The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – What is a Religion?
A good example of a vague definition is the tendency to define religion as “worldview” — but how can every worldview qualify as a religion? It would be ridiculous to think that every belief system or ideology is even just religious, never mind a full-fledged religion, but that’s the consequence of how some try to use the term. –Austin Cline- “What is Religion” (December 2018)
The title of this piece is not intended to be provocative of debate on the merits or demerits of the various existing religious beliefs. Rather, it is a necessary continuation of the discussion I commenced in my last essay in this space where a judge of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court ruled that the existing laws in St Christopher Nevis that forbade the cultivation and possession of marijuana for the purposes of supply under pain of criminal sanction were unconstitutional in that they infringed the claimant’s guaranteed freedom of conscience (sc. freedom of religion) and his right to privacy.
I also adverted then to the actuality that Barbados guarantees the identical freedoms to people in its Constitution, although, remarkably, neither document expressly defines the word “religion”. Yet, as Ventose J recognized in his judgment, the principal issue to be resolved in that case was “whether Rastafari is a religion for the purposes of sections 3 and 11 of the Constitution of Saint Christopher and Nevis…”
And while the judge supplied his own research-
Rastafari is a relatively young religion (sic), which has its roots in Jamaica in the 1930s. This development followed the coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia in 1930. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie is God and that he will return to Africa members of the black community who are living in exile as the result of colonization and the slave trade. Rastafari theology developed from the ideas of Marcus Garvey, a political activist who wanted to improve the status of fellow black people –
and the Claimant supplied his own evidence-
The Claimant in his affidavit filed on 31 July 2017 in support of his application by way of originating motion avers that he is a member of the Tewoladi (Begotten) Sons of David, Church of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. He also avers that:
(1) cannabis is a sacred herb to the Rastafari religion; (2) the use of cannabis is integral to his religious experience; (3) cannabis is smoked or burnt in a chalice or pipe and the Claimant would smoke cannabis in the form of a spliff as a religious rite when worshipping at gatherings, which occur every Saturday; and (4) he uses cannabis every day when he gives praise. This practice, the Claimant contends, puts him in a spiritual mood and brings him closer to the “Almighty”. The Claimant further contends that the cannabis herb is also used as part of the burning of incense during sacramental orders and functions of the congregation. The Claimant avers that Rastafari is a recognized religion in many Caribbean countries including Saint Christopher and Nevis and that, as a Rastafari, he believes in the Holy Bible and other holy scriptures including the Apocrypha. The Claimant also avers that cannabis is a sacred herb to Rastafarians as it is used in spiritual rites when worshipping and at gatherings. The Claimant states that he uses cannabis each day when he gives “praises” to the “creator” and that cannabis is a natural God given plant and is used to nourish the spiritual values of Rastafarians-
Ultimately, the point at issue was not thoroughly litigated since the Defendants conceded the point, while noting nevertheless that “free access to cannabis, even to a single community, namely, the Rastafarian community, poses several problems for law enforcement in Saint Christopher and Nevis insofar as the Rastafarian community has not been incorporated under any legislation for houses of worship or incorporated entities”.
In addition, the judge accepted the earlier determination of his learned brother, Benjamin J, who had held in Francis v Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General of Antigua and Barbuda in 2001 that, first, Rastafari was indeed a religion within the meaning of the Constitution-
I hold no reservations whatsoever that Rastafari is a religion within the meaning and context of section 11 of the Constitution and I hereby declare that Rastafari is a religion entitled to protection thereunder…”;
and, second, that “the criminalization of marijuana operate[d] to hinder the applicant and followers of Rastafari in the enjoyment of the sacred herb as part of their religious worship, practice and observance”;
even though he was reluctant to hold the law unconstitutional for this reason-
“…Given the state of medical knowledge, the State is\obligated in the interests of public safety and public health to shield the entire society, inclusive of Rastafari from potential, unknown and uncertain dangers in respect of which answers are still being awaited…”
To revert to the critical question of what constitutes a religion in law, it seems clear that in the absence of a stipulated definition, the answer must be found in the common law. Indeed, this is not as simple a task as it might first appear. Scholars seem to disagree in limine of the very etymology of the word itself. For some, it comes from the Latin “religere” which means “to tie” or “to bind together”, a feature of most faiths. Others contend that its origins lie rather in “relegere”, meaning to “re-read”, connoting the ritualistic nature of most religions.
Nor are the traditional definition sources of great assistance. The Oxford Dictionary defines “religion” primarily as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Merriam Webster gives (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural; and (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance. That there must be some element of the supernatural seems a necessary criterion. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy chooses rather to enumerate the traits of religion.
- Belief in supernatural beings;
- A distinction between sacred and profane objects;
- Ritual acts focused on sacred objects;
- A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods;
- Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods;
- Prayer and other forms of communication with gods;
- A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an overall purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it;
- A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the worldview;
- A social group bound together by the above.
On this basis, contrary to the epigraph, is any world view excluded?