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Definition of religion

What is religion? It is only too obvious today that there are different religions, churches, denominations and sects. So let us ask ourselves, what is "religion", what does it mean when we say that a person is "religious" and don't all the religions worship the same God in their own way, in any case?

One could argue that it is obvious what religion is. After all, I am religious, I believe this and that and I do such and such, therefore that is what makes something a religion and therefore RELIGION itself. It may be so. But let us try an analogy: a capitalist might define "economics" as "the interchange of goods and services in a free market." That would be an answer of sorts, but an answer that simply ignores Marx's analysis of human exploitation, Keynes's advocacy of state involvement in the economy, the experience of millions of people in rigidly-controlled command economies ... the list is endless. Clearly, one cannot simply extrapolate such a general statement about either economics or religion from one's own beliefs and experiences.

Even so, might it not be possible to take one's own experience, strip it down to its most basic essentials, see whether those same essentials also apply to other religions and create a workable definition of religion from that? Many have tried this approach, and have come up with answers such as "religion is the worship of a divine being or beings" or, more broadly, "religion is the human response to that which is considered sacred".

However, if we dig a little deeper in the various religions of the world, we come up with a number of problems. Let us first tackle some basic beliefs. Bahais, Christians, Muslims Jews, and many others all claim to believe in the existence of a single God who created the world and everything in it, but disagree strongly with each other and among themselves about the details of this being, not to mention what He or She might require of humans. Hindus respond that, in their view, a monotheistic setup is fair enough, but there is also something to be said for incorporating some aspects of polytheism, at least on a subordinate level.

In the final analysis some of them might also agree with the Buddhists that the ultimate nature of reality is devoid of personality and that its beginning and end, if such things were to exist, are lost in the mists of time. And according to tradition,the Chinese sage Confucius once replied to this whole debate by saying, "You do not yet know how to serve people, why then worry about serving the gods?"

But if basic beliefs about the world and its origin do not help us along in our search for the meaning of "religion", perhaps we can find something else that all religions have in common. I am not referring to acts like praying, lighting candles or prostrating - there the differences are all too clear - but perhaps there is something uniquely religious about ethics. After all, don't all religions teach people not to go around killing, raping and robbing each other?

Well, in a sense they all do, but only in highly selective ways. Christians are told to "turn the other cheek", but Islam values a somewhat tougher attitude. Buddhists will extend, in theory at least, their nonharming attitude to all living beings, then indulge in endless debates among themselves whether this implies compulsory vegetarianism. The sacrifice of large numbers of human beings was an integral part of Aztec religion. Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians disagree among themselves on the sinfulness of suicide and abortion. And hardly ever has any religion succeeded in preventing the miseries of war; to the contrary, almost all of them have had a hand, at one time or another, in starting wars against people who happened to be heretics, pagans, heathens, infidels or apostates, in other words, "not like us". However devoted we are to our respective traditions, we must face up to the truth: "Religionism", like racism and sexism, has caused untold suffering for millions of people.

So, if there is indeed a common factor that not only unites all the religions but also helps us to understand what, essentially, it is, it is not plain to see. What about the structure of the word itself? The word "religion" is derived from a Latin source that means "to tie back" or more figuratively "to re-connect". But this does not help us much, either; the question immediately arises "reconnect to what?" and we are back in the interminable debate about the existence, or otherwise, of God, the nature of reality and what human beings really are.

There are three possible reactions to this dilemma. First, I can say that while all other traditions are man-made and false, my own is divinely inspired and true. In other words, my beliefs are the TRUTH, while all others are mere "religions". While this approach has the virtues of frankness and simplicity, it is also true that it leads to a fanaticism and a disregard for the rights of others that would no doubt have horrified the founder of the religion in question. This strategy seems most common among monotheists.

A more subtle variation of this strategy is to declare that all religions have a certain amount of truth in them, but mine happens to be the completely fulfilled truth, which has emerged after a long evolution. Alternatively, if this is not yet the case, my religion is at least the closest approach to this complete truth that will be revealed in the fullness of time. This strategy has long been a favourite among Hindus and Buddhists, but it seems also to have taken root in certain sectors of twentieth- century Christianity: one thinks here of Raimundo Pannikar[?]'s phrase "The unknown Christ of Hinduism". But while this strategy may be more refined than the "only my religion is the truth" approach, it is imperialistic in nature. It refuses to take other people seriously, preferring instead to remake them in its own image.

The second major way of reacting to the problem of the differences between religions is to declare that the only true religion is mysticism.

The third reaction to the problem is to ignore it. This approach, which grows naturally out of the exclusivism of the first strategy, was perhaps possible in certain periods in the past, when religions dominated large areas almost entirely. But today, it would imply shutting oneself up in a self- imposed ghetto, avoiding all contact with everyone who might possibly not share one's beliefs and never venturing outside. Surely an unacceptable "solution" to most of us. After all, most religions do believe that their message is valid for all people; how is this truth to be transmitted to other people if we ignore them?

So perhaps there is a fourth way, a way of approaching the differences between religions that will not deny the religious feelings and beliefs, and therefore the very humanity, of people of other faiths and that will not restrict us in the practice of our own religion.

One could examine some concrete cases. When the early European explorers set out on their voyages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they already had some idea of what religion was. This notion was derived mostly from Christianity, but they were also aware of Judaism and Islam, even if they regarded these as false religions. When they reached India, they encountered certain systematised beliefs and practices that bore a sufficient resemblance to what they were used to at home for them to refer to this as the "religion" of the Indian people. The same was true when, later, they reached China and the Americas. In each of these cases, there were separate social structures that were not necessarily identical to European religion, but which bore a certain "family resemblance" to it. With each discovery of a new "religion", the very term itself was widened and it became easier and easier to describe a newly-discovered social phenomenon as "religious".

Sometimes this process would break down, of course - some of the early missionaries to Southern Africa would write in their letters home that the indigenous people of Africa had no religion! Actually, what happened was that those activities that would be considered "religious" in western society were, in African communities, so tightly integrated with the rest of social life as to present a seamless whole to the observer. To some extent, this is also true of Judaism and Hinduism. Even in modern western society, it is not always easy to say where religion stops and, say, politics begins.

From these examples we can see that it is not easy to identify the one thing that all religions are and must be. Still, if we cannot identify one common characteristic of all religions, perhaps we can devise a system of classifying them, Then, perhaps the way we classified the religions will itself show us what they have in common.

There are many ways to classify religions. One way is to distinguish between local, national and universal religions. The local religion is limited in terms of both geography and missionary intent. Usually, one is born into a local religion; it is the faith of one's family, tribe or clan and one has little interest in extending it to others. On the contrary, since the religion is the source of the group's power, and therefore its means of survival, one should be careful not to divulge too much of it to outsiders. While this type of religion is most common among "primal" communities (hunter- gatherers, herders and premodern agriculturalists), remnants of it remain even in modern societies - witness the secrecy that surrounds quasi-religious groups such as the Freemasons.

National religions usually have to do with the common bonds of a shared language, culture, ethnic background or a shared history. Orthodox Judaism is a good example of this. While it is not impossible for an outsider to join a national religion, to do so requires that one adopts, not only the religious precepts, but an entire lifestyle. As a result, national religions tend, after an initial flowering that is associated with the growth and political dominance of the associated community, to stop growing and only perpetuate themselves, or even to decline.

The universal religions, on the other hand, have divorced themselves from a specific society to such an extent that they have become "portable". They can adapt themselves to almost any society in which they find themselves. Universal religions are clearly oriented towards converting people of other faiths. Bahá’í, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, are the most often quoted examples of universal religions. Keep in mind, though, that there are always "mixed" types. For instance, Hinduism contains aspects of all three these types, depending on whether one investigates it on the village, caste or philosophical level.

But there is a problem with this classification system, useful as it is, if we are looking for the essence of religion. It simply classifies traditions according to their missionary zeal, or lack of it. In terms of this system, classical Marxism-Leninism, with its drive to "world communism" would have to be classified as a "universal religion". While there are some scholars who maintain that it was precisely that, it is problematic to call this philosophy, which denied the truth-claims of all religious systems, a religion. In other words, we cannot use this classification to define religion as something that tries to convert other people.

Yet another approach is to have a look at the basic beliefs of the various religions and base our system of classification on them. One common outcome of this approach is to divide religion into theism, atheism and non-theism. However, atheism is not a completely integral approach, but rather a rejection of an already existing theism. That leaves us with theism, which can be divided into monotheism and polytheism, and non-theism, which one could define as the opinion that belief in a divine being is not necessary for the functioning of a religion. Examples of theism include Christianity and Islam, examples of non-theism include Buddhism and Taoism.

But note that this classification hinges on the idea that the acceptance or non-acceptance of a personal god is a very important aspect of religion. This is itself a theistic idea. If a Buddhist scholar of religion were to classify the world's religions according to their basic beliefs, it would make more sense for him or her to classify them according to whether or not these traditions accepted the impermanence of phenomena, the nonexistence of an enduring soul or self in human beings and the unsatisfactoriness of all experience.In Buddhism, the existence of God is a non-issue, and certainly does not contain the kernel of the meaning of "religion"..

What the above examples teach us is that we can never look at religious phenomena with a blank mind, ready to receive "what is there". Our previous experience always colours our perceptions, just as those early European explorers left on their voyages with a pre-existing idea of what religion was all about. Not that this is fatal to good thinking, as long as the reality of the influence of this previous experience is recognised and used positively. Thus, classification systems, although useful, cannot give us the essence of religion, either. All they do is reflect our existing ideas about religion.

What can we learn from all this? Simply that religion is not a single thing. To understand religion, we must accept that it is a composite, something made up out of many things, any one (or even more!) of which may be present or absent without affecting the "religious" nature of the object under scrutiny. We cannot isolate a single aspect such as belief or worship or prayer and set that apart as "the essence of religion".

Compare in this respect the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his later years. What, he asked, is a game? Many games are played with balls and sticks, but chess is a game, yet it involves neither. Games are played for fun, unless you happen to be a professional sportsman who does it for the money even when you are injured. Games can involve competition, but some others stress cooperation. And so on. In the end, he decided that "game" could not be reduced to one single defining attribute. Instead, it was the sum total of all its attributes. In a specific instance, if one looked at a human activity and saw that the majority of its attributes complied with the list thattogether made up the definition of "game", then one would be justified in saying that that particular activity was a game. Can you see how the same is true of religion?

But if there is no single, substantial definition of religion, does this not also imply that there can be no one way of studying religion? Indeed, no longer can we simply pick out one methodology and state authoritatively that it is the "right" way. In the twentieth century, scholars have become aware that one's choice of methodology is not inherent in the material under scrutiny, but that it reflects nothing so much as the investigator's own attitude towards the material, just as we have seen above concerning classifications of religion.

There are a number of such methodologies available to the researcher. To name but a few: historical criticism, which attempts to re-seta text in its original historical context; structuralism, which tries to trace nonhistorical connectionsbetween the myths and rituals of very different peoples; phenomenology, an effort to see thereligious reality of other people as they themselves see it; and deconstruction, a radical attempt tosee a text in a playful relationship with its reader. And, of course, each major religious tradition has evolved its own set of traditional exegetical rules for explaining its own scriptures. In time, themore modern methods may well become so commonplace that we will no longer know how we ever managed without them. They will then be part and parcel of the traditional exegetical system. This seems to be happening already in the case of historical criticism.

Certain requirements do remain; logical coherence, willingness to be proven wrong, not adjusting the facts of the case in an ad hoc way to make it fit into one's preferred methodological scheme. But beyond this, it is no longer possible to say that, for instance, the historical critical method of studying religion is "wrong". Any method that is internally consistent, logically sound and thatmaintains an attitude of respect towards the subject will deliver results that are completely correct within the framework of that method.

It is always possible to contend that a particular method was not applied correctly, and one can also criticise a method itself from a higher philosophical point of view. However, it is no longer permissible to see the results of, for instance, a structuralist analysis as invalid because its results invalidate the results of traditional scriptural exegesis, or vice versa. Like the definitions of "game" and "religion", the study of religion is the sum total of all efforts made within it, and is forever incomplete, a human search for the certainty that forever eludes us, yet nevertheless a noble attempt to improve our understanding of this elusive thing called "religion".

Further Reading

  • Altizer, T J J. 1982. Deconstruction and theology. New York: Crossroad.
    While deconstruction and postmodernism are not quite synonymous, they are closely related. This book seeks to show the relevance of this new philosophical trend to theology.

  • Dhavamony, M. 1973. Phenomenology of religion. Rome: Gregorian University Press.
    A solid introduction to the phenomenological approach to the study of religion.

  • Eliade, M. 1959. The sacred and the profane. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.
    Within the broad phenomenological stream, Mircea Eliade's was one of the more creative interpretations ofthe meaning of religious symbols.

  • Eliade, M. 1977. From primitives to Zen. A thematic sourcebook in the history of religions. London:Fount.
    Not a textbook, but a rich collection of scriptures from various religions across the world.

  • Ellwood, R S. 1980. Mysticism and religion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
    An influential work on the relationship between religion and mysticism. Requires some familiarity with world religions.

  • Jung, C G. 1979. Man and his symbols. London: Aldus.
    One of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century was Carl Jung. This is his most accessible work.

  • Kirk, G S. 1970. Myth. Its meaning and functions in ancient and other cultures. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
    Touches on the relationship between myth and religion. One of the best ways to approach Levi-Strauss and structuralism in general.

  • Levi-Strauss, C. 1970. The raw and the cooked. London: Jonathan Cape.
    A classic of structuralism, but by no means an easy read.

  • Schmidt, R. 1980. Exploring religion. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
    A good thematic introduction to the world religions, using an Eliadean framework.

  • Smart, N. 1984. The religious experience of mankind. New York: Scribner.
    Now in its third edition, this remains THE introduction to the world religions.

  • Smart, N. 1977. Background to the long search. London: BBC.
    This is a companion volume to the TV series The Long Search. It is a well structured thematicintroduction to the religious quest.

  • Streng F J. 1985 Understanding religious life. Wadsworth: Belmont.
    An excellent introductory text to the various facets of religious life in its complexity. Requires some familiarity with world religions.

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