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Fallacies in Defining Religion

From the sample of definitions for religion, it is possible to identify some common fallacies in the attempt to define religion. In particular, we can see that definitions can be too broad, too narrow, or are not really definitions at all.

First, in their attempt to be comprehensive a number of definitions are too general. For example, one definition states that religion is "a system of beliefs and practices directed to the ultimate concern of society." This definition is so general that it raises the possibility that such things as economic systems or political systems may be classified as religion. What if a society perceives material gain to be its "ultimate concern?" Is materialism a religion. What about sports? Obviously, definitions that are too general (generic) may not be very useful; in fact, they may make confuse the issue even more.

Second, some devinions are too specific or limiting. If one defines religion as "a specific system of belief in God" one has accepted a very narrow view that excludes what most people would recognize as "religion." There are many systems generally considered to be "religions" that do not fit with this definition. For example, some traditions that are generally recognizes as a religion do not hold to a belief in a god. At the very least, some traditions, such as Theravada Buddhism, believe that while gods or a God may exist, the belief in that god or Gods is not of ultimate importance. Others, such as Daoism, believe in an impersonal force rather than a personal God.

A final mistake that has been made by individuals attempting to define religion can be classified as the genetic fallacy. This fallacy confuses theories of origin of religion with the definition of religion. The most obvious examples of the genetic fallacy regarding religion may be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Freud (the father of modern psychoanalyis) concluded that religion is nothing more than "wish fulfillment" resulting from what can only be called a neurosis. Even if one agrees with Freud's assessment of religion, it is clear that Freud has only described the origin or cause of religion. His assessment does not do much to advance a definition of religion.

The same can be said about Karl Marx. Marx believed that religion originated as an invention by society to control or pacify people. On the one hand, it provides authority to the ruling classes and allowed them to control and exploit the working class. On the other hand, religion provides the oppressed with hope for a better life after the difficulties of this life. As a result, the oppressed are more content and less likely to demand more in this life. Again, there may be some truth in Marx's analysis (think of how religion is used to control and manipulate people), but he still does not explain what religion is. This confusion of the origin of religion with its definition is an example of the genetic fallacy.



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