Definitional Dancing II: Religion

In the first post of this series, I discussed the definition of atheism. I basically concluded that, although I think the traditional definition of atheism should be used when someone uses the term “atheist”, I really don’t care all that much. As long as people are being consistent and providing support when they make a claim about reality, I’m cool. If I come across an atheist, I’ll ask them what they mean and run with that definition. I may disagree with that definition as being the correct one, but it’s not really worth the discussion all that often. This is related to today’s topic. What makes something a religion?

Religion is one of those things that are notoriously difficult to actually define. I don’t think there is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions out there that adequately describes what a religion is. However, I will provide a few ideas below. Note that none of these will provide the required conditions. They are but a taste.

The question of what makes something a religion is especially relevant when asking if atheism is a religion. Atheists will, of course, sneer at the very possibility. Occasionally, theists like to try and make the point atheism is a religion. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just to get a rise out of an atheist for the fun of it. It usually works; perhaps not so Christ-like, though.

This depends on two words; atheism and religion. As discussed in Part 1, atheism could simply be a lack of belief in a deity, or it could be the claim that there is no deity. The first makes no truth claims and the second does. It’s hard to think that the first form, popular among the New Atheists, could be a religion. It’s not even saying anything external to their own mind! It’s just a self psychological evaluation. The second definition could be a religion, depending how you define religion.

And that’s the crux here people. People start bickering about what’s a religion and what’s not a religion. How do you define it? If someone defines it as, say, one’s belief in and worship of God, then clearly traditional atheism isn’t a religion. If religion is defined as one’s belief about God, I would think that atheism is a religion. It has a belief about God; namely, that there isn’t one.

Perhaps religion to you is more broadly defined; closer to worldview. Maybe if someone holds to a religion they hold to truth claims that answer or imply the answers about the deep questions of reality. What is the meaning of life? Is there a God? Why are we here? How do we determine good and evil? What happens when we die? It seems to me that God not existing is a truth claim that would be instrumental in answering these questions. Hence, I would think it would fall under the definition of a religion.

So, it really just depends how you define it. Ask people to define their terms. People freak out about whether atheism is a religion. Just ask what the definition is so you’re on the same page. It’s not too difficult.

Religion is an interesting definition, not just to atheists, but to Christians as well. If you happen to be a church goer, you’ve probably heard, at least once, the idea that Christianity is not a religion. You hear cliché claims like, “The Pharisees wanted religion, but got Jesus instead” or “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I once saw a photo on Facebook of someone holding a sign saying “Jesus is my saviour, not my religion.” In this sense, it appears that religion means the set of rules or standards which we are to follow in order to earn our salvation; or at least it’s something along those lines. The keyword here is “earn”. Under Christianity, no one can earn their salvation; we simply accept the gift Christ freely offers. There is nothing we have done or can do to merit salvation.

Under this Christian-ese definition of religion, it would seem neither atheism nor Christianity are religions. No one is earning any salvation in either one.

I certainly understand where Christians are coming from in this narrow sense of religion. I’d generally agree with, at least, the spirit of those claims. However, I sometimes wonder if we’re just confusing people.

Setting possible definitions aside, though, there are some things that religions are not, or at least they shouldn’t be, under any circumstance; I am drawing the line in the sand. Religions aren’t clubs or lifestyles. They drastically effect your lifestyle, to the point that if it doesn’t you probably don’t really believe it, but they aren’t themselves lifestyles. Many seem to think that religions are lifestyles or cultures that simply provide a code of ethics. No more. And religions aren’t just a group of people you hang out with who have a common interest.

Many cultural frustrations about religion, it seems to me, are because of this mischaracterization of what religions are. If religions are clubs or lifestyles, I would be offended by people making absolute claims about their religion, too. Is there a correct culture? I would think not. But religions aren’t cultures/lifestyles. At their core, religions make truth claims. In this sense, they are closer to hypotheses than clubs. Evangelism is, in a rather cold sense, trying to convince people of a hypothesis of reality that you believe to be true (of course, that is quite crude and there’s more to it). “Evangelizing” a scientific hypothesis wouldn’t offend anyone. Religion should be the same. At the very least, Christianity is not a club or lifestyle. I would recommend Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis if you want to have this thought expanded.

Generally speaking, I prefer a definition of religion that is closer to worldview; making both traditional atheism and Christianity religions. It seems to me a definition along those lines best captures religion as it’s usually used and incorporates obvious examples of religions that could be neglected from other definitions. But, as I’ve said in the first post of this series, my purpose here is not to try and define religion with philosophical precision.  It’s to get people trying to be clear in their uses of words and willing to ask others for clarification rather than assuming what someone means. Really, just define your terms people! There’s a reason philosophers emphasize that. So many quarrels have taken place because people won’t ask what each other mean.

Plus, debating on whether a position, like traditional atheism, can be classified as a religion does nothing in determining if the position is true. Isn’t that what we’re actually after?

We’ll conclude this series in Part 3 by exploring the concept of absolute truth. The whole article will be attempting to practice what I just preached: what does absolute truth even mean?

Keep pondering,



2 thoughts on “Definitional Dancing II: Religion

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