Defining Religion

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					 Chapter 2

What is Religion?
Statue of Gommateshvara
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the
conviction of things not seen. . . . By faith we
understand that the worlds were prepared by the
word of God, so that what is seen was made from
things that are not visible.”
--Christianity: Holy Bible: Hebrews 11:1, 3.
“This day have those who disbelieve despaired of
your religion, so fear them not, and fear Me. This
day have I perfected for you your religion and
completed My favor on you and chosen for you
Islam as a religion.”
--Islam: Holy Koran 5:3
“Zilu asked how to serve the spirits and gods. The
master [Confucius] said: ‘You are not yet able to
serve men, how could you serve the spirits?’
Zilu said: ‘May I ask you about death?’ The Master
said: ‘You do not yet know life, how could you
know death?’”
--Confucianism: The Analects 11:12.
Indifferent to all sensual delights, Mahavira
cheerfully wandered from place to place, speaking
very little. In the winter he would meditate in the
shade, and in the summer he would expose himself
to the blazing heat of the sun. Thoroughly purifying
himself, disciplining his mind, body and speech,
Mahavira became completely calm and
--Jainism: from the Acaranga-sutra and the Kalpa-
“Abdu’l-Baha said: ‘. . . All God’s prophets have
brought the message of love. None has ever
thought that war and hate are good. Every one
agrees in saying that love and kindness are best.”
--Baha’i: “The Universal Love” by Abdu’l-Baha.
The Christian religion often speaks of
faith. Is faith the central attitude of
What does the word faith really mean?
The Baha’i religion claims to bring
together all religions and claims that
God meant all religions to teach love
and peace. Do you think this is so,
given what religions do and say in the
If someone does preach war or hatred,
can we conclude he or she is not really
Mahavira is praised in Jainism as a
“Tirthankara” who purified himself by
self-denial and self-inflicted pain. The
statue of Gotammesvara, another
Tirthankara, shows a saint who stood
still and did nothing until vines grew up
around his body. Does this kind of
withdrawal seem like “purity” of
religion? Why or why not?
Imagine Pentecostal Christians praying with their hands
raised up high and a Muslim man reading the Holy Koran.
Could both of these be “worship”?
If God himself has “perfected” religion for us, as in the
quote from the Holy Koran, maybe the Pentecostals are
sincere enough, but sincerely wrong in the manner in
which they are worshipping God. How does that strike
Does this contradict what you know or have been taught?
Compare both Pentecostal worshipers
and the reader of the Holy Koran to the
moral activity of Mother Teresa. All of
them are “doing something” with their
religion, but perhaps Mother Teresa
seems more morally active, rather than
just performing some ritual.
Does her “activity” seem to you more
properly religious?
What is the relationship between ritual,
morality, and religion?
Apparently, Confucius thinks that concerns
about spirits or the afterlife are relatively
unimportant. Does such an idea make you
think Confucius could not have been really
teaching religion?
Does religion have to be about gods or
spirits or the afterlife?
            What is Religion?
• Etymology (from Cicero):
  – relegere: to read over again
  – religare: to bind (cf. ligament, obligate)
• Oxford English Dictionary
  – “A particular system of faith and worship”
  – “Recognition on the part of human beings of some
    higher unseen power as having control of one’s
    destiny; the general mental and moral attitude
    resulting from this belief, with reference to its
    effect upon the individual or the community;
    personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a
    standard of spiritual and practical life.”
  – “Devotion to some principle; strict fidelity or
    faithfulness; conscientiousness; pious affection or
        Types of Definition
• monothetic--containing one thesis or
• polythetic--containing a variety of
• functional--pertaining to functions
        What is Religion?
• Ritual:
  Anthony F.C. Wallace: Religion is a set
  of rituals, rationalized by myth, which
  mobilizes supernatural powers for the
  purpose of achieving or preventing
  transformations of state in [humankind]
  or nature.
            What is Religion?
• Ritual
• Moral Conduct
                         I hate, I despise your festivals,
              and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
    Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
                             I will not accept them;
          and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
                               I will not look upon.
              Take away from me the noise of your songs;
               I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
                    But let justice roll down like waters,
             and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
                                 --Amos 5:21-24.
                What is Religion?
• Ritual
• Moral Conduct
• Feeling
This moment of self-awareness does not accompany our involvement with
   any object in the world or the world as a whole because these
   relationships are always reciprocal. Rather it is an awareness of the
   fact that we and the objects of our environment, which are reciprocally
   related, are both, in their relatedness, dependent and not self-sufficient.
   The “absolute feeling of dependence” is not merely the “feeling of
   dependence’ carried to the absolute. It is a . . . type of awareness. We
   give the name “God” to the correlate of this feeling of absolute
   dependence. -- Joseph Dabney Bettis.

“mysterium tremendum”-- Rudolph Otto

“ . . . Thou before whom all words recoil”--Shankara
               What is Religion?
•   Ritual
•   Moral Conduct
•   Feeling
•   Ultimate Concern
Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit. . . .
  What does the metaphor depth mean? It means that the
  religious aspect points to that which is ultimate, infinite,
  unconditional in [humankind’s] spiritual life. Religion, in the
  largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.
  And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the
  human spirit.-- Paul Tillich
             What is Religion?
•   Ritual
•   Moral Conduct
•   Feeling
•   Ultimate Concern
•   Belief (Creeds, doctrines, etc.)
               What is Religion?
•   Ritual
•   Moral Conduct
•   Feeling
•   Ultimate Concern
•   Belief (Creeds, doctrines, etc.)
•   Not Religion but Faith
(e.g., for Karl Barth “Religion . . . is human piety, human self-
   justification and human conjecture: faith is that which God
   creates in us.” (from A Dictionary of Christian Theology.)
             What is Religion?
•   Ritual
•   Moral Conduct
•   Feeling
•   Ultimate Concern
•   Belief (Creeds, doctrines, etc.)
•   Not Religion but Faith
•   Focus on the sacred and the holy
Succinct and Inclusive Definitions
•   William James: “. . . the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual
    men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in
    relation to whatever they may consider divine.”
•   Moojan Momen: “Religion is humanity’s response to what it
    experiences as holy.”
•   The New Columbia Encyclopedia: “. . . a system of thought, feeling,
    and action that is shared by a group and that gives the members of that
    group an object of devotion; a code of behavior by which an individual
    may judge the personal and social consequences of his actions; and a
    frame of reference by which an individual may relate himself to his
    group and his universe. Usually, religion concerns itself with that which
    transcends the known, the natural, or the expected; it is an
    acknowledgement of the extraordinary, the mysterious, and the
    supernatural The religious consciousness generally recognizes a
    transcendent, sacred order and elaborates a technique to deal with the
    inexplicable or unpredictable elements of human experience in the
    world or beyond it.”
             Religion as Illusion
• Ludwig Feuerbach: “Man--this is the mystery of religion--
  projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself
  an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a
  subject; he thinks of himself (not?) [as] an object to himself, but
  as the object of an object, of another being than himself. Thus
  here. Man is an object to God.”
• Karl Marx: Religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the
  heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It
  is the opium of the people. . . . Religion is only the illusory sun
  which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve
  around himself.”
• Sigmund Freud: “There is no appeal to a court above that of
  reason.” (Religion is illusion, wish fulfillment, etc.)
                “Beyond” Religion
Such people speak of “Christianity,” “Islam,” “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Sikhism,”
and so on. . . Then, there is the language which is spoken by those who
understand reality (Dhamma), especially those who know and understand
reality in the ultimate sense. This is another kind of language. . . . We can call
it “Dhamma language.”
Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all
religions as being the same. . . . However, those who have penetrated to the
highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called “religion”
doesn’t exist after all. . . . Thus the phrase “No religion!” is actually Dhamma
language of the highest level. . . .
One who has attained to the ultimate truth sees that there’s no such thing as
“religion.” There is only a certain nature, which can be called whatever we like.
We can call it “Dhamma,” we can call it “Truth,” we can call it “God,” “Tao,” or
whatever, but we shouldn’t particularize that Dhamma or that Truth as
Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, or Islam, for
we can neither capture nor confine it with labels and concepts. Still, such
divisions occur because people haven’t yet realized this nameless truth for
themselves. They have only reached the external levels. . .” (Bhikku 1-4)
       Individual and Society
• Religion is solitariness; and if you are never
  solitary,you are never religious. . . . It belongs
  to the depth of the religious spirit to have felt
  forsaken, even by God.” (Alfred North
• “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and
  practices relative to sacred things, that is to
  say things set apart and forbidden, beliefs
  and practices which unite into one single
  moral community . . . all those who adhere to
  them.” (Emile Durkheim)
 World Building & World Maintenance
“Indeed, religion is all the more deeply involved in this process of
maintaining the social system insofar as there is a strong tendency
in societies to take their ways and practices and elevate them into
the supernatural realm. That is, the human-created systems,
norms, values, and beliefs that make up a given social world are
often seen as somehow reflecting the fundamental laws and
structure of the universe. Or to put it another way, our ways,
customs, and social structure are not merely our creation but
reflect the very pattern of the cosmic Tao, or the commandments
that God would have us to follow. In short, our ways are God’s
ways! The reason for this is obvious. If the expectations, beliefs,
and structures of our social world are simply human creations,
then humans can change them. Instability and uncertainty result.
But if our social world is really created by God, or is a reflection of
the “Tao of Heaven,” then it is eternal and beyond change. This
leaves the world we have created safe and secure and gives us a
mighty fortress against the threat of chaos.” (Richter et al, p. 50).
      Religion & Globalization
• As the dramatic changes of globalization proceed,
  therefore, religion is all the more active in both world
  building and world maintenance. . . individuals may
  be faced with a need to rebuild their religious
  understanding of the world. Thus, many movements,
  such as interfaith dialogues . . . represent
  universalism, an effort to redefine religion in ways
  that seem more inclusive.” (Richter et al, 50)
• In contrast, as globalization threatens the self-
  definition of local communities and individual
  cultures, religion rises up to defend itself against
  disintegration. Those religious movements such as
  fundamentalism, seeking to rediscover and to keep
  strong the “fundamentals” of religion and culture, are
  engaged in world maintenance. (Richter et al, 50)

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