What is Religion?

What is Religion?

  In my conversation with people about religion I have found that the term itself is difficult to define with any degree of concreteness. Some have attempted to define the word by limiting it to what people call organized religion but in doing this, they are inferring that there are other meanings. If there is an organized version of religion there must be an unorganized version. I believe if we attempt to define the concept too narrowly we will end up limiting its usage to an unwarranted degree and may subvert some usages of the word. Of course, for some subversion might be their intention.

Let’s begin with how the word is used. It is used to denote a person’s behavior or belief that they are intensely committed to. “John exercises religiously or John’s religion is exercising.” Both expressions work well to relay the idea  that John is extremely committed to exercise; to the point of being fanatical. In this context the word is used to denote excess in something, which it does not deserve it. Exercise is good, but it should not be made your ultimate concern.

Religion can also denote a commitment to an  organization as “John belongs to the Roman Catholic religion” or Dick is  a follower of the Moslem religion. This commitment can go beyond a commitment to an organized religion.  It can be a devotion or commitment to a belief, behavior or lifestyle.  The stoic religious was to practice virtue. This seems to be the way that is used in the Bible. When James says, “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1;27).

From the above, we can gather that the word has various shades of meaning, which is determined by context. Can a non-belief or a negative belief be a person’s religion? Yes, if one is committed to it intensely. e.g. .if one spends an inordinate amount time on it. It could be said to be one’s religion[1]. “John’s religion is playing video games or debunking theism.” The latter is the religion of many of the new atheists.

When the word is used for organized religion you run into another problem of defining the word “organized.” You could say that there is no universal definition of what constitutes an organized religion. For some, a group with a leader is an organization. To others, it may take a written Constitution  with a formal membership to be classified as an organization. You can organize around a man, a group, a belief or an idea. People can organize against a belief or an idea; in this, they organize around their commonly held un-belief, which could be any negative idea. The Protestant religion was formed around a group of non-beliefs. People can belong to certain movements, which are loosely organized and formed around  a set of ideas and led very informally by a group of charismatic  leaders. You see this kind of religion in the New-Age  movement and in the new atheist movement. Both could rightly be called religion but their followers viciously contend that their movements are not a religion. However, just recently the seventh court of appeals has ruled that atheism is a religion[2] and the Supreme Court has ruled prior that secular humanism is a religion for legal purposes[3].

I have found that when people begin to split hairs about what constituted religion, they usually have an agenda. It could be a religious group (usually a cult) that wants to set itself apart from a larger group or an atheists group or individual who does not want to be compared to a faith group. In their spitting of hairs, these groups and individuals actually demonstrate they are very must a part of a religion. If not, they would have no reason to be protesting. Protestantism is a religion when it demands your attention and especially if it is your ultimate concern or an all-consuming interest as some of the new atheist have done,  many of which have been taught  to hate what they call religion to the point they are allergic to the word itself. Get over it you guys, your movement is a religion.

After reading the article my wife said to me, ” you did not answer the question what is religion?” No, I did not. There have been books written on the subject and to some degree they have all failed to encompass the entirety of the subject. To me, the best concrete definition of religion was given by Paul Tillich when  he said religion was ones “ultimate concern.”[4]  So, what is your ultimate concern? When you answer that question, you have found your religion.

[1]  The Supreme Court has held that non-theistic viewpoints can qualify as religious when they “occupy the same place in [a person’s] life as the belief in a traditional deity holds United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 187 (1965).

[2]  Note (Kaufman, James v. McCaughtry, Gary) “Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of ‘ultimate concern’ that for her occupy a ‘place parallel to that filled by . . . God in traditionally religious persons,’ those beliefs represent her religion.”

“We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. See Reed v. Great Lakes Cos., 330 F.3d 931, 934 (7th Cir. 2003) (‘If we think of religion as taking a position on divinity, then atheism is indeed a form of religion.’)”

[3] Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)

[4] Paul Tillich, “What is Religion?” and his “Systematic Theology”.