Defining Religion

For reasons established in my previous post which got unexpectedly long, this post will set out to explain the definition of religion that makes the most sense to me.  This is one way of conceiving of it, not what religion “is” in a hard-and-fast sense, because I don’t think a loose cultural category such as religion can have some true abstract essential nature in any way independent from our own perceptions.  And please don’t come talking to me about “faith”; I’ve already dissected the concept of faith.

[edit: if you’re going to read this post, please read the comment section]

What follows is a rough characterization of the best working model I’ve been able to put together so far.

Religion is what you value, in a behavioral sense, delineating what are virtues and what are vices.  I’ve known people who would trust a person more and hold a higher opinion of them if they knew that said person smoked weed, for example (part of a wider value system of theirs that was memorable to the extent that it worked to my detriment), and I’ve encountered great swaths of people who believed a case was better made when argued while levelheaded rather than angry, placing value on calm speech and personal detachment during conflict (whereas I see levelheadedness as something more like heavy muscle — nice to have, sometimes, but it doesn’t make you a more upstanding citizen or your words any more true).

Religion is how you structure what you believe to be behavioral imperatives, a system of organizing and ranking priorities, the list of and the reasoning behind all the places you would use the word “should”.  Some examples would include the worship of the free market and a neoliberal disdain for regulation that interferes with a corporation’s ability to profit, a paradigm I’ve seen plenty of from the other students in my economics classes, served up with all the diehard devotion and uncritical faithfulness that is expected of the Religious.  Some of those kids were more skeptical of a cost-benefit analysis supporting the efficacy of the Clean Air Act than they were of an essay that touted eugenics, if that tells you anything.

Even when there’s documented proof of people’s lives and health being harmed by fracking, air pollution, or radiation, primarily impacting people living in poverty, the costs are acknowledged but dismissed with “well, we need the energy” (or the production, or the growth, or what have you), taking a “that’s how the cookie crumbles” attitude to people dying, because benefits are assigned a higher value than the costs when the people benefiting are the ones with more prestigious jobs and more money.  Legislation that might protect people from harm with a side effect of making it more difficult for corporations to profit, on the other hand, is treated like an unethical impingement on human freedom and the blessed invisible hand that will make all things right (or right enough) if we let it.  I swear, the lack of self-awareness among these people is comparable to the Christians who think that the only reason other people aren’t Christians is because they haven’t heard of the Bible before.

Moving to another example, one religion that I expect anglophonic aces to be familiar with is the view of sex as a holy ritual that all should pursue, sanctioning all sexual things as territory that is sacred and mandated and unquestionable and never (or rarely) on the table for criticism.  Sex-repulsion and intentional celibacy are treated as blasphemous and pitiful; for different reasons depending on what other ideologies this one comes mixed with, sex is seen as something that MUST happen and be enjoyed, whereas a negative response to anything sexual is indicative of weakness or moral delinquency.  If you dare criticize anyone’s sexual practices or speech, at all, it’s presumed that you must be an unenlightened prude on the wrong path who has yet to embrace the truth (aka sex).  A life that does not involve copious amounts of sex must necessarily be miserable; a life that is not devoted to seeking it must necessarily be pointless, or so the religion dictates — answering the question of “What reason is there to live?” with a resounding cry of “Orgasms”.  See Alok Vaid-Menon’s essay here for a more in-depth look at the subject.

In the case of low/absent libido or sex drive, the religion of sex-worship (“worship”, v: to ascribe worth to, to show devotion to, to honor, to revere) sometimes veers onto a more subtle religious thread — the endorsement of health as an ideological (sometimes moral) imperative, as is sometimes manifested in reactions to fat bodies.  “It’s okay as long as they’re healthy,” the reasoning goes.  By extension, it’s not okay for people not to be healthy, apparently; this also manifests in the way people will casually treat ethics as a matter of mental health.

Religion is not just about what you believe exists, but the ideological implications of what you believe exists.  In high school, I once overheard a classmate exclaim, “Guys!  Did you know that roadrunners are real?”  She had not been aware of this up until then.  And yet I would not classify her prior disbelief in roadrunners as a religious difference between her and me.  Belief or disbelief in a creature or being’s existence (ex. vampires, unicorns) does not, in and of itself, constitute a religion, unless that belief is intertwined with beliefs about what that existence entails and how we should behave as a result.  This is part of why you’ll see little mention of “the supernatural” or “the spiritual” in this definition of religion.  I don’t consider the belief in some cryptid or another to necessarily be a matter of religion, which I presume is why so many nonReligious people find it so easy to write stories about elves and fairies and the like.

Religion is what perspectives you think other people should share, a lens and a way of seeing that you want to spread to everyone, the collection of narratives you reach for in order to explain and enrich the meaning of the things you find.  In other words, it’s the things you think it’s important for people (in general) to agree with you on.  What this means is that religion cannot be a purely private matter; if you genuinely don’t care (or only care at a more permissive, non-ideological level) whether or not anyone else agrees with a belief, that it’s not what I would consider a religious belief.  Religion calls for proselytizing.  Religion tolerates, rather than accepts, disagreement — if even then.  One example of this, besides “If you don’t find __________ attractive you’re lying,” would be a particular subsection of some fandoms, for which appreciation for a given media work is promoted as something that should be universal.  To be clear, I am not calling fandom religious when it is obsessive; I am calling some sections of fandom religious when they see even unrelated comments or events, respond to them in terms of the fandom, and advocate that outsiders embrace this as an enriching point of view, applying fandom spins on things even where the input is unwelcome and then deriding the resulting condemnation of their actions as a mere product of ignorance or ineptitude.

To elaborate on the point, religion encapsulates more than just “what you believe” (what you value, what you mandate) because it’s also what you believe others should believe, meaning that I can agree with someone on a given tenet (ex. theism) but, if they disagree with me on whether it’s important or even how important it is for this tenet to be spread (in terms of trumping other priorities), then that is itself a religious disagreement, looping back around again to this idea of “should”s and imperatives.

Some people fancy that they believe in no imperatives, and I’ve found these people to be rather untrustworthy and to have a poor understanding of their own beliefs, claiming not to hold anyone to any moral code but then getting annoyed when I broke theirs.

Paradoxically, the view that some beliefs aren’t religious beliefs (especially on the grounds that they’re actually True) is itself part of a religion, because one aspect of religion is about defining truth (presuming, of course, that truth falls under that religion’s values).  Calling a tenet religious has no implications about whether it’s true or false.  The people I’ve encountered who believe otherwise tend to show signs of scientism.

Scientism is, indeed, a religion (one that shows up in atheists and theists alike) in so far as it expresses a set of values, behavioral mandates, priorities, and credulities (and is at least as silly as my belief in a magic sky fairy or whatever it is they’re calling Her these days).  First, though, it should be clarified that scientism is not the same thing as science.  I loathe one and admire the other, for the former misunderstands what the latter is.  Science is, in a sense, a way of studying and learning about the world, a body of knowledge collected by human hands.  It is not the pure Gospel truth handed down from the heavens.  It does not — nor should it — provide the answer to every question, just some types of questions.  Scientists are not infallible prophets whose personal interests and biases never influence their work.  Scientists can disagree, even; they’re human like the rest of us, not some transcendent hivemind.

Scientism is the religion that forgets to acknowledge these things.  The modern use of the term refers to the overapplication of the scientific method in places where it doesn’t belong, but Susan Haack has also described it as “when respect for the achievements of the sciences has transmuted into [a] kind of exaggerated deference.” At the more harmless end of the scale, it can manifest in vague, homogenizing phrases like “according to science” and “scientists believe” and “studies show” (Which branch of science?  Which scientists?  Which studies?  The lack of specificity has always struck me as suspicious).  At the other extreme, it shows itself as devout faith in the idea that all scientific work really is objective (rather than just setting objectivity as the goal) and 100% reliable and accurate (even though, if you know anything about real science, you know that different scientists sometimes reach different, conflicting conclusions and are willing to challenge each other, and in fact this is part of how scientific progress is even possible — not always taking the veracity of other people’s work for granted).

Thus, as Haack put it, “the honorific use of ‘science’ encourages uncritical credulity about whatever new scientific idea comes down the pike” (and you really should read this essay of hers about the subject).  It’s not just that faith in the objectivity of science hurts scientific progress, though, because it also takes a moral risk in refusing to believe that scientific work CAN be biased, that who’s let in to scientific fields is biased; science is not except from social forces, not even the damaging ones.  This is all the more true when those biases go unrecognized and unchecked, and when scientists’ value systems are wrong, science has been a component to brutal atrocities, e.g. when racism allows scientists to engage in unethical experimentation on Black people.  Science can be racist; science can be sexist; science can be anything that people can be, which means that science can be party to all manner of evil.  This is not to argue that science is evil, categorically, but that like any tool it can be used for a variety of purposes, not just morally-neutral or morally-vindicated ones.  That is what scientism doesn’t care to acknowledge, for scientism purports that which is “scientific” as the same as that which is right and true, and treats these two concepts as being defined by one another.  But I digress.

If religion is defined in a way broad enough to include such ideologies, then it becomes apparent why it’s not very informative to reduce an individual’s religion to one solitary word, for usually any given person’s religion is formed of several religions, overlapping or melded together.  Rounding up nonReligious ideologies into one united category with the rest allows us to trace the connections (and even that startling similarities) between them, without as many fences and speed bumps — placing them on an even plane, so to speak.  For me, it’s useful to have one overarching category for such things for many reasons, as I elaborated on in the preface.  This explanation isn’t necessarily comprehensive or complete, but it should be a good enough start to understanding some of my perspective.

I hope it’s gotten you thinking, at least.

 

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17 responses to “Defining Religion

  • luvtheheaven

    Thank you so much for linking to Alok Vaid-Menon’s essay for a more in-depth look at that subject, I really enjoyed reading it!! ;)

    I also really did appreciate Susan Haack’s essay that you linked to as well. ;) I’ve only read like the first 3 pages of that 26 page PDF so far but I think I her point of view is reasonable and fair. ;) I’ll keep reading after I post this comment, lol.

    ~~~~

    For many reasons, I do prefer “ideology” or “worldview” or “belief systems” to religion for what you end up describing in this post (the three alternate terms you mention in your preface).

    I’ve always been under the impression that a religion is one of many potential ideologies (or one of many worldviews, or belief systems).

    As one of many potential belief systems, yes each religion has many direct parallels to other types of ideologies that people hold hard-and-fast to, but to call these other ideologies “religions” feels… incorrect on a deep level.

    Religion is fundamentally different in my particular culture in a few major ways. I am someone who grew up in the USA* and has never even left the country. Religion is more tied to someone’s identity, where changing your mind on beliefs often means changing “who you are”. Yes if you change from aligning with one political party to another you have to change a label about yourself, but most people don’t identify super closely with a political party label. The way people identify super closely with a word like “Jewish” or “Muslim”* often is much closer or even entangled with their ethnicity, something that has nothing to do with your thought process, but rather a part of yourself that you can’t choose and can’t change. People equate their own being “Christian” with being a “good person” and so much more. It means “I’m one of the majority” over here in the USA and no longer being a Christian means you no longer are who you once were in a way that feels more significant than simply changing your mind on other beliefs. Now I think changing your other beliefs really DOES change who you are. But the way religion vs. every other ideology is treated is what matters for the sake of my argument right here.

    *Yes, in other places around the world, what I say about religion often doesn’t apply at all, and these things are all much different. But I think for a USA context, what I’m saying really matters.

    Differences in religion are usually expected to be simply respected (which is a status quo that I’ve seen many atheists fight against) – respected as something you “just believe”, as if thoughts never effect actions (and therefore prioritizing changing someone else’s thought-pattern is always a mistaken priority).

    Under this “people should respect different religious belief” assumption that far too many people also ascribe to (as an additional ideology, essentially, lol! ), to ague against a religious belief on the grounds that it does effect behavior and you think their behavior (shunning LGBT folks, for example) should be changed, to even begin the discussion usually involves first EXPLAINING to said religious believer that yes, what you believe actually matters and effects your actions. But trying to change someone’s mind on religious matters is often considered a matter of “conversion” to a new religion or “de-conversion” to a lack of religion.

    This explanation of why it is actually fair to argue with someone’s deeply held RELIGIOUS beliefs is usually unnecessary when first talking to someone who holds a DIFFERENT TYPE of conflicting ideology. If you want to tell someone “health is not morality” or “people should be allowed to be unhealthy and still respected as human beings”, you are arguing against their ideology without needing to first explain why you don’t simply respect “differences of opinion”. You are able to jump right in on criticizing their ideology immediately.

    I agree that “Religion is what perspectives you think other people should share, a lens and a way of seeing that you want to spread to everyone”, except I personally think religion is too narrow. I do think religion is that, and I think I don’t have a “religion” but I do have a worldview/ideology/belief system. I would say Religion is a Worldview. And Worldviews are the perspectives you think are “correct”/”better”.

    I agree that what I’ve been saying in my comment here lines up with your “Paradoxically, the view that some beliefs aren’t religious beliefs… is itself part of a religion” except that religion word at the end. ;) Lol. I agree that I have an apparently strong ideological view in this paradoxical viewpoint.

    “I hope it’s gotten you thinking, at least.” – it certainly has, and I really like what you have to say! You have a lot of great thoughts on this subject, truly.

    I think my response to your concluding paragraph is… um… basically, I think maybe what we should be doing is not necessarily calling every belief system/ideology/worldview necessarily a “religion”, but rather the inverse. We should be recognizing that religions are not overly special or different from other ideologies, that even secular people such as myself have many different ideologies, and that everyone, religious or not, often subscribe to multiple different ideologies, and that there aren’t many differences (if any, really) between the types of belief systems called “religious” and those that are not so easily labeled.

    • acetheist

      “Religion is more tied to someone’s identity,”

      Hah. Oh, if only… I’ve known too many Christians who called themselves Christians and hung crosses on their walls but, other than that, I wouldn’t have been able to tell at all that they were Christian. There are a lot of people for whom Christianity is only a cultural thing (and that’s tied to your identity, certainly, but I presume you meant that in a stronger sense) who go to church on Sunday because that’s what you do, and are in the habit of using theistic phrases (“God bless”), but don’t really care about/aren’t ideologically attached to the theology. And you could say “well those aren’t real Christians” but they are. All you have to do to be a Christian is think of yourself as & call yourself one. People who argue otherwise tend to delve into a No True Scotsman fallacy. Anyway — I’m sure that’s been the case for the Religious people you’ve known, but I’ve also known plenty of people who were only loosely Religious and acknowledged some connection but were pretty apathetic about it.

      “where changing your mind on beliefs often means changing ‘who you are’. Yes if you change from aligning with one political party to another you have to change a label about yourself, but most people don’t identify super closely with a political party label. The way people identify super closely with a word like ‘Jewish’ or ‘Muslim’* often is much closer or even entangled with their ethnicity, something that has nothing to do with your thought process, but rather a part of yourself that you can’t choose and can’t change.”

      Ah, well, that’s getting into racial stuff. And you can’t ever separate the two entirely, but I see that as being because culture and religion necessarily have a lot of overlap, and there’s a mess there because of colonialism+White supremacy and other stuff I don’t have authority to speak on. So–

      What I was going to say is that changing my beliefs on so-called nonReligious subjects is, in fact, something that has changed who I am, in so far as I have any idea what “changing who you are” really means. Maybe the same would not be true of other people, but I don’t think that works as a differentiating feature.

      “People equate their own being ‘Christian’ with being a ‘good person’ and so much more.”

      Yeah that’s obnoxious and shows a misunderstanding of all sorts of things.

      “Now I think changing your other beliefs really DOES change who you are. But the way religion vs. every other ideology is treated is what matters for the sake of my argument right here.”

      Well they’re certainly treated different, but I think part of that is because nonReligious ideologies are less frequently given names. Most people who have beliefs in support of rape culture don’t bother to identify as such, for example, in part because it’s so normalized.

      “Differences in religion are usually expected to be simply respected”

      Yeah I don’t like that.

      “as an additional ideology, essentially, lol!”

      Yep. I know this was just a side comment, but this really is my favorite and least favorite thing — when people express this idea that you shouldn’t try to change other people’s opinions, you can say “My opinion is that that opinion is awful,” and then what are they going to do?

      “But trying to change someone’s mind on religious matters is often considered a matter of ‘conversion’ to a new religion or ‘de-conversion’ to a lack of religion.”

      In a sense, yes. But that really doesn’t have to be that big of a deal, and there are some religions/ideologies I’m glad I got converted to.

      “This explanation of why it is actually fair to argue with someone’s deeply held RELIGIOUS beliefs is usually unnecessary when first talking to someone who holds a DIFFERENT TYPE of conflicting ideology.”

      Usually, I suppose — but, in regards to the health/morality example you brought up, an atheist commenter on my “Health Is Not Morality” post decided to fuss at me incoherently, and my suspicion has been that they did that because they interpreted my statements as Religious statements (thanks to coded words like “sin” and “evil”). You, on the other hand, seem to have read my post as a primarily secular statement. So… there’s ambiguity, even then. And I’ve seen people get pretty up in arms about protecting nonReligious ideologies in the same way, so… I do agree that there’s sometimes a mental block of “this is a Religion so you can’t argue”, but in general, it hasn’t been my experience that making arguments ostensibly nonReligious makes them any easier (see the number of people refuse to accept asexuality as legit, for example, and dig their heels in when you try to correct them about it).

      “basically, I think maybe what we should be doing is not necessarily calling every belief system/ideology/worldview necessarily a ‘religion’, but rather the inverse. We should be recognizing that religions are not overly special or different from other ideologies, that even secular people such as myself have many different ideologies, and that everyone, religious or not, often subscribe to multiple different ideologies, and that there aren’t many differences (if any, really) between the types of belief systems called ‘religious’ and those that are not so easily labeled.”

      Yep, that’s another direction to take it, and I’d be happy with people coming to that conclusion as well.

      • luvtheheaven

        You’re right. I’ve met some people who label themselves Christians but aren’t exactly “devout” – that’s very common, Christian is basically the default identity label for some people who are much closer to agnostics than anything… many of them probably are closer to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd and they believe in God but they really don’t feel strongly enough about their religion to have an actual wish that more people shared their worldview. I won’t say they’re “not true Christians”, I accept that yes, everyone who labels themself a Christian is one, but that is another problem with your proposed definition of religion then. You define a religion as something that actually effects actions, that is an entire worldvview, that is a big deal. And for some people, a religion is something else to them. It’s just an identity label and nothing else. It’s just a base “theism” and like a single belief rather than a whole “belief system”. Religion can be all of these things.

        Some of these Christians are not attached to an “I’m probably right; you’re probably wrong” the way people who hold tight to many ideologies are. Just like with kind of any belief system, some people are very loosely in that camp, sort of agreeing with a worldview by default without feeling overly attached to it, and they often could easily change their mind if a persuasive person came along. Then again, some people become attached to not being one of “those people” who care really strongly on ANY side of some particular set of ideologies. They’d rather be more “laid back” about all of it and that is something they’re afraid of losing.

        I didn’t really like your health is not morality post using words like “sin” either, lol… :P It does sound pretty religious. That Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty comment just confuses me though. I have no idea what argument they’re trying to make. I think that’s why I took a long time before commenting. The post sort of rubbed me the wrong way when I first read it. For a lot of reasons, I think because of my nuanced views on what the heck “evil” is anyway and the fact that I’ve thought a lot about morality over the past few years.

        I think you’re right that many ideologies are just as hard to “Deconvert” people from as a religious one. I still think calling those other ideologies is wrong. Just because all sorts of belief systems, often including ones that don’t have names at all and people don’t realize is a belief system, can be just as difficult to get people to change their minds on doesn’t mean they are all religions.

        • acetheist

          “I didn’t really like your health is not morality post using words like ‘sin’ either, lol…”

          Speaking of which, the word “sin” has some rather interesting eytmologies and varieties of definitions to it. I’ve heard some conflicting origin stories. All loosely the same, but some less melodramatic than its contemporary connotation.

  • Calum P Cameron

    I would take issue with your assertion that religion calls for proselytising, although I suspect this is less because we disagree on what constitutes (or can constitute) a religious tenet and more because we have differing definitions or understandings of proselytism.

    I would say that my religion, or the things about which I am intentionally religious, or whatever, are precisely the things about which I will FIGHT proselytism tooth and nail. In my mind, religion most categorically does not call for proselytism – it calls for EVANGELISM.

    The difference I draw between those words may, possibly, be something specific to my culture – possibly British-specific or Church-of-Scotland-specific or possibly specific to the internet circles in which I move. I don’t know. But the way I think about the words, proselytising harms the cause, while evangelism, if anything, helps it. Proselytism is an argument; evangelism is a discussion. Proselytism demands or expects conversion, by any means; evangelism hopes for conversion as a consequence of understanding and being convinced. Evangelism, to use an admittedly somewhat tired old analogy, is like one beggar telling another beggar where they found bread, while proselytism is more akin to demanding that all the beggars you come across sign up to your newsletter, with some vague promise of bread in there just to get them to listen.

    To me, a “proselytising” Christian is one of the ones who treats their faith like a pyramid scheme, where the purpose is to go out and demand that people convert to Christianity so that they too may live a life of going out and demanding that people convert to Christianity. Meanwhile, an “evangelising” Christian, to me, is one who looks at their relationship with God and thinks, “This is good. This is right. This helps me, and it will probably help others. This is part of how humans were designed to be”, and as a result of that they do their best to explain and encourage consideration of their position, in the hope that, by doing so, they might help others to form a stronger/more informed/more peaceful/whatever relationship with God themselves.

    Similarly, in matters that would not traditionally be defined as (necessarily) religious, I draw a distinction between, for example “If you don’t like Doctor Who you’re simply wrong” and “Here is my attempt to get across why I like Doctor Who and why I think others will”, or between “You guys have a moral duty to become pacifists!” and “Here is the logic behind why I think I have a moral duty to be a pacifist, and the benefits that my pacifism affords me and those I interact with; please consider them”.

    To put it another way, your essay above I would class as evangelism and not proselytism – precisely because it does not disrespectfully demand conversion to your beliefs but does encourage consideration of them (and I presume there is at least some hope that some of us will come to agree with you, although please do forgive me if that is over-presumptuous).

    In my experience, proselytism usually doesn’t work, because it puts more people off than it converts, and so something that I actually care about and would like other people to care about also would by definition be something I didn’t want to see being proselytised about.

    I guess you could say, in fact, that I have a religious opposition to what I would define as “proselytism”, and a religious love of what I would define as “evangelism”. So I guess I just took this weird digression full-circle back to the point where it became relevant to the original post again.

    All hail the Ouroboros Digression.

    • acetheist

      “although I suspect this is less because we disagree on what constitutes (or can constitute) a religious tenet and more because we have differing definitions or understandings of proselytism.”

      Possibly. I’d originally wrote evangalism, but then I made sure to double-check the definitions of each, and it appeared that evangalism is considered more Christianity-specific, which is what I wanted to avoid.

      “But the way I think about the words, proselytising harms the cause, while evangelism, if anything, helps it.”

      Ah. We’re more or less in agreement then.

      “Proselytism is an argument; evangelism is a discussion. Proselytism demands or expects conversion, by any means; evangelism hopes for conversion as a consequence of understanding and being convinced.”

      If there were some umbrella term for the two, that’s what I would have used (to say that religion calls for trying to spread it, and depending on people’s outlook they might opt for either one of those, though it’s pretty clear that the latter is a better idea).

      “To put it another way, your essay above I would class as evangelism and not proselytism”

      Oh. Thanks?

      “(and I presume there is at least some hope that some of us will come to agree with you, although please do forgive me if that is over-presumptuous).”

      Haha no you’re good. That’s generally the goal, yes.

      “so something that I actually care about and would like other people to care about also would by definition be something I didn’t want to see being proselytised about.”

      Same.

  • queenieofaces

    According to your definition, one of the groups I study (Shinto) is not, in fact, a religion. Neither are a lot of ethnic religions, actually, since they don’t have a strong proselytory drive (if they have one at all). Neither are a lot of folk religions, as they’re lacking structure and moral codes on top of lack of proselytization. Neither are many (if not most) syncretic or non-exclusionary religions…i.e. most of the religions in East Asia.

    The definitions of religion I tend to like are the ones that are more like “a religion fulfills more than one of these criteria” and then gives a list of 5 things (often things like “rites and rituals intended to affect a change in the world” or “a worldview shared among group members that extends beyond the immediately perceptible”), because whenever someone says, “A religion fulfills the following criteria,” it’s inevitably a list of criteria that only really applies to so-called “universal religions” (usually Christianity, Islam, and certain forms of Buddhism). It would be nigh impossible to find a list of criteria that encompasses all religions, unless the criteria are things like “does stuff sometimes” and “believes things sometimes,” and yet the response is usually, “Yeah, but the ones that don’t meet my criteria aren’t really religions.” Japan looked at the criteria for religion in the 1870s, looked at Shinto, went, “Hey, this clearly isn’t a religion!” and then proceeded to institute State Shinto because it “didn’t conflict with religious freedom.” The common argument at the time was that Shinto wasn’t a religion because “it has no doctrine, no founder, no churches.” So, hey, when people come up with exclusionary definitions of religion, it does actually have an effect.

    So, basically…less Christianity-centric, Westcentric definitions of religion would be nice.

    • acetheist

      “According to your definition, one of the groups I study (Shinto) is not, in fact, a religion. Neither are a lot of ethnic religions, actually”

      Ah, okay. I don’t know much about those.

      “The definitions of religion I tend to like are the ones that are more like ‘a religion fulfills more than one of these criteria'”

      That’s… kind of what I was going for, but got lazy about clarifying, I guess. My bad.

      “a worldview shared among group members that extends beyond the immediately perceptible”

      Ah– hhmmmhrrmmhmm. Define “immediately perceptible”.

      • queenieofaces

        The most prominent example of an ethnic religion I can think of is Judaism. Shinto’s an ethnic religion, as is Hinduism. These aren’t exactly small religions, yet they’re consistently ignored when formulating definitions of “religion.” It’s almost like the definition of “religion” is formulated around Christianity. Oh wait, it totally was in East Asia; in fact, the (Japanese and then later Chinese) word for “religion” (宗教) was originally created to translate “religion” as in “freedom of religion” as in “we’re allowed to send Christian missionaries here and you can’t stop us or we’ll shoot you.”

        I was mostly coming up with examples of things I’ve seen written; I don’t really have any interest in defending the “immediately perceptible” definition, as I have some disagreements with it (since, again, occasionally fails at non-Western religions, or is like, “Yeah, they say they’re worshiping the mountain, but they’re not really worshiping the MOUNTAIN”).

        • acetheist

          “Oh wait, it totally was in East Asia”

          Wow, I did not know that.

          “I was mostly coming up with examples of things I’ve seen written”

          Ah, okay.

          • queenieofaces

            I’d really, highly recommend doing some more reading on religion outside of Christianity (or even the impact of Christianity outside the West) before trying to formulate any definitions of religion. Shinto and the State, 1868-1988 by Helen Hardacre is a good introduction to the issue in Japan.

            Forgive me if I’ve been a bit more snippy than entirely necessary, but you’re basically saying exactly the same things as religious studies scholars who enjoy spending conferences telling me that what I’m studying “isn’t even a religion” or “is a fake religion” or “is just lacking in the richness and depth of [Christianity/Buddhism/Islam], you know?” (Don’t get me started on theologists. “How is there anything to study if they have no doctrine?” *SIGH*) This is something I am fighting basically constantly, from people both inside and outside of my field, and so seeing yet another person trying to formulate a definition of religion that is very clearly based around American Christianity is frustrating.

          • acetheist

            Right, no, you’re right. I’m sorry.

    • Siggy

      That sounds like the kind of story that ends with “And that’s why we should give funding to religion studies!”

  • Siggy

    I fundamentally disagree with this definition of religion. I don’t think it is a good idea to construct a definition of religion that encompasses significantly more than what is encompassed by the self-identity definition of religion. It seems like a hazard, an invitation to draw analogies between different “religions”. In fact, I suspect that this is entirely the point of the broader definition.

    My feeling about arguments from analogies is that we are strongly drawn to them, but they’re pretty terrible as far as arguments go. Like with the cake and salad, analogizing different “religions” leads to questions like “What does your salad use instead of baking soda?”

    For instance, it’s common for people to ask what replaces God in secular ideologies (which is funny because not even every major religion has a God analogue). You avoided the pitfall of the God analogue, but you did talk about worship. And you did ask for a proselytization analogue (even though most forms of Judaism do not proselytize).

    • acetheist

      “the self-identity definition of religion”

      This is referring to a definition encompassed by what people choose to call themselves, correct?

      “You avoided the pitfall of the God analogue, but you did talk about worship.”

      Yes. It could be that we’re operating on different definitions of worship, however.

      “And you did ask for a proselytization analogue”

      Yeah, things I had in mind for that one would be like advocating for others to be in support of eliminating sexism, that sort of thing.

      • Siggy

        Yeah, I think self-identity should be the beginning of any definition of religion. Of course, it can’t be the end of the definition too, because we’d like the definition to be self-consistent, and also to give guidelines to people who are unsure whether something they believe is religion or not. I’m not, in principle, against calling things religion when the participants themselves don’t call it a religion.

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