A recent report by the Public Research Institute and the Brookings Institution attempts to present a clearer picture of American religious orientation. One of the things it explores, as Lauren Markoe notes at Religion News Service, is differing views among Americans as to what being “religious” even means, with 59 percent equating it with “living a good life” (moralistic therapeutic deism, anyone?) and 36 percent equating it with “faith and right beliefs.”
But let’s back up a bit: instead of asking what it means to be “religious,” let’s first ask what “religion” itself is. That’s the question currently under discussion in the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court is currently considering the case of Louisa Hodkin, a Scientologist who wants to get married in a building owned by the Church of Scientology. The problem is, the United Kingdom does not officially recognize Scientology as a religion. As the Case Summary explains, “In order for a venue to be licensed for the solemnisation of marriage… it must first be registered a ‘place of meeting for religious worship’…. The chapel [where Louisa Hodkin wishes to be married] applied to be registered… but the application was rejected by the respondent as not being a ‘place of meeting for religious worship.’”
The Justices are now tasked with the thorny question of deciding what constitutes religion. According to James Strachan (representing the U.K.’s Registrar-General), Scientology doesn’t make the cut. “The process of Scientology is not about worshipping God, infinity or a supreme being,” he said, according to The Guardian. “It’s about auditing, training and developing self-awareness.”
Lord Paul Lester, representing the other side, for his part played up the parallels to Buddhism. Yes, Scientologists might not worship a divine being. But then, neither do Buddhists. Scientologists pursue “infinity” much as Buddhists pursue nirvana, he said.
For Strachan, Scientology’s goal of achieving infinity, even if comparable to Buddhism’s pursuit of Nirvana, is still not grounds for calling Scientology a religion. Rather, he said, it would be evidence against Buddhism’s current recognition. “If the registrar-general has wrongly registered Buddhists or Jains then they should be deregistered,” he argued.
The question of what constitutes “religion” is nothing new; numerous definitions have been proposed and none have been universally adopted (hence the difficulty facing the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court). At any event, it’s no wonder Americans (and others) can’t agree on a definition of “religious” when we can’t first agree on what “religion” is in the first place.