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Apparently Christianity is Not a Religion

December 4, 2012

I was going to write about something else tonight, but I have pretty much forgotten about it after seeing a clip from Bill O’Reilly’s show from a few days ago. In it, he is starting on his yearly War on the War on Christmas by debating David Silverman, the President of American Atheists. He starts off with his normal ranting about how atheists are fascists trying to destroy the American way of life, etc., when he makes a statement that neither I, David Silverman, nor the Pope, saw coming: “Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy.” Check it out:

His argument was basically a way to try to deflect Silverman’s argument that government should not be promoting one religion over any others by, among other things, displaying nativity scenes on government property. I personally don’t get too caught up in that debate because, though I am not strongly religious, I find this argument as a distraction from more important things. So rather than trying to debate Silverman’s premise that displaying such scenes is tantamount to promoting the religion of Christianity, O’Reilly flips the conversation by removing the religious element of the debate. If Christianity is not a religion, then promoting it on government property can’t be an issue.

The sheer ludicrousness of this position is astonishing. Not because O’Reilly hasn’t take some backward and wrong-headed positions in the past, but because it is so blatantly wrong. And not wrong in the normal way he is wrong, i.e. promoting stupid ideas, but in the way that it is completely factually incorrect. This video pretty well sums it up:

The key question is, what differentiates a religion from a philosophy? This is actually a more difficult question to answer than I originally though. Without doing more research, I essentially arrived at Potter Stewart‘s definition of porn: I know it when I see it. Further digging, however, led me to this conclusion: both religion and philosophy rely on a core set of beliefs. The difference arises in where those beliefs come from. Philosophy is an active study of problems, relying on logic and an attempt to test ideas against observable reality. This pursuit leads to the development of a set of beliefs, just as with a religion. Christianity’s beliefs, however, are based on dogma passed down through teachings, and a reliance on the presence of a supernatural presence in our every day lives. This requires a certain level of faith, rather than a reliance on pure logic as with philosophy.

That being said, there are elements of any religion which can be extracted and used as the basis of a philosophy. The Golden Rule, for example, could define how one approaches people in every day situations, without a corresponding belief in Jesus as your Savior. Belief in the latter, however, is not philosophical, but spiritual. This is the essence of why O’Reilly is wrong, even more so than usual.


From → Opinion

  1. Wonderful post! It’s always good to catch up on King Pinhead’s pinheadedness.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with both philosophy and religion. As you rightfully point out, they aren’t even close to being the same thing. I would even argue that they don’t have any similarities at all, given that beliefs based on facts and/or reasoned testing are far, far different from beliefs based on faith.
    The two areas do have a great deal of historical overlap, however, which often leads to a vague construing of the two.

    If I am to perhaps interpret Mr. O’Reilly, I would imagine he is trying to make the case that the moral philosophy at the center of Christianity, the religion, is the basis for American supremacy. As best I can recall from when I did watch his show fairly frequently, he is of the mind that all of the Founding Fathers based their designs for our government on Judeo-Christian values. In that sense, “Christianity is a philosophy” might be interpreted as ‘the values and traditions of America are morally Christian, but do not necessarily argue that Christianity, as a religion, is the one true religion’.

    Of course, I agree with you entirely and don’t think that a new definition helps Mr. O’Reilly’s cause very much. If you want to successfully re-brand Christianity as a philosophy, you have to strip away a great deal. In doing so, you might come up with something like the Jefferson Bible, which ignores the proposed divinity of Jesus Christ or his miracles in favor of focusing the work on Jesus’s moral philosophy. Doing so would of course alter the necessity for the majority of Christian traditions, since why reenact the Nativity for just another dead philosopher?

    I guess we could start Socrateaster and drink pretend hemlock …

    • Thanks for the great comment! I think the basis of O’Reilly’s argument probably comes from what you mention with regards to his belief that America’s supremacy is a direct result of its construction on Judeo-Christian values (an assumption which I am in no way willing to stipulate). I suppose you could then make the argument that is “a philosophy.” This has two problems: 1- as has been well-documented, the founders did not use Christianity as the basis of how this country was built; 2- a philosophical approach to the basis of government is wholly different from the practice of a religion, even if the basis of the government is in that religion.

      • To point one, I definitely agree, but we both know that Conservatives, especially, like to pick and choose their own facts.

        As to point two, I agree mostly, but only on the basis of how incomplete such a government founded solely on philosophy derived from Christian ethics would be. It also doesn’t help that the complexity of the modern world only exacerbates that incompleteness even more so.

        Either way, I was just hoping to maybe, kind of, sort of, hopefully find some way that doesn’t make Mr. O’Reilly look like a complete and utter fool. I really like to give people the benefit of the doubt for their idiocy, even when it is a most egregious stupidity.

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