The superhuman order definition of religion

This is an ongoing series of posts on topics that catch my interest as I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

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:

  1. Explaining the world
  2. Promoting the social order
  3. 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?

34 thoughts on “The superhuman order definition of religion

  1. I tend to take this position: If one believes a delusion one is considered to be insane. If more than one person share the same delusion, it’s called a religion.

    Peace

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Based on the quote in the post and what Harari writes, I think he’s focusing on Marx’s laws of history. But here’s is main passage about it:

      Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too had its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life.

      Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 228). Harper. Kindle Edition.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really appreciate you taking the time to write (or relay) an extended response to my quick-fire question. I graduated majoring in Political Systems and studied early Communist history and the Bolshevik revolution. I had never heard it expressed as a religion, but you do make a solid case for it here. But, I tend to think of religion aligned with the belief and adoration towards a supernatural (otherworldly) being, which Communism doesn’t adhere to despite their dedication and religious-like fanaticism. Likewise I am reticent to regard Buddhism as a religion because it seems more philosophical in nature and grounded in humanism and individual enlightenment.

        Of course all these are just connotative perceptions about how I interpret the ‘denotative’ meaning of the word ‘religion’. But I appreciate you presenting a strong argument on the affirmative that Communism is a religion. It’s still for me a neo-marxist (anti meta narrative) Political ideology which has strains of religious like dogma and fanaticism interwoven.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Most of the reply was just me copying and pasting the quote from the book. (I have the ebook version, which makes it easy.)

          I personally don’t have strong feelings about whether Communism is a religion. To me, that’s a definitional matter, and definitions are all ultimately arbitrary. As Harari notes, we can use the term “ideology” and get largely the same results. Maybe ideology is just a better word anyway, since I think most would agree that all religions are ideologies, even if all ideologies aren’t religions. We can then discuss the clash of ideologies, since as you noted, ideologies can have their dogmas and fanatics.

          It also makes it easier to talk about society having a mix of ideologies. A mix of religions sounds much more contentious, at least in the west. There’s a strong view that a person only has one religion, at most. Even though the ancient cults weren’t exclusive, modern religions are (again, in the west). But that person may pair it with any number of other social or political ideologies.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t care for his definition as it allows too broad a definition but then maybe that is a way to rid ourselves of these zombie institutions.

    By his definition American culture qualifies as a religion, the American religion. We have our rituals, like standing with our hats off singing “While we are standing here waiting for the ball game to start, …” When people kneel, a sign of humility and respect during the playing of our national anthem, many regard this as a heretical act.

    We also have sacred scripture in the Declaration of Independence, which has no legal standing at all in our secular society. The Constitution could be considered an inspired, superhuman document.

    And so on …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many aspects of our civil traditions do have a religious feel to them. But Harari’s definition requires that they be based on some superhuman order, a deity or law of nature, some aspect of reality that humans don’t control. Of course, these traditions themselves are rooted in Humanistic ideas that he does regard as a religion, which is based on supposedly natural human rights. So he might regard many of them as Humanistic rituals.

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  3. I think Harari is describing ideology, and I think what he, and I guess Diamond (at least given your three mentions), are missing is ritual. Part of all religions I know of are certain rituals. This can be ceremonies as well as individual practices, like meditation, prayer, etc. I know that even neo-stoics suggest certain ritual practices. (Does anyone know about Hedonists? Epicureans?). I don’t think there are any Communist rituals. Are there?

    I like Steve’s suggestion that nationalism can be a religion. I don’t think the Constitution counts as “superhuman”, in Harari’s sense, but the Declaration certainly does:

    “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary […] to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, […]
    .
    We hold these truths to be self-evident,/b>, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

    *

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Diamond does discuss rituals. From an earlier post, here’s a quick rundown of his functions:

      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.

      https://selfawarepatterns.com/2014/05/07/what-is-religion/

      The ritual stuff is still inherent in my reduced version, but I admittedly don’t mention them explicitly, and they are definitely an important part of the enactive aspect of religion. Indeed, the eymology of the word “religion”, religio, means to re-bind or reconnect, implying a reference to consistent execution of ritual.

      Harari doesn’t get into rituals much, mentioning them only fleetingly. But in terms of Communist rituals, here’s what Harari has to say about Communism:

      Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too had its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life.

      Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 228). Harper. Kindle Edition.

      I think Harari would say that those quotes from the Declaration of Independence reflect the Humanism religions, or ideologies if we prefer.

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  4. In the list of three functions of religion, doesn’t explaining the world alleviate existential anxiety, or are there other ways to do that that I’m missing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it depends on the explanation. An explanation that has us at the center of the universe with everything revolving around us, and a vast hierarchy with God and the angels on top, us just below, and the rest of nature below us, are very comforting.

      The scientific alternatives, with us on an infinitessimal speck of leftover stardust orbiting an unremarkable star in a standard galaxy in an unimaginable darkness, not to mention the idea that we’re a part of the animal kingdom rather than separate from it, are far less comforting, although they are arguably more awe inducing.

      Of course, technology built using science can provide comfort, with increasing effectiveness as time goes on. This is why religion is so hard to define.

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      1. Makes sense. But I find that I am very comforted with the scientific alternatives, as well as awe struck. Maybe it’s just because I’ve done it that way for so long now. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

        These days I use the word “worldview” a lot, in the sense that it would be the top-most category of everything that one uses to make sense of the world, and things like religion would be sub-categories of a worldview. I think that developing a worldview is a fundamental need that we have, and I think it is what motivates us to learn (or is at least one of the major motivators). I also think that it satisfies other needs, like the safety need (maybe it’s a subset of this need or other needs). It feels more safe to have a good working model of the world so that we feel in control in the sense that we can make relatively good predictions about how many things will turn out. And once we obtain a relatively well developed worldview (regardless of how well it actually matches up with reality), most have a very difficult time accepting large alterations to it because of how unsafe that can make one feel.

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        1. Worldview is a good word. In some ways, the word “religion” could be seen as a label for traditional worldviews, worldviews we now draw boundaries around and treat as sub-cultures. Of course, newer religions confuse that picture. Although maybe the way to view them is as ideologies who wish to be treated like traditional worldviews.

          But it feels like you can only have one worldview, albeit one composed of one or more ideologies (including religious ones, however we end up defining that). Definitions 😛

          I can see taking comfort from scientific explanations. There’s a danger though. Science can turn on you at any moment with new discoveries and shake your confidence. Although if you take a long view, every time that happens, we’re learning more, or at least learning the limits of what we think we know. Which probably does satisfy some instinctive desire to understand our environment to maximize survivability.

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  5. To me a religion is a system of organized thought concerning the nature of reality. The key aspect of such systems is the perception of a greater reality, that how we live our lives matters for reasons beyond ourselves, and that we participate in a “greater picture.” In sum, that there is a metaphysics and it’s one that should matter to us; there is an ought behind the is.

    In contrast, atheist and naturalist views just have an is, no ought. (Which is never to suggest atheists can’t pick a moral path; just that there is no requirement to do so in the view.)

    Under such a definition, American culture isn’t a religion. Nor does the ritual of daily exercise make it a religion. There is no metaphysics in these, despite they do have an ought.

    Atheism, to the extent it denies any metaphysics, is a kind of “negative” religion. It is a metaphysical commitment, but its lack of moral statements, its lack of ought, makes it not a religion.

    Communism has no metaphysics, so it isn’t a religion, but clearly Buddhism is (and so are all the others we usually classify as religion).

    A religion is a belief in a metaphysics — one that matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that definition. But it seems like there’s considerable resonance between your definition and Harari’s. The main difference is he sees what matters being the super human order (which can be all kinds of things including metaphysics), where you stipulate that it must be metaphysics.

      My question is, how do you define metaphysics? Often we use that word to refer to reality beyond science, but of course, what is beyond science one day may not be beyond it the next. It can also be used to refer to ultimate reality, which I suspect might be closer to your use here.

      If so, then we could amend Harari’s definition to be: Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in an ultimate superhuman order.

      That would knock out Communism and many other things. But strangely enough, it would also knock out many ancient pagan religions. Often the gods they worshiped weren’t seen as the ultimate power. For instance, Greek religion saw that ultimately, everyone, including the gods, was subject to Fate. They didn’t worship Fate, because it didn’t listen or care. Norse religion had a similar construct.

      We could say that because these religions include a description (albeit a hazy one) all the way up to ultimate reality, and even though it’s the lower portions that are worshiped, it makes the cut. But that seems like it would exclude any religion that showed epistemic humility, which seems problematic, and might put some Buddhist sects and other eastern ideologies back in the crosshairs.

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      1. “My question is, how do you define metaphysics?”

        In the literal sense of “beyond physics” although I don’t know about ultimate reality. I mean the reality we inhabit and something beyond that is (forever) inaccessible to us.

        “For instance, Greek religion saw that ultimately, everyone, including the gods, was subject to Fate.”

        This is why “ultimate” is the wrong concept. The Greek gods, and especially fate, are metaphysics, so well within the definition. So is Buddhism.

        The requirement is simply a metaphysics with an implicit or explicit ought behind our physics is.

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        1. Interestingly, the literal sense of the word “metaphysics” comes from an unimaginative editor in ancient times who assembled Aristotle’s notes, naming the chapter after the one on physics “after physics” or “beyond physics”.

          By itself “beyond physics” seems ambiguous. Or maybe I should ask, how are you defining “physics” here?

          It’s worth noting that pagans actually saw their gods as physical beings living in physical locals (e.g. Mt, Olympus). Even Christian theology prior to the scientific age saw God literally living in the physical heavens. The vague supernatural metaphysics of modern religion seems like a response to scientific cosmology.

          And some modern religions, like Scientology or the UFO cults, seem more grounded in (what they take to be) science rather than what we might think of as a supernatural metaphysics.

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          1. The problem is for there to be an ought, there has to be a way to flout it, otherwise it’s not an ought but an is. But physical laws tend to be iron clad. You can’t sin against them. I can’t flout the second law of thermodynamics (except in extremely improbable events).

            Put another way, if there were a physical law requiring me to honor my parents, it would be physically impossible not to honor them.

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          2. OTOH, if we move up a bit in abstraction layers, we can maybe see something in time sequenced relations.

            So, if I don’t want to starve later, I ought to go hunting for food, or plant it. If I want to learn a skill, I ought to practice it.

            Are these that different from if I don’t want Zeus to strike me with lightning, I ought to honor his rules?

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          3. Ought, morality, is about decisions. I can do this or that. Which is the one I ought to do? If the question is which one will bring about maximum universal entropy soonest, we can’t possibly calculate that. What we can do is develop rules of thumb (love thy neighbor), and whoever develops the better rules will be selected (by the operation of physics).

            *

            Liked by 1 person

  6. “Football is not a religion”

    Obviously he’s never lived in the South. People here will skip their daughter’s wedding if it conflicts with a football game. I personally attended a wedding reception where all the men retreated to bar where the television set was and complained about the bride’s scheduling the wedding on the day of the Georgia Tennessee game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sporting events, notably the ceremonies involved, often do have a religious feel. And it’s worth noting that in ancient societies, they were imbued with religious significance. Of course, everything in ancient societies could be seen that way, right down in some cases to visiting prostitutes.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It was entangled in just about every aspect of their culture, if not every aspect period. That’s actually Pascal Boyer’s point, that our modern practice of sectioning off a part of our culture and calling it “religion” is historically unusual. But we project that division into the past and onto other cultures, many of whom are puzzled by the idea. For them, there’s just the world and its forces and the law. The idea that there would be religious rules and separate secular ones is strange to them, at least until they get used to weird western ideas.

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  7. I’ve been tempted to join one of the UFO cults since I can’t find much else to believe in.

    Raelism seems to come with some nice side benefits:

    “Raëlians promote a liberal ethical system with a strong emphasis on sexual experimentation, engage in daily meditation, and hope for physical immortality through human cloning”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra%C3%ABlism

    Although becoming part of the Ashtar Command does have a ring to it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtar_(extraterrestrial_being)#Ashtar_Command

    The Church of the Toad of Light promises a sort of instant enlightenment.

    https://www.erowid.org/archive/sonoran_desert_toad/almost.htm

    https://www.vicetv.com/en_us/video/hamiltons-pharmacopeia-the-psychedelic-toad/59cd5cd7c6e1eb5725458fdc

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  8. I don’t consider myself a “Wittgensteinian”, but boy was Wittgenstein right about definitions, and philosophy’s unhealthy obsession with them! The human brain doesn’t run on definitions for most of its functionality; rather it runs on pattern recognition. Jared Diamond has the right approach in so far as he tries to list aspects that tend to support something’s membership in the “religion” class, without making any one out to be necessary, and without trying to come up with a simple list of necessary-and-sufficient conditions.

    Definitions – unless you count ostensive definitions – should not come at the start of an inquiry. They should come only when a vast share of the investigation is done, and then only sometimes. There is no need for a definition. Your brain (System 1 in Kahneman’s terminology) can recognize a pattern when it sees one, even if you (consciously, System 2) have little to no idea how it does it. And having little to no idea is the typical case.

    Here’s a breath of sanity from an AI researcher. “Similarity Clusters” and “The Cluster Structure of Thingspace” are good intros to the family resemblance type approach that Wittgenstein was getting at.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually think definitions are one of the things philosophy can be good for. In some ways, a definition is like an a priori account of how the parts and attributes make up the whole, and only the whole, excluding all the things that are not the thing under consideration.

      In my mind, when it turns out that the subject matter is difficult to define, when we have to fall back on, “I know when I see it,” type reasoning, or just listing examples, that tells us something, that it’s not as coherent a concept as many people assume.

      That doesn’t mean we dismiss it as a folk phrase. But for scientific investigation or philosophical reasoning, we have to find more precise terminology, either by qualifying the term, or finding or creating alternate labels.

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      1. A successful definition is not a priori except in logic and math. And science should strive for all the precision that is possible, and no more than that. Successful prediction is the goal, and worries about subjective classifications are easily answered by appropriate blinding of judges.

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