A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Bill O'Reilly: "Christianity is a philosophy not a religion."

Speaking of conservative Catholics, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, like Bill Donohue, loves Christmas because it is a chance to pick ugly public fights. Which, really, is what the season is all about.But his on-air dust-up with American Atheists' Dave Silverman not only made Silverman look good but it forced O'Reilly onto some treacherous ground, I thought, as he made statements like:

"It's a fact that Christianity is NOT a religion. It is a philosophy."

"Roman Catholicism is a religion," he says."Judaism is a religion." But Christianity -- nope.Interestingly, Pope Benedict has also insisted that Christianity is not a religion; rather, it is the truth, and Catholicism is simply the necessary "container" (I forget his exact term) for that truth.But that exalts Christianity, whereas O'Reilly seems to diminish Christianity, as well as leaving it vulnerable to exclusion from the public square on all sorts of levels -- after all, there are no constitutional protections for philosophies, are there?I think the secularists' "war on Christmas" displays is profoundly silly, and sad. But emptying Christmas of any religious meaning to try to win a round in that battle seems self-defeating.In any event, is Christianity just a philosophy and not a religion? Or is O'Reilly preaching heresy here? "Hello, Cardinal Mueller...?"Mediaite has the story. Below is the video of the exchange.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

"...after all, there are no constitutional protections for philosophies, are there?"There are no constitutional exclusions either.

I liked the take at Comedy Central's Indecision blog: "It's also a fact that Bill O'Reilly doesn't understand the definition of the word 'fact' any better than he understands the definitions of the words 'religion' or 'philosophy.'"

Perhaps he's harking back to an early use. In the patristic era, Christianity was often referred to as a "philosophy," indeed as the true "philosophy." That, of course, was prior to the scholasticizing (academicizing) of philosophy, when it was still considered primarily as a "way of life," as Pierre Hadot calls it in a remarkable series of essays and books. But is O'Reilly likely to have read Hadot?

Joe K, you are being wonderfully charitable. But it is an interesting point, one I am in sympathy with -- Christianity as a way of being, a way of life, as well as a way of believing? I still think it's a religion, and that's not such a bad thing. "Spiritual but not religious" is not my motto.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all are religions. All have various divisions and "schools". If O'Reilly wants to call Catholicism a religion and Christianity a philosophy, then Orthodox Judaism is a religion and Judaism is a philosophy; Shiite Islam is a religion, and Islam is a philosophy; and so on.I don't think these are the commonly understood definitions of these terms.Inasmuch as atheism makes assertions about divine beings (that there are none) and an afterlife (there isn't one), and inasmuch as atheism could be profoundly influential on how its adherents live their lives, maybe it is a religion, too.

In Islam, the word "deen" refers to faith practices that establish the relationship with God, and that word we translate into English as "religion." But it would be wrong to use the word "deen" to refer to Islam itself, as a system of beliefs. A similar thing happens in medieval Christianity. The "virtue of religion" refers to the habit of worship or other actions in service of God (Summa Theologia II-II.81.2, c), and Aquinas even collapses all the Jewish rituals into "exterior acts of the virtue of religion."Medieval Christians sometimes used a different word to refer to revealed system of ideas--"lex," or law. Judaism could be the "Law of Moses," Islam the "Law of Muhammad," Christianity the "law of Christ." Apologists and intellectuals from all three argued that their system of beliefs was in accord with Hellenistic philosophy--such as Aquinas, or the Mutazila philosophers in Islam.The association of "religion" with practices, as distinct from intellectual beliefs, has pedigree. I'm not sure that it actually achieves what Mr. O'Reilly was aiming at, though.

Wait till Stephen Colbert gets a hold of this one. Truthiness indeed.

If I remember correctly, even before followers of Christ were tagged with the name "Christians," and long before the terms Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc. arose, those who lived according to Christs message were following the Way. Christ had said: I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:16). And Saul, before he became Paul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. (Acts 9:1-2) This emphasis on incorporating Christ and His teachings into all facets of how one lives ones life is also reflected in the first sentence in the Didache (attributed to the late first century), which reads: There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and the difference between these two ways is great. Perhaps it would have been better for OReilly to have avoided the word philosophy, which has a different connotation in our time, and to have emphasized Christianity as an all-encompassing guide for both temporal and eternal life.

And here I have thought the Bill O'Reilly and Bill Donahue were both speaking ex cathedra.

Wonderful insights and questions, but I take "Chrisitanity" to be making truth claims about the person of Jesus of Nazareth Therefore involving beliefs and not just life-styles or a Christendom sense) and then attempting to follow his "way" based on those convictions. How can that not be a religion unless we use the words in a more ambiguos or pre- scholastic way. Is Buddhism also a philosophy? Hinduism? Shintoism? Wiccan-ism? Native American expressions?

"And here I have thought the Bill OReilly and Bill Donahue were both speaking ex cathedra."Jim,They are if ex cathedra means "from the seat (of one's pants)."

One thing Silverman did was to expose O'Reilly as the arrogant totalitarian that he is.

"...Christianity as a way of being..."David G. --Until I read that I had always thought of the expression "Christianity as the way" as meaning a set of principles or rules -- a "path" as William Collier puts it -- which leads to happiness/fulfillment/a good life. Your expression seems to men that Christianity is a sort of style of living. I suppose that styles have rules, but they're not really exactly the same as rules. Neither are paths necessarily.Could you tell us more about what you have in mind?

In a world where "religion" is viewed as a dirty word, I understand the Christian attempt to flee the word.But Christianity is a religion. There is no way around it. Unless you want to start playing word games.

Obviously, what O'Reilly was trying to do was to argue for Christmas displays in the public square. And in doing so, he argued that Christianity was a philosophy and therefore was not problematic to display in the public square supported by the state (municipal, state, or federal).On the merits of whether Christianity is a religion or philosophy, I think that clearly according to most all definitions, Christianity would be considered a religion.But the issue was public displays of Christmas and he changed the defintion. BTW, that is exactly what John Roberts did in the Obamacare hearing in the supreme court. He said that the mandatory provision of buying insurance was a tax which therefore made it consitutional. It was a bit of sophistry to kick it back to the legislature just like O'Reilly's statement was a bit of sophistry to allow for Christmas displays in public.This whole debate is tiresome though. I have zero sympathy for atheists who pretend that they are offended by Christmas displays and holidays. I also had zero sympathy for the protesters who said a mosque should not be built by the twin towers. I also had zero sympathy for the Taliban when they blew up the rock carvings of Buddha in Afghanistan.We are, or should be, an open and tolerant society and should be inclusive of all expressions of culture and religion. Christmas is rooted in the nativity (notwithstanding the debates around the historicity of that event). It has at least a 1,000 year tradition in a large part of the globe. for 990 years there has been no outcry against it. Most of the outcry comes from people in the USA. Americans would do well to concentrate on the virtues of harmony and community and less on the virtues of individualism and individual rights.And as for the Catholic contribution to this debate, on this board, most Catholics rightly were concerned with Ryan's embrace of Ayn Rand and her brand of individualism. Catholicism has been wary of individualism to the exclusion of community. So bottom line, as they say on the internet....ignore the trolls. These people going around claiming that they are "offended" by Christmas displays in public are trolls.

George D,It would probably be easier for some people "to concentrate on the virtues of harmony and community" if for the last thousand yearsI'm being hamonious here by arbitrarily excluding the first thousandcertain Christians had not used the power of the state to force their beliefs on others, sometimes hacking and burning the bodies even of other Christians for heresy. The first clause of the First Amendment is the fruit of the Founders' meditation on that horrific experience.Of course, nativity displays are harmless in themselves. It is the narrow minds and black hearts of citizens that make them troublesome on public sites. Luckily, there is still plenty of private space on which to set them up.

John:I think that there is no question that the American model of religion and public life is going to be the model moving forward for the West for the long foreseeable future. I think that the Church has recognized this fact (and did repent of its history with respect to persecution in the Memory and Reconciliation) was an important document.I doubt, though, that the presence of nativity scenes on public spaces equates to an endorsement of religion though although that is an arguable point.

I suggest FOX news have a crche on the steps of every building they own .. and then shut up..

Just having watched a lecture series on Plato's Republic (actually, almost done watching it) I got the notion that perhaps philosophers could have created Christianity as a system of control. I haven't taken this idea to far yet, just a hunch so far. Until then, I'll continue to follow it. Turns out it's virtually impossible to disprove the existence of God.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment