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Vol. V • 1982

What Is Religion?
Jerry Bergman

A prominent concern of educators in both public and private schools, colleges and universities is academic freedom. Academic freedom is permission for instructors to teach what they feel is the truth about reality in an intellectually honest and reasonable way. However, a conflict over academic freedom has recently emerged between proponents of secular humanism and those who accept the Biblical or traditional Christian world view.

The Christian view is based on belief that God made mankind in His image, and that through the Scriptures He communicates to us principles, concepts and data needed to construct an accurate understanding of ourselves, others and our world. Secular humanism is based on the belief that God is a myth created by man as a projection of his own mind, and that the mind of man is the final arbiter of morality and the only source of information about ourselves and our world.

In the public schools, secular humanists are often allowed to spend a great deal of time presenting their position to students. On the other hand, Christians are discouraged from presenting their position because, it is felt, they are teaching religion. Many educators assume it is illegal to teach from a Christian perspective because this is a violation of separation of church and state. In this controversy, the position of the secular humanists is thought of as nonreligious and the Christian position as religious. Thus, since the humanist's position is labeled nonreligious or secular, it can be taught, and the other side, because it is labeled religious, cannot.

For example, many teachers feel it is legal to present arguments against creation and in favor of evolution. It is often considered inappropriate though, to criticize the theory of evolution, let alone present the creationist position. Rarely do high school or college textbooks discuss the many criticisms and serious problems in evolutionary theory, although this may be changing. Labeling creation as "religion" and thus condemning its teaching is problematic because it is very difficult to specifically define "religion." Robertson (1977:365-366) notes that:

Robertson concludes with a functional definition of religion as "a system of communally held beliefs and practices." This definition would include what is normally viewed as the scientific perspective" or scientism as well as secular humanism.

Yinger (1970: 6), the eminent sociologist of religion, contends that "there is no sharp dividing line" between the religious and non-religious, and thus there can be nuclear definition. Bellah (1964:358) notes that "religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate condition of his existence." This definition certainly extends the concept to cover non-theistic philosophies of life such as materialism, naturalism etc. In the same vein Opitz (1981: 740) has made the following statement regarding the meaning of religion:

Robertson (197?: 371) notes that "all societies need" some shared set of beliefs. Although religion fulfills this function, other belief systems may be functionally equivalent. Many such belief systems have been developed. Examples might include fascism, communism, the "hippie" or counter culture movement, secular humanism, scientism, the so-called Aquarian Conspiracy, and even psychotherapeutic systems. Some sociologists believe that these and other beliefs fulfill the function of religions so well that they can be regarded as "religions."

Robertson notes that many belief systems which are not traditionally regarded as religions, are clearly such. For example, Communism has a founding prophet (Karl Marx), a sacred text (the works of Marx, Engels, Mao and Trotsky), saints who were martyred for the cause (Che Guevara shrines (the tomb of Lenin in Moscow), and claims of access to ultimate truth. Communism also regards all other views as false. For this reason, it is hostile towards other political parties and religions. Communism also claims to be able to explain suffering, is future oriented, and offers a vision of the better life based on its own moral command.' "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Communism also has missionaries in the field who work to convert the world to its principles and, according to Robertson, (197?: 371) "the experience of conversion to communism can be similar to conversion to a new religion."

Given this vagueness, Yinger concludes that religion "can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with [the] ultimate problems (the problems of origins, the purpose and meaning of life, what is right and wrong, etc.) of human life." Certainly evolutionary secular humanism would be a religion according to this definition.

For the humanistic and liberal establishment to label ideas which are counter to their general world view as "religious" and thus off-limits to teachers is both unfair and pernicious. Virtually any belief can be labeled "religious." It is generally considered appropriate for schools to teach 'thou shalt not steal, lie or murder," but inappropriate for them to teach thou shalt not commit adultery" or take the name of God in vain." The first three prohibitions are not considered religious, but the last two are. Yet the above are all part of the most basic religious law known to the Western world, the Ten Commandments. Many concepts and most moral precepts usually taught in the school have a religious origin. Included would be the goal of treating others as one would like to be treated, the need to take an occasional break from one's work, to be balanced in all things, and the desirability of being fair to all people

One of the most ambitious causes of the liberal establishment in recent years has been to insure equal rights for all peoples. Yet this idea was espoused as a religious goal in the writings of the Christian Scriptures almost 2,000 years ago. Before the current equal rights trend, this idea would probably have been considered religious and therefore could not have been taught in the schools. Now that the liberals espouse this cause, it is no longer seen as a religious, but a secular idea. Thus, we can now teach the Biblical concept of racial and individual equality, dignity and worth. There is in all this something that is deeply inconsistent and unfair.

Bellah, Robert. Religious Evolution, American Sociological Review. Vol.29, No.3, June 1964, pg. 358-374.
Opitz, Edmond. "Perspectives on Religion and Capitalism" The Freeman Dec. 1981, pg. 740.
Robertson, Ian. Sociology. San Francisco, California. Worth Publishing Co., 1977.
Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970.

"What Is Religion?"
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