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Nebulous Terms: Defining Religion
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 what are NOT religious beliefs would be any which go against at least ONE of each of these components:
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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