Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is a Religion?

When dealing with students from a particular kind of institution, I often find that they have the same woolly or imprecise ideas about religion. For example, if they're from a parochial Christian school, they all think that a discussion of religion begins with their own peculiar subsect(ion) of Christianity.

But religion is easy to define more accurately, by anchoring the definition around four points. This has the virtue of coupling accuracy with precision; we can now say what a religion is, and what exactly makes it so.

A religion requires at least four elements:
  1. A belief in the supernatural; that is, things which to some extent cannot be examined using the natural sciences. Whether such things can exist is debateable, but one could place abstracts (such as justice, love or peace) in this category on the basis of empiricism.
  2. A belief that the supernatural can somehow interact with the natural, even though the natural cannot interrogate the supernatural.
  3. A belief that this supernatural interaction has necessary consequences on human behaviour. This would define elements of human morality.
  4. A belief that these moral consequences can be usefully codified as a guideline for human behaviour.
Without any one of these four belief elements, a construct purporting to be a religion cannot be one.

A religion, therefore, is based on a set of practical behaviours and attitudes centred around the detailed working-out of these four beliefs. When such a set is recognisable as such, and can be effectively transmitted as a reasonably similar package from one person to another, a religion has been established.

A religion is therefore the product of a) these four beliefs, b) the details of these beliefs, c) the construction of a behavioural construct demonstrating these beliefs, d) the self-recognised consistency of this construct, and e) the effective propagation of this construct. If one of these fails, the religion becomes defunct.

Now, a word on faith. Faith is belief without a necessary sufficiency of evidence. Since belief in the supernatural is a criterion for a religion, and the supernatural is by definition not admissible as evidence in any arena of discussion based on the natural, all religions are faith-based. What is not so obvious is that many other human knowledge endeavours are faith-based too, but we do not make that as clear as when we are discussing religion.

We also try to reduce the amount of faith required in many of these other areas of human experience, except perhaps in the aesthetic disciplines. Religious morality and behaviour is thus very much close kin to aesthetics. Theology, on the other hand, is the religious equivalent of mathematics. See this post for elaboration.

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