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Defining Religion

I. Two Approaches to formulating Definitions
  A. Deductive reasoning: begin with a definition and see if the system fits
  B. Inductive reasoning: compare and contrast a variety of systems provisionally considered “religious” and “non-religious” and then draw some conclusions to arrive at a definition: What do most (if not all) “religions” have in common? What is it that makes something a “religion”?
II. Possible Problems with definitions of religion
  A. Too General: “a system of beliefs and practices directed to the ultimate concern of society”
    1. Are economic or political systems “religions”?
2. What kind of “ultimate concern”? What kind of beliefs? What kind of practices?
3. Definitions that are too general (generic) may not be very useful
  B. Too specific or limiting: “a specific system of belief in God”
    1. Religion is a lot more than just belief
2. There are many systems generally considered to be “religions” that do not fit with this definition (they do not believe in or relate to a god or gods)
  C. Genetic Fallacy: Religion is nothing more than “wish fulfillment.”
    1. Confuses definition of religion with theory of the origins of religion
      a. Sigmund Freud: Religion is result of neurosis
  b. Karl Marx: Religion originated as an illusion to control/pacify people
III. Adequate Definition
  A. Characteristics:
    1. Highlights what is distinctive about religion
2. General enough to include all religions
3. Avoids genetic fallacy
4. Avoids reductionism (for example, religions is just psychology).
  B. Adequate definitions will probably be Cluster Definitions that focus on “family traits.”
    1. Do not insist that every religion must share every trait in common
2. May include traits shared by non-religious systems
3. Tend to suggest that the more traits a given system involves, the more likely we can consider it a “religion”; the fewer traits a given system shares the less likely we may be to consider it a “religion”
  C. An adequate definition will encompass the two main ways of understanding religion
    1. Functionalist definitions focus on the way religion operates or functions in human life. They state what religion does, relating religion to the way it functions in our lives.
    2. Substantive or essentialist definitions characterize religion by some basic essence which is common to all religious systems, but not to any non-religious systems. They say what religion is.:

   a.  What is this “basic essence?”
         i. Depends upon the religion: The Basic substance can be : Ultimate Reality, the Supreme, God, Brahman, Allah, Samadhi, Nirvana, Tao, etc.
         ii  Substantive reality of religion may be referred to as the “Sacred.

    3. Examples of  definitions that are both Substantive and Functional:

     a.  Religion is… a. …the seeking of transcendent meaning that gives our lives value and puts us in touch with the deeper currents of existence... Religion helps people to cultivate an appreciation of the holiness of humanity and teaches us to respect the sacredness of life and the world. - Karen Armstrong, Battle for God, pp. 199-201

     b. Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.” Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, p 11

IV. Livingston's Definition
  A. System of Activities:  these include rituals, worship, prayer, sacrifice, pilgrimage, eating, fasting, etc.
  B. A system of beliefs: doctrines, teachings, affirmations, creeds, interpretations, etc.  These are beliefs about the way things are - one's world view.
  C. That which is perceived to be of sacred value:  This can include people, objects, times, places, spirits, gods, etc.
  D. Transforming power:  This is the functionalist part of the definition: That which is sacred transforms one's life: creates meanings, shapes one's world's view, conduct and attitudes. 

Based on Livingston's definition, a study of the components of religion will include investigations of such things as:

  •  Ritual
  •  Ethics
  • Concepts of the Sacred
  •  Nature of Ultimate Reality
  • Meaning
  •  Objects that convey the Sacred
  •  Stories and Scripture that form foundation of belief
  • People
  • World views that give meaning or "make sense" of things