The HPedia: Religion

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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” fallacyWhittle 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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3 Comments on “The HPedia: Religion

  1. I have been studying religion my whole life both as a seeker and as someone who is curious. I have read thousands of books and articles on religion, books written by social scientists, philosophers, theologians, and mystics (by the way, amongst all that reading the writings of Geertz have stood out for me, so using his definition as a starting point seems to me quite justified). But after all this reading, I would be very reluctant to attempt to reduce the great diversity of religion to any simple definition. Any statement you can make about religion, you will probably find that the opposite statement has merit also.

    One aspect of religion that I think is very important to consider is that most religion deals with the question of the greatest context of our existence and also with the idea of the ultimate internal good. Further, it finds a connection between these two — there is an intimate link between the cosmological and the psychological (this is sometime expressed in terms of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm).

    The question of the ultimate internal good is intimately connected with our ability to govern our life based on our intentionality. In religious mythology we often find a link between the governance of the universe (which is often identified with the regular motion of the heavenly bodies and the cycle of the seasons), and our self governance. In theism, the governance of the universe comes from God; but there are non-theistic versions of the same idea such as the Tao and Nature. Modern science, of course, has made this idea less easy to consider, much less adhere to, but I think there is a way to reconcile the scientific view of Nature to the idea.

    I have been in heated debates with Paul Harrison about his idea that religion is a realm of emotion and aestheticism. I think this is deeply wrong. At its highest level, religion offers an experience that is not intellectual, emotional, or aesthetic; it is sui generis spiritual. This is the experience of nonduality, an experience that the Buddhist call the Void precisely because it has no intellectual, emotion, or aesthetic content. So please think deeply before including any of Harrison’s notions in a definition of religion.

    • “… most religion deals with the question of the greatest context of our existence and also with the idea of the ultimate internal good. Further, it finds a connection between these two …”

      I like this. It reminds me of Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

      Religion is for me the re-ligare of these two experiences.

  2. I really like the quote from Patrick McNamara, which emphasizes the naturalness of religions. I don’t like Clifford Geertz definition. It somehow seems to miss the point. I prefer Durkheim’s definition: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” Durkheim also does not include the supernatural in his definition. One thing I like about Durkheim’s definition is its emphasis on religion as an essentially communal activity. To me this is what separates religion from spirituality. In our modern society I think there is often way too much emphasis on religion as a system of belief and not enough on its social aspects. I also feel Paul Harrison’s definition of religion is too narrow.

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