(Sorry for the awfully long introduction to the topic, but I think it’s important to get a good grasp on what we’re discussing. I promise the next few will be shorter)

It has acheived the status of ‘common knowledge’ in left blogostan that it is nigh-impossible for a candidate for any public office higher than dog-catcher to get elected without being religious – at least nominally. Likewise, it is becoming an increasingly popular position to claim that religion is – if not inherently outright dangerous (the apparent position of Sam Harris) – then at least foolish and delusional (the apparent position of Richard Dawkins). While I have problems with all three of these positions, I am more interested here in what definition of religion is being used. Or, more precisely, what definition(s) of religion should be used in the discussion of religion.

On the one hand, this seems incredibly simple. After all, many of us can name at least several religions, and some of us can name quite a few: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Sikhism, Wicca, Shinto, and so on ad infinitum. Surely, if we recognize all of these and more as religions, we must have a pretty good idea of what a religion is.

On the other hand, the question “What is a religion?” doesn’t make any sense in and of itself. After all, nobody practices ‘religion’ and more than anybody speaks ‘language’. We might practice a religion, or elements of more than one, just as we might speak a language or a few laguanges, but we do not practice the abstract concept.

So, perhaps the question isn’t “What is religion?” but, rather, “What do all of these things have in common that we can refer to them by the same name?”

Do We Need a Definition?

Ordinarily, I’m not to picky what definition of religion people use, as long as it’s clear during the course of the conversation it meets to requirements: First, it has to be used consistently; second, everyone involved has to be in general agreement about what it is. There might be some quibbling and refining, but an official definition isn’t required in most circumstances. When it does become important, though, is when a lot of people are involved in a conversation and aren’t all using the same meaning and/or when the definition changes over the course of a conversation.

Let me give a simple example of the problem. I’ve been involved in more than one conversation where someone has made the claim that religion is responsible for most of the world’s problems. At this point, usually, most people seem to be think that ‘religion’ refers to those things that we usually list as religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. Eventually, though, someone asks about Nazism, Stalinism, or problems in, say, North Korea. The response: “Oh, but those are all caused by religion. After all Nazism is a religion, and Stalinism is a religion.” In other words, we veer off from those things we normally think of as religion into another realm, without ever establishing just what constitutes a religion.

When we’re talking about politics, this is important. The claim that no one can get elected to national office without being at least nominally religious is a serious charge. But if we say that a candidate has to have religion, what are we actually saying that they have to have? If we say that religion is inherently dangerous or foolish, what are we accusing of being dangerous or foolish? If we are trying to raise the presence of religion in the public sphere, what are we trying to have more of? If we’re trying to quash religion in the public sphere, what are we trying to quash? Definitions, or at least descriptions, it turns out, can be really important.

Moreover, I might dare suggest that one of the reasons that I’ve seen Dawkins’s and Harris’s books be used so happily in arguments against religion is that we don’t even know if they’re attacking religion. Certainly, both use the word ‘religion’ a lot, but Dawkins is arguing against monotheism (which doesn’t exist in all of the things we commonly call religions). Harris, meanwhile is arguing against faith (though, I would argue, ‘faith’ poorly defined or understood). To identify either of these arguments as being against religion in general is to either misunderstand religion in general or to have a shabby definition of it.

The Albanese Definition

Catherine Albanese, in America: Religions and Religion provides a list of common characteristics of religions. These are:

  • Creeds: explanations about the meaning or meanings of human life, which might be systematc theologies, oral traditions, narratives, and so forth.
  • Codes: rules that govern everyday behavior. wihch might be complex systems of laws to unwritten customs to general ethical ideas.
  • Cultuses: rituals that act out the understandings and insights of the creeds and codes.
  • Communities: goups of people who are bound together by a creed, code and cultus. These might be formal or informal. They could take the form of ethnic or cultural groups or formal institutions such as churches, denominations, etc.

The recognition of these “4 C’s” allows Albanese to develop a compelling working definition:

…a system of symbols (creed, code, cultus) by means of which people (a community) orient themselves in the world with reference to both ordinary and extraordinary powers, meanings, and values… From this perspective, while many people live without Gods, nobody lives without religion. (Albanese, p. 11)

Overall, not a bad definition. However, for the purposes of blogospheric discourse it does have one major drawback: everyone practices religion under this definition. Or, at least, the vast majority of people do. After all, who doesn’t have a set of explanations about the meaning(s) of human life (creed)? Or a set of rules/ethics/mores that they use to navigate daily life (code)? Or rituals and practices that are done in order to embody the creed and the code (cultus)? Or a community or communities with which they share these things (community)? Maybe a few people manage to live outside of the this definition of religion, but my guess is that these people would be few in number.

Sacred and Profane

Mircea Eliade, the famed sociologist of religion, defines religion differently in his book The Sacred and the Profane. What is crucial here – to vastly oversimplify – is the division of the universe into two different sorts of parts, whether in terms of space or time: the sacred parts (which are also structured, ordered, and significant: cosmos) and the profane parts (which are also unstructured, disordered, and insignificant: chaos). Religion, then, is the collection of practices, texts, rituals, etc. that displays this difference and orients the human being towards the cosmos.

One might expect this to yield results fairly similar to the Albanese definition. However, there’s an important distinction: Albanese merely requires creed, code, cultus, and community – a requirement that could be met by a group of philosophers. Eliade requires a recognition of the difference and interplay between cosmos and chaos and an experience of that difference. This is not mere speculation, this is way of life. This does not just have a code of ethics, it is a practice of one’s relationship to the nature of time and space.

But, doesn’t this have the same problem as the Albanese definition? Doesn’t everyone recognize some places and times and events as more ordered than others? Well, probably, so let’s solve that through a very simple method: combining definitions.

The Combined Definition

Let’s say this: a religion is a set of beliefs and practices that has a creed, code, and cultus that reflects the distinction and interplay between cosmos and chaos – especially as that distinction and interplay affects particular times and places – and in which this creed, code, and cultus are practiced (or whatever word you want to use) in a community.

Does this mean that everyone practices a religion? I believe not. Or, at the very least, not everyone consciously has a religion, and certainly not everyone has a very systematic one. That is, most of us probably don’t have, or at least don’t recognize, the interrelation between our creeds, codes, cultuses, communities, and our places and times of significance. With this combined definition, we can look at our lives and say: Yes, I have religion. Or, we can say: No, I do not have a religion. We might all have the parts in greater or lesser amounts, but we don’t all have interrelation between them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that only the things we consider religions are religions, the examples can be expanded quite a bit. But, at least it limits us a bit.

So, you’ve read all this way, what do you think? Can we define (or at least describe) religion? If so, what’s the definition? If not, how can we talk about religion?

In two weeks: Secular Religion

Holy Week and Passover are coming up! I’m hoping to have at least one Religious Literacy: Special Edition up next week, but we’ll see what my daily life brings.