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.
- Explaining the world
- Soothing anxiety
- 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?