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The definition of religion is highly contested. One of the most widely recognized, but by no means the only, definition is that of symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz:
Religion is defined as (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic
Nothing in Geertz’ definition necessitates a supernatural force or agency. There are many, however, who propose that supernaturalism is the defining characteristic of religion, and those that lack it are not true religions. There are at least three problems with this view. First, “supernatural” is a Western concept developed in late Roman and early Medieval Europe (see Saler), and as such it may be inappropriate to apply it uncritically to other traditions. Second, not all traditions conventionally considered religions are supernaturalistic: witness monastic Theravada Buddhism, philosophical Daoism, Neo-Confucianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, many forms of liberal Christianity, and more. Finally, the temptation to discount these traditions as “not true religions” may be circular reasoning that falls prey to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Whittle summarizes the “not true religion” reaction:
It seems a natural response from conventionally bright people encountering an idea they don’t easily comprehend; especially when it’s an uncomfortable one. It’s rather like reading an e. e. cummings poem and wondering why it doesn’t rhyme.
The difficulty in defining religions, of finding some common denominator, is understandably frustrating. Yet it should not surprise us, if we recall that religions are not rationally designed inventions but the products of biological and cultural evolution. Patrick McNamara, in his book The Neuroscience of Religious Experience, writes:
Established religions and their attendant rituals and dogmatic traditions are the result of centuries of work by nature and flawed human beings. They are a collaboration between nature and humanity. They are often not pretty, but they are always, like nature itself, protean, wild, elaborate, and functional.
In response to those who question the appropriateness of the term “religion” for a naturalistic way of life, Paul Harrison, of the World Pantheism Movement, offers a defense both philosophical and practical:
Why call this [Pantheism] a religion rather than a philosophy?
Like Buddhism or Taoism, it is both. It is clearly a philosophy. However, it deals with areas of life – especially our feelings of awe and wonder at the universe and love for nature – which are emotional and aesthetic and go beyond philosophy. These are the proper realm of religion. Unlike straight philosophical systems, pantheism also has its own characteristic approach to meditation and religious ceremony.
Being a religion brings legal benefits. Religions are allowed to perform legal marriage and funeral ceremonies. Philosophies are not.
Religions enjoy special tax advantages – they do not pay tax on their income, and in some countries contributions can be tax-deductible. Philosophies do not enjoy these benefits. These tax benefits will increase the income available to achieve the three aims above.
Finally, Albert Einstein affirms a naturalistic religiosity:
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” Albert Einstein
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