humanism to the detriment of old-fashioned Christianity? Yet that’s exactly what happens when the state promotes the values of secular humanism to the detriment of the values of traditional Christianity – for instance, when public school teacher A is free to tell his/her pupils that same-sex marriage is a good thing while public school teacher B is forbidden to tell his/her pupils that abortion is wrong.

I will be told that secular humanism is a philosophy, not a religion, and that the state, which has no right to promote a religion, has every right to promote a philosophy if it judges this philosophy to be true. I reply that that is a distinction without a real difference – and confusion on this point is doing great damage to our constitutionally protected religious liberty.

** Image: Thomas Jefferson: a Philosopher, a Patriot, and a Friend by Tadeusz Kościuszko, c. 1789 [Library of Congress]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.