What is religion? – Some time ago, the Big Hominid posed the question, “What is religion?” and gave this answer: “Religion is a human response to ultimate reality.” I was going to address the question and answer in a quick reply on his blog, but I decided to think about it a little more. Today’s entry is a result of that thinking. As you read it, keep in mind that, unlike Kevin, I did not specialize in religious studies/theology (I did take one religious studies class on world mythology as part of my M.A. coursework, but that’s the extent of my academic experience). So think of the following as a layman’s thoughts on the matter.
Both the question and Kevin’s answer have been on my mind since I first read that post, and my initial thoughts haven’t changed much. The part that made me stop and think about his definition when I first read it was the “response” part. I have no problem with defining the agent as human and the object as the ultimate reality, but I think saying that religion is merely a response is a bit weak. It also might even be inaccurate in its attempt to be inclusive.
The whole point of the definition, I think, is to be as all-encompassing as possible while still remaining useful, and this is an admirable goal. But I wonder if we couldn’t be more specific in terms of the action of the phrase. After all, “response” could refer to a wide variety of actions. To take a somewhat extreme example, what about someone who is faced with ultimate reality and decides to reject it completely? This is a response, but I do not think it is religion. If we think of it this way, the only way for a mature, conscious individual to avoid religion would be to be completely oblivious of ultimate reality, since becoming aware of something requires a reaction to that something, even if that reaction is to deny or ignore it.
So, in my mind, defining religion as a mere “response” is problematic. In a word, religion may indeed be a response to ultimate reality, but not all responses to ultimate reality are religion. And since, as one of my professors likes to say, it is pointless to criticize something without offering an alternative, here’s my reworking of the definition: religion is a human attempt to approach and connect with ultimate reality.
I’ve thought a lot about this formulation, and I don’t know if what I have here is ideal, but I think it conveys what I’m trying to say. I have narrowed the definition a bit to define the “response” as a positive response, an acknowledgment of ultimate reality followed by an effort to draw closer to it and ultimately form a positive relationship with it. In doing so, I don’t think I have excluded any possible candidates for the title of “religion.” Of course, I am not familiar enough with the various world religions to make a definitive statement here, but I cannot imagine that any of them would fall outside of this definition. This, to me, is religion.
As expected, my own personal beliefs fall within the bounds of this definition. The “ultimate reality” for me is embodied in the message of the gospels and in Jesus Christ, and my religion is an attempt to connect with this ultimate reality. Interestingly enough, I was raised to think of “religion” as something akin to heresy. The very term is anathema in many Pentecostal denominations. It was repeated like a mantra in my church: “True Christianity is not about religion, it is about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Well, you know what? A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is precisely religion.
That mantra is an example of synecdoche: the whole of “religion” came to represent the undesirable parts—institutions, trappings, iconodulism, etc. In other words, it came to represent those parts perceived to run counter to the fundamental aims of (the Christian) religion. Maybe everyone realized this on a subconscious level, but I believe that such a distaste for the idea of religion led to a certain measure of deliberate ignorance, at least for me. By rejecting “religion,” I rejected much of the precious heritage of the Church.
As a Protestant, and a member of a Pentecostal denomination at that, I came to believe that Catholicism was little more than a cult that indulged in idol worship. “Real” Christianity didn’t begin until the Protestant Reformation, conveniently eliminating 1,500 years of Church history. It wasn’t until later on that I realized how much the heritage of the Catholic Church had to offer me, and I regretted the foolishness of my youth.
Since then, I have come to appreciate certain aspects of ritual and institution that I might have rejected in my younger days. My core beliefs have not changed, but I definitely have a broader view of things. Nonetheless, I still believe that if those things which are peripheral to religion begin to encroach on the core, then you have begun to drift away from true religion.
Things that are “peripheral to religion” are often human inventions and additions that have accrued over the years, sometimes weighing down religious institutions to the point of ineffectiveness. It would be easy for me, as a Protestant, to point to the Catholic Mass as an example of a fairly rigidly structured ritual that has drained worship of its spiritual aspect and left only the husk of human artifice (this was how I used to view the Mass, at least until I attended some Catholic services while at university). But the truth is that it is just as easy to tune out God in a Protestant worship service as it is in a Catholic Mass. Worship services, whatever form they might take, are ultimately peripheral.
I might be treading on shaky ground here, but I believe the Sacraments are peripheral as well. This is not to say that they are not important, but when the Sacraments become the core of religion, then it is no longer true religion, it is ritual. The administration of the Eucharist (or Communion, as it is generally referred to by Protestants) is a very sacred and holy act. Even though, as a Protestant, I don’t believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, I still believe that the symbolic act holds great weight. It is not something to be taken lightly, as Paul said: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Yet if the Eucharist itself takes the place of our relationship with ultimate reality, then we have already violated this principle.
There is a reason, of course, why religion has accrued so much ritual and ceremony, and why this ritual and ceremony sometimes overshadows the core: approaching and connecting with the ultimate reality is no simple task. A fine Biblical example of this is when Jesus condemned the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). It is no easy thing to clear out the bones and purify one's soul, so the Pharisees applied a layer of whitewash to their lives in the form of ritual and legality and hoped that no one would notice. Like a tree that is sound on the outside but rotting and dead on the inside, the ritual remains long after our true passion has died.
This is not to say that peripherals such as ritual and ceremony don’t have their place. They do—on the periphery, outside of the core. And that core is, as I defined above, “an attempt to approach and connect with ultimate reality.” Lest I be misunderstood, though, let me clarify one thing: when it comes to Christianity, the use of the word “attempt” does not mean that we can somehow achieve this connection through our own efforts. Our acceptance of salvation is a response to God’s offer. But our religion does not end there. Paul describes the Christian life as a race that is run for a prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:14), and he urges believers to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This is Paul’s way of describing his attempt to approach (running the race) and connect (winning the prize) with ultimate reality.
Religion is not the evil I was taught that it was. Religion is not an old, dusty relic hidden away from the light of day. Rather, religion is one of the most basic human impulses (where this impulse comes from will be the subject of a future entry, after I finish reading Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). With this in mind, I would like to propose a new mantra to replace the false dichotomy of “true Christianity” and “religion.” Instead, I would say: “True religion, for a Christian, is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” At the very least, Christians who believe this might be less inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater and deprive themselves of a rich and valuable religious heritage.
I suppose it goes without saying that I am rather biased toward Christianity in my views of religion. Yet even though I used Christianity as my example here, I believe my modification of Kevin’s definition is valid for other religions as well. I simply used Christianity because I am most familiar with it, and it has the greatest bearing on my own life. I also wanted to address the Christianity/religion dichotomy, as that was something I grew up with and something that came to mind as I was thinking about this problem.
So, there you have it. A layman’s attempt at a definition of religion, or maybe just the pilfering and violation of a friend’s idea. Any and all comments or criticisms are welcome.
Update (7 Apr): In a recent email, Kevin addressed some of the points I made in this entry and gave me a lot of food for thought. He first raised the possibility that all responses, whether positive or negative, might be seen as religion. For some thinkers, there is no such thing as “non-religion.” This was something that I had never even considered—that everything might be religious and there might be nothing else. Even someone living in ignorance of ultimate reality would not be outside of the realm of religion in this non-dualist view of the world.
Confusingly enough, it all comes back to how one defines religion. If religion is any response at all to ultimate reality, then the non-dualist claim is valid. But I have a hard time seeing a negative response to ultimate reality as religious. Maybe I have an errant view of religion—I know that I have a narrower view of religion than most, including Kevin. But I would be lying if I said that I had a clear idea of what that view was. Despite my attempts at definition above, this entry was merely a step of exploration rather than a final conclusion. This is the first time I have ever tried to think out what religion really is for me, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Kevin also gave a possible reason for adherents of certain religions, not just Christians, rejecting the idea that their faith is a “religion.” Basically, the idea is that once you describe your faith as a religion, you are making your faith subordinate to the umbrella idea of religion. In programming terms, your faith is just one instance of the class of religion. For many people, this subordination is completely unpalatable. They refuse to put their own faith on a par with other faiths. Me, I have no problem with this. Christianity is, like Buddhism or Islam, a religion, an attempt to approach and connect with divine reality. The fact that I believe that Christianity is the only true way doesn’t make it any less of a religion. Maybe this seems paradoxical to some, but it makes sense to me.