What is Religion?

What is religion?

Source: Paul Arps at https://flic.kr/p/cVStDq

Source: Paul Arps at https://flic.kr/p/cVStDq

This is a notoriously difficult question to answer, for a lot of reasons. For one, designating something a religion currently has political implications (it can be a dismissal or critique, or can be taken that way) and even legal ones, as John Oliver recently made clear. For another, the history of that category is fraught. The idea of a religion arose in Europe, where numerous conditions allowed religion to become a specific, identifiable category: the clear lines between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy; the near-universal emphasis in Christianity of allegiance to a single God; and the increasing divisions between church and state and between local customs and religious orthodoxy (citation admittedly needed). Anthropologists have tried to apply that label to different contexts, where practitioners might participate in multiple traditions, where there is no central religious orthodoxy to distinguish between local practices, or where there is no difference between religion and government. Add to this various popular ideas about religion—that it necessarily involves a god or gods, that it necessarily involves the supernatural, that it necessarily involves authority structures—and it becomes hard to come up with a definition that satisfies all of our purposes. However, there are some approaches which I’d like to explore.

During my undergraduate I earned a Minor in Religious Studies (as distinct from Theology), and in this program the general attitude toward the problem was that extension was more important than intension: rather than starting with a rigourous definition of religion and seeing what phenomenon it caught (intension), we would start by gathering together all of the things we already thought of as religion and looked to see what might be said about them altogether (extension). In general, that second approach worked much better for a field of academic study; in general, however, that second approach works very badly when trying to discuss religion outside the field, where what counts as a religion in the first place is often a point of contention. In these cases, some kind of definition might help in order to prevent equivocation.

As a hobby, therefore, I collect definitions of religion in a .txt document on my computer. In this document there are a number of older anthropological statements which are clearly too based on Western ideas of religion to be broadly applicable, and there are other statements which are clearly too based on some particular agenda to be useful, either.* However, I have found a few definitions which have features that I quite like, and I want to share them.

1. The Geertz-James-Irons Approach

William Irons, in “Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment” (link), explicitly combines the more popular definitions of anthropologist Clifford Geertz and psychologist/pragmatic philosopher William James. Geertz’s definition, perhaps the most famous of all definitions of religion, is as follows:

[A] system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with an aura of factuality such that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

I often see this broken into a checklist for ease of identification:

  1. a system of symbols
  2. which act to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men
  3. by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence
  4. and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality
  5. that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

James’s definition, older than Geertz’s, is somewhat less formulaic:

[R]eligion, in the broadest and most general terms possible, . . . consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.

Irons sees something valuable in both definitions, and so combines them:

The common element of religion cross-culturally is a belief that the highest good is defined by an unseen order combined with an array of symbols that assist individuals and groups in ordering their lives in harmony with this order and an emotional commitment to achieving that harmony.

I notice that Irons adds the emotional commitment to achieving harmony, which neither definition includes; this seems important to me, since the belief that there is an order or purpose is distinct from caring about it.

2. Cline’s Approach

While investigating the matter on Google, I found that Austin Cline has created an interesting approach to this question, which seems related to medical and philosophical definitions: he provides a list of features, and the more features a system exhibits, the more religion-like it is. Cline (whose background and credentials I do not know) bases his approach on the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of religion, though his list differs:

  • Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to have a sacred or supernatural basis.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

I think this is an interesting and valuable approach because it prevents us from accidentally defining obvious examples out of the category (losing Zen Buddhism because it has no gods) or from trying to impose certain features onto a worldview or system just to make it work. Although I prefer Cline’s list to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s, I think I still mostly prefer the content of Irons’ definition to either. Among other things, belief in the supernatural is no reliable sign of a religion, since lots of non-religious beliefs pertain to the supernatural; also, not all religions divide between sacred and profane objects or acts.

3. A Synthesis?

Source: Timothy Takemoto at flic.kr/p/2fcwh

Source: Timothy Takemoto at flic.kr/p/2fcwh

I am still not sure what sort of list I would put together. I think Irons’ discussion of an unseen order and an emotional commitment to acting in accordance with that order is integral to what religion is, more integral than Cline’s inclusion of a belief in the sacred or supernatural or an attempt to communicate with the supernatural. I wonder whether to include Geertz’s “an air of facticity”; while that pertains directly to most religions and religious people I can think of, I am less sure that it is reflective of all religion: off the top of my head, I know that via negativa mysticism, Christian a/theism, Zen Buddhism, and certain forms of Hinduism try to avoid that air of facticity, or at least avoid certain versions of such an air. However, the nice thing about the philosophical- or medical-style definition is that not all examples have to have all of the listed features.

I am going to try to come up with such a list; if that attempt teaches me anything, I’ll share it here.

(Of course, this suggests a whole discussion about definitions, the making of definitions, and the relationship between words and reality—that is, perhaps, between categories and things. More on that eventually.)

*Of course all definitions will be based on some particular agenda. This is unavoidable. I guess the issue is whether or not the agenda in question interferes with my ability to create common ground on which I can have a discussion.

6 thoughts on “What is Religion?

  1. You got my attention at about here: “it can be a dismissal or critique.”
    And you had me at: “As a hobby, therefore, I collect definitions of religion in a .txt document on my computer.” (Hah!)

    Gonna let this percolate through my mind.. maybe even come back here with something more substantive to share! 🙂

    P.S. Just cited you on my own more-nascent blog for recommending “Home” and “Gilead.” Forgot to tell you – I read them both! Great best book recs for me – thanks!


      • Whoops… my bad about having already told you I’d read one of ’em.
        Sometimes I get in a mode where I’m (sadly) not finishing lots of the books I read!
        I was in that weird “mode” when you told me about Robinson’s books. I think “Home” helped me “snap out of it,” so I was excited about that!

        RE Home: I just loved the parallel between the overt “prodigalness” of the son and the more covert “prodigalness” of his sister.
        All people are prone to think well of Glory and ill of Jack.

        Would love to hear about some of the things you “saw” in it once you taught it!


  2. Pingback: Sacred Ideas Are Those You Know Are Wrong | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

  3. Pingback: An Early Question about Churchpunk | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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