Court Rules: Feminism is Not a Religion

In mid-April 2009, a lower court dismissed a District Court of Manhattan case, in part because the plaintiff’s argument against Columbia University’s Women’s Studies Department rested on grounds that were nonsensical. The view, the court said, that “feminism is a religion,” is obviously wrong. As the Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the District Court of Manhattan reportedly stated:

Although the Magistrate Judge did not reach the merits, it bears noting that plaintiffs’ central claim is that feminism is a religion and that alleged federal and state approval of or aid to Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender therefore constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Feminism is no more a religion than physics, and at least the core of the complaint therefore is frivolous.

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Mr. Den Hollander’s lawsuit argued that Columbia’s program in women’s studies taught feminism that amounted to a religion for a host of reasons, including its promotion of various lifestyle decisions, as well as beliefs “based on the teachings of certain prophet-like individuals, such as Betty Friedan.” Such feminism is irrational, the lawsuit said, because it “propagates the belief that females are divine princesses and men are minions of Satan, a proposition for which there is no proof, only faith.”

Headlined in varying ways (from “Roy Den Hollander’s War on Feminism” to “Lone Fighter of Bigotry Against Men”), reports of the decision are eliciting a wide range of comments. Remarks about the stupidity of the plaintiff’s argument on one hand; and about Women’s Studies as ideological nonsense on the other. Arguments for and against Men’s Studies on one hand (yes, there is a pro-feminist Men’s Studies institutionalized at some institutions); and for and against renaming Women’s Studies “Gender Studies” (and for the view that the case is prima facie evidence for the ongoing need for Women’s Studies and/or Feminist Studies per se) on the other hand. What the debate seems to be less interested in is argumentation about religion itself, yet this is key. And this is especially so when what renders the “core of the complaint…frivolous” lies there.

What is Religion, Anyway?

Of course, not all definitions of religion are “legal definitions.” What is troubling, of course, is that all definitions of religion can be marshaled in legal argumentation, both frivolous and otherwise. Expert witness testimony—in person, or through decontextualized citation of scholarly works—abounds. Feminist critique of marriage, for example, has been quoted in court cases seeking marriage equality by those opposed to same-sex marriage.

We are not in control of how our words will be used. Indeed, ordinary language remarks become part of argumentation whether scholarly or legal; “He was very religious about golf,” for example, became a part of anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s well known and influential definitional strategy in The Interpretation of Cultures. And certainly, Bruce Lincoln’s definition of religion in his work Holy Terrors rejects the idea that astrophysics is religion (on the grounds of the absence of a notion of transcendence); might Judge Kaplan have drawn on those arguments? Of course, Judge Kaplan did not, but he might have cited either point; or litigators might have drawn on these views.

What is scary is that many definitions of religion offered in the scholarly realm could indeed include feminism; insofar as it meets some of the functions of religion. The breadth of functional definitions allows scholars to focus on the ways, say, Marxism or psychoanalysis might serve as religions in 20th- and 21st-century culture. While some scholars (Peter Berger is an example, in his 1969 appendix to The Sacred Canopy, as is Melford Spiro) argue against such functional definitions, others find them useful in classrooms and scholarly argumentation. Is sports a religion, some ask? (Yes, some answer, baseball is. Or NASCAR.) What are quasi-religions? Pseudo-religions?

Answers to questions about what counts as “a religion” or “religion” or even “religious” abound.

As early as 1912, James Leuba was able to catalog 48 different definitions of religion; doubtless one could list many more today. Given this range of possibilities, what definition of religion should we adopt? In trying to decide, we are both chastened and comforted by the words of sociologist Milton Yinger: “Any definition of religion is likely to be satisfactory only to its author.” *

And yet, definitions of religion matter. And not just for theorists in colleges and universities across the globe. Not just for ministers and rabbis and imams and religious functionaries of various sorts. Not just for those who are asked what exactly they mean when they utter the now banal phrase “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” What the word denotes matters to the Internal Revenue Service, for example. And, it matters to the courts that have sought (and continue to seek) to ensure that the United States remains true to relevant Constitutional matters, most especially those of the First Amendment (both the disestablishment and the freedom of religion). Why? Here’s the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Yes, what the word “religion” means in this context matters. The phrase “in this context” is crucial. That there are very real consequences of definitions (themselves social products) is why the word “matters”—sometimes definitions have material consequences.

Legal definitions of religion, like many legal matters, are clarified across time in case law. Over the past several decades, the Supreme Court has addressed itself to the question of what religion “is” a number of times. Decades ago, the Supreme Court determined what the characteristics of religion were that would allow conscientious objectors to stand on the grounds of religion; in its ruling, the Court moved away from requiring institutional participation or allegiance to theism, for example, and instead emphasized a sincerity of belief and an impact on the believer’s life “comparable with or parallel to” beliefs in God. More recently, the Supreme Court has considered whether “secular humanism” is, or is not, a religion. (For a discussion of the various relevant case law see here, and for an analysis of the international relevance of this topic, see here and here.)

The plaintiff in the recently dismissed case was making a specious case rooted in a frivolous legal argument. His views are repugnant. Yet, in raising the issue once again of what religion is, he served an important role. While frivolous and meanspirited, his spewing reminds us that the contest is not done. We remain a nation where not all are convinced by the simple argument that women, too, are fully human and that we, like men, are the legitimate topic of academic inquiry. We remain a nation where it does matter how we define religion. Critical engagement with the various contexts within which we (especially in Western culture but increasingly globally) have struggled to understand religion, both as phenomenon and as a category, is as crucial to the our world as Women’s Studies (and feminist work more generally).

* C. Caniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, W. Larry Ventis, Religion and the Individual, page 6.