What is religion?

Pascal Boyer in his book ‘The Fracture of an Illusion’ asserts that religion does not exist.  Boyer points out that “religion” doesn’t exist as a concept in most societies.  When Boyer, an anthropological expert in religion, says that it doesn’t exist, he’s making a statement that might seem silly on its face.  After all, if religion doesn’t exist, then what divides Christians from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

When starting these types of discussions, it’s usually a good idea to define our terms.  So, how should religion be defined?  That turns out to be a difficult matter.  Many people have attempted to define it over the years.  Most definitions are either too vague or convoluted to be useful, or end up excluding things that are commonly accepted as religion.

The difficulty can be exacerbated by the fact that most pre-modern non-western societies have no concept of religion as a separate thing.  For them, there is only the world as they understand it, the unseen forces that control that world, and what works to propitiate or manipulate those forces.  What we would call their religion is often so integral to their lives and overall culture, that the idea of calling it something separate is puzzling to most of them.

The etymology of the word “religion” isn’t much help.  The original meaning of the Latin “religio” is obscure and is probably hopelessly clouded by its later meanings.  Depending on who you ask, the original term can mean: to bind, to connect, to go over again, to repeat, or to have reverence for the gods.

One definition of religion I used to adhere to was belief in a supernatural realm.  But it turns out that there are religions that don’t include belief in the supernatural, although it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of them do.  And, of course, even the term “supernatural” would need to be defined.  Do UFOs count?  If not, then how would we categorize the various UFO cults?

Jared Diamond, in his excellent book ‘The World Until Yesterday‘, lists sixteen different historical definitions, including ones by various social scientists, Karl Marx, Michael Shermer, and Wikipedia (which itself has had several).  All these disparate definitions show just how hard religion as a concept can be to nail down.

Of course, as Diamond notes, if you’re a believer then for you, religion exists because it’s true.  Its function is to guide us to that truth.  The problem with looking at it this way is there have been untold thousands of religions throughout history.  It’s not possible for all of them to be true.  Some universalists may insist that all religions are different aspects of the same truth, but this outlook is contradicted by the orthodoxy of many religions, and universalism could itself be considered a new religion, or family of religions.

Diamond, instead of attempting his own definition, describes religion by the qualities or functions that most have, at least to some extent.  His functions include: supernatural explanations of the world, defusing anxiety through ritual, providing comfort about pain and death, standardized organization, political obedience, moral codes of behavior toward strangers, and justification of war.  Not all religions have all of these functions, but most have at least some of them.

I think Diamond’s list has a lot going for it, but for me, I tend to group those functions into only three.

  1. Explaining the world
  2. Soothing anxiety
  3. Promoting the social order

I’ve combined Diamond’s second and third function into one, and the fourth through sixth ones into another one.  The only one I’m not sure about here is Diamond’s moral code function.  It might be a bit overly reductive to lump it in with “promoting the social order”, but since most ancient religions actually didn’t have this specific function, I tend to think it’s a fair move.  (Although I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.)

In modern society, religion doesn’t do all of these functions to the extent it used to.  For example, except among fundamentalists, explaining the world has largely been taken over by science.

But this raises an interesting question.  Is science a religion?  Most people would emphatically say no, despite it usurping the first function above.  Indeed, even the suggestion would make many scientists nervous, and not just religious ones.  Most of them have no desire to see themselves in competition with mainstream religions, and those that do tend to regard themselves as being against all religions.

But at least one scientist has declared that science is in fact his religion, and that truth is his god.  And some scientists have advocated that science needs to expand beyond merely explaining the world, into the third function above, often most notably in determining morality.  Such people are often accused of scientism, the belief that science is the only source of knowledge.  It’s not unusual for debates about this to devolve into arguments about what the definition of science is.

In many societies, religions are often syncretic, that is composed of multiple source religions.  This is true in China which has a syncretization of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and various local folk religions.  Japan has a similar syncretization that includes Shinto.  Arguably, Christianity is a syncretization of Judaism and some Greek philosophies, and hellenistic Judaism was a syncretization of the pre-exile Hebrew religion, Babylonian cosmology, and Persian Zoroastrianism.

Along these lines, our modern day culture could be considered a syncretization of Christianity and science (with some philosophy thrown in for good measure), with some purists insisting on only one or the other.  And in the case of the US, some civic religion can be thrown in as well, with the Constitution as our sacred text and the supreme court as our Vatican.  The concept of a civic religion probably arises because it fulfills the third function above, another one that traditional religion has somewhat withdrawn from in western societies.

For both religion’s advocates and its opponents, talk of science or philosophy as a religion, or of civic religions, is often extremely objectionable.  Both sides have a vested interest in keeping religion defined as a specific thing that can either be kept pure, or attacked.  Religion is about the sacred, or it’s about superstition.

Yet famous atheists have often accused Communist states of perpetrating a type of political state religion, usually in response to believers pointing out that those regimes were atheistic and oppressive.  And believers sometimes accuse atheism of being its own religion, which many atheists react to with scorn.  Clouding these exchanges is the fact that there were historical attempts to establish state “rationalistic” religions, notably in the French Revolution, and that Humanism did consider itself a religion for a time, although it doesn’t today.

One function that religion still seems to fulfill is the second one I listed above: soothing anxiety.  This is a function that the opponents of religion generally downplay, but it seems to be the sole function that remains the exclusive purview of what we commonly call religion.  Religion tends to be strongest in regions of the world where desperation is common, and weakest where life is secure.  Sub-Saharan Africa is among the most religious regions in the world, while Scandinavia is among the least.

But even here, countries with robust safety nets are gradually reducing the need for this function, or perhaps another way of looking at it, they are usurping it.  Of course, they can’t really soothe the fear of death, but the decline of traditional religions in countries with strong safety nets implies this may not be the crucial need that is often assumed.

So what then is religion?  Is it just the ancient (or not so ancient) worldviews that include belief in non-scientific supernatural forces at work in the world?  Or is it something else?  If so, what?  Is Boyer right that there is no such thing?  Or is religion simply a cultural group that elects to call itself, and is commonly accepted as, a religion?

And if, as many desire, traditional religions someday fade away, will they ultimately be replaced by other cultural systems and philosophies that meet the same functions they fulfilled?  If so, wouldn’t it be accurate to say that those traditional religions had been replaced by new ones, regardless of the label they used?

h/t amanimal for calling my attention to Boyer’s book

15 thoughts on “What is religion?

  1. Perhaps by insisting that science is not a religion, we are becoming more like those primitive societies whose belief systems are too integrated into their worldview and culture for them to understand religion as a separate concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm. Sounds fishy to me. I think we all know a religion when we see one, although an anthropologist may have seen more than most of us.

    Science can’t be a religion because it only fulfils the first goal. Soothing anxiety – no way (extinctions, killer asteroids, black holes, eventual death of the sun – not exactly soothing ideas). Promoting the social order – no, that’s what other people sometimes attempt to use science for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Science does soothe some of my anxieties (i.e. no ghosts, demons, etc.), but I’ll agree that it’s far from guaranteed to. I agree that attempts to use science to promote the social order aren’t science, but I’m nervous about that since it kind of feels like the no-true-Scotsman-fallacy.


  3. Hi SAP,

    The question you ask has no answer. Like ‘what is free will’ and ‘do abstract objects exist’, the question only hinges on what you understand by the term. Different people will have different ideas and nobody is right or wrong.

    When philosophers try to define terms, they seek to crystallise a common intuition. As Steve says, we all know religion when we see one, or so we suppose, so any definition of religion is only an attempt to formalise this intuition into a set of criteria. However, this is impossible, as there are clearly cases where people’s intuitions disagree.

    I don’t personally think Zen Buddhism is really a religion. Zen Buddhists themselves are divided. Some people think science is a religion. I don’t.

    All I can offer as a formalisation of my own intuition is that a religion is a dogmatic supernatural belief system. To the extent that a pseudo-religion is not supernatural, it becomes, like Zen Buddhism, a set of rituals and practices I do not regard as religion. The removal of dogma turns religion into mysticism or deism.

    So neither science nor atheism are religious for me because they are neither supernatural nor dogmatic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks DM, and well said.

      I have some sympathy with the supernatural criteria since it exists in such a high percentage of religions, although I’m nervous about how we define “supernaturalism” and about dismissing things like religious naturalists of various flavors.

      Dogmatism, it seems to me, is completely independent of religion. Communists, Nazis, Fascists and many other movements have their own secular dogmas. And many pre-literate religions change their doctrines regularly. (In reality, even religions of the book change their doctrines, even if they often insist that they don’t.)

      I used to be anti-religious, but I’m now more anti-dogma. This change happened after I realized that many religious people weren’t dogmatic and many atheists could be rigidly dogmatic about certain things.


      1. Communists are dogmatic but are not supernaturalist and so are not religious. Mystics are supernaturalist but not dogmatic and so are not religious. Religion, in my view, is dogmatism + supernaturalism.

        Changing doctrines doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not dogmatic. It just means that the dogma occasionally changes. Dogma means being told to accept certain truths without question. The more open-minded a religion is to questions such as whether God exists, the more I don’t think it’s really a religion at all.

        I do think supernaturalism can be defined. I have my own working definition that I think works pretty well.


        1. Your definition does catch a lot of what we call religions, but leaves out movements that label themselves as religions, and are commonly accepted as such. I wonder if you would consider Michael Dowd to be religious.

          On the dogma thing, I guess it depends if you consider hunter-gatherer beliefs religious, or maybe proto-religious. From what I’ve read, their beliefs are often malleable to an extent that most modern world religions couldn’t conceive of. For example, if a spirit is perceived to not respond to prayers, hunter-gatherers usually drop worship of them in favor of some other spirit.


          1. Hi SAP,

            I’m not troubled if my definition does not capture all movements that label themselves as religious. Anybody can label their hobby or their interest a religion, and that does not make it so. What I am trying to capture is only what I consider to be a religion, and I would only be troubled if I found that it clashed with my intuition.

            I don’t think I would Michael Dowd’s beliefs truly religious, no. He seems to be a pantheist. On the other hand he seems to argue that it’s not so much important to believe what is true as to believe what it is adaptive to believe. So he seems to be saying there’s no such thing as the supernatural but it’s a good idea to pretend that there is. So he’s perhaps quasi-religious in that he vaguely advocates dogma without really believing in it. He is also perhaps religious if he participates in a religion. But if the beliefs he expresses are those actually professed by that religion (which I doubt), then I would not consider that to be a religion at all.

            Your description of hunter-gatherers sounds proto-religious to me. The more malleable it is, the more it becomes mysticism or superstition. The more it is codified and taught, the more it becomes a religion. However, though they may drop worship of certain Gods, if there is an overall supernatural framework for thinking about the world which is accepted and passed on dogmatically, then that could be considered the essence of a religion.


  4. Nicely done ‘SAP’ and I am going to have to read Diamond – his name also came up recently in a review of Rebecca Costa’s ‘The Watchman’s Rattle’ that I’m finally reading. I also like your condensation of his elements of religion.

    “What is religion?” – here’s another answer:

    “… what we seem to have are a messy collection of things – beliefs, behaviours, experiences, social structures, and so forth – that sometimes but not always co-occur, underlying which are different psychological processes.”

    ‘(Non)religion is not a natural kind, but so what?: toward a piecemeal approach’, Jong 2012

    … a short(ish) presentation given by Jonathan Jong, University of Oxford, Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Post-Doc, at the Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network Conference 2012, Goldsmiths, University of London

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent link. Thanks!

      “Research on religion and nonreligion is invariably prefaced by sheepish attempts to define these terms, followed by apologies for the inevitable inadequacy of the proposed definitions. ”

      Too true.

      Liked by 1 person

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