Religion – Does it Exist?

December 6, 2010

There was a debate in Toronto recently between Chris Hitchens and Tony Blair, on whether “religion” is a force for good or evil in the world.
I am not sure the question is answerable, or even meaningful.
The blogger Anglican Centrist expresses eloquently one aspect of my concern:

It is folly to try to defend or promote “religion” as a generic concept. “Religion” is not a faith, it’s a category. Talking about “religion” in general is like talking about “husbands” or “wives” in general: The differences within the category render generalizations meaningless – unless you want to do stand-up, like Henny Youngman or Phyllis Diller.

If you try to defend or promote “religion”, you drain all the life out of the particular faiths that people embrace and end up with mush like this:

There is a basic belief common to all faiths, in serving and loving God, through serving and loving your fellow human beings.

It’s not that this Esperanto of “religion” is wrong, it’s just that it’s so weak, compared to, say:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?


You may devote yourself to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Hinduism, your life may have been changed by Islam, or Christianity, or Zoroastrianism, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has devoted his life to “religion”.

But I would go farther. I do not even believe that “religion” is such a good category.
I am not sure there is a consistent distinction to be made between the things we call “religions” and the things we call, say, secular ideologies or philosophies or cultures or lifestyles. Clearly no one particular belief is necessary or sufficient to make a religion a “religion.” Most people – but not all – have no trouble classifying Buddhism as a “religion” even though it is not based on belief in or worship of a “God.” Is my own Unitarian Universalism a “religion”? People brought up in it are especially likely to say “yes,” but some of us who came to it late in life tend to see it as something better than religion. And Communism in its heyday clearly displayed a good many of the bad qualities the more anti- “religious” of us associate with the word “religion.”

Our Supreme Court has tied itself in knots more than once trying to reconcile the “religion” clauses of the First Amendment. They’ve construed the word very broadly indeed in conscientious objector cases. If I were to draft a new Constitution – for people with no historical expectations, some colony in outer space, say – I would be inclined to leave the word “religion” out of it altogether. Freedom of speech, press, association, and maybe an explicit right to privacy, as well as equal protection, all taken together, should be enough to protect most of what the “free exercise” clause protects – at least legitimately, in my view.
What of the “establishment” clause? Again, equal protection and maybe due process should be enough. But if we must have an “establishment” clause, why single out “religion”? The Soviet constitution separated church and state quite neatly; but it then created an establishment of the Communist Party and its ideology, so that constitutional provisions that were quite enlightened on paper were totally vitiated. It would be great if we could prevent laws from being passed or interpreted in the light of any irrational belief system, whether a “religion,” or Communism, or “Mr. Herbert Spenser’s Social Statics” (Lochner v. New York, Justice Holmes, dissenting). But I don’t know how such a provision could be drafted…


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