The Common Sense Concept of Religion

I recently read Martha Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience for a reading group, and I found her recommendation of the American approach to religious liberty very convincing. There was one area, however, that I found less convincing, which was her definition of religion as basically a search for ultimate meaning. Her title seems to reflect that definition, but the American tradition does not — and consequently, neither does much of her argument in favor of that tradition.

Here’s why that definition — which is actually fairly common — cannot work. On the conceptual level, it robs “religious” convictions of any specificity. Specifically, it turns conscientious atheism into a kind of “religion.” (Such a move is justified in certain rhetorical and argumentative contexts, but at the same time, the force of that claim depends on its counterintuitive nature.) On the societal level, it allows any individual to put forward any arbitrary claim as entitling them to an exception from general laws, so long as that claim is couched in terms of “conscience.”

Of course, there is the proviso that such an exception can’t endanger the general public welfare, so no one can claim to have a right to murder, etc., simply because their conscience dictates. Even with that proviso in place, however, the defense of “religion” is different from the defense of “conviction” or “conscience” generally. To get at the difference, it’s necessary to get at what the “common sense” notion of religion is — it is that definition that the American legal tradition uses and that Nussbaum implicitly uses, even with her overly broad stated definition.

I think that the common sense definition of religion would exclude idiosyncratic claims of individuals as well as groups known as “cults.” That is, religion can’t be a matter of simply one person’s claim, whether that be an individual acting alone or a cult leader who has gathered a body of followers. Some kind of “critical mass” much be reached, both quantitatively and temporally. I don’t think a firm boundary is possible here — it’s more of a “heap”-like problem. Specifically, it’s a problem of authority — not the authority of any one person qua individual, but a disembodied authority that the body of believers (including leaders, even individual leaders as powerful as the pope) understands as preexisting. In philosophical terms, a religion has its own “objective spirit” or “big Other.” (Incidentally, this is one good example of where Nussbaum’s anti-“continental” stance deprives her of concepts that would be very helpful to her argument.)

Religious claims are arguments from authority insofar as they go beyond what generic public reason would dictate — that is, by definition they exceed the “overlapping consensus” that “everyone” can agree upon. At the same time, they are public claims insofar as they have recourse to an authority whose demands are publicly available. People who don’t accept the Roman Catholic Church as authoritative, for example, are nonetheless able to know what the Roman Catholic Church demands of its members and to assess the degree to which its members take those claims as authoritative, that is, to trace the basic contours of the debate “internal” to Catholicism. Therefore, no one could get away with the claim that, qua Roman Catholic, they can only eat kosher food and must be accomodated.

Strictly idiosyncratic individual claims — whether of an individual acting alone or of a particular “cult leader” — do not have that public availability and are not “religious” in the relevant sense. (The case of Mormonism shows how rapidly a “cult” can become a “religion” in the modern world — though by the time the US government started its legal persecution of Mormons, it had already clearly become a “religion,” at least as far as I can tell.)

To me, what is valuable about the American approach to “religion” is not only that it is more fair than the European approach, though that does seem to me to be the case and to be a very significant benefit. The more valuable thing is why it’s more fair, namely, that it tacitly acknowledges that society is not made up simply of atomized individuals who stand before the state one by one. Society is also made up of groups with their own relative authority and autonomy, and a just polity must make reasonable accomodations to those groups. The American approach demonstrates that the choice isn’t between radical individualism and a sheer communitarianism that would allow the religious groups complete free reign — some type of limitation on group activity is necessary.

So in an example Nussbaum refers to several times, the government can decide that Bob Jones University’s religious freedom to regulate interracial dating among students is outweighed by the government’s interest in promoting racial equality. In the same way, the government might recognize the authority of Sharia law over Muslim citizens while placing certain limitations on it due to the government’s interest in gender equality (though in point of fact, the US government is not nearly as “interested” in gender equality as it should be).

One thing that’s particularly impressive to me is that the American tradition gets at this tacit acknowledgment of the existence of non-state groups precisely through the very individualistic and Protestant notion of “conscience” and through a legal system that can only hear the claims of individuals (even groups are heard only qua “legal persons”) — “backfilling” the Enlightenment political tradition with a more reasonable approach, as it were.

8 thoughts on “The Common Sense Concept of Religion

  1. I want to comment on this at more lengfth later. It’s very interesting but I’m not sure where the line is between one person and a larger religion, or even individual interpretations. When I was a Muslim, I knew Muslims who were vegetarians. However, they were a small minority and most Muslims do not consider t incumbent to abstain from flesh. Yet these muslims considered it a religious duty. It doesn’t fit clearly onto either side.

  2. So, you’re saying that the American tradition better allows for religious liberty because of its recognition of groups having their own “relative authority and autonomy” without endorsing a “radical individualism,” and it accomplishes this recognition through emphasis on the otherwise individualistic notion of conscience and the legal necessity of claimants coming forward as individuals? How does this paradox work to accomplish what you say that it does?

    I think helpful is the distinction you’re drawing between religion and cult as one where the authority of a group is at least publicly available for a religion and not so much for a cult–but then the “heap” problem wouldn’t really have anything to do with number of followers, as initially set up and later specified to the disembodied authority’s critical mass. Is the heap problem for the authority, then, about how many people of the public recognize that authority as one, or is it only analogous to the heap problem in the sense of the emergence of something once some number of people believe in a thing’s authority?

    Also, how public are we talking here? Are all of the doctrines and contours of internal debate within, say, Scientology publicly available? But if these things are released through deconversion, criticism, or external exposure–in other words, if what was meant to be secret is exposed without authorized consent, or without the consent of the authority–it doesn’t seem that should switch things over from cult to religion–in which case, Mormonism is still not really a religion, either, if only certain of the demands for adherence are released but not others.

  3. Brad and I discussed Scientology and Mormonism. I leaned toward calling Mormonism a real “religion” for political purposes and viewing Scientology as a successful attempt to game the system (though there doesn’t appear to be a way to close that loophole without endangering the whole thing).

    I said that the American system “backfills” an individualistic system by means of the acknowledgment of the binding power of religious authority on some people.

    You’re right that the heap reference was a blind alley.

  4. As for “how this paradox works,” etc., that’s simply an empirical question of how it has played out in history. I agree with Nussbaum that the general tendency has been for it to work out better than either “lite” establishment (most European countries) or enforced secularism (France).

    Another problem that occurs to me: the very notion of a “publicly available” religion is Christian. This is not to say that other religions do not share this aspect, but there have apparently always been “mystery cults,” etc. Curse you, Eurocentrism! When will we ever be through with you?

  5. Well, it was one of the things I wanted to ask, but decided not to: how do you handle the notion that people such as Julian of Norwich are mystics within a religious tradition? It seems to me that mysticism deliberately evades the issue of publicity, but I don’t think it always makes sense to say that a mystic is, therefore, cultish or in a cult.

    Or, you know, certain snake-handling Pentecostal congregations are very open and public with their beliefs. You know where they stand because they are all too willing to let you know. But… there’s some sense I think where many people of common sense will say that, despite there being many of these churches, we’re dealing with a cultish kind of group.

    Anyway, I think I am misreading your last paragraph, then, if my thought of it as a paradox is not apparent. It seems to me that you’re saying that we can get/have gotten at this better recognition of the power of groups by first being–hyperbole here–even more radical with the notion of individualism and treat groups as individuals, too.

  6. I am not saying that at all. I’m saying that, using the basic structure of Enlightenment political thought that they had at hand, the Founders and subsequent tradition have superimposed another layer that takes account of the role of free-floating religious authority.

    Most mystics that I know of stood in some relationship to a “normal” religious authority, and none of their activities qua mystics seem likely to bring them under the purview of the law. If they said God told them to kill someone, then the state couldn’t make an exception for them, whether it was recognized as validly “religious” or regarded as insane. More broadly, the vast majority of religious activities fall under a kind of “live and let live” philosophy — the only point at which it becomes an issue is if a reasonable accomodation of a person’s religious beliefs requires some kind of exception to a generally valid law.

    Is there a law that you can’t handle snakes? If so, then it would seem that that law is specifically directed against the snake-handling sect and is not constitutional, according to the standards prevailing right now. My tentative gestures toward a concept of a “cult” in the post does not include freakiness — it’s a matter of whether the sect has developed an “objective spirit” that is relatively independent of any particular individual or group of individuals and is accessible to the general public as such.

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