What is Religion?


Having attended Catholic school from first grade to my senior year in high school, I was taught that religion was defined as having a relationship with God. And this God was defined in very specific terms: a fatherly type figure who created the world and who oversees all actions. Though spiritually minded throughout my childhood, this notion of God always baffled me. I thought if God created everything, where then did God come from. At times I felt my brain would burst trying to comprehend this. I remember my first confessional in second grade where I nervously revealed to Father O’Connor my desire but incapability to grasp the truth of God. Expecting a revelation of some kind, an unveiling of the mysteries of the universe, I felt a bit shortchanged when he offered the Baltimore Catechism definition: God is the Holy Trinity. I would have been much more impressed if he quoted the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa who suggested that "The Unattainable is attained through Its unattainment." In other words, my not being able to grasp God was a good thing, for it meant that Reality was infinitely far greater than I could ever comprehend (although that may have been a bit too abstract for an eight-year old to understand). Perhaps detecting my disappointment or signs of early dissent the priest suggested that I meet him on the playground for further discussion. Not willing to reveal my identity, the philosophical discourse with the Irish priest never transpired. It was not until my first world religion course at the University of California that I confronted an entirely different view of religion and of God. Here I learned that, contrary to popular understanding, religion does not require a relationship with God or even a belief in a personal deity. In fact, there are many religions that are atheistic, such as certain Buddhist, Jain and Taoist schools. Moreover, for those religions that do profess a belief in God how one defines it is very idiosyncratic and can range from pantheism, to panentheism, to henotheism, to monism, to the view of God as female. So if the belief in God is not a prerequisite for religion, what then is? In this chapter we will investigate the classic definitions of religion as espoused by scholars in the field of religious studies.

The Latin word religio simply means to bind. But to bind with what? God? Nature? The Self? Perhaps the best way to put it is religion binds us with a sense of the sacred, whatever that may be. For Judeo-Christians the sacred is often depicted as an anthropomorphic being, God the Father. For Vedanta Hindus the sacred is a transcendental, impersonal, ineffable Reality, Brahman. And for Taoist the sacred is the harmony or balance of Nature. According to Mircea Eliade the sacred only can be understood in contrast to the profane[1]. For me the computer I am now working on falls under the profane category, for rarely, if ever, does it invoke a sense of something transcendental. Yet, with the scent of incense in the air and melodic chanting from Benedictine or Buddhist monks playing on a CD I am enthralled into a world of the numinous (derived from the Latin word numen meaning spirit), of feeling that there is something greater than myself and greater than all comprehension. This sense of awe, mystery and fascination was described by the German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto as an "experience of the Wholly Other.[2]" Now I do not know whether this participation with the numinous is hard wired into my brain for evolutionary reasons (perhaps to supply me with some kind meaning so as to survive my existential states of mind and, as we know to be the goal of Nature, to pass on my DNA) or whether there is a mystical reality that transcends (and maybe includes) this material universe. On this subject, I claim Socratic ignorance as I openly admit my agnosticism[3].

Some philosophers make an interesting argument that the world of matter is itself sacred when understood from an Einsteinian perspective. Matter is not simply gray and flat but multi-layered and magnificent: from subatomic particles moving at the speed of light, to atoms, to molecules, to cells, to organisms, to ecosystems, to planets, to solar systems, to galaxies, to universes, to infinity. In fact, one confronts infinity at both the subatomic level which is forever divisible and the cosmic level which is ultimately uncontainable. When reflecting upon matter one can become awestruck. Richard Dawkins, a well known scientist from Oxford University, captures this when he writes: "The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver[4]." Einstein agreed that science can actually induce a feeling of mysteriousness and a sense of a connectedness with nature, and that is why this materialist atheist described himself as "belonging to the ranks of the most devoutly religious men.[5]" So can one be a materialist and be religious? The obvious answer is yes.

The theologian Paul Tillich slightly deviates from Eliade’s definition of religion. According to Tillich, religion can be understood as one’s "ultimate concern." Many have criticized this definition as being too nebulous and too inclusive. It seems to allow anything to be defined as a religion. Is surfing to Kelly Slater a religion? Indeed, I have had a few mystical visions myself surfing the blue waters of Hawaii. Is pursuing par game for golfers a religion? Well, certainly it’s a contender. There is an indescribable high experienced when birdying a hole or sinking a thirty foot put. But I don’t think Tillich had surfing and golfing in mind when he gave his definition. Rather, he meant that religion uniquely offers a sense of an "ultimate meaning" to one’s life and a sense of transformation.

In defining religion, it is important to clarify what religion is not. W.C. Smith argues that religion must be understood as a "cumulative tradition," that is, as having gone through evolutionary stages, and not as a non-evolving "ism." To think of religion as static one has missed the dynamic nature and complexity of it. Hence, there is no such thing as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. Rather, there are Buddhist traditions, Hindu traditions, Jewish traditions, that have gone through numerous changes in history. For instance, in the Buddhist traditions there are Mahayana Buddhists including the schools of Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan, Nichiren Shoshu, etc., and Theravadist Buddhists. And all of these divisions promote teachings that may not have necessarily been from the mouth of the historical Buddha. Mahayana’s reference to gods is a case in point, since Buddha appeared to have taught a more atheistic philosophy. The Hindu traditions are no exception, finding in its myriad followers of particular gods such as Shiva and Vishnu (there are 330 million gods according to the last count) and non-theists who acknowledge a higher impersonal reality, Brahman. In the Jewish traditions there are Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reformed Jews, Hasidic Jews, Kabalistic Jews, etc. Now to eliminate from our vocabulary any reference to religious isms would probably take a great deal of effort; somehow it is so much easier to say Judaism than the Jewish traditions. And I do not think that a crime has been committed if the ism word slips out or is part of our diction, as long as we remember that religions are complex and cumulative.



Classic Definitions of Religion


Perhaps the most popular definition of religion among scholars today comes from Ninian Smart[6]. He defines religion as an "organism with seven dimensions[7]." By organism Smart simply means that religion is alive and active, an idea that reiterates Smith’s. The seven dimensions of this organism are the characteristics that make up a religion. These are: myths, rituals, religious experiences, doctrines, ethics, social institutions, and material forms of the religion. Smart contends that for a group to be defined as a religion it must possess all of these. Let us briefly look at what each dimension entails.


The Seven Dimensions of Religion




The Mythological Dimension:

Myths, a term in religious studies not to be confused with false accounts, refer to stories about the sacred. These stories may have some historical backbone intermixed with a great deal of symbolism and hagiography (embellished accounts) or they may be purely symbolic. In order for a myth to be given historical status, the account must be falsifiable (able to be tested). Claims like god exists and god created so and so are non-testable and thus historically and scientifically meaningless.

An example of a historical type myth is birth of the Buddha. That he was actually born and that his parents were of royalty caste is viable. Yet, the claim that when the newborn entered the world he took seven steps and spoke words of wisdom, and that the earth shook and lotus flowers fell from the sky, is indeed dubious. It is a story to illustrate the Buddha’s spiritual gifts and universe’s rejoicing in them. The same critical analysis applies to the myth of Jesus. The assertion that there existed a religious teacher named Jesus (more correctly pronounced Yehoshu’a) has historical merit, since it is testable and has been tenuously verified by a couple of reports outside of the New Testament (to rely solely of the New Testament would not be good scholarship since its objectivity certainly remains questionable). Yet, there are several events of his life, including his birth, that are from an academic viewpoint laced with symbolism and hagiography. The virginal conception, indicating the purity of Jesus, is an illustration.

Why does embellishment of historical myths occur in the first place? The answer is simple: usually out of adoration for the subject (e.g., Jesus is so special he can walk on water) or to explain away a discrepancy (e.g., Jesus was born out of wedlock). The latter is referred to as "ideological work," an attempt to rationalize a contradiction between theology and praxis. In other words, when there is an inconsistency between one’s theology and what has actually occurred there usually will be a great deal of effort to justify it. As an example, a guru, who is suppose to embody compassion and to have transcended worldly desires, may hit a disciple out of anger or sexually assault him or her[8]. Yet, instead of owning up to the abuse adherents may suggest that the guru was imparting divine energy to the recipient. Sometimes in the case of sexual abuse it is argued that the guru was trying to help the disciple overcome sexual drives by expressing them and not suppressing them. Anything can be ideologically worked out given the motive to keep one’s worldview in tact. Many religious stories actually illustrate ideological work at play.

Very often alterations occur without conscious intent simply with the retelling of the story in time. This is beautifully illustrated in the telephone game all of us remember playing as kids. You tell a story to someone, then they tell it to another and invariably something in the account has changed. The phrase "I like to eat pistachio nuts" somehow becomes "I go nuts for Picasso." Exaggeration is also an issue. On many occasions I have heard an outrageous surf story, usually about someone pearling down a twenty feet wave with tiger sharks nipping at their heals. But when confronting the initial source the admission comes that there were no scary monsters in the water and the wave was only four feet. How easy it is to add something extra so as to excite the next set of ears. With enough renditions the original account has been dramatically altered.

As for the symbolism, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell contend that myths, much like dreams, reflect the archetypes (universal symbols) of the unconscious mind. A classic example of an archetype is the hero figure. In most (if not all) world religions there is a myth about a hero who faces some adversity, emerges transformed, and then serves as a symbol of strength and transcendence for others. Think of Moses, Nanak, Muhammad, Mahavira, the life of any religious figure. All of them encountered at some time or another a spiritual, political, or personal crisis and instead of succumbing to it they rose to the occasion. They become for us a symbol of hope, of what we too can be.

Sacred stories that are viewed as purely symbolic (at least from a modern and academic perspective) are the hundreds of creation accounts found throughout the world religions. Take, for instance, the Judeo-Christian creation myth. There are actually two separate creation stories in the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. According to biblical scholars both were oral stories passed down for nearly one thousand years before being officially recorded (many of the Jewish accounts were recorded in the 6th century B.C.E. when the Babylonians invaded and the Jews feared total annihilation of their culture). Genesis 1 offers us the classic six-day creation account with god resting on the seventh day. Genesis 2, supposedly predating the former by hundreds of years and constructed by an entirely different school of thought, paints a more anthropomorphic god who interacts with the first humans, Adam and Eve. A fundamentalist Christian may ask what is symbolic here? Weren’t these events historical? Well, to answer this it is important to understand the context in which these non-falsifiable accounts were developed. The authors were pre-scientific and so to grasp the origins of the universe they did not engage in any form of biological and cosmological research. As expected of tribal, preliterate, prerational people[9], they invoked rich symbolic imagery. For instance, the snake in Genesis 2 most likely was depicted as the symbol of evil since the Jewish people were often at odds with the Canaanites who used snakes in their form of worship. If we assume that the Jewish composers were giving an objective historical account of creation it becomes in a way an embarrassment for them. How easily the writers are proven wrong in light of modern scientific evidence. But if these particular Jewish myths are evaluated as containing a deeper meaning, as symbolic, they can be argued as valid and as true. Remember a symbol cannot be wrong. (Reformed Jews embrace this understanding.) Despite this awareness, to apply a critical analysis to one’s own religious myths, especially if ingrained in one from childhood as history, takes a great deal of intellectual honesty and courage. To view another religion’s myths as symbolic is usually not too difficult.


The Mythological Dimension

A Selection from the Hebrew Scriptures Explaining the Origin of Multiple Languages and Races in the

Tower of Babel Story

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech… And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, "Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth…


The Ritual Dimension:

All too often religions critique other religions for being ritualistic. Protestants criticize Catholics for ceremonial grandeur; Muslims criticize the Christian community in general for its complicated forms of worship; Sikhs criticize Hindus for engaging in superfluous religious behavior, and the list continues. Some religions go as far as to say that they, unlike other traditions, do not engage in rituals at all. But in religious studies when we use the term ritual we mean it in a very benign way. Rituals are simply activities (usually repeated) that connect one with the sense of the sacred and all religions have them. Very often rituals are reenactments of religious myths. For Catholics administering the Eucharist is a reenactment of Jesus’ last supper. However, rituals can be any action that imbues a feeling of transcendence. Meditating, praying, dancing as the Sufis do, chanting, singing religious hymns, reading religious literature, prostrating before sacred objects, attending religious services of any kind all fit under this category.


The Ritual Dimension

A Selection from Hsun Tzu’s interpretation of

Confucius on the Value of Rituals for Society[10]

Rites (referred to as li) rest on three bases: heaven and earth, which are the source of all life; the ancestor, who are the source of the human race; sovereigns and teachers, who are the source of government…It is through rites that Heaven and Earth are harmonious and sun and moon are bright, that the four seasons are ordered and the stars are on their courses, that river flow and that things prosper, that love and hatred are tempered and joy and anger are in keeping. They cause the lowly to be obedient and those on high to be illustrious. He who holds to rites is never confused in the midst of multifarious change; he who deviates therefrom is lost. Rites—are they not the culmination of culture?…

The Experiential Dimension:

Hand in hand with rituals is the experiential dimension. It refers to the experience of the sacred, usually invoked via a ritual or spontaneously. For a brief moment, perhaps longer, engaging in a ritual can help one forgets one’s self, one’s troubles, and one’s shortcomings, and connect with something greater. As stated earlier, whether these mystical encounters are insights into a higher reality accessible through our unconscious or superconscious mind or purely neurologically induced events, a byproduct of our brain chemistry, remains to be seen.


The Experiential Dimension

A Selection from the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text for Hindus,

where the poem’s hero, Arjuna, experiences the glory of God[11]

I see You where ever I look—infinite your form! End, middle, or again beginning I cannot see in You, O Monarch Universal, manifest in every form!…How infinite your strength! How numberless your arms—yours eyes the sun and moon! So do I see You—your mouth a flaming fire, burning up this whole universe with your blazing glory. By You alone is this space between heaven and earth pervaded—all points of the compass too; gazing on this, your marvelous, frightening form, the three worlds shudder, All Highest Self!…



The Doctrinal Dimension:

The doctrines of a religion are the belief systems, the philosophies. These may be written down in a sacred text or orally transmitted. There is a thin line between the mythological dimension and the doctrinal one, for myths are intimately connected to the group’s doctrines. Yet, doctrines are an attempt to offer a coherent system of beliefs beyond the symbolic language of myths. While the myth of the resurrection of Jesus is part of Christian doctrine, theologians do more than simply retell the story; they attempt to explain its significance.


The Doctrinal Dimension

A Selection from the Samytta-Nikaya Explains

Buddhism’s Core Doctrine, the Eight Fold Path[12]

The Buddha said: What, monks, is the Nobel Eightfold Way? It is namely right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. And what, monks, is right view? The knowledge of pain, knowledge of the cause of pain, knowledge of the cessation of pain, and knowledge of the way that leads to the cessation of pain…And what is right intention? The intentions to renounce, the intention not to hurt, the intention not to injure…And what is right speech? Refraining from falsehood, from malicious speech, from harsh speech, from frivolous speech…


The Eight Fold Path Continued

And what is right action? Refraining from taking life; from taking what is not given, from sexual intercourse…And what is right livelihood? Here is a noble disciple abandoning a false mode of livelihood gets his living by right livelihood…And what is right effort? Here a monk with the non producing of bad and evil thoughts that have not yet arisen exercises will, puts efforts, begins to make exertion, applies and exerts his mind…And what is right mindfulness? Here on the body a monk abides contemplating the body, ardent, thoughtful, and mindful, dispelling his longing and dejection towards the world; on feelings he abides contemplating the feelings, ardent, thoughtful, and mindful, dispelling his longing and dejection towards the world; on thoughts he abides contemplating thoughts, ardent, thoughtful, and mindful, dispelling his longing and dejection toward the world. And what is right concentration? Here a monk is free from passions and evil thoughts attains and abides in the first trance of joy and pleasure, which is accompanied by reasoning and investigation and arises from seclusion. With the ceasing of reasoning and investigation, in a state of internal serenity, with his mind fixed on one point, he attains and abides in the second trance of joy and pleasure arising from concentration…With equanimity and indifference towards joy he abides mindful and self-possessed, and with his body experiences pleasure that the noble ones call "dwelling with equanimity, mindful and happy" and attains and abides in the third trance. Dispelling pleasure and pain, and even before the disappearance of elation and depression, he attains and abides in the fourth trance, which is without pleasure and pain and with the purity of mindfulness and equanimity…



The Ethical Dimension:

Religions contain a code of ethics. The ethical behavior of the dominant religion usually controls society. For instance, in America, where Judeo-Christian values are predominant, there is little attention paid to the morality of eating animals, whereas in India, with a vast Hindu population, vegetarianism is common. There are a few ethical standards that seem to be universal, however. Most societies (if not all) do not allow murder, lying, cheating, stealing, and promote some form of the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. This moral pronouncement is found in the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and others. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg argues that there are developmental stages of morality: pre-moral (infants with no sense of morality yet), egoistic (totally self-centered), social approval (concerned with recognition), law and order (following rules rigorously), fair and justice (focus on what is inherently right), and the Golden Rule stage. Though many religions may have their ideal set at the highest level of morality, in actuality Kohlberg contends few of us live up to this standard.



The Ethical Dimension

A Selection from the Akaranga-sutra Illustrates

Jain Ahimsa (Non-Violence) and Respect for Life[13]

All beings with two, three, four, or five sense,…in fact all creation know individually pleasure and displeasure, pain, terror and sorrow. All are full of fears which come from all directions. And yet there exist people who would cause greater pain to them…Some kill animals for sacrifice, some for their skin, flesh, blood,…feathers, teeth, tusks;…some kill them intentionally…He who harms animals has not understood or renounced deeds of sin…He who understands the nature of sin against animals is called a rue sage who understands karma..A man who is adverse from harming even the wind knows the sorrow of all things living…He who knows what is bad for himself knows what is bad for others, and he who knows what is bad for others knows what is bad for himself. This reciprocity should always be borne in mind. Those whose minds are at peace and who are free from passions do not desire to live at the expense of others…



The Social Dimension:

Religions have a communal aspect and some form of organization. My independent, idiosyncratic philosophy does not constitute a religion since it lacks this social element. While there is no magical threshold number to constitute a religion, certainly a religion is more than one person’s philosophical meandering. The organization surrounding a religion can be extremely complex as with the Catholic Church or very loose knit as we see with religions originating on the internet. In the case of the latter, religious ideas are espoused on the computer screen and a following (however small) can emerge. Instead of attending churches, members visit web sites and chat rooms. Overall, the social dimension of religion allows for a sense of normative values and group bonding. Sociologists of religion, such as Emile Durkheim, Bryan Wilson, and Georg Simmel, argue from a functionalist standpoint that religions are a necessary component of a well functioning society since they supply it with not only rules to live by but, most importantly, a community to live in.



The Social Dimension:

Estimated Numbers in the Major World Religions



The Material Dimension:

The final element of religion is the material dimension. This includes any materials that help connect the believer to the sacred. Books, buildings, clothing, and other physical forms with religious meaning fit here. In religious studies a material object that is viewed as a direct manifestation or embodiment of the sacred is termed a hierophany. For Christians it can be a Bible; for Sikhs it can be the Adi Granth; for Hindus it can be the guru himself/herself. A hierophany not only serves as a conduit to the divine, it itself is viewed as transcendent.



The Material Dimension:

Examples of Religious Material Forms