In ‘news we should definitely all take seriously and not just giggle about like I did for a good five minutes’ news, Pat Robertson has decreed that Islam is not a religion, but rather it’s “demonic,” “a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination,” and “an economic and political system with a religious veneer.” So putting all of those images together, Islam is made up of violent commie demons running around in tshirts that say “I’m a religion – ask me how!”
Again, it’s hard to take this decree seriously, consider Robertson didn’t consider the Church of Latter Day Saints a religion until one of their ranks got the Republican nomination for President, a hermeneutical method I’ve never read in any textbook on religious studies. So I’m not really clear what methodology he’s employing to judge what is and what is not a religion.
The question of what is and is not a religion is a complicated one, and although there are lots of reasons why academics develop different definitions of religions, in terms of politics and public discourse, I see little reason not to rely on the ‘do unto others’ rule as applying to religion – something is a religion if the people in it say it’s a religion. This obviously gets into problems when we get to issues like taxes and tax exemptions – obviously we don’t want to give people an out on paying their taxes by claiming everything is a religion.
At the same time, though, there are some good arguments to be made that these legal exemptions are so unfairly allocated that these laws need to be overhauled. As I’ve talked about before, in most states, tithing (a Christian tradition) is tax exempt, but zakat (a Muslim tradition with a similar history and philosophical justification) is not. The argument for tithing being tax exempt is that the churches that receive these tithes use them for charitable purposes that benefit the community, but the oversight on how churches use tithes is very poor, and more to the point, zakat serves the same purpose for another religious community, so it’s unclear why it shouldn’t be tax exempt, as well. Or, alternatively, no participants of any religion should be allowed to lower their tax responsibility by paying money to their religious community.
Whether Robertson is aware of it or not (and I suspect, being an educated man, that he is), this debate of ‘real’ and ‘not real’ religions has been used historical to limit the rights of certain communities. John Locke argued that Catholics, Jews and atheists shouldn’t have the right to vote, Catholics because they swore allegiance to the Pope, Jews because they cared more for their own community than the interests of the state, and atheists because they had nothing they could swear an oath to. In the nineteenth century, both in the US and Britain, claims of Papistry, the slovenly obedience to the Pope found especially among lower-class communities of Catholics, was used as an explanation to deny them voting rights or political office. And as I talked about in my Six Things Not to Say about Religion post, the idea of the Mystical East of All Things Mystic arose out of imperial Orientalism, and was used to defend Western rule, as demonstrating that Asians were too simple-minded to rule themselves effectively.
As you might have noticed, none of these issues with ‘not real’ religions are purely about religion, either. Indeed, claiming something isn’t a ‘real’ religion is often used as a cover for racism and classism (and now, for the communities that have accepted women in leadership, sexism – this became particularly clear in the recent debates about women bishops in the Church of England, where opponents made regular claims to wanting to practice ‘traditional’ Anglicanism. Big talk for a religion founded by a horny king.).
And that’s where Pat Robertson saying Islam isn’t a religion stops being funny – unfortunately, in the world we live in today, a rich, straight, white man declaring what is and isn’t a religion should be read as racist and classist. Not only is it not his place to pass judgment on the beliefs of a billion and a half people, that he feels he has the right to demonstrates very dark and very sad about the world.
 And to be fair, whatever his method, he’s obviously not applying it across the board, since he also believes that President Obama is a Muslim, so since a Muslim has run for President, clearly Islam is a religion? Or maybe they have to run as Republicans?