What is religion?

Everyone talks about religion, but how often do we try to define what we mean by the word? This interests me because of the way religious diversity has been discussed in New Zealand (and many other countries). Some groups are assumed to be religious and others not, without any declared criteria for this. We can see this in the way “Interfaith” groups have been formed in New Zealand – atheist and agnostics are excluded while non-theistic religions (such as Buddhism – the third largest religion in New Zealand) are welcome. So what is it about Buddhists and Jainists that makes them, but not humanists and rationalists, acceptable?

The dictionary definitions of religion are not all that helpful. For example: “people’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of God, a god, or gods, and divine involvement in the universe and human life”; “a particular institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine.” All dictionary definitions appear to include belief in a god as characterising a religion – yet we automatically include the non-theist religions Buddhism and Jainism.

I have tried to get my head around this by considering the role of religion and how it probably developed.

From ignorance and superstition to science and religion

Humanity’s early understanding of the world was, by necessity, superstitious. Supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, of the origins of the world and humanity, of consciousness and death, were inevitable. Sometimes, but not always, these supernatural explanations evolved to include an omnipotent creator. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin said that ” belief in unseen or spiritual agencies ….. seems to be universal with the less civilised races.” But he added that “there is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief of the existence of an Omnipotent God.” “Numerous races have existed, and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and have no words in their language to express such an idea.”

I think these superstitions naturally became embedded in the stories, myths and explanations, the culture of the different societies as they evolved. Of course, some of these ideas were modified by their inevitable testing in practice – as for example in navigation and agriculture. While still containing supernatural components, these ideas developed more powerful explanations. They gave a better reflection of reality precisely because they were tested in practice. This was the beginning of a scientific approach.

However, untested supernatural ideas also evolved and provided a number of uses to the developing cultures and society. These beliefs were a mechanism for transmitting ideas about society, about human values and morals, about property rights and laws. They provided social cohesion and a justification for social actions, for war against other human groups and for the leadership of individuals and classes. Sometimes these ideas evolved to include concepts of an omnipotent god which could be used to justify social actions and to encourage the adoption of values, customs and beliefs. The god concept also evolved over time as human society developed new requirements for it. This body of supernatural beliefs and justifications for human values and social action is what today we call religion and was probably a natural product of all human societies.

Changes in the role of religion

While the nascent scientific approach was probably incorporated into religious beliefs, as it developed its own body of knowledge and interaction with the world it came into conflict with religious belief and developed separately from it. Today science is quite separate from religion. In effect, religion has had to withdraw almost completely from any special relationship with understanding the natural world. The attempts by some religious believers to reassert a priority of religious over scientific knowledge in areas such as origins of life and the universe (or even the climate) are current exceptions.

As society developed, concepts of clan, nation and social arrangement could also provide the same social functions as religion. These often became allied with religion. War could be justified by God, King and Country – separately or together. The culture of different societies included religious traditions, but also included other areas of belief and values.

Today the religious traditions survive but are increasingly challenged. The challenges from science have been mentioned, and these have largely been conceded. But religion is also challenged by the development of the modern state, of legal and educational systems and by modern rational belief systems incorporating human morals, values and concepts of social arrangement. Sure, these do not have an unblemished record, but then neither does religion.

Religion in the modern world

So today the role of religion has been reduced. Even in those areas it has jealously guarded for itself, such as human values and social arrangements, it no longer has a monopoly. Yet, its long integration into human culture gives it a tenacity beyond anything deserved by the contents of its teachings.

It is its traditions which give religion its importance. And it seems to me that this is one reason so many people value religion – for its traditions and its role in culture, rather than any belief. (Another reason may be the appeal that superstition and supernatural explanations still have for some).

Despite the persistence of religious tradition and the emotional satisfaction some get from it, it is still only one way of preserving and teaching human values and customs. Modern rational belief systems also do this.

Religion can still inspire people to do good, as well as evil. But this is also true of rational belief systems such as Humanism, Rationalism and political and social ideologies. And while the long history of religion has ensured its incorporation into human culture, the rational belief systems also have their own (younger) traditions and are making their own contributions to human culture.

A wider concept of diversity required

So, I can understand why religious groups may take an exclusive approach to social action implied by the “Interfaith” groups. They may base this on religious tradition, rather than belief. But they are still accepting some non-theist traditions (Buddhism for example) while rejecting others (Rationalism and Humanism). Perhaps this exclusive approach is only a way of protecting the old traditions from the modern world. If so, it is very short-sighted.

In reality our religious diversity includes the modern traditions, as well as the ancient ones. We are all potential victims of terrorism and hatred. If the “Interfaith” groups have arisen because of the perceived threat presented by “the clash of cultures” they are ignoring part of the solution. This conversation across the cultural divide must include the new traditions, as well as the old.

Related Articles:
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Special rights for religion?
Common values, common action?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Religious Diversity Statement

2 responses to “What is religion?

  1. isaacfreeman

    Hi Ken – thanks for your post here and your comments on my blog.

    We can see this in the way “Interfaith” groups have been formed in New Zealand – atheist and agnostics are excluded

    I’ve expressed my doubts about whether people who identify directly as atheists or agnostics would find anything of interest in interfaith activities, but you’re quite right that they shouldn’t be excluded. I’ve been working on a revised constitution for the Christchurch interfaith Council, to incorporate various recommendations, and I’ve been careful to ensure that there’s nothing preventing atheists or agnostics from joining. The current version hasn’t been ratified yet, but it requires only that people indicate their religion by whatever terms they prefer, so that we can have some idea how diverse we are. There’s nothing to prevent an interested person writing “atheist” for their religion, and taking part on an equal footing with anybody else. This has been approved by our interim Executive, and the whole revised constitution will go up for a vote at our first AGM in August.

    In fact, I don’t think there’s anything in the current constitution preventing atheists or agnostics from joining, but the revised one should reduce any confusion on this point.

    So, I can understand why religious groups may take an exclusive approach to social action implied by the “Interfaith” groups. They may base this on religious tradition, rather than belief.

    There are different schools of thought on what constitutes an “interfaith” group. Some are directly about beliefs, and I think they tend to act as discussion groups for individuals. Others focus on maintaining good relations between communities, and only indirectly on the traditions or beliefs by which those communities define themselves.
    The current burst of interfaith activity has tended towards the latter approach, but I think both are valuable.

    But they are still accepting some non-theist traditions (Buddhism for example) while rejecting others (Rationalism and Humanism).

    I really do think this is just a matter of self-selection. For whatever reason, Buddhists seem generally more interested in presenting their beliefs as a “faith” (at least for the purposes of interfaith activities) than Rationalists or Humanists are. I don’t think there’s any deliberate exclusion.


  2. Thanks for your comments Isaac. Your approach does suggest that it is possible for theists and non-theists to work together. I think there is a real need for this as the problems that seem to provide a motivation for much of the “Interfaith” activity really do apply to us all.
    I guess there are problems of attitude on both sides. I have certainly found resistance to the idea that non-theists are part of our religious diversity. On the other hand I think many non-theists are put off by the “faith” label. In that sense the name is divisive. Perhaps the unity will come with action around more defined objectives and concrete problems.
    I am interested that you see the current interfaith activity as being more about “maintaining good relations between communities, and only indirectly on the traditions or beliefs by which those communities define themselves.” That’s what I thought. So I think it is important that non-theists are seen as one (or more) of these communities.


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