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
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.