What is “Religion”? A (Possible) Definition
How there's often clarity in mystery, and mystery in clarity
What’s the real definition of the word “religion”?
It's a word we use all the time. "Religion." But what is it?
This might not seem like the most thrilling, toe-curling, heart-pounding topic.
At least at first.
But it turns out to be surprisingly rich, and useful.
A few minutes of exploring this puzzle can sometimes help bring the world into focus. That world can otherwise be a little weird and confusing, or more than a little.
But wait: hasn’t “religion” already been defined clearly? (Not really, as it turns out.) If it hasn’t been defined perfectly, don’t we all pretty much know what we’re talking about, even if we don't always articulate it? (Yes, in some ways, but this can also open the door to unnecessary confusion.) But if it hasn’t been settled by now, after thousands of years, shouldn’t we declare it unsolvable, and give up? (Nope.)
The word has evolved.
(Or mutated, depending on who you ask.)
We often use the word in a certain way these days. But the official definition, it often seems, hasn’t quite caught up yet.
Let’s first take a brief tour of the early attempts to define the word “religion.” Then we can propose a "new" one. Although it isn't actually "new," to be honest. It just reflects the way it’s actually being used today.
Then for some, the world might start making a little more sense.
Let’s get cracking.
So, what is “religion”?
It’s easy enough to think of examples: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam, are a few.
But these are examples, not definitions. What are they examples of?
Some define religion along the lines of a set of institutionalized religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. (Mariam-Webster). But this is cheating. It defines the word “religion” using the word “religious.” It’s like defining the color “red” by saying “it’s red.” It’s a tautology. It doesn’t really tell us anything new.
So, we can keep on going.
Another angle describes it as “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” (English Oxford Living Dictionary). This is what often comes to mind: we often picture religion involving a church, temple, or synagogue, or someone preaching or praying. But this definition slowly seems to be prepping for retirement. It’s not how many use the word these days. It also leaves out certain forms of Buddhism, for example, which many consider to be "religions," but aren't too big on deities.
At this point we can do a whirlwind tour of a few famous thinkers. For example, in trying to define “religion,” there’s Hegel (“the Divine Spirit becoming conscious of Himself through the finite spirit,” Schlieiermacher (“the feeling of absolute dependence”), William James (the experiences of a human being in solitude (more or less)), Paul Tillich (“the state of being ultimately concerned”), Emile Durkheim (a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things”), The Humanist Manifesto, as basically “actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant,” and so on.
This kind of thing could go on for quite a while. All of these have problems and shortcomings we could explore, some of which are probably obvious. But this isn’t an academic paper (thankfully), and this isn't meant to be exhaustive or exhausting, so we’ll stop there.
But what have we figured out?
In a nutshell: defining religion isn’t as easy as it might seem at first.
There is no universal, agreed-upon definition. Experts disagree. The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religion, for example, just throws in the towel and writes off “the very attempt to define religion” (although it’s apparently something worth writing an entire Encyclopedia on.)
But with no offense to the nice folks at MacMillan, futility is futile.
And more importantly, once again, all of the above definitions miss the way a lot of people are already using the word today.
So here’s a humble proposal.
It’s the definition of “religion” that many individuals today have adopted:
“Religion” is a set of axioms that answer The Big Questions of life.
We can expand this out just a bit.
“Religion” is a set of axioms (assumptions, basic beliefs, self-evident starting points, presuppositions, First Principles, etc) that answer The Big Questions of life in the form of lived answers.
Let’s unpack this a little.
What do we mean by “axioms”?
In a nutshell, axioms are basic starting points that are assumed as self-evident.
After all, you have to start somewhere.
We sometimes hear declarations like this: “Don’t assume anything.” Or, to add a little more flavor: “When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” (Bah-doom pah!) The implication is that invisible, unconscious assumptions can throw us off course. This is true. (And this is a key ingredient in trying to investigate spiritual questions “scientifically.”)
The answer then, it seems, is simple: don't make assumptions.
But it's impossible to make no assumptions. It’s like saying “walk a thousand miles, but don’t take a first step.” The idea that “you shouldn’t assume anything” is itself an assumption. The idea that you should begin with “doubt everything” (Descartes) is itself an assumption. (Should we also doubt the idea that we should begin by doubting everything?) It’s like saying “We shouldn’t use language,” which uses language, or “We shouldn’t use ideas,” which is itself an idea.
All to say, we can’t avoid axioms in our personal beliefs. Anyone who claims to not have them is often just unaware of them. They’ve usually assumed that making assumptions is an avoidable bad thing, and they’re trying to be consistent with that.
This brings up the idea of “reason.”
Reasoning starts with a set of premises (assumptions) and proceeds to conclusions. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore…” etc.
All reasoning requires axioms. You have to start somewhere.
Same with science. You begin the process of science with an idea or a hypothesis to test or gather data for. Where do you get that from? The same place assumptions or axioms come from in reasoning. To “do” science, you have to start somewhere.
Real axioms can’t be “proven.” “Proof” comes at the end of the process, not at the beginning. Even defining what “proof” is requires a starting point. In order to measure something with a ruler, we have to assume a ruler.
We could really geek out with more rounds of mental gymnastics on all this (which would be fun for us geeks) but we’ll move on.
There are “The Big Questions” of life.
The Big Questions are no mystery. We’re all familiar with them.
What’s it all about? Who am I? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How should I live? What’s the point? What the heck is going on?
…and so on.
The “can’t avoid facing” part is key.
We can’t not answer these.
For example, one Big Question is this:
What should I give my life to?
We have to do something with our lives.
Even if we just decide to stay in bed, that means doing something. We can decide to give our lives to "staying in bed." That's an answer.
All to say, we can’t not answer The Big Questions.
But wait: if we can’t not answer these, why is talking about them so rare? Or, from the other side: aren’t these lofty, abstract, highbrow issues best left to late-night, half-drunk bull sessions, potbellied philosophers, or college professors? Not “us” – real people, living in the real world?
As we’re using it here, no. The Big Questions aren’t something each of us needs to answer one day in the future.
They’re things each of us already have answered.
These more often take the form of “lived answers.”
Our answers to The Big Questions rarely come in the form of a fully-articulated system of thought. They appear as our behavior, or as how we live.
For example, one individual might describe himself as a “hedonist.” For a different individual, the word “hedonist” might never cross his lips. But both of these individuals, we’ll say, spend all of their available time and energy partying, eating, drinking, and trying to be merry.
Both of these individuals have the same “lived answer.” In one case, his answer to “The Big Question” is conscious and has been articulated: “My life philosophy is hedonism.” The other never uses the word.
But the underlying answer is the same, for practical purposes, in both cases. All to say, our answers to The Big Questions don’t need to be verbalized, articulated, or even conscious. They come through in how we live. They're "lived answers."
So, hopefully we now have a new definition of religion we can work with.
“Religion” is a set of axioms that answer The Big Questions of life.
This isn’t a far stretch from some earlier efforts to define it. For example, the 8-pound Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the word religion as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe.” Nothing, then, about this approach is too radical.
That said, there are plenty of consequences that follow from this point.
For example, it can lead to other ideas.
For example, there's the idea that everyone is “religious.”
Defined this way, the “religious” aren’t just a few folks singing in choirs or sitting on meditation cushions. It also means the hard-nosed skeptic, the all-out partier, the political fanatic. The hard-nosed skeptic, the all-out partier, the political fanatic are also “religious,” in their own ways.
But at this point, we should mention a potential hazard. This threatens to muddy the waters. After all, if everyone is religious, doesn’t that mean no one is religious? Doesn’t that nullify the word, and render it useless? If that’s the case, what sets “religious” people (in the classical sense of Christian, Buddhist, etc) apart from others?
The short response here is that this doesn’t nullify the word.
It levels the playing field.
Some claim that “they’re religious, and I’m not.”
What they’re often mean by this is “they’re irrational, and I’m not.” And even further: “they base their lives by a set of unproven axioms, and I don’t.”
But if what we've explored so far is at all on course here, that approach is mistaken.
If the above is on target, everyone is religious. So in fact, it isn’t the case that only some live their lives by a set of unproven assumptions, while everyone else is “rational.” Everyone is on equal ground here.
So, if this is correct: choose your “revelation.”
Those who live by traditional religion are often open and honest about this entire process. They state their axioms openly. Others hide theirs, or pretend they don’t exist.
But what about muddying the waters in a different way?
Doesn’t this open the door to individuals “gaming the system” by declaring for example, that my "religion" consists of eating Cheetos?
This brings us to another key point: that not all “religions” are equally conducive to human thriving or happiness.
For example: we could imagine “heroinism,” or a “religion” based on using heroin. Those who give their allegiance to this "religion" will often entail a certain amount of unnecessary pain and suffering in ways that are entirely predictable and unsurprising. In that sense, heroinism isn’t a “religion” many intelligent individuals, who know much about life, would recommend. Anyone can declare that sunlight doesn’t exist or that gravity is an illusion, but this doesn’t mean all physicists are equal. When it comes to physics, we can say that Einstein knew more than Thales. In discussions of legitimate spirituality, the same dynamics can apply. Some ideas can be "bad," if only in the sense that they lead predictably to misery and death. Other ideas can be "good," if only in the sense that they lead to human flourishing and happiness.
Here again, we could go down more than a few really interesting trails.
But even this much can help us navigate through this crazy life.
After all, today, we’re living in an age where more of us are consciously choosing our religions, for better or worse.
Historically speaking, this is a strange new condition. “Choosing a religion” is an entirely new challenge that few of us have been prepared for. We’re still adjusting to it.
And some are surprised to discover: solving that problem might not be as easy as it seems.
As it turns out, “do-it-yourself religion” might roughly parallel “do-it-yourself helicopter piloting.”
Which is to say, there are hazards.
Sometimes those hazards don’t become apparent until late in the game, after choices have already been made, and key moments have already passed.
There seems to be more than a few ways to get it “wrong” in these areas. (Or, if “wrong” is too strong a word, we could say “there are ways we can set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.”) One example of this is the existential crisis than can result from someone rethinking their entire worldview or life philosophy. There's risk of falling into Soft Nihilism, which isn't exactly uncommon these days - and from there, either meaninglessness or bad answers to "the meaning of life."
But then there’s the flip side. Especially today, there are also profound opportunities for a deeper, higher, more profound experience of life.
These can be strange, dangerous, and fascinating new terrains.
Exploring them can be risky. But still worth exploring.
Let’s map them well.