What is a religion? Everyone assumes they know – until, that is, we have to define it.
The Supreme Court has just discovered this slippery truth. Previously the courts had said Scientology was not a religion, because although it calls itself a Church its ceremonies were not “acts of worship”. They were backing a previous court ruling from 1970 which had pronounced that Scientology did not involve the “veneration of God or of a Supreme Being”.
Common sense definitions, based largely in the culture of Britain’s Judeo-Christian inheritance, once supposed that religion was something to do with God, or gods for those who had done classics at school.
The world’s main religions seems to fit that label. Some five billion people – Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims – see religion as something to do with deity. So do Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians and many smaller faiths.
But as we have learned of far-off philosophical faith-systems like Confucianism and Shintoism it has dawned that a deity is not essential to a religion. There is no God in Buddhism. That is why, presumably, the Supreme Court justices have now said religion should not be confined to faiths involving a “supreme deity”.
So definitions have cascaded down to sociologists and anthropologists who, over the years have assembled rafts of criteria involving text, tradition, myth, ritual, symbol, gnosis, morality, law, sacred places and scriptures.
But beyond the fact that, as Durkheim noted, religion is always social where spirituality can be solipsistic and individual, all these academics have failed to find a definition that could be universally accepted. Today we have got to the point where individuals can pretty much define it as they want, hence those who declare their religion to be “Jedi Knight” on census forms.
In our relativist age, self-definition is considered the ultimate arbiter of truth. Religion is any system of belief or behaviour by which humans give meaning to their lives. The great philosophers of the past, from Aristotle to Kant, would have been unimpressed.
Still it allows everyone their two-penn’orth. It allows Scientologists to claim their beliefs and services have evolved in the four decades since the last legal ruling. And it permits politicians like Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to offer a more venal view. He said: “I am very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates.” If Scientologists are a religion rather than a psycho-cult they will get exemptions from local taxes on their premises. Once the traditional definitions of religion are loosed there is no knowing where we will end up.
Paul Vallely is the author of ‘Pope Francis – Untying the Knots’ published by Bloomsbury