Joe Carter argues that the Texas Comptroller was wrong to deny tax-exempt status to a Universalist church. Apparently the comptroller has decided that a group cannot be a religion if it doesn't require a belief in a deity.
Simply put, Strayhorn is wrong. In order to prevent abuse of the system, government needs a means of determing what constitutes a legitimate religion. Strayhorn’s "God, gods or supreme being" test, however, is too stringent and stacks the deck in favor of theistic religions.
In the comments he elaborates:
While that is true, the government still has a responsibility to apply the standard fairly. If the government is going to decide that religous organizations are tax-exempt then they shouldn't exclude religions that are clearly "real religions" just because they don't fit into a theistic paradigm.
Joe's discussion is in the context of civil liberties. He believes that the Universalists are being discriminated against on a religious basis. He goes on to say that Christians should stand up for them or we can have no expectation that others will stand up for us.
While I agree with Joe's general point about defending others rights, I think he's put the cart before the horse. Joe states that it's clear that Universalism is a "real religion" but he doesn't explain how he came to this conclusion.
And I've got to say that I'm not at all convinced of his point either. Granted, I've not studied the Universalist church in detail, but I've got to say that in conversations with former Universalists I've always gotten the impression that the Universalists are more like a philosophical society than a religion. (And a society that's not all that keen on actually finding answers to their questions at that.) What exactly about Universalism make it a relgion?
Now let me be clear: I'm not saying that Universalism isn't a relgion. For me this a matter of first impression. I've simply never considered this question before. However, as I look at the issue, I find I'm not convinced of Joe's position. I think we can all agree that belief in a deity is prima facia evidence of the presence of religious beliefs. (But not always evidence of an organized religion.)
Does it follow, however, that the absence of a requirement to believe in a deity is evidence that a religion does not exist? I'm uncertain on this issue; however i must say that my gut feeling on the issue is to say yes.
So, here's my question: If you don't have to believe in a deity to be a religion, what, if anything, do you have to believe in?