Religion. Defined.

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?

Religion is:

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.



An Open Letter To Sir Richard Dawkins

Dear Dick,

You are an exceptional biologist with great insights into what makes evolution work. However, you’re quite the firebrand of late. Unfortunately, it’s in areas that don’t line up with your expertise. Please, forget your Quixote-like attack of God, and stick to forging better theories integrating genes with phenotype expression. Sir Richard, no matter how hard you try, God is going to be around as long as there are humans. Sir Richard Dawkins, you can’t kill God.

This mess started when your popular acclaim inflated your ego, such that you became an expert on so many things unrelated to your expertise. How you could do this to yourself is quite a trip of the imagination. Self annointment is the worst kind. In fact, any kind of ego-annointment isn’t good scientific practice. And, since you espouse the sanctity of science, why you should stoop to any kind of statement other than those in which you are expert is quite a stretch.

Let’s not dwell on your expertise in all things, instead let us dive right into what you seem to argue most stridently about, God. Now, to my mind, God, the big G, is everywhere. I’m not only talking about the big popular successful religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism – but all other religions from every social group ever studied.

Pretty much even the remotest tribe has created a theory of their universe. They use the theory to answer a variety of questions. Where did our world come from? How did we get here? What is our place relative to all other life? Where are we going? Where do we go when we die?

Dick, whether you like it or not, the myths and legends and theories these people use to understand their world work for them. They won’t change, no matter what you think or say, no matter how many misionaries visit them. If their God, or Gods, live in rocks, wind, or some unreachable place in the sky, then there they will stay. Dick, this is proof number one. All those Gods are there to stay.

Need more God? Let’s look no further than our own backyard. Truly, your backyard, my backyard, they are probably similar. From my backyard I can hear the church bells wafting through the trees. There are many people in both our countries that hold their beliefs rather strongly.

Now, you and I live in nations where belief systems are being influenced constantly. True, those belief systems focus primarily on our sex appeal, the vehicle we drive and the liquids we drink. Our belief system is under a constant barrage of media messages trying to change our beliefs and our behavior. Granted, these beliefs are seemingly trivial in appearance to the nature of the universe, but arguably, people care more about their breath than their God.

The advantage of living amidst this media melange is that we have extremely good theories as to how beliefs are best influenced. These theories are used for breath fresheners, cars, beer, and selling books. They work. The best evidence of their validity is the billions of dollars in profits made by consumer products companies.

Distilling these theories of belief modification to their essence leaves these steps. Identify what is most important to your customer, like breath odor. Point out the shortcoming of the current situation, like bad odors driving your friends away. Offer your alternative, like “Bob’s Brilliant Breath Beads.” Finally, show the customer how much better off they will be. We should see some lonely person using Bob’s Brilliant Breath Beads, and then immediately being surrounded by beautiful people.

Let’s look at your message in our sophisticated marketing terms, crudely summarized above. First, since you are trying to knock off the big G, who exactly is your customer? Prophets and priests perhaps? Pretty tough sell, that one! Zealous parishoners? Infrequent dabblers? Hypocritical naysayers? You’re going to have to be specific, because a message sent to everybody is a message heard by none.

Secondly, what’s wrong with the current situation? Sure, you can point to the crazy anti-vaccinationists or militant martyrs in general, but what can you say to your customer as to how it affects them personally? Personally! Does it mean they’ll lose money? Prestige? Sex? Doesn’t it all boil down to power and sex, anyway?

Incidently, does your message have a catchy phrase and memorable brand name to go along with it?

Thirdly, your message may be beneficial. With better breath I bag more babes; that’s a powerful message. What does your product deliver? Can you compete against omnipresent love and omniscient advice? Dick, I’m waiting!

Sorry Dick, I’m not hearing anything from you, and I happen to agree with you! If I’m not hearing it, then your intended customer isn’t hearing it either. No message, no benefits, no change. Fail.

Let’s see. So far this means the score is God, 2, Dick, nought. Don’t care? Naughty Dick. Let me try again.

Within our species there is a sub-species that is even more primative than those scattered tribes mentioned in the first argument. This sub-species has unique genetic abilities that the rest of our species has lost. Can you guess who they are?

They, Sir Richard, were you, long ago. They are still with us, and God willing, they always shall. They are our children. These newborn lumps of loveable flesh continue growing and learning at rates far exceeding the most ambitious graduate student. These special humans have to go from knowing effectively zero on the synthetic knowledge scale, to our current average level of, let’s say, ten. And they have to do this within twenty years. Pretty damn good.

Now, Dick, I’m willing to grant you a synthetic knowledge rating of, oh, what the heck, let’s say you’re a sixteen. You’re a genius compared to the rest of humanity. Yet, you know you didn’t start that way.

You began as we all began, as an ugly baby. You ate, pooped, grew, and learned like the rest of us. You asked questions. Lots of questions.

There’s the rub. Eventually you asked your first questions about the universe, about your place in the world, and about death. You probably asked them very early in your life. Your teachers told you what was appropriate for you, and for them. There’s a very good chance that they explained the universe to you using, here it comes, God.

Dick, that’s my argument number three. If that doesn’t convince you that God is unkillable, nothing will. How smart is that?

My point is this; our Big Bang super-symmetric stringy law-driven universe may not contain any actual Gods, but does it matter?

No, not one wit. As long as there are backward tribes, lazy people, and children, Gods will, and must, exist. You are not only tilting at a windmill, but doing your reptuation as a scientist a disservice by venturing into thoroughly unscientific areas.

As a behavioral scientist, we know God and Science can coexist very well together. They already do, in a fashion. God offers an extremely simple explanation for why things work, and a straight forward knowledge acquisition formula; that is, “I say so.” Science, way more complex and formal. But each has its place. So, Sir Richard, please relax and let God live.

Wishing you all the best,