For an excellent overview of various attempts to define religion and some critiques of these definitions, see the website of Religious Tolerance.org
. They point out that many definitions exclude as much as they include.
For example, one definition says: "Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience" [from the concise Oxford Dictionary, 1990]. Where does a religion like Buddhism fit in this definition? What about all the people who see God as something other than a lawgiver?
I agree with the criticisms expressed by the Religious Tolerance.org web page, but I have a problem with their definition as well. They say that “Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview
. (A worldview is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.)”
This definition includes a wide range of religions but has the drawback of focusing on ideas rather than function. It begs the question of why religion is such a widespread phenomenon that we find in every culture and every time. I think the function
of religion is imbedded in their definition when they mention ethics and worldview.
All ancient cultures have religion because until very recently, religion served to aid in the survival of a group of people by encouraging cooperation by individuals who by instinct would act selfishly. It turns out that the best way to motivate people to overcome innate instincts toward self-preservation is to link cooperative behavior (ethics) to forces in the universe that are awe-inspiring and powerful. This link between ethics and worldview is found in every religion.
I will develop specific justification for aspects of this thesis in other entries. Here let me just note that most religions have very similar ethics. True there are some variations when it comes to marriage or diet, but where is the religion that does not condemn stealing, greed, and murder? Where is the religion that does not encourage love for one’s family and fellows? These things are universal in religion because they are necessary for survival. For early tribes of humans, survival meant that everyone had to cooperate and share resources (hence stealing is discouraged and sharing encouraged). The strong helped the weak survive. Families had to make sure children grew up physically and ethically strong. Conflicts had to be settled without violence as much as possible.
The second thing that is obvious about religions is that they have very
. Some believe in a personal god, some in gods and goddesses, some in an impersonal absolute (such as Buddha or Tao). Some describe a single afterlife divided into heaven and hell, while others teach reincarnation. Some describe a single creation and predict a specific end to the cosmos, while others teach that there is an eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
The things that tend to vary with religion are precisely the worldview elements that cannot be objectively proven. The things that tend to be the same are the concrete needs of individuals and society to know how to fit in and be a contributing member of a society.Because of this, I believe that religion has a function in society which links the worldview of the society to healthy social cooperation.
Religion helps people to identify with other members of the society, to treat them as they want to be treated, to understand their place and role. Religion guides individuals through the transitional stages of life, childhood to adulthood, single to married, childbirth, old age, and death.
Generally, one religion has dominated a society, so that people did not choose their religion, they were born into it. Sometimes one culture would conquer another and force a change in religion. As society has become more complex and interrelated, it has become possible for multiple religions to coexist and this raises new issues for each religion.
The situation became more complicated with the advent of science, which developed and changed the worldview component of a culture without directly dealing with the ethical component. Hence, Galileo wanted to change the way the culture thought about the planets and the mechanics of the solar system. He did not want to challenge the idea of how to be a good Christian. But the conservatives in the church recognized (perhaps without being conscious of it) that to fiddle with the worldview was to alter the way religion would have to function to continue to link ethics to worldview. So they opposed Galileo. (The situation is more complex but this gets at an important element in the persecution of science in Galileo’s time.)
Today, we have a very different worldview from what existed as Christianity (and all the other traditional religions) developed. Some Christians have tried to let the religion change and evolve with this change in worldview, while others have resisted it. Those who resist may be given credit for attempting to maintain a vital element of culture, the promotion of cooperation through religion (they rarely would think of their efforts in this way, of course). But they illustrate Einstein’s statement that religion without science is blind
The challenge is how to maintain a viable religion that can still help a person through the transitions of life and promotes cooperation but that links these to the new worldview of modern science. I was raised in a liberal Protestant environment and tried mightily to reconcile the essence of the teachings and example of Jesus with the current scientific worldview. I conclude that this is impossible without changing the focus of Christianity away for Jesus and onto more universal principles that Jesus espoused and practiced but did not originate. How can a religion do this and still call itself Christianity? I think it is impossible.
But I’m not inclined to conclude, as many scientifically minded people do, that there is no further need for religion now that we have science. We still need to nurture in people a sense of belonging in this cosmos and a sense of ethics to keep us from destroying ourselves with war and ecological disaster. For this we need religion. It may be impossible to do this with religions like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
We either need to adopt a different tradition, one that can act in harmony with the current scientific worldview and promote cooperation and a sense of belonging; or we need to develop a new religion (or new religions) that can do this.