What is religion?

What is religion? February 25, 2021


What is religion?


Oddly, “Religion Q & A” entered its ninth year online before getting around to this question. It’s not an easy one.             During the tax season, we may not feel particularly fond toward the IRS but can pity the staffers who spent years on a long-running dispute that ended in 1993 when the godless Scientology system was finally defined as a “religion” and thus eligible for the tax exemption benefit.

Then there are the federal and state disputes — beloved of journalists and  too numerous to summarize here — over tax exemption for the “Universal Life Church,” and whether marriages performed by its clergy are legit. The ULC provides instant internet ordinations, sometimes for the likes of comedian Conan O’Brien, with no questions asked and no requirements of training, creed, or church. The ordination itself is free but the group sells such paraphernalia as a “Doctor of Divinity” certificate, a bargain at $20, and a $59.99 kit for performing weddings.

Let’s back up for the basics. Whatever the IRS might think, here are definitions of “religion” from the authoritative Merriam-Webster folks —

“The service and worship of God or the supernatural.”

“Commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance” (which is certainly a circular definition. Religion is religious.).

“A personal set of institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” (Again, religion is religious.)

“A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” (This means devoutly embraced atheism or Communism can be deemed a de facto religion although, as “Religion Q & A” has learned over the years, this terminology can provoke atheists’ fury.)

Another definition, labeled “archaic,” is “scrupulous conformity” to something. (The Guy insists this usage is not archaic. We journalists regularly say secular commitments and attitudes are “religious.”)

Another eternally trusted resource, the Encyclopedia Britannica, fleshes out matters with pretty much the best that can be done with this tricky definition. It states that religion is humans’ relation to what they regard as “holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.” Religion is also the ways people deal with “ultimate concerns” about this life and the hereafter, what happens to us after death.

The encyclopedia wisely adds that there are also “humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion” that involve relationships and attitudes toward the human community or the natural world. Many observers will say that for non-religious people, committed environmentalism sometimes fills the place that religion serves in the lives of worshippers. The same goes for political enthusiasms.

We’re further informed that “many” (so presumably not all) religions uplift texts that have “scriptural status,” and esteemed individuals who are invested with “spiritual or moral authority.” Believers “often” (so presumably not always) participate in devotional practices such as ‘prayer, meditation, or particular rituals.” In addition, “worship, moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions are among the constituent elements” of religions.

This whole topic is brought to mind by a recent article at theconversation.com that began by pondering the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot and the inauguration soon after. The author, Samuel L. Boyd, teaches religion and Jewish studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Inaugurations have elements of what scholars call the nation’s “civil religion,” namely the offering of public prayers, the oath sworn on a Bible that has special significance for the oath-taker, and the oath itself, in which presidents and vice presidents always add at the end the traditional “so help me God,” a phrase not found in the wording prescribed by the U.S. Constitution (Article II section 1). \

In the January 6 mayhem, too, there were perplexing “religious” elements, he notes. A couple prayers were heard, banners with religious references were spotted, and some in the mob chanted things like “Christ is king, Trump is president.”

Which got Boyd to thinking about what “religion” can mean for different people and eras, which sent him searching for the history of the concept. He cited “Before Religion” by Australian scholar Brent Nongbri, who says the idea of religion as a human activity distinct from things like politics, economics, or science emerged only in modern times. That was alien to ancient cultures, in which gods and goddesses, and related rituals, were involved in every facet of life.

This was certainly the case with the Jewish Bible, which contains no Hebrew word meaning “religion” in the modern sense and yet what we think of as religion — worship, prayer, ritual, belief, supernaturalism — abounds.

New Testament translations regularly use R-words in rendering James 1:26-27: “ If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Revised Standard Version). A few translations say instead “devotion” or “worship.”

An early appearance of the Latin word “religio” is found in plays by Plautus written in the second century B.C., where it conveys something along lines of reserve, scruples, or restraint from impulses. A century later, the Roman politician and orator Cicero extended the word’s meaning to the divine realm and worship rituals. By the second century A.D., the early Christian writer Tertullian was using it in that same sense, even as pagan Romans branded Christianity not a “religion” but a “superstition.”

As Boyd summarizes the evolution of this word and concept, “the inner, spiritual and privatized nature of what many think of as religion is more a reflection of modern Protestant Christian developments and has little to do with the origins of the term.”

What’s called “organized religion” is associated with churches, synagogues, or mosques and related organizational structures, teaches particular doctrines and moral standards, and asks devotees to give of their time, effort and money. As a result, many individualists today who shy away from commitments and prefer freer lifestyles will say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Given these spongey concepts, perhaps the definition of religion is akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s oft-quoted 1964 sentence when the Supreme Court decided how to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Just so.

You’re invited to post a comment with your own definition.

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