I subscribe to the notion that separating out religion from other meaning-making systems is valid only for the sake of convenience. I agree with anthropologist Jonathan Z. Smith who says,
Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy. (Imagining Religion)
Allowing for humor and rhetorical overstatement, Professor Smith’s point is that we human beings exist in a matrix of symbolic systems that we separate out only for the sake of contemplating (and one hopes clarifying) them. In our minds and in our lives, the meanings are all mushed up, a puree or whip of meaning and purpose. Sometimes we question the powers that be in our lives; often we don’t.
Since Emanuel Kant, it has been clear to many people that human beings are meaning-making creatures and that the meanings we create exist in systems of narrative and symbol. In these systems, it’s us or them: we control them, or they control us. Whenever we aren’t paying attention, it is the latter.
Religions are one way human beings create meaning. A religion is a subset of narrative and symbol within a system. A system separated only for convenience and clarity.
Given this mushy matrix, removing what is conventionally called “religious” (or “spiritual”) from a personal or collective meaning-making system does not leave a hole or gap, but is rather an opening that other symbolic systems will fill.
If the god concept does not guarantee or underwrite meaning and purpose for a human being, something else will . . . perhaps even the insistence that life has meaning and purpose without the god concept! (Hence the “angry atheist” syndrome.)
Think for a moment how many people you know who actually take meaning and purpose from the god concept. My suspicion is that the concept actually functions as shorthand for something else in most human lives.
Theologian Gordon D. Kaufman gives his view, writing:
The central question for theology is not . . . primarily a speculative question, a problem of knowledge at all. Most fundamentally it is a practical question: How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what cause give ourselves? Put in religious terms: How can we truly serve God? What is proper worship? (Face of Mystery: Constructive Theology)
Put succinctly: “What’s your cause?”
Your cause might be survival. Approval. Family. World peace.
Often the god concept becomes the straw man who underwrites preexisting wishes and prejudices. The symbolic systems we live in are difficult to see and even more difficult to separate into understandable strands. Most difficult of all is putting all the strands back into a conceivable whole. Yet, finally, there is no religion, no politics, no self. Only the forest of symbols we wander in.
As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”