Religion is one of those concepts, like life, beauty, or consciousness, that are difficult to define. I used to think it was just worship of God, or gods. But many religions, such as Buddhism and other eastern faiths, have sects that don’t worship deities, if even acknowledging their existence. Later, I thought it might be any viewpoint involving supernatural beliefs, like an afterlife or reincarnation. But there are naturalistic religions, as well as outlooks like Confucianism, that blur the distinction.
Simple definitions tend to include things that most don’t regard as a religion, but precise definitions tend to exclude outlooks that have historically been categorized under religion. This difficulty led Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist who studies religion, to declare that there’s no such thing as religion. In views like this, it’s a modern western concept retconned into history and projected onto other cultures.
Jared Diamond, in his book, The World Until Yesterday, lists numerous historical definitions. But rather than attempt his own, he provides a list of several functions that religion has historically provided, which I usually boil down to three:
- Explaining the world
- Promoting the social order
- Alleviating existential anxiety
Not all historical religions do all three of these, but all seem to do at least two. But many things that only supply one aren’t usually defined as a religion. For example, science supplies 1, and most people are very opposed to seeing it as a religion. Our civil traditions provide 2, along with sacred documents such as constitutions, and rituals that often have a religious feel, but again they aren’t considered a religion.
Although it’s worth noting that most ancient societies made no distinction between their civil traditions and religious ones. Church state separation is a very recent development in historical terms.
Anyway, Harari, in his book, doesn’t wring his hands about defining religion. He provides a definition and moves forward. From the book:
Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts. Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order. (Note the difference between ‘superhuman’ and ‘supernatural’. The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist laws of history are superhuman, since they were not legislated by humans. Yet they are not supernatural.)
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 229). Harper. Kindle Edition.
This is a pretty liberal definition, and Harari uses it to tag many movements as religious that aren’t normally considered to be so, such as Stoicism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Communism, and Humanism. He admits that many will be uncomfortable labeling these outlooks as religions, preferring to refer to them as ideologies. He’s fine with that, but asserts it makes no difference. He points out Communism in particular as a movement that punished heretics and sought to evangelize its creed throughout the world.
Complicating things is that many modern world religions are actually syncretic amalgamations of multiple earlier religions. For example, Christianity is a syncretization of Judaism and some elements of Greek philosophy. Hellenistic Judaism was arguably a syncretization of pre-exile Judah state religion, Babylonian cosmology, and Persian Zoroastrianism. Modern western societies could be seen as syncretizations of Christianity and Humanism.
Harari divides Humanism into three types: liberal, socialist, and evolutionary. The liberal one is most concerned with maximizing individual freedoms. The socialist one with maximizing equality. So modern society would feature a tension between these two (The evolutionary one, which sounds initially scientific, is actually darker in nature, being the impetus behind the eugenics movement and a major rationalization for Nazi policies.)
What’s interesting about Harari’s definition is the implication it has for efforts by people like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer to establish a science of morality. Most scientists see this as misguided, citing the is-ought distinction. But if these guys succeeded in convincing enough people, we’d have another system of human norms founded on a belief in superhuman order (scientific laws). In other words, they could be seen as trying to start a new religion. Given that they’re both atheists, one a world famous opponent of religion, I suspect they strongly disagree with Harari’s definition.
So, is Harari’s definition a good one? It seems to meet two of the three functions I took from Diamond, but mostly omits the third one, alleviating existential anxiety, which seems like a major omission. And it ends up labeling a lot of stuff as religion. I’m not sure how productive that is. Although as he said, if we go with “ideology” instead, the analyses end up producing the same results. And it might give us a way to recognize the development of future “anti-religious” outlooks that would effectively be new religions.
What do you think of the definition? Does it let too much into club “religion”, or not enough?