What Isn’t Religion?

What Isn’t Religion? February 18, 2016

I had a hard time even figuring out what to call this post. My friend and colleague Brent Hege gave a wonderful lunchtime talk today about religious freedom, during which he mentioned the difficulties that face attempts to define religion, and the ways in which the definition of religion assumed in discussion of such matters as separation of church and state are the result of particular historical developments in our thinking about religion, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. One assumption that was mentioned was the Enlightenment assumption that it is possible to engage in logical reasoning unencumbered by assumptions, worldview, and the like.

Now that the latter assumption (and it is indeed an assumption to posit that one can be free of assumptions, which is blatantly self-defeating) has been so thoroughly discredited as to be laughable, maybe we need to revisit this with fresh eyes.

Perhaps the reason we have so much difficulty defining religion is precisely because of an unexamined assumption that it is possible to have a sphere of non-religion. 

Religious Freedom Americans UnitedThink about the things that we use to define religion. Belief in a higher power is not universal, and so the focus instead is on worldview, ideology, myth, community, rituals, ethics, and other such things.

No human beings are devoid of such things entirely. And so perhaps the very attempt to define religion as a distinctive sphere turns out to be an attempt by post-Enlightenment secularism of a particular sort to create a space into which certain kinds of ideologies and assumptions might be corralled and dealt with, while other ideologies and assumptions might be allowed to flourish free from their interference, despite being no more objective, or at the very least not so completely objective that the difference is one of kind rather than of degree.

Perhaps the very modernist act of defining religion, and then defining it in particular ways, itself needs to be problematized, not because of the usual issues of whether or not it does justice to Zen Buddhism, but precisely because it assumes that “religion” is a thing which, once it has been defined properly, some people are entirely without.

Of related interest, see Daniel McClellan’s posts on whether atheism is as natural as religion, and whether cognitive science (re)defines religion. Often the question of whether atheism is a religion is itself raised with the motive of engaging in religious apologetics. But the question of whether atheists have unexamined assumptions, a worldview, values, ethics, communities, beliefs, practices, symbols, and yes even myths is not one that ought to be swept under the carpet just because some have tried to use those matters in a game of religious gotcha and oneupmanship.

And so I ask the question: Using the kinds of definitions of religion that scholars have offered, is religion not something so all-pervasive in human existence that we should not pretend that it can be treated as a separate sphere of life that only some partake in, or that it can be subject to particular freedoms that others who are supposedly outside the realm of religion do not need or share?


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  • Dan McClellan

    Good question, James! Incidentally, “What Isn’t Religion?” is the title of a paper by Kevin Schilbrack from 2013 that discusses concerns with defining religion:


    • Thanks so much for drawing this to my attention!

      • Dan McClellan

        My pleasure. I’ve got a dissertation chapter I’m trying to finish up on the development of the concept of religion and how it’s defined. Let me know if you want any other references.

  • jekylldoc

    Actually, I agree with this, despite having reservations about entering the political minefield it has become.

    It seems to me that “freedom of religion” consists of a couple of principles:
    1) differences in worldview too large or vague to be settled by evidence or principles of jurisprudence should be left alone, free of efforts by the government to interfere, and
    2) such worldviews should provide some measure of protection for choices (such as refusing to fight in wars, or having many children) which might otherwise be treated as fair interests of the state.

    I don’t see why odd mythologies, like that of Scientology, should provide any applicability of these principles, but it seems reasonable to me that atheism should. Not because it represents a religion, but because it is a reasonable worldview which might give rise to the kinds of choices (e.g. refusing to take an oath on a Bible) which deserve the protection of principle 2 above.

  • Kirby. Kirby is not religion.

    Actually, he DOES demand worship though.

    Hmm. Your question’s harder than I first thought, Brother McGrath…

    • But is that dog or god?;-)

      Besides, one can usually tell a dog from a cat (I’ve been the servant of both). When you feed a dog, he thinks you are god, but when you feed a cat, he knows he is god.

  • I think the key difference, related to separation of religion and state is along the lines of what Thomas Jefferson emphasized, the difference between dogma which controls versus religion as ideals.

    In politics, one can’t–shouldn’t get away–from ideals, but hopefully no one will be elected who seeks to control everyone with a particular religious dogma.

  • Jon Beachkofski

    Discussions on “Freedom of religion” and “the free exercise of religion” are critically important because they are about the intersection of civil rights and duties with personal rights and duties. Civil rights and duties are those we in society impose on ourselves, in equal measure, through our political system. Those civil rights and duties impose restrictions on our personal rights and duties. We allow limits on our personal freedoms in order to gain the advantages of working together in harmony. Thus we prohibit civil law from establishing or promoting a specific religion or category of religion. And we prohibit civil law from interfering with the normal exercise of religion. But there are still countless points at which civil and personal rights intersect. Not all of those intersections can be resolved by refining and/or redefining civil law. And I would suggest that NONE can be resolved by redefining religion. Sometimes we should self-limit our personal rights regarding religion just because it is the “right” thing to do. Just because we remember why we limit our personal rights at all — to gain the advantages of working together in harmony.

  • guessed

    I would say I have no religion. If you’re going to define religion so broadly that atheist gatherings fit into, it seems like the word has lost all meaning. You might as well say following a sports team or being a fan of a particular TV show is a religion. After all, sports fans have “unexamined assumptions, a worldview, values, ethics, communities, beliefs, practices, symbols, and yes even myths” which they share together. If you define religion like this, the term becomes so broad it seems to lose all meaning.

    I have a worldview, of course I do. Everyone does. This idea that ‘atheist believe in nothing’ is nonsense. I believe we are the products of a long process of evolution from the most simple forms of life, that the universe as a whole is indifferent and mindless, that the way things are now is the result of chance rather than being planned and that humans should be nice to each other because we have no-one else.

    By the definition of the Cognitive science article I would be non-religious because I don’t believe in supernatural persons. I don’t think minds can exist without bodies. I believe only humans and various other animals have the ability to desire things, to plan for the future, to be self-aware and aware of others. So, humans are not the only sentient beings in the universe, I would count great apes, whales and dolphins, pigs, elephants, parrots and crows as sentient too. Even dogs have some of the traits of ‘persons’, like personality and emphathy. But the difference between me and a supernaturalist is I think you need a physical body with some kind of brain in it to generate personhood.

    I have rituals too, like brushing my teeth, and symbols that are personal to me, as well as symbols that many other atheists would understand, like the IPU or Tiktaalik. Does this make me religious? I really don’t think so.

    • You are either grasping my point perfectly, or missing it. It has been very difficult to come up with a satisfactory definition of religion, and that is the starting point for this post. And so the issue is not that a broad definition causes the term to lose all meaning, but that the term seems not to have a clear meaning to begin with, and the narrower and more precise the definition offered, the more likely that some things that tend to be considered “religion” will be excluded.

      If everyone has “religion” then perhaps we could focus independently of that on the fact that some people hold more supernatural or irrational beliefs than others, and whether they deserve any special protection under law, or perhaps deserve special educational treatment to examine them and their impact on society. But irrational beliefs are found both among those who self-identify as religious and those who self-identify as non-religious, which again is precisely the sort of conundrum that prompted this post.

      • Nick Gotts

        “But, though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable.” – Edmund Burke

        • Or as was mentioned in the presentation by my colleague, it is like what a judge famously said about pornography: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.

  • arcseconds

    Certainly the notion of religion is a problematic one. The conventional notion in Western society is indeed an Enlightenment construct, and one that’s highly informed by the example of Christianity.

    Consider a pre-modern culture isolated on an island somewhere.

    Most such cultures believe (or believed) in a plethora of spirits and creatures we would call mythical, strange powers, and so forth. However, they do not separate out these entities into a separate ‘supernatural’ realm. For them, these things are as much a part of the natural world as trees and ‘regular’ animals are. The pre-hunt ceremony to invoke the aid of spirits is done for exactly the same reason as making sure the spearheads are securely attached to their shaft: both are done to ensure success in the hunt. The ritual may be non-empirical in Schilbrak’s sense, as there’s not a direct and obvious connection to hunting success in the same way as spear heads remaining affixed or falling off is, but for them it’s perhaps no more or less non-empirical than taking a certain leaf to treat a certain malady.

    Many such cultures do acknowledge something that we might translate as ‘sacred’, but this again has quite practical ramifications and comparisons could be made to our notions of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘radioactivity’ — comparisons which are in some ways superior to the comparison with what we often understand as the sacred (as something that’s removed in some way from the hear and now).

    When such a society meets others, naturally they note that their beliefs about spirits and so forth are different. But so are their beliefs about the natural world, their language, their social structure and so forth. There’s no joints at which to carve off ‘religion’ from the rest of their culture, and no need to make this distinction.

    The distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ in our sense can’t come about until there’s an idea of a natural order that’s distinct from a supernatural one.

    Greek philosophy did provide this, although it didn’t get its full expression until the advent of modern science and the Enlightenment.

    Also, Christianity is, I believe, a little unusual in insisting in the importance of faith from early days. Other belief systems just assert themselves to be clearly true. This probably had its part to play, too.

    While I suppose sequestering off the supernatural into a realm of its own where empiricism and reason get little traction did inform the First Amendment notion that religion is something the State can have no part in, isn’t the real motivation a practical one and one that stems from the history of the American colonies?

    Namely that religion had been a source of strife with no obvious means of resolution, and that many people had left Europe for America precisely to practice their religion without interference.

    It seems to me that when faced with this sort of scenario, deciding that we’re all going to stay out of each other’s way and not use the State to interfere either is a reasonable approach.

    I’ve some more things to say — for instance, I don’t like either of the proposed definitions of religion — but I’ll have to leave that for now.