What is the definition of a religion? By that I mean to ask: What is that which is protected under the First Amendment in its right to be freely exercised apart from governmental obstruction?
Most would likely think in concrete, structural terms such as a church, synagogue or mosque building as the focal point of the religion being practiced. Symbols are important too, as more than a billion Christians last week commemorated the Crucifixion visually represented by crosses of all shapes.
Others might think more abstractly and define religion as a set of beliefs manifested in a ritualized gathering of believers and an outward expression of personal piety and good works.
But is it a necessary and sufficient condition, as the logicians like to ask, for a religion to be anchored in the belief in a Divine Being?
Most would say yes, as did the U. S. Navy which recently denied a request from a secular humanist to serve as chaplain. Not wishing to go into all the factors involved in the denial, it was important to the Navy’s decision that the Chaplain Corps requires an individual to hold a degree in theological studies and have served at least two years in a position of religious leadership. Since the root of the word theology is the Greek word for God, the answer appears obvious.
But is it?
Secular humanists and atheists, who are difficult to tell apart at times, have multiple web sites that explain their philosophy or belief system. But isn’t a belief system just another name for a set of dogmas or teachings? Just look at the number of books promoting atheism and secular humanism, let alone those attacking theistic religion. They certainly act like they are an organized religion, in spite of their pronounced antipathy against the public display of any religious activity or symbols.
So our question boils down to this: Can you be a religion under U. S. law if you believe God does not exist? If instead you believe that Man is the center of the universe, which, by the way, came about without any divine intervention? Something must be sovereign in this world of ours, so why not human reason and experience?
I realize my devout friends will not agree with me on this, but I would give the secular humanists what they want. If you say you are a religion within our civil society, then you are. That means that your beliefs should receive the same protection as mine.
But here’s the kicker.
It also means that yours can’t supersede mine and drive mine out of the public space. Nor can yours attempt to force me to violate my conscience, that part of my moral being informed by my religious faith, to act in compliance with your dogma.
When the secular humanists demand the prohibition of any mention of God in the public square as a violation of the establishment clause, my response will be that is their religious belief, one among many, and not an automatic trump card. They are free to claim God doesn’t exist anywhere they want provided I can counter that he does.
So let’s give them what they ask for. It’s past time to relevel the civic playing field so that all beliefs are free to be exhibited without prescription or proscription. Respect for belief and conscience is essential to our democracy … and it is a two-way street.
Fortunately, our Founding Fathers understood this.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to email@example.com.