Teaching An Old Dog
On Prequels

Defining Religion

91_space_line_dot How do we tell if a system of beliefs should be considered a religion? The answer is not as simple as it first may seem, and the obvious and trivial answers are usually based on either a narrow exposure to world religions, or a metaphysical bias. The tendency for someone who follows a religion to claim that what they practice is “not a religion but a way of life” only complicates the matter. How can we unravel this linguistic knot? 

The question naturally hinges upon what belief systems we consider as religions, and this is no trivial matter. As always, I follow Wittgenstein on matters of language, and take the view of language as a game, and that ‘the meaning of a word is how it is used’. But how is the word ‘religion’ used?

I contend we can illicit some consistent agreement on this from census data asking people to identify their religion. The most common responses from a global perspective are Christianity (33%), Islam (21%), Hinduism (14%), Buddhism (6%), Chinese traditional practices (incorporating Confucianism and Taoism) (6%), and primal indigenous religions (6%), (with honourable mentions for Sikhism at 0.36% and Judaism at 0.22%). Another dozen religions collectively make up less than 0.5%. Only about 16% of people do not identify a religion, and of these people roughly half are theistic but do not identify a specific religion, while approximately 4% are estimated to be atheists not identifying a religion. 

I suggest that any definition of religion must necessarily include all these religions if it is to be at all useful. Critically, this rules out a definition contingent on gods or the supernatural, as Buddhism and Chinese traditional practices require no such elements. In fact, key schools of Buddhism (such as Theravada Buddhism) are atheist in nature, while others (Ch’an/Zen Buddhism) not only discard the notion of gods but the notion of self as well! The tendency for people’s definition for religion in English speaking countries to require supernatural elements in general, and deities in particular, is probably a consequence of overexposure to Christianity.

Perhaps the best general framework for considering the question of ‘what is a religion’ comes from Ninian Smart’s ‘seven dimensions of religion’ who suggests that the more strongly a human system expresses these seven dimensions, the more strongly it qualifies as a religion. This is a solid attempt at providing a framework for a family resemblance term defining 'religion', focussing on seven specific traits:

  • Experiential (or Emotional): a variety of different experiences are expressly connected with the notion of a religion, in particular the numinous experience (of contact with that which is wholly other, be it deity or otherwise), and the contemplative experience of inner unity.
  • Practical (or Ritual): the rituals and practices generally intended to invoke the experience, such as prayer, marching, fasting, pilgrimages, festivals etc.
  • Narrative (or Mythic): oral tales, formal and informal teachings, histories and alternative histories, future predictions and so forth.
  • Doctrinal (or Philosophy): the formal teachings and hence the metaphysics that underpin the narrative element.
  • Ethical (or Legal): formal or moral laws that emerge from the system of belief; essentially the behaviours that correspond to the beliefs.
  • Social (or Institutional): the formal organisational element; multiple people sharing the same general belief system.
  • Material: the physical elements of the religion, such as buildings, icons, art, ritual implements, and also natural features that are considered sacred such as holy cities (Jerusalem, Mecca, Lhasa).

Prior to encountering Smart’s model, I had been working with an alternative definition which was developed here on this blog through discussion with various visitors’ kind enough to share their point of view. The essence of this model was a focus on three primary components:

  • Mythology (or Central Narrative): which corresponds to the Narrative dimension in Smart’s model.
  • Metaphysics: which broadly corresponds with the Doctrinal dimension in Smart’s model.
  • Ethics: which corresponds with the dimension of the same name in Smart’s model. 

To what extent does this ‘accidental’ subset of Smart’s seven dimensions capture the essence of a religion?

I would suggest that the social and material elements can be considered secondary concerns. After all, any belief system will lead to social and material consequences – we consider science as wholly distinct from religion, but it produces institutions (laboratories, universities, research institutes, scientific bodies etc) and materials (radio telescopes, interferometers, archaeological digs, museums etc.). Material elements of religion such as sacred sites can be considered to be a geographic projection of metaphysical elements (since how is a sacred place defined if not metaphysically?), further suggesting that these two dimensions can be set aside to some extent.

(This is not to suggest that Smart was wrong to include them in his model, rather it suggests a more compact representation is possible). 

This still leaves the experiential and practical dimensions. Smart’s notions of numinous or transcendent experiences do seem to be intimately connected with what is considered religion, although it should be noted that Chinese traditional religious practices do not expressly contain this element (although Taoism tends towards it). I believe this is conspicuous in its absence in our prior model for religion. One could suggest that one must have the appropriate metaphysics to have a numinous or mystical experience, but this is surely an error since many people have such an experience prior to beginning to practice a particular religion. Since the experience can be perceived in the absence of the corresponding metaphysical system, this does not appear to be a viable conflation.

The practical dimension occupies an odd space. As with the social and material dimensions, any system of beliefs can lead to practices – science consists in a large part of its experimental and theoretical practices, for example. But if the practical dimension is seen as practices intended to invoke the uniquely religious experiences then we cannot logically detach this element. However, we can arguably conflate the practices intended to produce the experiential element with that experience, at least in terms of producing a compact definition for religion. 

This suggests that our definition is only missing this experiential component. I therefore advance the following compact definition for a religion, drawing from Smart’s model and our own investigations:

A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics, and often relating to numinous or transcendent experiences. 

This definition seems to encompass all the major world religions adequately, and perhaps more importantly excludes belief systems that we would not consider religions such as science (which by Popper’s milestone should not directly include metaphysics, and which does not in and of itself imply a system of ethics) and ideologies (which as political or economic conceptions may contain ethics but do not usually contain a narrative, metaphysics or mystical experiences). 

From this I continue to assert that the domain of religion concerns metaphysics and ethics, and is therefore wholly distinct from science, which (if we agree to uphold Popper’s milestone) contains neither.

What of the objection that what a particular person follows is “not a religion but a way of life”? My suspicion is that the expression of anti-religious sentiments in the twentieth century has corresponded with a new application of the word ‘religion’ as a negative term, and that the above objection is an attempt for an individual to disassociate themselves from the negative connotations. But since the negative connotations almost invariably relate to fanaticism and extremism (which are problematic in any tradition, including science and political ideologies) this approach is disingenuous. I suggest that people in a genuinely free society should never be afraid or ashamed to identify a religion. Besides, surely any belief system can be seen as a way of life – that does not exclude it from being considered a religion. 

The value of this definition depends upon how it is received. While it is doubtful that any single definition of religion will satisfy all people, I am hopeful that sufficient people will accept this as a reasonable ‘best fit’ pattern and I can proceed to more specific philosophical investigations on the topic of religion in the future.

Please share your view! It might be helpful if you also identify your religion(s), or state you do not identify a religion (I would be grateful if you refrain from using ‘atheist’ to mean that you do not identify a religion as this may lead to confusion). Thanks in advance for your participation!

The opening image is Space, Line, Dot by Wieslaw Sadurski, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Comments

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- "I suggest that people in a genuinely free society should never be afraid or ashamed to identify a religion."

Which is why, surely people do "hide" their religocity... Where are these genuinely free socities? We should all move there.

"I would be grateful if you refrain from using 'atheist' to mean that you do not identify a religion as this may lead to confusion."

Not half as much confusion as some of the alternatives, I fear. But we'll see.

Let's take my own stance on these areas and see what falls out:

- In my opinion, my stance most closely resembles a skeptic.

- I am not aware that my belief system comprises any particular mythology or central narrative with a truth value of "white" (to use an earlier post), as I do not believe it is realistic to hold any idea as "true" (and even that belief is subject to modification over time). More generally, then, it depends what one defines as a "myth". For example, are the stories at https://news.bbc.co.uk of which one has no personal knowledge "myths"? What of the ones in the Christian Bible? I choose to assign higher probabilities that it is worth me acting on the basis that the myths on the BBC News site are substantially accurate, than that the myths in the Christian Bible are substantially accurate. Note that I do not believe either source totally.

- Metaphysically, I have not encountered anything that requires me to posit the existence of any being such as the Judao-Christian God. "Small Gods" (in Terry Pratchett's notation) may or may not exist, but I have not knowingly observed their effects. As a skeptic, I elect parsimony: I'll believe in the gods when they throw bricks through my windows :-).

- Ethically (/politically) I emphasise the individual over the group, as groups are comprised of individuals each acting in their then-perceived best interests. My ethical position can best be summarised as "the world and the individuals within it typically do not care one whit about me, my happiness or my survival; where it is to my benefit to co-operate I should do so, otherwise I should do as I choose; and I should take the long view as to what is to my benefit." Note that this view does not suggest that any other individual should adhere to any particular system of ethics, it merely notes that their systems are expected not to be of benefit to me.

- I am not aware of having had any numinous or transcendent experiences.

Hmm. Is Skepticism a religion? Or a non-religion, given that most of the above seems to point to me not having firmly-held views on the areas that you define as being within the area of "religion"?

Neil: I hear Canada is quite nice. :D

Peter:

'Non-religious' seems pretty clear in its scope, don't you think? Or do you feel otherwise?

Thanks for this breakdown! I was really just looking for responses like 'seems okay to me', but this is quite an illuminating look at your belief system! :)

You don't really dig into your metaphysics beyond the issue of theism... is this because you don't have the language to discuss it? It seems strange to me that an atheist (who is not interested in gods) should only explore this part of their metaphysics! :) What about your views on objectivity/subjectivity, absolutes, limits of knowledge, origin beliefs (either cosmological or evolutionary), belief in induction etc?

Is skepticism a religion? Well there is surely no numinous or transcendent experience associated with it, it implies a certain subset of metaphysics, but does not imply ethics. There is a mythology, but only in the most general and muddy sense. I would say no, by this proposed definition at least. :)

"'Non-religious' seems pretty clear in its scope, don't you think? Or do you feel otherwise?"

I feel otherwise :-). You are, in this piece, attempting a definition of religion. Your readers already have an internal definition of religion, and may or may not describe themselves as religious by that term. They may or may not also describe themselves as religious by some other term that may not match their internal definition but was handed to them by (for example) their upbringing if they have not elected to re-examine their labels recently. At this point, there is the question of which of these definitions of religion to use when commenting.

I didn't comment on other areas of my (present, always subject to revision) metaphysics because they didn't appear to be relevant to the topic at hand - and any such comments would be long, and probably be more relevant on my own site. However, a few of shorts to amuse and irritate other readers:

Origin belief: This Universe is "just one of those things that happens from time to time." There is an elegant but presently untestable theory that if string/brane theory is accurate, and if there were one "ancestor" system of tightly-wound strings, then very many universes of about this energy level could occur by chance. It seems a reasonable candidate for raising the overall a-priori probability that we could ever exist.

Induction: I follow Popper - you can falsify, but not verify. Fortunately, my position as a skeptic means that I can view induction as a useful tool in the toolbox without trying to fool myself that "the sun has risen in the East for every day of my life so far, therefore it will rise in the East tomorrow" is true. It's merely sufficiently likely that I'll act on that basis, rather than desperately trying to build a starship to get off this doomed world in the event that it doesn't.

Objectivity: "I" appear to inhabit an internally consistent world, as far as I can tell. "You" appear to exist in broadly the same world; where we have differences in matters of observation of the world, we have thus far been able to resolve them by joint observation, for example of methods of contour-drawing or of the number of large pieces of pizza that you could consume as an undergraduate [aside to other readers: a truly astounding number]. Our interpretations of our observations may be different, but we can generally get sufficiently close for practical purposes. "Good enough for now" seems to me to be a reasonable aim, in general.

Peter:

I take your point about the many options for definitions of religion, which after all is the point of the piece, but I don't quite see why using 'atheist' as short hand for 'I don't identify a religion' would be any more helpful, especially given that the number of atheists who do identify a religion outnumber those that don't by quite a wide margin. :)

As a case in point, census data for the UK has 71.6% of Britain as expressing Christianity as their religion [Source: https://www.religioustolerance.org/uk_rel.htm] while a BBC poll has 40% of Britain as atheists! [Source: https://www.answers.com/topic/atheism] Of course, the poll may not be representative (atheists may have been especially motivated to respond), but having met many Christian atheists (who are usually not willing to identify openly as such, perhaps for fear of verbal attack from both Christians and atheists) I still think that it is not helpful for us to use 'atheist' to mean 'I don't identify a religion', especially given the existence of a fair selection of atheist religions in the world.

I find it especially curious that this additional meaning for atheist seems to be frequently taken for granted, at least in the bowels of the internet, yet hasn't made it into any dictionary I know of yet. Now lexicographers are usually at least 10 years behind trends in language, so perhaps this is just things moving slowly in this department, but I think perhaps that it is somewhat lazy for atheists not to take the trouble to identify as 'non-religious' (or some equivalent phrase) where applicable. :D

As ever, thanks for your detailed response! Much appreciated!

My position is not well developed but it would go something like this:

I see science, religion and philosophy as created and used for the same purpose - to make sense of stimuli. Science is a more grassroots system* while philosophy and religion are more topdown systems. The difference between philosophy and religion is that the axioms in philosophy are (supposedly) open to debate while those of religion are not.

With regards to your view, "seems okay to me". I'm not sure how much ethics is tied into any particular religion seeing as that is quite contentious within each religion (sects) and can usually be transplanted out of the religion.

*What we call 'technology' (if you are dispossed to seperating it from 'science') has always been ahead of 'science'. It's only been in the last two century or so that theories could be said to have pulled ahead of the technics that usually inspired them - and even that is open to debate considering that there isn't even any consensus on theory in the premier science, physics.

p.s. Neil, Chris; everybody seems to point to Canada but if you want to experience liberal capitalism at its 'finest' you should try one of the Scandinavian countries. If you're a radical though, put that high school spanish to good use and check out Venezuela or the Zapatistas in Mexico...

Suyi:

I'm curious as to why you believe the axioms of religion are not open to debate! :) Since religions drift and shift over time, they are certainly open to change, and I believe they are equally open to debate.

Also, I suggest that religions are actually bottom up as well as top down. In fact, the bottom up effect may be more dominant. But this is a matter for discussion at another time, perhaps.

Re: Canada; here in the UK, we're reluctant to suggest that our Scandinavian neighbours might be better than our allies in the Commonwealth, but secretly we know their culture is decades ahead of our own. :D

Thanks for your comment!

Chris wrote: "A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics, and often relating to numinous or transcendent experiences."

I think you are too quick at discounting the importance of religious practice and cultural "ways of life" (such as clothes) that may come along with them. I suspect that daily practice is as important in forming a "religious self-consciousnes" (or "identity") as a certain metaphysical conviction.

This may explain why people find it difficult to describe their "religion": the narrative, some of the metaphysics and most of the ethics are still there, but the practice is almost completely gone i.e. the churches are empty on sunday...

My alternative proposal: "A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology/central narrative (that first and foremost passes on a "story" about the two terms "time" and "human" from one generation to the next), metaphysics and ethics. A religion always specifies a form of practice or ritual that aims to reestablish an individuals place in "the world as such" (incl. her fellow human beings among other entities) on a daily basis as well as in times of existential crisis."

Chris wrote: "(...) more importantly excludes belief systems that we would not consider religions such as science (which by Popper’s milestone should not directly include metaphysics, and which does not in and of itself imply a system of ethics) and ideologies(which as political or economic conceptions may contain ethics but do not usually contain a narrative, metaphysics or mystical experiences)."

I am not convinced that science separates so easily from religion, it certainly does not from philosophy, and Kuhn, Feyerabend and many others (incl. Einstein :) have shown how close the interdepencies are between "how we live, speak, reflect" and "how we investigate what's around us" ... I still suspect that the euro-christian perspective on science may not be universalized too fast if one is also interested to move towards a dialogue with people from non-european cultures and non-monotheistic religions.

What about another definition: "Religion denotes a belief system that relies on a set of axioms passed on through certain canonical texts (that are ordered in a historical sequence indicating "development"), prescribing not only how to interpret and apply these axioms but also which practices to follow in order to change or add anything to these canonical texts."

Chris,

in your recent post on Sen, Dewey et al. you mentioned the respect for the philosphy and its teachers. This respect is fundamental to understanding the positive aspects of religion. My hypothesis is that we perceive as "positive religion" those teachings that are passed on by teachers that in our views played a positive role. In contrast a "unethical" teacher may turn any religious framework in an ideology of hate and violence.

So maybe you need to add the role of teachers to your original three components?

translucy - I note that by your second definition, Neo-Darwinism (to take one example) would count as a religion if taken with any reference on scientific method. Is this deliberate?

This has opened the field somewhat...

"A religion always specifies a form of practice or ritual that aims to reestablish an individuals place in 'the world as such'"

I feel this oversteps its mark, somewhat. This is not obviously the case for Chinese traditional religion, it is highly debatable for some of the forms of Buddhism, doesn't appear to apply to Discordianism and is questionable for atheist variants of religions (such as atheist Christianity) which adopt the ethical stance of a religion but insert a materialist system of metaphysics. For that matter, it does not describe "free range" Christian movements, such as house groups, which generally have no specific ritual element.

Rather than discounting the practical element, I am just wary of a definition that does not cover everything that people currently identify as a religion. Since this is my goal, I must remain focussed on this task for the time being.

"I am not convinced that science separates so easily from religion..."

I'm actually getting to this point. :) I mentioned at the beginning of the week the consequences of enforcing Popper's milestone; I haven't had a chance to work on this post, but it's coming.

Re: your other definition:

---
"Religion denotes a belief system that relies on a set of axioms passed on through certain canonical texts (that are ordered in a historical sequence indicating "development"), prescribing not only how to interpret and apply these axioms but also which practices to follow in order to change or add anything to these canonical texts."
---

This is wholly inconsistent with each and every primal indiginous religion, and is misleading in the case of Ch'an Buddhism. I have to reject it outright, I'm afaid.

Re: teachers

I agree with your point of discussion here (in terms of the importance of teachers in the actual practice of religion), but we surely do not need this in a definition of religion?

PS: I ordered the Sen you mentioned, but it looks like the paperback isn't published until February next year! :)

Best wishes!

"For that matter, it does not describe "free range" Christian movements, such as house groups, which generally have no specific ritual element."

My wife has been in several house churches and groups over the decades, and has yet to encounter one where prayer was not used.

Peter: this is completely fair. I cheerfully withdraw the "free range" Christian point, but I believe the main point still stands.

Peter & Chris,

as may have guessed i am simply trying to add new perspectives to this discussion, so i do accept your comments (or cautionary hints) as valid. Chris' working definition to me is acceptable as basis for further debate. I guess the separation between "science" and "religion" works just as long as we agree on it.

From personal experience, i can only emphasize the critical importance of supposedly "unquestionable" premises, of "unacknowledged" practices, and of teachers/traditions (verbal, symbolical, in writing) in everything humans do or talk about - whatever you may call it.

translucy: I appreciate you pushing at this from different directions - since the definition did not fall over, it may well be sufficient to our task. :) In the next few weeks, I hope to get to the consequences of enforcing Popper's milestone for science - which should be interesting for all concerned. :) Best wishes!

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