Fasten your seat belt, this is going to be a fun one.
It wouldn’t be necessary except for two things.
One: There is a lot of religion-tossing going on with our politicians, as they use it to get elected, and also use it to justify their ongoing war with “terrorism” and religious zealots.
Two: We don’t agree on what religion is. This wouldn’t be a problem if every culture on Earth would simply sacrifice a bowl of leaves (in season, sprinkled with olive oil and salt) on the altar of the Earth Mother. Preferably only upon the rising of the full moon.
So, because of number one, and because we DON’T do number two, we have to do number three.
Three: Religion is.
It’s a start, isn’t it? You see, that’s the problem. There is no good definition of religion. I’m going to give one before the end, but it won’t create universal agreement, let alone happiness. But it’ll work for our purposes.
As a young human, chances are you were exposed to some kind of religion. Do this on a certain day. Dress up. Act nice. Say these words. Meet with all these strangers and chant. Sacrifice this goat.
Well, maybe not that last item. Animal sacrifice went out of fashion some time ago. Mostly.
However, that’s the point. Our practical application of “religion” has changed, because we as a species have changed.
A good definition isn’t going to change. We invented religion, and it has stayed with us for a long time. Therefore it must be good for something. Perhaps if we ponder its positives, we can define it more easily.
Religion is good for:
- managing and leading groups of people, even very large groups;
- helping “young” minds comprehend their place in the kosmos;
- maintaining behaviors (a culture) ensuring group survival.
That should be enough for our purposes. You’ll find that when you add more, it really becomes part of one of these big three benefits.
So, what’s the definition?
The explicit expression of a set of behaviors that keep an individual as part of a group.
Now for some explaining. Notice there is nothing in the definition about one or more deities, a higher power, an afterlife, a pre-life, or anything about buildings or prophets. Nothing. That’s because some religions don’t have these things. Yet people belong and worship and propagate their set of behaviors. They have religion. It just doesn’t look like yours, or mine.
There is nothing about managing the group, or leading it using priests, mullahs, or rabbis. Because not all religions have these administrative components. There’s a good chance that any priesthood, by any name, arose out of necessity. Like symbiotic parasites, they continue to infect any major religion with the few benefits they provide. Let’s face it, they can also be the cause of many of the abuses we currently see.
Finally, nothing in my definition says anything about long term survival. It doesn’t have to, the religion takes care of that for me. If the set of behaviors don’t account for current selective forces, then that religion won’t be along very long. It’s okay, this happens. Today’s current count of judeo-christian religions is somewhere in the thousands. This includes all the variants of islam, for you islamaphobes out there. Yes, it’s a modern religion based on the same precepts as Christianity. Get over it.
And out of the many thousands of religions practiced today, I’m confident that many more have come and already gone through the ages. It’s how we as people handle things in the natural world.
So there you have it. Religion is expressed behaviors keeping YOU (or any individual) part of a group.
This means that your social club is a kind of religion. This means your academic department or university class is a kind of religion.
It also means that sacrificing that bowl of leaves to the tree goddess is also a religion; as long as you aren’t doing it all by yourself.
That would be weird.