Problems for the non-believer? Defining religion and non-religion

Various legal definitions of belief have emerged recently from parliaments and at least one law court in the UK. Each causes problems, especially for many of those with no religious belief. These definitions have been undertaken in good faith (a surprise use of the term, perhaps). The wish is to extend and better protect the legal rights and openings of those who hold religious and non-religious positions. This is completely commendable as an aim. But, problems may lurk beneath.

The Equality Act of 2010, in guiding local authorities and public bodies as to duties in relation to equality matters, lays down a pair of definitions on religion and belief which are hugely problematic. It defines religion as to include a lack of religion, and belief as to include a lack of belief.

  • “Religion means any religion and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion.”
  •  “Belief means any religious or philosophical belief and a reference to belief includes a reference to a lack of belief.”

A wag might suggest that these may constitute the greatest oxymorons in the history of legislation. The Act then adds, in the jargon of modern legislators, that:

  • a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons who are of the same religion or belief.” [1]

 In this, a “protected characteristic” needs defining. The Equality Commission provides guidance to understand this provision stating:- “Generally, a belief should affect your life choices or the way you live for it to be included in the definition.”[2] Here you start to see the beginning of the problem. To obtain protection for religious of belief human rights, the citizen has to prove that a belief affects your ‘life choices’. There has to be something there, some equality attribute, philosophy or whatever, that you can point to and say – yes that is what I hold to, and it changes the way I live.

Now, this may be fine for humanists. It may be fine for freethinkers and rationalists. They all have philosophical positions which define their lives. It might start to edge towards an issue, though, for atheists and agnostics; here you have an absence of belief starting to enter, though more for the agnostic than for the atheist perhaps. At a pinch, the case of those two under the Act is probably okay.

But what of the vast majority who are completely and utterly indifferent to religion or belief – those who hold to nothing in their lives in regard to faith or any philosophy whatsoever? There is a great deal of research out there now which suggests that a very large number of people live their lives as if they hold to vague and uncertain beliefs, including contradictory positions, or to no belief or philosophy, and are quite content with this. These go by terms like ‘the liminals’ and those of ‘fuzzy fidelity’.[3] Moreover, there are those – as yet poorly researched – who may be interpreted as indicating that they think the world is better off being free from the need to hold to any beliefs at all; they are the ones who think the decline of religion does not create a space to be filled, but rather one to be allowed to fade away.

The Scottish Parliament has added another layer of definition – in deciding who may be recognised to conduct marriages and civil partnerships. It allows organisations when defined as “religious or belief” bodies to be so recognised according to the following principles:

“religious or belief body” means an organised group of people—

(a) which meets regularly for religious worship; or

(b) the principal object (or one of the principal objects) of which is to

uphold or promote philosophical beliefs and which meets regularly

for that purpose”[4]

Then, there is Hodkin-Calcioli case – a young couple who were granted an appeal against an earlier decision not to allow them to marry in a Scientology Church in London. This case, which never applied to Scotland (where there Scientologists can have their own wedding already), was based on overturning the longstanding definition of a religion as requiring belief in something supernatural. To remind you, in the judgement, Lord Toulson (with Lords Neuberger, Clarke and Reed agreeing) in the Supreme Court stated: “By spiritual or non-secular I mean a belief system which goes beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science. … 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 senses or from science.” [5] This goes further than the equality legislation in actually trying to define what it is to be in a religion. In a way, it introduces ‘fuzzy fidelity’ into law.

The waters get muddier. But once set off on this track, the next step must be to define ‘apathy’ and ‘indifference’ regarding religion or belief. It seems that belief in something is now the important criterion for defence of equality rights. To qualify for protection under the law, a citizen has now to prove “a protected characteristic” that is shared with others. Those who are indifferent to religion may not qualify. Those who a have personalised, fuzzy, contradictory ideas, which may change with the season, the weather or personal mood, may be liable to be discriminated against. They may not hold a belief, or be unable to demonstrate that they do, which defines their position and that of others. Do those who don’t believe in any religious or non-religious position have no rights? That is the definitional problem. Why shouldn’t the citizen with no view on religion or non-belief whatsoever be less well protected?

In addition, there is a problem of respect. I have studied people who lose religion in some detail, in Scotland and in the rest of UK, Canada and USA. The “nones”, as they are called in the USA, are the fastest growing religious category in the world. In 2011, 37.5 per cent of Scots said they had no religion. The point about losing a religion, about rejecting belief, is that the vast majority are not substituting one thing for another, but rejecting belief. Accepting what somebody says is their life stance, which is a useful phrase used by some researchers, is the foundation for research in religion. If somebody says to me “I am a Christian”, I believe them and accept their self-definition. Equally, if somebody says “I am without a belief or faith or religion”, I accept the position accordingly. I think we need to respect that, and to interpret those who self-describe as an atheist or agnostic or humanist or skeptic or rationalist, or all or some of these which they frequently do, or to none of these (which applies to the majority of no religionists), then I accept those definitions too. There is a need to get beyond the straitjacket of the new legal positions, and think afresh about this booming category of people of no religion.

The biggest religious category of people in Scotland is people who are broadly indifferent to religion in their lives. They live their lives effectively devoid of religious engagement or practice. Only 7 per cent of the Scottish people attend church on a given Sunday. A recent 2014 report found in a survey that only 7.4 per cent of its respondents regarded Scotland as “a Christian country”.[6] One of the problems about studying religion is that there is an analytical tendency to raise religion to a higher active status in society than it effectively holds. There is a need to recognise that the majority of people are largely religiously disinterested and for many completely apathetic.  They are secular, but do not hold to any “secular belief”.

Setting off on the road to defining religion may have seemed like a smart move. But, as a colleague of mine, Dr Jane Mair from the School of Law at Glasgow University, has said, there is a reason – arguably a good reason – why religion hasn’t traditionally been defined. And we may be starting to see that reason now. Now any problem may be magnified by definition, not clarified and extended.

[1] The Equality Act (2010), Part II, Chapter 1, 10.1, 10.2 and 10.3.


[3] See my earlier post on this at

[4] Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 chapter 12 (4)(a):


[6] Anthony Allison, Faith and Belief Scotland: A Contemporary Mapping of Attitudes and Provisions in Scotland(Edinburgh University/Scottish Government, 2014), p. 36.

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