Opinion: What is religion?

Bill O’Reilly is quite interesting to me as a Political Science major and as a Democrat. Few other television personalities are so smart, yet so stubbornly wrong so much of the time, so willing to break from his party and yet so apt to spew partisan garbage at such obnoxiously high volume. But last week, when he shouted down Dave Silverman, the president of the American Atheists group, it was the Theology major in me that was captivated.

It started like any other segment: O’Reilly railing on atheists for trying to destroy Christmas and insisting that local governments not display nativity scenes. But then O’Reilly dropped a bomb:  “Christianity is not a religion,” he said, contempt plastered on his face, “it is a philosophy.”

His words had the deliberate articulation of a man who feels he’s just made a round-winning point. Silverman’s face reverted to the disbelief that immortalized him in Internet-meme Heaven last spring. I fist-pumped as I realized that studying Theology was not a waste.

What is O'Reilly really asking?  The argument may have been about Christianity, but the question he poses is much broader:  What, ultimately, is the defining characteristic of a religion? And how should the government draw a legislative and constitutional distinction between religions and other belief systems?

O'Reilly submitted that support for, say, Methodism, would be unconstitutional, but maintained that Christianity described a broad philosophy that could be applied to multiple religious traditions, rather than referring to one in particular. So how should we define a religion?

First of all, I’m not sure the question is relevant:  if a government wanted to put up a sign advocating atheism (not a religion) or Utilitarianism,  O'Reilly would likely have a problem. Or, for that matter, if a government wanted to advocate Islam (a religion with many sects, like Christianity), Fox News would have a conniption.

Still, there are several ways we can look at the question (though, admittedly, the question is better addressed in a 200 page dissertation, not a 700 word article).

First, did the originators of Christianity view it as a philosophy or a religion? The answer is unequivocally religion. Christianity was founded by a teacher who, to use his words, built a church upon the rocks of his apostles. Without assuming to understand the will or teachings of Jesus, we can hopefully agree that he intended his teachings to become a central part of the lives of his followers in a way that Jeremy Bentham or Nietzsche probably did not.

The whole bit about not loving your parents and suffering in his name seems to suggest he intended his teachings to be fairly all-encompassing.  Philosophies tend to be about attaining truth, while religions advocate, and indeed, insist on, a particular lifestyle and moral system.

Second, how have similar cases been treated by American courts?  While Establishment Clause jurisprudence is complicated, the prevailing judicial standard and case law regarding this issue has never questioned the premise that Christianity is a religion and that symbols of Christmas are religious in nature.

Moreover, the use of religious symbolism for a religious (as opposed to secular) purpose, like celebrating the birth of a religious figure, has been unequivocally rejected as unconstitutional. As such, the Supreme Court has held, through precedent, that religious symbols cannot be displayed on public property if the purpose is to promote religion (see Van Orden v. Perry and Lemon v. Kurtzman).

Finally, how do Christians view their own beliefs? Surely, O’Reilly, a Catholic himself, would not argue that believers in Jesus view their beliefs as philosophical, that Martin Luther is somehow more important to Lutherans than Jesus Christ. Without purporting to speak for all Christians, believers view Christianity as revealed truth, Jesus as the Son of God sent to speak His word to all nations.

The word itself, “Christian,” means follower of Christ, whose birth is celebrated on Christmas. Christmas is not a secular holiday, it is, to Christians, a celebration of the coming of the Son, whose presence and message save all men from otherwise certain damnation. That message is believed by Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, and anyone else who believes in Jesus, because belief in Jesus in the unifying factor of all Christian sects, the characteristic that makes them Christian.

If that isn’t religious, I don’t know what is.  O’Reilly tried to respond to these criticisms, saying that one could respect Jesus’ message without thinking he’s God. True; but as Jon Stewart said, “[Non-Christians] can get an A in his philosophy class, but can’t go to the after-party.”

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