Rebirth of Reason

Intellectual Ammunition

Nebulous Terms: Defining Religion
by Jonathan Pararajasingham

What qualifies as a religion? Philosophers and scholars have found the definition of religion to be quite elusive. Given that the term “religious belief” in the modern world is being used to describe a variety of beliefs of varying popularity, it may be prudent to re-examine the current definitions of religious belief and what constitutes a religion.

The Oxford Dictionary defines religion thus:


1.     the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

2.     a particular system of faith and worship.

3.     a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.


In defining what constitutes religion, I feel we must try to find the bare minimum requirements or ingredients required in order to qualify a belief as specifically “religious”. The first part of the Oxford definition can be discarded therefore, since we know of religious such as Hindu Carvaka and Buddhism that contain no deities, expressing anything from indifference to explicit atheism. The second part of the definition brings more obfuscation than elucidation, since we have another nebulous term – “faith”. Faith ultimately means believing something regardless of tangible evidence; some would go as far as to say regardless of reason. Others would disagree. The third part of the Oxford definition speaks of a devotional ingredient, which again is a rather vague term, since people can be devoted to almost anything, such as family or a particular cause.


So it does seem some clarification is desperately required. Perhaps we could turn to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who described religion as “a system of human thought which usually includes a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to a higher power, deity or deities, or ultimate truth.”


There are indeed some useful ingredients described here. Firstly, religions are always "systems of thought", implying that we need to construct a definition which certainly has more than one part to it. We need a number of parts to construct a system of thought. Geertz then specifies non-universality about the next set of ingredients he proposes, in suggesting they “usually” occur. Religions certainly do not always contain narratives or symbols - there are some which do not adhere to holy scripts or have symbology. I think beliefs and practices however are going to become part of any universal definition of religion, because to have a religion without a single belief or behaviour related to that belief, would render it utterly void of any tangible meaning. Those beliefs and practices would, as Geertz goes on to suggest in his definition, give meaning to the practitioner’s experiences. There must be something meaningful gained from the believed system, again in order for it to retain meaning. Whether this is through reference to higher power is not universal as we’ve already established, but ultimate truth may be closer to the mark.

So with this basis, let me propose a set of minimum requirement components to form the system. I would say to correctly use the word “religious” in describing anything, the following four components may represent a bare minimum:

1. A belief(s) relating to some aspect of the fundamental nature of REALITY

2. The belief(s) are SUPERNATURAL or SUPERSTITIOUS (i.e. cannot be verified by science)

3. The belief(s), if incorporated into one’s life, has at least one implication on ETHICS

4. The belief(s), if incorporated into one's life, heightens one’s understanding of TRUTH (i.e. it is more in keeping with reality to hold the belief than to not hold it)


So what are NOT religious beliefs would be any which go against at least ONE of each of these components:

Beliefs which go predominantly against component 1 would be ones which deny reality is how we perceive it (e.g. Matrixism). Beliefs which go predominantly against component 2 imply they are already recognised by science as natural, making them obviously non-religious (evolution, Big Bang, abiogenesis, determinism/free will, etc.). Beliefs which go predominantly against component 3 would make them pure superstitions only, which tend to not get involved with improving your behaviour towards others, but helps your own fortune by recognising a feature of reality to which science is blind (e.g. psychic readings, astrology, paraskavedekatriaphobia, etc.). Note however that IMPERSONAL God beliefs would not constitute a true religious belief, as they would often not affect 3 or even 4. Beliefs which go predominantly against component 4 would be recognised placebo-type beliefs, where the likelihood is psychological usefulness is recognised as the key reason for holding the belief (e.g. superstitions, placebo pills, rituals, Santa Clausism, etc.)

Note this definition does not require the belief to be “organised” (so people would be free call a belief “religious” without the need for rituals or followers). When a religious belief(s) develops past a certain point of organisation, we would correctly refer to it as a “religion”. Also note Scientology fills all four components, thus making it a religion. Atheistic theologies also follow all four terms. For a belief to be rational, the only absolute requirement is that it does not comport to component 2.

The final point to note is that some describe themselves as religious, but only do so as a description of their following of religious traditions or cultural habits. This would be "religious culturalism", rather than "religious belief". So such a person may call themselves religious, but they are culturally religious (verifiable beliefs on cultural UTILITY) as opposed to supernaturally religious (unverifiable beliefs on metaphysical TRUTH). The ambiguity of the word religious here is not to be confused with the definition of what constitutes a "religious belief". Hinduism is considered a cultural philosophy rather than a true cultural religion precisely because of such reasons.


Philosophies come in all shapes and sizes, but I think it is important to recognise what makes a philosophical system truly religious, when simple answers such as belief in a higher power or reverence of a holy text are now far outdated. I hope that here I have established a cogent basis which may be utilised and built upon in further academic studies of religious philosophy.
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