What is a "religion"?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by iBrian, Sep 2, 2003.

  1. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Admin

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    Skeptic44 raised the interesting issue of Atheism being a "religion".

    Personally, I find this hard to justify - "religious belief" essential revolves around the ritualised worship of a supernatural deity - at least, according to my initial perception.

    So I would normally class Atheism - like Agnosticism - as a philosophy.

    However, the issue is further complicated by Buddhism, which in itself and at its heart (certainly in some traditions) does not seem to deal with either the worship or acknowledgement of Supernatural beings - certainly not in the idea of Divinity.

    So is Buddhism therefore a philosophy, rather than a religion? In which case, should I remove the link from the left-hand nav bar? ;)

    Seriously, though - when does a personal philosophy actually become religious belief? What is actually required to define the differences between each? Are there actually key distinct differences? Or is there a muddy realm in meta-physics when personal belief cannot be defined wholly in terms of either a "religion" or as a "philosophy"?

    An open query.
     
  2. Skeptic44

    Skeptic44 Well-Known Member

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    _____________

    To start:

    Atheism is a religion.

    Atheism is the belief, without proof, that there is no such thing as a God, and ... as a first corollary.... the belief that any institutions (or individuals) which claim to be "ordained" or "given authority" by God are claiming something that does not exist.

    If God does not exist, then God cannot "ordain" a minister to speak for God, or deliver a prophecy from God.

    That is a belief which, IMO, is entitled to the protection of "freedom of religion" under US Constitution.

    The government shall make no law... restricting the free exercise of religion...

    So, the government cannot deny atheists the right to exist.

    Atheism is a belief about God, as much as any other religious belief.

    No Atheist ever claims there is proof that God does not exist.

    Atheism holds, as another corollary, such proof would be impossible. If there is no God, you can't prove there isn't.
     
  3. Polycarp

    Polycarp Established Member

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    An interesting perspective, Skeptic44.

    The atheists of my acquaintance have strenuously maintained that atheism is not a religion.

    However, they are quick to distinguish between "hard" or dogmatic atheism, which your definition applies to, and "soft" or pragmatic atheism, which is what they espouse.

    From their perspective, there is no evidence that God exists. It is reasonable to assume that things for which we have no evidence for their existence do not in fact exist. Ergo, God does not exist.

    Note that this is held as being a necessary logical concluson, distinguishing it from agnosticism.
     
  4. Skeptic44

    Skeptic44 Well-Known Member

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    ___________________

    I would take it a step further.

    I would argue there is evidence that God does not exist.

    When American troops entered the underground torture chamber used by Uday Hussein and his comrades, they found skeletons of men who had been tortured, who spents weeks or months in agony before they died.

    I've seen photos of emaciated prisoners in German concentration camps.

    If you sum up the agony that has been experienced by the sum total of every living creature on this planet that has ever died... it is difficult to conceive of a God that would create such a ( ).

    Seems more logical to assume there is no God behind it and physical laws (survival of the fittess) apply.
     
  5. brucegdc

    brucegdc Moderator

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    The fundamental question is not so much what is a religion, but what religion is. If you take the dictionary definition (from dictionary.com):
    Under the first 4, atheism wouldn't qualify. Under the first two, Buddhism wouldn't either. I'm not sure Wicca or many neoPagan beliefs would qualify under the first two necessarily - they seem to call for creation and governance, which aren't necessarily part of the system there.

    A bit further down there's a more detailed entry from Webster's unabridged, which contains:
    Both seem rather monotheistic-based comments, not surprising considering the prevalance of monotheistic religions in this society.

    I am uncomfortable with the narrowness of the dictionary definition - I would tend to define religion as that set of beliefs as to how the universe in its broadest sense is organized (or disorganized) and operates. This may or may not include deities or supernatural entities, and creation/instantiation of the "mundane" world.

    Under my working definition, atheism and agnosticism certainly are religions, as are all the 'conventional' views.

    Another way to look at it, perhaps, is religion is a philosophy which is dependent on an unprovable belief. My belief that one or more deitys exist is not provable. Skeptic's belief that they don't is also unprovable, as it is impossible to prove the non-existance of something not inherently self-contradictory (it is possible to prove that an object that is 100% blue in color and also 100% yellow in color can exist, but only because it's so narrowly defined, and depending on that 100% qualifier....).

    As I was remarking this evening to an atheistic friend of mine, were I an atheist, I would be re-examining my beliefs based on the timing of some recent events where several things happened just at the right time to offset a single other thing. Not a proof by any means, but certainly a thing that would give me cause to furiously think. Based on my belief system, I have a reasonable explanation - a belief system based on chance running the universe would have more trouble.
     
  6. Skeptic44

    Skeptic44 Well-Known Member

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    _________________

    I don't know what "several things that happened just at the right time to offset a single other thing" was that you mentioned, but...

    it certainly isn't enough to make me re-consider atheism.

    Let's take a winning Lotto ticket.

    The chances of your ticket winning is 14 million to one.

    Were the odds of these "several things" happening greater than 14 million to one? Maybe only, like 200 to 1?

    Every two weeks or so, in CA, someone beats the odds of 14 million to one and wins the Jackpot.

    Seems like that would defy the odds.

    Except... the changes of any single ticket winning are 14 million to one, but if 14 million tickets are sold, then the odds of any one ticket matching is reduced to... well, something reasonable.

    Probably same thing in your example. If you examine all the circumstances, odds won't turn out to be so great after all. Or it was just a coincidence. Like winning a Lotto.
     
  7. brucegdc

    brucegdc Moderator

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    Which comes down to the fundamental differences between your beliefs and mine, Skeptic. You've made it quite clear that there's no probability too narrow for you to believe there's another reason. A one in two hundred billion probability is still a probability, and could happen. I see a chain of events and see a low probability and seek a different explanation.
     
  8. Iacchus

    Iacchus God of the Mask

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    If it weren't for all the ritual practices associated with Buddhism which, are highly religious in nature, I think it would only be considered a philosophy.

    Also, with so much reverence associated with the Buddha, one might actually think he had been "deified."
     
  9. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Admin

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    This is a familiar argument, and one which I remember once applying to myself in my angrier teenage years.

    The distillation of which is the familiar lamentation: "How can there be so much pain and suffering in the world if God exists?"

    This is especially accentuated if appended by: "Especially the sufferings of those who worship a God?"

    I see this very much as a principal of rebellion against Christianity and Christian themes. After all, it's a perfectly rational position to be in with a particular set of "knowledge" (placed in quotes because of possible reference to "truth" and "perception".

    Essentially, and without being able to speak for anyone else here - simply from my own past residence in such a position - the fundamental mistake here is simply completely misunderstanding:

    1/ What God may or may not be
    2/ What death may or may not represent
    3/ What meaning and purpose of suffering, our lives, and humanity at large is.

    I realise that there are a swathe of easy answers supplied by a range of faiths on those issues. I have my own somewhat unique perception. I'll try to open particular threads addressing those issues.

    However, the point is, there are different ways to perceive purpose - or the lack of - in events. For each of us this will be individual - and for many of us here that perception has likely changed quite significantly, and in various ways, especially over time.

    Anyone who has been through that process will likely suggest caution with reading too quick an answer with the "meaningless" of it all.

    It is also very important to be very well aware of the vast range of perceptions of Divinity - there is more to the word "God" than simply Christendom. Personally I find the first few lines of the Tao Te Ching far better describes my own perception of the Divine than many others I have read.

    As to Atheism being a religion of not - now, I still don't see it - not at all. There is every prospect of it being very successfully argued to be a valid branch of philosophy - though by this I'm not talking about simple rebellion against Christianity. Reductionism I'm sure would be a very significant part of that philosophy.

    But the word "religion" itself intuitively demands a definition revolving around the way in which an individual relates to Divinity - or some aspect within such a wider application of the word.

    Somehow the notion of Atheism presented so far rather suggests a reaction to belief of, rather than encompassed with the belief of. In other words, you are essentially equating "belief" with "religion", when the latter is surely a more specialised aspect of the former?
     
  10. Elfwreck

    Elfwreck New Member

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    I think of "religions" as "those sets of beliefs/actions meant to create the religious experience." That's a technical term: Leary defines it as the ecstatic, incontrovertibly certain, subjective discovery of answers to seven basic spiritual questions. (Those are questions like "What is the universe" and "what is the nature of life" and "why are we here" and "how do we know what we know" and "how do we get out". I can go into them in detail if anyone's interested.)

    Atheism provides this--the answers tend to be cynical & sharp, but no less personally profound for all that. A key aspect of "religion" is that the answers received are not transmittable: you can describe them, but the "proof" is in the personal experience & understanding of them.

    Can you prove to anyone that you're happy? That you're sad? If you can't prove it, does that mean you're not really happy? Religious "answers" are like those--you *know*. But that doesn't mean you can convince anyone; sensible people don't expect "I am happy" to mean "you should be happy too," and they don't expect "I know the nature of Truth" to mean "you should also know the nature of Truth."

    A philosophy, OTOH, is a science that covers subjects for which we have no method of study. Once we get a method, they move into other fields: psychology, anthropology, physics... all started as philosophies, and changed when we got methods & technologies that worked to confirm or deny the various concepts involved.
     
  11. Baud

    Baud Seeker of Knowledge

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    I'm currently listening to The YTeaching Company tapes on comparative religion. In these, Prof. Robert Oden gives the following definition of religion (taken from H. H. Penner):

    "Religion is a communications system that is constituted by supernatural beings and is related to specific patterns of behavior."

    In this definition, communication includes not only verbal, but also ritual communication. The supernatural beings are not necessarily gods. The wording is supposed to include people such as the Buddha. The patterns of behaviors cover rituals and guidelines for ethical conduct.

    There is more on the tapes on suffering and evil, but I am not there yet.

    Baud
     
  12. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Admin

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    Trouble with such a definition, is that it immediately becomes far more wide-ranging.

    For example, it can suddenly become quite inclusive of belief systems not necessarily considered independently nor exclusively as a form of religious belief.

    For example, UFOology would immediately seem like a form of religion by Oden's definition. This in itself would seem problematic, as UFOology makes no overt statements on the notion of Divnity nor the nature of the universe and our place within it.
     
  13. Aisling

    Aisling Member

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    Having once considered myself a Buddhist, maybe I should participate. Most Buddhists will tell you that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion like Christianity or Judaism. Others call it an "atheistic religion."

    The way I see it, however, all of the world's religions began as philosophies. How many of the people who are now worshipped and revered actually wanted to start a religion? Would Christ be happy with modern Christianity? Would Buddha really have wanted his teachings to become Buddhism? I really don't think so. Even Taoism can be seen as a religion, which is ridiculous.

    At their cores, none of these religious systems are really religions at all. Each of their founders was trying to help people bring their awareness to a higher level. They weren't trying to establish a strict set of rules for everyone to abide by, thus stagnating and only following said rules for the sake of the continuation of the community, without really understanding why they want it to continue at all.

    People make religions what they are. People are the ones who take a set of ideas and turn it into a strict set of rules and regulations to live by. At the heart of Buddhism, and at the heart of Christianity, there is no religion. We are the ones who have made them into religions.

    Personally, I do think that atheism resembles a religion. I know a couple who run an internet forum like this one, where only atheists are allowed to join and discuss. On the website, an atheist is defined as someone who doesn't worship a deity. They allow Buddhists to become members.

    Anything can turn into a religion. Vegetarianism has turned into a religion for many people. My cousin was a vegan for several years, and she refused to sit inside cars that had leather seats, or buy a meat sandwich for a friend who'd forgotten to bring money to pay for lunch. I was vegetarian for four years, but I didn't turn my eating habits into a religion. I didn't introduce myself as a vegetarian when I met people, which is something my cousin would do, and the label didn't define me as a person. I didn't go around starting my sentences with the words, "As a vegetarian, I believe..."

    I do understand that labels are sometimes necessary, and have argued with several people who have called for the destruction of all labels. It's only when we allow the labels to define who we are as people that I believe we are making mistakes. I am not a religious person. I am interested in Buddhism, Witchcraft, Shamanism, and several other belief systems. I take what I can learn from them, and hopefully evolve spiritually as a result. I do not allow any labels to control me. At least, not anymore.
     
  14. Baud

    Baud Seeker of Knowledge

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    In any case, raligion and philosophy usually deal with a lot of similar subjects, like what is real in the world, who you are, how to interact with others, etc. Courses in comparative philosoph usually analyze in adiition to non-religious philosophers, the point of view of religions or their founders. I think the line between the two is fairly thin, and it is unclear to me if Buddhism is actually one or the other. Not that it actually matters very much.

    Brian, I'm not saying that I completely agree with Prof. Oden's definition, but your comment presupposes that religion is necessarily concerned with one or more divine beings. I would tend to agree with you, but then when one sees people gather in some places to watch for UFO in some quasi-ritualistic way, and somehow believe that the coming of the "aliens" will bring either the end of the world or the redemption of the human race and/or a better future, then it would at least arguably be possible to consider it as a religion, even if the beings reverred are not divine per se.

    Baud
     
  15. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Admin

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    Heh, I'm very much trying to push the disussion, nothing more, Baud. :)

    Aisling has raised particularly interesting points which I am reading as religion being a world view, rather than any particular set of views relating to any particular perception of Universal Divinity - which is perhaps the more traiditonal, yet most difficult to define category.
     
  16. Baud

    Baud Seeker of Knowledge

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    Don't worry, Brian, I didn't think otherwise. I just provided an answer to your (very valid) argument. :)

    The concept of the religion as a world view is certenly interesting, mostly considering how difficult it is to actually apprehend or comprehend deity.

    Baud
     
  17. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Just a quick point -

    The word religion comes from the latin verb 'legio' - to tie.

    The prefix 're' implies to re-tie.

    So the aim of religion is to retie man to God, or reinstate the direct connection between man and God - all religions having some notion of a 'fall' or a currrent condition less than man's universal or primordial state.

    Notably eastern traditions, those that uphold the idea of cosmic cycles, all say that man is gradually moving away from this perfect state (as opposed to the western secular notion of 'progress')

    Thus the more recent religions are morer dogmatic than their forebears because man has sunk deeper into ignorance and illusion.

    Islam, the youngest, means Submission to the Will of God.
     
  18. Baud

    Baud Seeker of Knowledge

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    This argument would work quite well in English, French, Spanish and the other language that use the Latin base for the word "religion". In Dutch/Flemish, "religion" is "godsdienst" which means "the service of god". I have also read that the etimological root of "religion" comes through French from the verb "religare" that means "to tie fast or strongly". However, I am certainly not an expert.

    I cannot speak for others, but the Neo-Pagan religions that I know of (e.g. Wicca) have no notion of 'fall' - on the contrary.

    Baud
     
  19. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Admin

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    It does seem that there is a semantic basis for using a definition of "religion" to equate between man and God in some proactive sense.

    Which harks to my earlier concern that Atheism cannot form the basis of a "religion". Certainly Atheism can be referenced as a belief system - even organised to some degree - and of course, a world view. Yet if God is negated there is no human-Divine dynamic to focus on. This is made especially acute when a lot of Atheism is simply reactionary against Christianity.
     
  20. littlemissattitude

    littlemissattitude Creative Thinker

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    Interesting thread. However, I'm not going to even try to set a defintion for religion. I took a Psychology of Religion class a couple of years ago; in that class we spent two weeks trying to define a) religion, and b) psychology. We never did come up with a satisfactory defintion for either of them. Especially in the case of religion, people have been trying to come up with a definition that satisfies everyone for longer than any of us have been around, and nobody has managed the trick yet.

    As far as whether atheism is a religion or not - I have thought at different times that it is and that it isn't. I do think it takes as much of an act of faith to believe in no God or gods as it does to believe in a God or gods. But because most of the leading definitions of religion hold that for something to be a religion it must have some sort of conception of a higher being or deity (and again, this butts up against the problem of Buddhism), I have to honor the insistence of most athiests that their belief system is not a religion. Although, to be perfectly honest, I've met a few athiests who are just as dogmatic as the most dogmatic believer in God.:)
     

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