Defining “Religion”

Hardball with Chris Matthews – October 10, 2011.

Rev. Robert Jeffress

Matthew’s guest was the Reverend Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

You may recall that Rev. Jeffress introduced Gov. Rick Perry to the Valued Voters Conference. In that introduction he declared that though Mitt Romney is a moral man, he is not an Evangelical Christian. By declaring such, Jeffress declared that only a good Evangelical Christian could be President.

During his interview after the comments and again on Hardball, Jeffress attempted to back step his comments by saying that his goal is to unseat President Obama and if the person who is not an Evangelical is nominated for the Republican ticket, he would vote for that person, but with reservations.

The problem here is any attempt to define the term “religion?” This is a major topic within the LinkedIn Freethinkers group that has generated over 160 comments. Membership here is by far not limited to heathens and heretics. But even the believers were having problems with this one question.

 How does one define “religion?”

Is a religion based on a belief of a god or gods or the supernatural? There are too many holes in this definition to say “yes it is.” That would mean that groups who believe in UFOs, or ghosts, or Yeti or Nessy qualify as a religion.

Is it a “cause, principle or system of belief held to with ardor and faith?” this would include the Area 51, Kennedy Assassination and President Obama is not an American conspiracy theorists.  It would also include the tea partiers and the OWS groups who firmly and faithfully believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

One of the those involved in this thread provided “proof” in the form of a United States Circuit Court case, Malnak v. Yogi (592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979)). He cited Judge Adams as declaring that religion is to be defined as:

  1. A religion deals with issues of ultimate concern; with what makes life worth living; with basic attitudes toward fundamental problems of human existence.
  2. A religion presents a comprehensive set of ideas–usually as “truth,” not just theory.
  3. A religion generally has surface signs (such as clergy, observed holidays, and ritual) that can be analogized (sic) to well-recognized religions.

These comments are paraphrased from lines 51 – 60 of Adams’ discussion and constitute only evidence as to the direction of his decision in this one case.

As with other studies I have done concerning court cases and definitions, I find that the paraphrasing is right, but the language does not represent precedence.

In fact, Judge Adams admitted that the definition of religion in modern times is more complicated than the three examples provided above, what he termed the “old” definitions. He said in line 63,

Clearly, the notion of religion in the free exercise clause must be expanded beyond the closely bounded limits of theism to account for the multiplying forms of recognizably legitimate religious exercise. It is equally clear, however, that in the age of the affirmative and increasingly pervasive state, a less expansive notion of religion was required for establishment clause purposes lest all “humane” programs of government be deemed constitutionally suspect.

He continued in line 65,

To borrow the ultimate concern test from the free exercise context and use it with present establishment clause doctrines would be to invite attack on all programs that further the ultimate concerns of individuals or entangle the government with such concerns. Doctrinal chaos might well result, and with it might come the wholesale invalidation of programs which, if analyzed in light of the values underlying the establishment clause, would be found benign.

This by no means defines “religion.”

The only test that Judge Adams cited as proper came from a Supreme Court case, Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 773, 93 S.Ct. 2955, 37 L.Ed.2d 948 (1973). Adams’ wrote, “the Court reiterated the three criteria within which to scrutinize the involved governmental action. To pass muster, the action in question must: (1) reflect a clearly secular legislative purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”

It should be questioned whether this case set any precedent in either defining religion within the legal, secular or sectarian communities. Appellant court cases usually do not set such levels of legal definitions or guidelines.

If we cannot define “religion,” why are we so afraid of those who do not have the same faith as yourselves?

Many years ago, when I was still an active member of the Jewish community in Denver, I was engaged to a woman who was of a Southern Baptist upbringing. Her minister would not marry us. My rabbi would not marry us. Both were afraid that the children would be brought up in the “other” faith.

I have been told more than once by more than one religious leader that my studying other faiths was “prohibited,” though I never found that “law” or Commandment.

Why should we be so concerned that a presidential candidate is a Born-again Christian, a Mormon, Catholic, Jew, Muslim or atheist?

It seems that the only way to define the term religion relies on paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart as he defined pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), when he wrote:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of religions I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…

So whose eyes will tell us what religion is?

David Rosman’s new book, A Christian Nation? An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs is due for release on November 15, 2011.

A Christian Nation? does something no other book on the topic has done before – David asked for and received the proofs from Christian nation theorists examining each for accuracy, context and language. This is more than the religious affiliations of the Founders, but includes court cases, resolutions, letters and speeches from 1492 to the present.

You can pre-order your copy today at


About David Rosman

David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in Communications, Ethics, Business and Politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at, and
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3 Responses to Defining “Religion”

  1. Lynn Wilhelm says:

    I do think that Jeffress’ comments were not questioning whether or not Mormonism is a religion, but whether or not being a Mormon qualifies an adherent as an evangelical Christian.

    Your question in the article, “If we cannot define “religion,” why are we so afraid of those who do not have the same faith as yourselves?,” has nothing to do with defining religion and all to do with the fear of “otherness” or that those you consider wrong are not fit humans. Those are the entire reasons there are problems among religions, sects and tribes. I don’t think defining religion has anything to do with it.

    I think I need to join the LinkedIn Freethinkers group. Sounds like a fun discussion. Off to sign up.

  2. I am currently taking a course at Southern Arkansas University entitled Introduction to Religion as part of my minor in Philosophy and Religious Studies. Our main text is “The World’s Religions,” by Dr. William A. Young. He defines religion on page 3 as, “Religion is human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy.” So far, this seems to cover every religious system I have encountered in my 76 years quite well, even the godless ones.

    • David Rosman says:

      Thank you James – My version is slightly modified from Dr. Young’s – “Religion is human transformation in response to a perceived unknown.” If we do not know how or why something happens, we can always explain the cause as a supernatural occurrence. Religion may only be an organized myth into a sanctioned body.

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