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Religion: A Definition

Posted by CommunitarianKevin , 05 April 2012 · 289 views

This was something typed up by a fellow Religious Studies Major and friend of mine. He is a Religious Studies major, Linguist, and Political Science major. He will be persuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I have always liked his work so I post this paper when ever I can. If you are interested in religion it is a good read. Hope you enjoy.

Religion : A Definition
by Anthony Meyer on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 4:50pm

It has been an active pursuit spanning more than two centuries now to discover and analyze a theory of religion which could be used universally, with a descriptive function, to serve as a foundation for a dialog about religion and how it relates to the human experience. It has been a noble pursuit, to my eyes, for definitions are incredibly important to understand one another, and understanding is something absolutely essential when it comes to a dialog about religion. It seems that at least in America, religion is an inherently emotional topic, and people tend to make the stakes of these dialogs very high (and with good reason). Thus, finding a universal definition for the term "religion" is not only a noble task but a useful one as well.

However, despite the goal's nobility or usefulness, it has become a popular trend in the field of religious studies to concede a defeatist attitude about a universal definition of religion. Instead, the ideologies of the liberal "intellectual" have risen to power declaring that such cannot be found, and where once we valued systematic interpretation and the scientific approach we now value something wholly different: tolerance. Now I would be the last person to argue against tolerance in social practice. I agree with my forefather when he said, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782). That said, it is a very different thing altogether to advocate tolerance in language. Tolerance in language necessitates inclusion in definition which renders language meaningless. That is, if we are to be tolerant and open minded about how a word is defined, we must then concede that the number of things which may be included under the umbrella of that word is constantly increasing ad infinitum until the word comes to mean anything and everything, and thereby means nothing. Not only does such a linguistic tolerance do injustice to language, but it also does an injustice to its subject. As a case in point, our subject here, religion, cannot be called just anything for there are certain things which religious people themselves protest that they certainly are not; a nation or political system, for example.

Therefore, in that vein I would like to pick up where the greats of religious studies left off, and in so doing cut off the liberal intellectuals who followed them in their wrong direction. I speak in reverence, of course, of Clifford Geertz. To my eyes, his "thick" description of religion was, and remains to this day, the closest we as scholars of religion ever came to realizing the universal definition of religion. There are certain, specific things which Geertz and I disagree on, which will be assessed below. Yet, on the whole, most people, even his religious subjects, could easily find truth in his work, and I feel that in the field of religious studies that is the true pay-off: the work must be agreed upon by its subjects. Without this, the study has not been a scholarly pursuit of the "other's" perspective, but rather a twisted and perverted view of one's own perspective put on display to stroke one's own ego, a sort of "intellectual m********ion." As I have said, Geertz made great strides in this way. However, he had his shortcomings as I certainly will. Given below has no pretense of being "gospel," but I do hope that it can be seen is a next step in understanding religion and how it functions in the human experience. Along these lines, I'd like to close this introduction by quoting Newton, "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."


I suppose the simplest way to begin is to declare outright that I believe that Geertz was correct when he portrayed religion as a cultural system. For Geertz, lots of things create a society's culture: economics, politics, art, and not least of all religion. Thus, all of these things are cultural systems. This may seem like common sense, but believe it or not, this was a revolutionary theory at the time. Far more common was the idea that religion was not a producer of culture alongside these other things, but rather religion was a product of these other things. Marx, for example, famously claimed that religion was a product of social class struggle. Durkheim believed that religion was a product of the creation metaphors for the society as a whole. Indeed, Geertz was one of few voices in the field to finally bring religion up to its proper place.

However, Geertz makes things, to my eyes, far more complicated than need be. He gives a terribly specific, 5-point description of religion which is brilliantly argued, point by point, but really only serves to alienate his subject as he goes on. I am relatively certain that this alienation was not intentional of Geertz, but rather unavoidable given his worldview. For my part, I present here a 3-part description of religion in hopes that it will not alienate my subject or turn religion into something it is not.

A religion is:
(1) any social group of
(2) individuals who are psychologically dependent upon beliefs which are
(3) based on faith.

Each of these parts will be taken below, in Geertzian fashion, point by point.

1. Any social group: Immediately it may seem that I have offended some. Especially in America, the religious experience is characterized as a uniquely individualistic experience. The Evangelical Christian is encouraged every Sunday to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Even more problematic is the practice of the religious ascetic who (like my namesake, Saint Antony) leaves the society to live alone in devotion to their faith. Asceticism is not an uncommon aspect of religions and certainly not a uniquely Christian one. The life cycle of every person in Hinduism holds that after one has reached a certain point they are to become "forest dwellers," living outside of the village in a state of constant study of the Vedic texts.

Given these seeming contradictions, how then can I claim that religion is a decidedly social subject? To this question, I respond in kind: How is it that we have heard of Saint Antony? If Saint Antony was a true, absolute hermit with absolutely zero contact with the outside world, how would we have heard of his exploits, however fanciful their details? The fact is, although Saint Antony certainly did live outside the boundaries of the cities, that he left and stayed way so long only made him more entrenched in the social group. All this is just "pretentious-speak" for a simple fact, Saint Antony was famous. Now, just how separate are famous people from society? Would their fame exist without a social context. Simply stated, no.

As for the Hindu "forest dwellers," I have dishonestly left out an important detail. A man or woman only becomes a forest dweller if he or she lives long enough and with enough financial security to afford to do so. If their offspring are not independent enough to provide for the family on their own, the Hindu senior simply never "retires." Given the known poverty of this country, it should be little surprise when I tell you that it is far more common the case that a man or woman should die before ever realizing that ideal final stage. If they do, however, the sheer difficulty in attaining that position makes them highly honored and respected within the society they claim to leave. That alone makes a similar case as the one for Saint Antony above, but the reality is actually even less fanciful. In theory, the person goes and inhabits the forest alone in religious devotion, but in practice they usually just study diligently at home in the village.

Risking troubled waters, I now must assess this "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." For this I raise nothing more than what many Evangelical churches claim themselves. A popular Evangelical saying states the following, "Experience God, not religion." To this saying I supplement that this "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," should anyone actually ever truly attain it, is not a religious practice but rather a belief and practice of the individual in the realm of theism. We shall see, however, and I will make it clear here now, that theism and religion are certainly not tied at the hip. You can have one without the other. We will see that more specifically in section three.

In short, a religion is not a religion without some sort of social construct, and by social construct I mean that there are understood behaviors and beliefs which are valued or discourage by the "in-group." A personal relationship with Jesus is highly valued in the Evangelical social group, which is why they make such a spectacle of the "personal testimony" of their conversion stories or struggles in their individual lives which God has helped them overcome. On the other hand, the eating of pork in Jewish social groups is a common and simple example of a behavior which would have a social cost on the perpetrator. That religion is so entrenched in the social aspect of the human experience is actually probably more a surprise to the atheist than the religious among you. After all, the ten commandments were nothing if not a record of what was considered socially valuable or stigmatized at the time they were authored, and even the atheist will concede that at least a few of these commandments are consistent with social regulations still in use today.

2. Psychologically Dependent upon Beliefs: Here it will be significant to differentiate what I mean by psychological as it is opposed to intellectual. The former, psychological, refers solely with the realm of human instinctual feeling and emotion. When we feel hunger, lust, or fear (for but a few examples), we are experiencing that instinctual psychology of the human species which requires of us to protect and preserve ourselves. When we feel joy, fulfillment, or hate (again for but a few examples), we are similarly experiencing the emotional psychology of the human experience which has been born out of our interactions with each other. The latter term, intellectual, refers solely that to the realm of ideas and beliefs. These are mental constructs and how we feel about these beliefs is considered something entirely separate from the belief itself. To this intellectual category we will return in the third part of this work.

Psychological so defined, I must now make clear what I mean by "dependent." It will be hard for me to describe this part, again, without sounding offensive. I shall try my best, however, because I personally do not feel that psychological dependence is a "bad" thing. At the very least it is understandable, and at the most it can often be commendable. I view the term "dependent" in much the same way as I'm sure most people would; unable or willing to do without (something). Here, the analogy of the drug addict is, unfortunately, the best to display this point. Only accounting for the human mind's needs, the human mind does not (at conception) require cocaine, for instance (unless the mother was using during pregnancy, which offers an interesting parallel). However, should the human eventually use cocaine and become addicted, then and only then does the human mind biologically begin to need cocaine. This is what is meant by the term "addiction," a psychological dependency on a substance.

In the case of religion, the "substance" the religious individual is addicted to differs as widely as there are religions in the world. To serve the ends of explanation, however, two will be listed here in summary. First, I must approach my main audience, the Evangelical Christian. With this subject, his mind is either unable or unwilling to do without the knowledge that there is a deity watching over them and the world. For them, this is a satisfying and easing psychological view. When so believed, the world has a certain order (as is so important to Geertz) that makes the mysterious explainable, the tragic endurable, and moral ambivalence understandable. Should this view be undermined (as we will discuss in the final section), we would expect the religious man to respond emotionally and instinctively. And indeed, as any militant atheist would tell you, the Christian in debate often becomes very heated indeed. What the militant atheist would be less inclined to tell you is just how heated he becomes for similar reasons (His worldview too, in debate with a Christian, is being severely undermined. To this we shall return).

As for my second subject, I will take the curious case of the devout Buddhist. Buddhism, as Gautama taught it, is a strictly atheistic and anatta religion. Atheism can be summarized briefly as the ideological position that characteristically lacks a belief in a deity. Anatta is defined similarly as the ideological position which lacks a belief in the soul. Curious, then, is it that Buddhism should refer to itself without reservation as a religion. However, this is less curious when we recognize that religion and theism are not tied to the hip, to which we have already referred. Here, a Buddhist replaces the belief in a god or a soul with other equally psychologically satisfying (for him) beliefs; Dukkha (suffering) and one's release from Dukkha by means of Nirvana. I should like to make it perfectly clear here that I am absolutely NOT saying that Dukkha and Nirvana are the Buddhist's gods, but merely that they are serving the same psychological function as God does to the Christian. It is important to notice that same function does not dictate same thing. I can use the heel of my boot to drive a nail into a wall, but this does not make my boot a hammer. Just as much as we are making important the definition of religion as distinctive from other cultural systems, it is as important to keep distinct differing beliefs and terms, especially in such a controversial subject.

Returning to the subject of the Buddhist, the ideology of Dukkha as the simple reality of the universe and Nirvana as an ultimate process of salvation from that suffering can, thus, obviously be seen as serving the same satisfying and easing psychological effect as the Christian God. It is no wonder, then, that the Buddha is always depicted with a serene look upon his face. The suffering of the world is of no more concern for him; he no longer suffers from it nor adds to it.

3. Based on Faith: This is the intellectual aspect of religion. Already I will have perhaps made the militant atheist angry for, to the stereotypical atheist, to declare anything that religion does as "intellectual" implies that religion is not, as he believes, "absolute nonsense." And, indeed, this is precisely the implication I hope the reader to draw. Religion is neither irrational, nor illogical, nor unintelligent. To these conclusions we will arrive shortly. For now, allow me to, yet again, properly define my terms.

Faith, as I see it, is abductive reasoning without the requirement of deductive or inductive reasoning. Yes, I realize how unhelpful it is to define a term with even more confusing ones. However, I hope to make these terms clear, and in so doing, I believe they will be very helpful in forming my argument. The former term, abductive reasoning, is best depicted, to my eyes, by the following example from Wikipedia, "For example, the lawn is wet. But if it rained last night, then it would be unsurprising that the lawn is wet. Therefore, by abductive reasoning, it rained last night." With this example there are a great many other possible explanations for why the grass would be wet (some neighbor kids had a super-soaker fight, you accidentally left the sprinkler on all night, etc.). However, to come to any more narrowed (deduced) set of options necessarily requires abductive reason's deductive counterpart.

"Deductive arguments are attempts to show that a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or hypotheses. A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion does follow necessarily from the premises, i.e., if the conclusion must be true provided that the premises are true. A deductive argument is sound if it is valid and its premises are true" (Wikipedia). For example, all items with a density less than 1 g/ml will float in water, a ping pong ball has a density less than 1 g/ml, therefore a ping pong ball must float in water. Inductive reasoning is a bit like deductive reasoning except it begins with a premise which is, at the very least, generally accepted as fact (although this is never stated without a doubt), and the conclusion usually reflects the premise in absolute terms. For example, all the swans we have ever seen have been white, therefore all swans are white. While abductive reasoning has a known ending and the beginning must be presumed, inductive reasoning has a known beginning and a presumed ending. Therefore, if either is to be logically complete, deductive reasoning, which focuses on making valid steps from a premise (beginning) to a conclusion (ending), must bridge their gaps.

In short, faith is satisfied by a simple theory, belief, or ideology as long as it could possibly have produced the reality before them. No other evidence or system of logic need be applied or even taken into account. Defined this way, when I say that an individual's beliefs are based upon faith, I am in fact saying that his beliefs need only be justified using abductive reasoning. To the mind of the religious man, this is more than enough proof and once this perspective "lens" has been established in an individual anything and everything can be seen as further proof of that unknown premise of abductive reasoning. This is precisely what Geertz is describing when he speaks of the "religious perspective" as: "If one is to know, he must first believe." However, I disagree with Geertz in his view that the realm of common-sense and practical act are the paramount human experience, which implies that religion is always secondary. There is, in my experience, a very real power in religion to shape the "lens" of man so that the real world is instead seen as a manifestation of the divine all the time. Geertz, of course, knows the power of religion to change an individual's view of the real world as divine, but he appears to insist that even the most religious of men do not view the world as religious even a majority of the time. From what I have seen of religions, it seems to me that this dominant religious perspective is absolutely attainable and was probably the norm in the Ancient Near East.

As before, I am now again faced with the very real possibility that I have offended the religious among you. If I may respectfully retort, how is it that the religious man would typically define faith? Would it be inaccurate to assume a definition somewhere along the lines of what Kahlil Gibran says, "Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof."? Here, faith is considered beyond the petty burden of proof. Faith is considered superior, and indeed, for the religious man faith is absolutely superior to proof. In so saying, then, is it really inaccurate to define faith as this dispensation of proof? For, in reality, this is all that my definition claims; faith is above proof and human reasoning. It is, by definition, something beyond the comprehension of man.

To illustrate this point specifically, let us take up the Buddhist again. The ideology of the Buddha requires an unquestioned belief in the concepts of Dukkha, Nirvana, and yes even reincarnation (despite the lack of a soul to be transported from one body to the next). As far as deductive or inductive reasoning is concerned, neither seems to have been employed, not even by Gautama himself. Instead, the authority of this knowledge is based upon a rather mystical revelation under a fig tree after an unnatural time to have been without food or water. To the Buddhist, this knowledge and "myth" is more than enough to substantiate his whole worldview. In the same way, if I may take up respectfully the case of the Christian, his ideology requires the unquestioned belief in a god which can neither hear nor see nor eat nor smell; nor can he be heard, nor seen, nor eaten, nor smelled. Clearly, deductive and inductive reasoning are not of great concern to either of these men.

It is interesting, then, that the religious man should be found to use deductive and inductive reasoning while in debate with an atheist or other skeptic. This, however, should not be seen as the religious man's attempt to view his own religion or beliefs under these terms. After all, he has had no need to do so prior to this conflict. On the contrary, the religious man is only attempting to twist his opponent's logic against him. Yet, he is inherently not very talented at this skill. This is not a reflection of the religious individual's incompetency. By no means! In my experience, intelligent men are religious and non-religious alike. Along with the religious man's lack of skill in employing deductive and inductive reasoning runs the atheist's equal and parallel handicap of being unable to use only abductive reasoning. In other words, what is at play here is not a reflection of a lack of intellect, but rather a difference of logic systems, where each is seen by the adherent as the more valid. It is precisely this point which brings us to why the atheist and skeptic often become so heated in debates. Since the atheist worldview is shaped by logic and reason, the religious individual himself is the very thing which undermines that worldview. And, in accord with the religious reaction of emotion, the atheist, for he too is only human, becomes just as angry and hot as his opponent.

To close this section, I beg the pardon of the Christian reader, for an atheist is about to quote scripture. I do so only to make a point and to show that what I have said is specifically not earth shattering and apparently not all that new. For, if Jesus could have said it nearly 2,000 years ago, it must be an old and obvious idea indeed. In Mathew 11:25 states, "At that time Jesus said, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants." Clearly faith is not only something different from the wisdom and intelligence of mere men, but something very close to God.


In proper form, I shall end as I began. Religion is a cultural system. From this it should be implicit that, to my eyes, a cultural system requires three aspects: (1) a social, (2) a psychological, and (3) an intellectual. In this way, religion is not so unique from, say a Free Market Capitalist society. In this example, a Free Market Capitalist society is (1) a social group of (2) psychologically consumerist individuals whose beliefs are (3) based on self-interest. Yet, I mention this example not to show that, as Durkheim so profanely does, that religion is merely a representation of something else. On the contrary, I raise this example to show just how different and unique religion is even within its category of "cultural system."

In so many ways, religion proves to be atheism's superior. Never have beautiful works of art been made in the name of atheism. Never have nations been moved to peace and to war in the name of agnosticism. Religion is so much more than atheism, for atheism is only an ideology. Atheism itself makes no claim in a social system; for this most atheists resort to Humanism (myself included). Similarly, atheism alone stakes no claim on how one psychologically reacts to the ideology. In my experience, many people have resorted to an equally many different psychological dispositions. It seems very common, in the U.S. anyway, that newly converted atheists tend to quickly turn to the psychologically dependent system of social liberalism. For them, it seems that this "loving, tender, tolerant" perspective is a quick "Indiana Jones" switch for the dependence once enjoyed under religion. I for one made this conversion at first, as well. After a certain point, however, with the aid of my twin brother, I was shown that switching from religion to social liberalism is a bit like quitting smoking by taking up heroin. In other words, the cure for psychological dependency is not a different addiction, but rather psychological independence. This certainly seems to be what has occurred in Richard Dawkins and explains that unabashed ego of his (a reason to both love him and hate him).

Finally, I hope I have made clear the profound respect I have for religion, both the subject and the cultural system. Often I stand in awe of it; not with the open mouth of sarcastic piety, but with the open eyes of genuine reverence. That we differ intellectually should not be grounds enough for hatred between us. This message is for both my atheist and religious readers. So often we only learn about each other so as to "know thy enemy." In so doing, I hope I can say that I have made a friend of religion, and it has never done me any wrong. For the ills that religion does play on the world, I hope we, as atheists, can try to remember that we no more deserve to be "holier than thou" than the priests. After all, we are all only humans.

Your brother in death,


Thank You

I should like to thank the inspirations of the preceding work. Certainly Dawkins and of course Geertz are among them. For the others, I wish I had the time, memory, and space to right them all. The three men which rise above all the others as the foundation of my "lens" with which I view the world are as follows in the order in which I demand others to read their works: "The Predictioneer's Game" by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, "How to Read the Bible" by Marc Zvi Brettler, and "The Red Queen" by Matt Ridley. Your works have changed my life over and over again, and I cannot possibly display the sheer burden of gratitude I bear for you three brilliant men. Next, I must thank Bernard Levinson for being my first true inspiration into the field of religious studies and for seeing something more in me than I saw in myself. I hope to be half the man you are one day. Of course, I would be remiss for not thanking my twin brother Brian. You have been the foil to which I compare myself our whole life. Always the reasonable one, I would not be what I am today had you not had a hand in shaping it. Finally, I feel I must thank (and apologize to) the victims of the innumerable religious debates with which I had instigated. It should be obvious that this work was "born out of fire." Know now that my "blades have been made into plowshares." To the many others who have inspired me, I cannot thank you enough. I hope that being tagged in this note will show how much you mean to me. THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH.

I'm impressed by your thought process. An erudite formulation. Even though I might not fully assent to some points I doubt that you would take exception on a personal level.  If only everyone was willing to step back and see a broader perspective. I learned something here.
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Apr 05 2012 11:44 PM

Landry, on 05 April 2012 - 06:23 PM, said:

I'm impressed by your thought process. An erudite formulation. Even though I might not fully assent to some points I doubt that you would take exception on a personal level.  If only everyone was willing to step back and see a broader perspective. I learned something here.

I'm glad you are enjoying some of the posts. It makes the blog worth it. :D
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