The Definition Of Religion, And Why It’s A Problem

defining religion

Defining religion is surprisingly difficult.

If you've never considered it before, defining the word 'religion' might seem like a trivial task to you. After all, that family across the street are Christian, aren't they? And surely those are Muslims a few doors down... Isn't it just a question of worshipping some 'god' or other, and respecting the holy regulations laid out by frock-wearing priests? Nope, I'm afraid not; it's rather more complicated than that, and this is one occasion when heading off to the dictionary to look up the word doesn't really help, because all the dictionaries use a similar if vague definition of religion. Merriam's, for example, goes with 'the service and worship of God or the supernatural', while the Oxford dictionary currently defines religion as 'The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.'

While you will have noticed that the definitions of religion supplied by all these 'good books' have a prominent common feature ('gods' or 'deities'), they also include variations that make it clear those gods or deities are unnecessary. Merriam's for instance, uses the phrase 'God or the supernatural', and 'The Free Dictionary' goes with 'a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects'. They do this in an attempt to be accurate; to catch the non-theistic religions too, such as the many branches of Buddhism that feature 'rebirth', or the literally barking Scientologists.

Many Buddhists, of course, would prefer to regard Buddhism as a philosophy, rather than a religion, and that's a smart move:- after all, in the 21st Century, the very idea of 'religion' is starting to become a little tacky, especially within younger circles. The claim that all branches of Buddhism aren't religions is incorrect though, and they themselves don't seem 100% committed to it:- witness how plenty of Buddhist temples are happy to claim the tax exemptions and charitable status awarded to religions in most countries, such as the USA.

This rather confused state of affairs has gotten me thinking again, and after a short troll through the various forums, I've concluded that a new definition is required; a definition of religion that will separate it from philosophy once and for all. I doubt I've nailed it simply on the back of a half hour's pondering, but maybe it will do as a starting point for someone more mentally agile than myself to have a go at assembling a more robust and less ambiguous definition of religion. So... what's my new, improved 110% better definition of religion? At its heart...

A religion is a belief system requiring subscribers to accept unsubstantiated assertions about the supernatural that attempt to answer questions traditionally regarded as metaphysical, and often specifies a code of conduct alleged to ensure supernatural advantages or the avoidance of supernatural disadvantages to those subscribers - R R Deehan 2017

Metaphysical questions might include asking why there's a universe at all, or what happens to us after we die. Religious types might look at that definition and say "Ha! Atheism is a religion then, because atheists are required to accept that the supernatural claims of the religious are wrong, and that's a claim about the supernatural!". This kind of 'argument', of course, only serves to illustrate how far from reality the typical religious mindset is. Put simply, denying a claim about something supernatural is indeed a form of claim, but only about the other claim, not about the supernatural. Does this definition of religion cover Buddhism? Yes, if you agree that to be a Buddhist you have to believe in rebirth, which is supernatural nonsense of the highest order. By the way, if you think you are a Buddhist, but you don't believe in rebirth, samsara dude; you're identical to a Humanist who likes to sit on a cushion, trying not to think. Now that actually is a philosophy. Does this definition of religion cover Scientology? Yep, there's no end of supernatural bullshit spewing out of that particular orifice. How about Christians and Muslims? of course:- it fits nicely with the stated tenets of those particular billion-member belief systems.

That's the best I can do for now, with the limited time available to me; perhaps someone else can refine it. I should probably remind you all that there's no such thing as the supernatural in a natural universe, so by this definition, all religions are nonsense. If you're interested in the topic of why that is, and why gods are impossible in a real universe, here's a free PDF ebook explaining the science. It's mostly pictures, by the way, so it's very easy going. Why God Is Impossible

Ciao ciao.

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Oh, By the way, if you're a secular buddhist, you should try and come up with a better name for yourselves because this is what you look like to the rest of us.

Late thoughts... Mahasatipatthana-sutta: "And what, bhkkhus, is the noble truth that is the arising of pain? This is craving that leads to rebirth." If you're interested in the nitty gritty of whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy or just a patronising cult of nihilism, composed from a set of basically incompatible ideas, I can recommend  the excellent Jeff Wilson book "Samsara and Rebirth, in Buddhism", from 2010 (Oxford Press).