Archive for September, 2011

Definition: “religion”

2011/09/24

I’ve been asked for my definition of “religion”. I’ve blogged for some time now without really offering a definition.

Let me offer the normal preface: I do not offer my definition as a prescription, nor lean on my authority as a trained linguist (can you believe I have a doctorate now?) to suggest that others ought to conform to my opinion here. I’m simply trying to clarify how I tend to use the term, in hopes that this will help people better understand what I write on this blog. See here for a friend’s much more eloquent summary of the linguist’s standard attitude to prescriptivism.

So here goes…

A religion is a system of thought or belief that includes some supernatural, transcendent entity or phenomenon.

Now, what would count as a religion under this definition?

  • Certainly, any belief in a god or gods – orthodox forms Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Paganism – is a religion.
  • And not just organized religions: any belief in a god or gods, even if it’s outside the scope of any particular organized religion, is a religious belief. This includes deism, the belief in an impersonal creator-god.
  • It is possible to believe in an afterlife without believing in a god; for me, this too falls under the umbrella of “religion”.
  • Similarly for belief in karma, fate, etc: they are transcendent and supernatural, and so they are religious.

What doesn’t count as a religion, by my definition?

  • Atheism and humanism are not religious systems; the one specifically excludes the supernatural, the other is simply defined without reference to religious elements.
  • Other systems that exhibit social elements analogous to organized religion – sport fandom, the adulation of celebrities, some flavours of patriotism – are not religions. (Though, of course, I reserve the right to use the term “religious”, as any other term, metaphorically when talking about such phenomena.)
  • Science is not a religion. It saddens me to have to even mention this, but there are those who would lump science in with religions.
  • Ethical systems are not religious, except where they invoke supernatural justifications (God-the-Lawgiver, or supernatural versions of karma, the threefold law etc). It is here that I would say Unitarian Universalism, as an overall movement, is not religious. The organizing principles of Unitarianism are non-religious ethical precepts, not specific supernatural beliefs.
  • Superstition, astrology, and other (non-supernatural) instances of human credulity are not religious. The whole “alternative medicine” scam is not (in general) religious.
I think this definition broadly agrees with the common usage of the term. I also think the term “religion”, and affiliated terms like “religious” or “spiritual”, are messy things.