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The Arbitrariness of the "Religion" Label


continued from Excluded Groups, Limited Exemptions and Limited Recognition, and Compelling Interest

In this post I argue that "religion" is an ultimately arbitrary label. There is no fundamental quality that sets a religious group apart from a cult, ideological group, or explicitly non-religious group - except, perhaps, the historical accident of one group being labeled as "religious" and others not. This gives us reason to question the granting of special rights to "religious" groups that is necessary when "Free Exercise" is recognized as a fundamental right.

What Counts as a Religion?

Another method of reducing the trouble religious exemptions might cause would be for the government to limit which groups it recognizes as religions. But this too is problematic. There are some groups the state might legitimately seek to exclude. Those formed for the purpose of seeking religious exemption from a particular law simply because it would benefit members of the group to do so, for example, would be good candidates for exclusions. So the Church of Doing Illegal Drugs is probably out of the running. Or is it? It might so happen that the members of the church sincerely believe that they ought to be able to use currently illegal drugs. They might even believe that God gave them this right. Perhaps, even, they believe that God created the world in such a way that humans could discover and use mind-altering chemicals that God provided to help us relax, expand our minds, etc. Throwing in the talk about God, especially when the beliefs might be sincere, seems to go a long way in making a belief system seem like a religion. Maybe such a group would not be sincere in their beliefs - but then again, maybe they would be. And in any case, it is not clear that the state should be in the business of judging the sincerity of people's belief systems to begin with.

But aside from obviously rhetorical examples, the task of assigning the "religion" label is difficult. Is a written book required? Not every recognized religion has one. One or more gods? Not every recognized religion has those either. Some core belief system common to all members of the group? Maybe - but how big must the group be, and how general or particular must the belief system be? Even in the case of "established" religions, the many different sects and churches make it hard to determine what the truly necessary beliefs are. In some recognized religions, a person might count as a member of the religious group based on who she is rather than what she believes. Historically, it seems that the "religion" label is applied to groups based on their size, age, and the agreement of their members that they belong to that religion. But it seems unfair to privilege groups just because of size and age - members of some new "religious" group might have just as much or more conviction than those of recognized religions, and they might take their beliefs just as seriously. And the fact that all members of the Church of Doing Illegal Drugs agree that they belong to that particular "religion" does not seem to support their claim to status as a religion.

Arbitrary Divide

The difficulty one encounters in decided what is or is not a religion results from, I contend, the fact that "religion" is an arbitrary classification. Although a strict definition could be formulated, it would likely exclude some belief system or group that has been historically recognized as a religion. Even if we did manage to come up with a definition that encompassed all groups throughout history commonly recognized as religions, we could probably come up with hypothetical groups that would not fit the definition of religion but would still intuitively seem to fit the bill of what a religion is.

I have already shown that simple classifications based on belief in one or more gods, some shared core belief system, group size and age, and common agreement of belonging among members do not seem to be good criteria by which to define religion. Even if they could somehow be used in a definition that fit all historically recognized religions, it still is not clear that they would mark particularly meaningful distinctions. Even individuals who are openly opposed to religion (or the collection of commonly recognized religious groups) can hold very strong and sincere beliefs. Regardless or whether or not they belong to a group sharing those beliefs, is there any justification for affording higher official status and special rights to the beliefs of a member of a religious group (whose beliefs might not even be terribly sincere) over that of a non-religious person with strong philosophical or ideological beliefs? I can imagine no such justification.

Even if the classification of religion is not arbitrary (and I think we have good reason to believe that it is), the decision to automatically favor religious belief over non-religious belief is arbitrary. I might not have the Bible backing one of my strongly held beliefs, but I might have Locke or Hume or Kant or my own argument. What makes one better than the other? A religious belief is more likely to be true than a non-religious one. There are probably few if any points that all religions agree on, so someone must be wrong. If a belief's being a religious belief does not guarantee (or even make it more likely compared to a non-religious belief) that it is true, sincerely held, or an important part of an individual's life, there is no good reason to give religious belief special consideration when it comes to the law. Doing so privileges people who happen to be members of historically recognized religious groups. Recognizing free exercise of religion as a fundamental right grants certain individuals special rights denied to others who do not belong to "religious" groups. Because there is no justification for disparity of rights, this practice is unjust.


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