UK Supreme Court: Religion Does Not Require God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom–since 2009, the highest court in the UK–handed down what looks to be a significant decision on the meaning of “religion” in English law. The decision suggests that, for legal purposes, religion does not require a belief in God.

The case involved a couple who wished to marry in a Scientologist church in London. Under English law, marriages performed in a “place of religious worship” are considered valid. Nonetheless, the couple faced a problem. In 1970, an English court concluded that Scientology is not a religion, because Scientology does not hold a belief in God. So, when the couple sought to have their church certified as a place where marriages might take place, the relevant government official refused: if Scientology is not a religion, a Scientologist church cannot be a “place of religious worship.” The couple then sued.

Last week, the Supreme Court sided with the couple. The 1970 opinion was wrong, the court held. Scientology is indeed a religion. For one thing, Lord Toulson’s opinion explained, Scientology does hold a belief in a supreme deity, albeit an impersonal and abstract deity. Anyway, belief in a deity is not necessary. Religion, Lord Toulson wrote, means:

a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system…. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the sense or from science.

On this definition–and Lord Toulson made clear he was not announcing a categorical test for all circumstances–Scientology qualifies as a religion. The court ordered the government to certify the couple’s church as a place where valid marriages could take place.

There’s a lot going on in Lord Toulson’s opinion, and I can’t do it justice in a short post. Three observations, though. First, it seems entirely correct to say that “religion” does not necessarily mean a belief in God. Some versions of Buddhism do not hold a belief in a deity, for example, and it would be very odd to have a definition of religion that excluded Buddhism. I don’t know enough about Scientology to know whether it should be considered a religion, but the fact that it is not conventionally theistic shouldn’t be dispositive.

Second, it seems correct that religion must have some supernatural component. Otherwise, religion collapses into philosophy. Of course, we might protect strong secular convictions in addition to religion. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights protects both religious and secular convictions. But the relevant English law in this case speaks of “religious worship,” not “secular convictions,” and pretty much everybody knows the difference between the two. It doesn’t do any good to pretend a law is vaguer than it is.

Finally, note Lord Toulson’s insistence that religion involves a group of adherents. This is very significant. Religion is inherently communal, and some of the most important benefits the state derives from religion–for example, greater civic participation–depend on religion’s being a group activity. In America, some people have begun to argue for a very individualistic definition of religion, one in which a sole practitioner, following her own inner voice, can qualify as a religion for legal purposes. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected this view, and there are good reasons to do so. I’ll have more to say about all this is a forthcoming paper, to be published next month by the European University Institute. I’ll post more on this subject then. 

The case is R (on the application of Hodkin and another) v. Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Dec. 11, 2013).

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