Definition: “religion”

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.

10 Responses to “Definition: “religion””

  1. Joy-Mari Cloete Says:

    I think this is a very Western way of looking at religion. What do you make of the Buddha, who “taught that belief in God is irrelevant. Believing in God or not believing in God will not help you realize enlightenment.”

    So then Buddhism is a religion — rituals, symbolism, etc. People who study religion think of it as a continuum — you’ll have some religions that contain many aspects of what we consider religion and you’ll have religions that contain fewer. UU is probably one of the religions that contain very of the typical few religious elements.

    I consider myself a religious naturalist — I feel connected to all the rest of the people who try to live the best life possible but I do it in a way devoid of supernaturalism. And that, really, is what religion is or should be — learning how to live the best life possibly.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    You are right: it is a Western way of looking at religion. An English-speaking way, even. So be it. That is my culture. That is my language.

    Your earlier comment requested the definition that I have in mind when using terms like “religion” and “religious”. That is what I have offered.

    I respect those traditions that promote non-religious realizations of meaning, human solidarity, and ultimate truth. I see such movement in Unitarians, in Buddhism, and in humanism. I also recognize that all of these traditions have grown out of more clearly religious backgrounds, and that many people in these traditions would like to retain the label “religious” for their traditions.

    This leads to a certain tension within me. On the one hand, the definition I give above is justified by common use and my own gut feeling about the word. (As a linguist, I acknowledge these as the general authorities on definitions.) On the other hand, among the belief systems that call themselves religious, the ones I most respect are those mentioned above – UUs, Buddhists, etc. So my definition is directly at odds with the best “religious” traditions out there. I am not certain that I have struck the best balance with the definition I’ve given, and I am certainly open to modifying it as my own feelings and my understanding of common usage develop.

    One final point: it is important, in discussing important ideas, not to get too hung up on the terms we use. In discussions where people are likely to have opposing definitions of key terms such as “religion”, I will be explicit in my meaning rather than leaning on rigid definitions like the one offered here.

  3. EarthGirl Says:

    What do you think of this comment conversation? This lady is asking tons of questions we can’t answer, and knowing your smarts, I think you could help us all out:

  4. Tanya Says:

    I followed you here from the comment you left on the blog mentioned above. Yours was definitely THE voice of reason in a clearly muddled “debate”. It never ceases to confound me that so many people ignore scientific fact in favor of their own supernatural beliefs. We’re so fortunate to have a world of information at our fingertips so there is no reason for us to live in the dark ages anymore.

    But I digress…
    Defining terms is essential when entering a debate or attempting to have a reasonable argument. What I have come to notice is that when people reach a point in an argument where they say (usually despondently) “Well how do you define X?” it is often because they have lost their footing and use semantics as a red herring.

    I think “religion” can be easily defined. Nothing tricky or messy about it at all. I like your definition but to it should be added the aspect of rites, rituals and/or core beliefs or tenets. This broader definition would then encompass the Eastern religions like Buddhism mentioned above while continuing to exclude the other things you listed which, quite frankly it surprises me that anyone would consider sport fandom a religion! That’s just grasping at straws if you ask me.

    Great blog btw. You just got a new follower. 🙂

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Tanya, thankyou for the compliment. You just made my week.

    I think you’re probably right about adding rituals and core beliefs to the definition. I would say it’s a little like having “flight” as part of the definition of “birds”: it is certainly a common and useful characteristic for identifying birds, but penguins and ostriches and others are birds even though they can’t fly.

    Similarly, I would think of deism as a religious belief even though it rarely comes with rituals.

    I agree with you about sports fandom, and I think almost all references to it as religion are rhetorical rather than literal. On the other hand, I suspect that most claims that belief in science (particularly evolution) is “religious” are quite serious.

    Under my definition, both of these fail due to lack of a supernatural element.

  6. Joy-Mari Cloete Says:

    Dude, who moved my comment? And what happened to the comment Particia Feuerberg made?

  7. Timothy Mills Says:

    Some time ago, I cleaned out a couple of apparently spam comments – they seemed to be machine-generated and didn’t make much sense. If either of them was a legitimate comment, I apologize. Or perhaps you are thinking of a different post or blog?

  8. wordwhisperer Says:

    Patricia’s comment was this:

    It’s gone. Mine’s also gone. I find this odd, seeing that I disagreed quite intensely with what you said.

  9. Timothy Mills Says:

    I have no record of these comments. WordPress sends all comments to my email, and I do not delete them. A search of my email has only revealed notifications for the comments that are still available on this post. My WordPress account doesn’t have any record of other comments either.

    Did you see your comments on the blog after you sent them? If so, then I am perplexed. The only comments I have deleted are a couple like this:

    “hg2E5b iaelycqbxxgs”

    from a similarly meaningless email address. They were on other posts on this blog.

    If you did not see your comments on this website after you posted them, then I would guess WordPress had a hiccup and never actually recorded your comments.

    Whatever the reason, if you are willing, please try to repost your comments. I will not remove them.

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