What Is God? What Is Religion?

What Is God? What Is Religion? January 8, 2019

Here is some of the beginning to my chapter in Jonathan MS Pearce’s (ed.) recent anthology of chapters from writers here at Patheos Nonreligious (Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century) [UK here]. My chapter is “Not Seeing God in Religion”. Obviously, we implore you to get the book…

What is a god?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to answer the question of what gods are. The first is to ask a number of believers how they describe the gods in which they believe, and to then look for commonalities in the answers. The second is to look at the psychology that underpins those beliefs. That being said, the latter obviously relies upon the former, to at least some degree.

The vast majority of gods in human history were in pantheons, often with a hierarchy, and always with distinct powers and personalities (the fact of hierarchy in pantheons is our first brush with the idea that politics is embedded in religion). Indeed, the only thing differentiating pantheons from human society is the supernatural element (and the question of whether or not they exist). These gods seem like abstractions based on human experience, in the same way that a centaur is based on the experiences of a human and a horse, but not on the experience of a centaur.

While a believer might assign a primary attribute to a given god, I would say that the god in question is actually a placeholder, a vivified definition of that attribute. In pantheons there is often a king of the gods, and whilst this is often the most powerful god, as befits a ruler, it is not powerful in the same way that the gods of the various monotheisms are. Indeed, a striking thing about monotheistic gods is that they are powerful in an even more abstracted sense. A goddess of wisdom might manifest her power through lending insight to the follower that it is wise to favor, but a monotheistic god is omniscient. A king of the gods might have power over all of the gods, but a monotheistic god is omnipotent. And so on.

What you end up with, in the case of a monotheistic god, is a peg upon which almost anything can be hung. Any claim about a monotheistic god’s attributes might make some sense in isolation—as was the case with each pantheon god, each with a primary attribute—but as soon as these abstracted attributes are applied to a single entity they becomes logically untenable. Much has been made of the difficulties inherent in omniscience and omnipotence. Additionally, what does it mean to be both infinitely merciful and infinitely just?

The gods of pantheons are reified concepts, humanized metaphors; the monotheistic god is an omnishambles.

What is Religion?

Let’s dispense with the usual first hurdle. No, religions don’t require gods. The go-to example is of course Buddhism. That having been said, I think there is at least one god-like aspect in Buddhism (and many other non-theistic Eastern religions): karma. The anthropomorphic element has either been completely abstracted out, or was never recognized as anthropomorphic to begin with. Isn’t karma a combination of justice and mercy? Aren’t both justice and mercy concepts in the moral space? They are certainly not physical constants, and thus not universally applicable. How are the good and bad actions and intentions that are central to karma measured, and by whom?

The apparent lack of a god in Buddhism sounds an awful lot like Daniel Dennett’s (2013[1]) homuncular functionalism as it relates to consciousness. Homuncular Functionalism is the idea that while explaining the mind by recourse to lots of little men is fallacious (these little men have minds that also need to be explained), if one can eventually abstract these little men down to the point where they are engaged in sub-routines of sub-routines that could be taken over by a mechanistic process, such as a logic gate/brain cell, then we can build consciousness back up in mechanistic terms. Karma is an almost-mechanistic process applied to moral cause and effect. It will never be abstracted down to a purely physical law because it is ultimately social or even judicial in nature.

I am the LAW

What defines religion, in a judicial or practical sense, if an actual god is not necessary, let alone sufficient? It should come as no surprise that this is an ongoing debate, not least of which is in legal circles, where the limitations on the right to practice one’s religion is a regular question. In ‘Constitutional “Religion”—A Survey of First Amendment Definitions of Religion’, Jeffrey Oldham (2001[1]) concluded that:

…the Court has implied a range of definitions but never explicitly defined religion. Lower courts, more adventurous in this realm, have given the impression that defining religion is difficult and risky. Scholars have attempted to bring clarity to the issue by proposing definitions with various approaches, including functional, content-based, and analogical methods. From the analysis of each of these types, one may conclude that the functional definitions are more common but often lead to strange results, while the content-based conception results in a narrower classification.

That’s a fairly non-committal outcome from fifty-or-so years of jurisprudence and centuries of both philosophy and theology. Though it does show that focusing on the god/no-god aspect will result in a “narrower classification.”

To illustrate the difficulty in coming up with a clear distinction between religion and not-religion I will turn to a psychological definition from the work of Vasillis Saroglou (2011[2]). He proposes the ‘Four B’s’ of religion: Believing, Bonding, Behaving, and Belonging. In extremely paraphrased form:

  1. Belief (generally in something transcendent) is the condition of entry to the community
  2. Bonding ensues (generally through self-transcendence in response to the thing believed in)
  3. Behaving in accordance with expectation maintains membership
  4. Belonging is the benefit obtained from maintaining belief, bonding with fellow believers, and behaving in accordance with expectation

Key to Saroglou’s analysis is the dynamics of variation:

  1. Believing – Literal to Symbolic
  2. Bonding – Negative to Positive
  3. Behaving – Self-focused to Other-focused
  4. Belonging – Exclusive to Inclusive

If we replace the symbolic god(s) with the literal universe, we get (more or less):

  1. I believe in the scientific method
  2. I bond with others around this belief
  3. I behave in accordance with my understanding of the world based on this belief
  4. I belong to the scientific community (or all mankind viewed as scientific entities, if you prefer)

It is the literal-to-symbolic and self-focused/other-focused continua that define the difference between the “true believer” and the more casual believer who gains comfort from the rituals and sense of community.

It seems as though the nature of the object of belief is pivotal in defining religion, but we’ve ascertained that a god need not be central. I suggested above that there is a supernatural element in the process of karma. It really is just another way of saying that ‘God/the universe has a plan for you’ but, meanwhile ‘God/the universe moves in mysterious ways.’ Then again, as with the gradual abstraction that takes place in homuncular functionalism, the abstraction to a mechanism with human-shaped elements precedes abstraction to an explanation that doesn’t have those human elements. That last step is not always possible. I would suggest that this is the case with karma. Where we can reduce down to a non-human-mediated mechanism, we have a scientific theory, in all of its reductionist glory. Where we can’t, where we have human-shaped mechanisms, be they tiny homunculi, or universe-spanning gods, or the ghosts and goblins in between, we have the supernatural, and thus religion.

[1] Oldham, J. L. (2001). “Constitutional Religion: A Survey of First Amendment Definitions of Religion.” Texas Forum on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, 6; 117.

[2] Saroglou, V. (2011). “Believing, bonding, behaving, and belonging: The big four religious dimensions and cultural variation.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology42(8), 1320-1340.


[1] Dennett, D. C. (2013). “A Cascade of Homunculi.” Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (pp. 91-95). London: Allen Lane.

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