Defining Religion: A Preface

For the most part, I can operate within the bounds of the conventional definition of religion; I can use the word in the same way that most people use it and navigate within the framework that use implies (the “Just Religion” category on this blog is so-named on the basis of such an understanding).  From my perspective, however, the conventional methods of religious/nonreligious demarcation always seem to fall apart under close scrutiny (sometimes for different reasons,* but the end result is the same), which is why, for my own internal purposes, I subscribe to an altogether different definition.

*The first most common reason is ethnocentricism.  The second most common reason is a difference of opinion with regard to rhetorical theory & epistemologies — a discussion for another time, perhaps.

Firstly, I want to recognize that there are atheists and others who consider themselves nonreligious for whom these posts may not be welcome.  I have a peripheral awareness of the argument that sometimes happens between atheists and theists on whether or not atheism is itself a religion, and I side with the atheists on this one.  Atheism is not a religion.  Nor is theism is a religion.  They’re both just possible tenets of a religion, rather than a whole religion unto themselves.

That said, I presume the issue’s something of a sore spot, enough that any conception of religion that might categorize even the “nonreligious” as religious might be summarily rejected on that basis.  To extent that I am able, I understand.  The purpose of these posts is not to tell people how to identify, but to provide another lens for analysis and another tool for reconsidering some prevalent assumptions.  Considering an individual “religious” (or not) has some vague cultural meanings that do provide some social currency and functionality in terms of identity, and even for my own purposes I cannot reject that usage altogether.

Too often, however, categorizing something/someone as “religious” is seen as an insult, a claim of excess or inaccuracy, and one of the motivations for these posts is offering a rebuttal to that paradigm.  For the sake of illustrating some points, I’ll primarily be referencing religious views I disagree with, but I don’t want this to be understood as supporting the idea that calling something a “religion” degrades its legitimacy — and technically, the implied inverse or oppositional views to the ones I name would be also grouped as religious views.

Broadening our understanding of what counts as “religion” will allow us to include things that, for all intents and purposes, function the same as captial-“r” Religion (the popular conception of religion) but have been rarely recognized as such.  Similar work has been done in the ace community on the definition of “sexual orientation” — a narrow but popular definition is “the gender(s) to which an individual generally experiences sexual attraction”, but we can also define it as “the primary pattern to an individual’s experiences with sexual attraction”, allowing for demi and lith to be recognized.  Likewise, expanding the conceptual category of a religion can be beneficial in that it allows us to see what happens when we look at conventionally nonReligious ideologies through a religious lens, a venture that proved rather illuminating for one of my agnostic friends when we discussed some attitudes she’d frequently run up against.

And even if is not for others, my definition is useful to me because of the interlocking relations between the various webs and nexi of my own ideology.  By and large, I cannot pull apart the tenets I believe in to separate out which of them are “religious” and which are not.  That is to say, many of the tenets that most people would consider nonreligious/secular (my perspectives on economic systems, on the distribution of resources, on human rights, on media and philosophies/psychologies of communication and narrative, on rhetoric, on judgement, on oppression, on power) are beliefs that I cannot disentangle from my religion, are bound up in my religion, are part of my religion, my theology, my cold unrelenting asexual Christianity.

Prying apart my religious ideology from my nonreligious ideology and calling them two different belief sets would not be about describing my ideology accurately, it would be about enabling others to avoid reexamining the cracks in their own assumptions and to reduce any complexity to something easier to swallow.

Again, I can see how “nonreligous” and its inverse can function as useful markers of identity for some people, and as long as that usefulness remains I am uninterested in wrenching that categorization system away from them — just so long as they recognize that it is not the only option, not the only logical way of seeing.

For instance, while it’s certainly “possible” (possible, as in some Christians do; not possible as in logically coherent) to both uphold the tenet that we are all children of God and yet also uphold the cis/hetero/patriarchal values that dehumanize and oppress large swaths of the human population, my belief in the former feeds into my rejection of the latter; I view the two as contradictory, and that is part of my religion, not some irrelevant and severable connection that you can take out at your convenience or that can be sidelined without sacrificing comprehension of what exactly it is I believe.  For me, disagreeing with the sexism of complementarians is a religious difference, not a secular one, and the same holds just as true when I’m dealing with anyone else.

Granted, I do not see theism and opposition-to-oppression as tenets that imply each other mutually, but my point is that it does not make sense to decouple them within the framework of my own theology.  That is another reason for writing these posts — for trying to articulate a nonstandard definition of religion.

I’ll note here that my definition of religion could be easily swapped out with more neutral synonyms like “ideology” or “worldview” or “belief systems”, tepid as those last two may sound to me, and that’s fine if that’s what you prefer, but my focus on the more contentious word “religion” is intentional, as it is the one that some people (even some Christians) are most eager to distance themselves from.

Click for the second post.

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2 responses to “Defining Religion: A Preface

  • tyrian

    I am a follower of Jesus Christ but I don’t consider myself as religious one. For me, when you say religious, it means that you are perfect not bound to commit mistakes, but we are only human, still I will try my best to be not perfect but to be a good Christian!

    • acetheist

      Well that’s… certainly not a definition I’ve heard before. Not even “saint” means that.

      Anyway, I highly recommend reading the comment section on the second post.

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