Many on the religious right insist on drawing a distinction between freedom of religion and freedom from religion, the implication being that atheism and other positions seen as non-religious are not protected by the first amendment.

Those who wish to draw the distinction must answer the question, who will decide what is and is not religion? To simply answer “it’s obvious” or  “I know it when I see it” is an admission that one is tacitly seeking the job of arbiter and gatekeeper, or at least claiming the right to nominate the job candidates. If no such gatekeeper exists, then one could label as “religion” any view for which one sought first amendment protection. If the distinction does exist, then one must adopt the trappings of religion (at least, that which everyone seems to agree constitutes “religion,” generally mimicking Christianity) in order to claim such protection. In effect, one must engage in deception in order to claim religious protection for any idea seen as unpopular by the powers-that-be. No doubt anyone can easily think of a number of crackpot schemes that have already done this. In many cases this is done to take advantage of tax breaks, but there are other legal advantages to being an established religion. For example, confessing to a bartender is not the same as confessing to a clergyman.

If the of/from distinction does not exist, then the religious establishment in effect surrenders some of its power and would be forced to recognize or even tolerate the growing percentage of people in this country claiming no religious affiliation. They seem to fear this greatly. On the other hand, the existence of a gatekeeper in any form encourages deception, and the risk is that someday he might rule against you. This is admittedly a very small risk, but its existence should be bothersome. My suspicion is that it is not even recognized.

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