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.