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What is Religion

As promised, here is the script for my next video in the "Science and Spirituality" serices, "What is Religion, Part One." Have a read over and feel free to offer suggestions and corrections. Following this, there will be a part two of this video, and a part two of the previous five koshas video, focussing on how to maintain healthy koshas.



What is Religion?

What is religion? What is the “Essence” of religion. What is its core and essential truth? Given the significance of religion in human history, this is a key question, and it is one that scholars have been struggling with for over a hundred years. Despite this struggle, scholars still have no generally agreed upon answer to this important question.

Some emphasize a belief in god, spirits, super natural realities, or “sacred things” as the substance and defining essence of religion. Sociologist Emile Durkheim, for example, said that religion was a “system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” According to Durkheim, if you believed in sacred things, you were practicing religion.

Others emphasize the not-always healthy social, political, and psychological aspects of religion, like its ideology, or the notion that it might be some kind of collective delusion.

Sigmund Freud said religion was an infantile delusion.(Freud’s book cover)

Ludwig Feurebach said religion was merely a human projection and personification of the natural world.

Karl Marx said that religion was a drug, an “Opiate” to soothe the masses” against the suffering imposed by The System.

Religion is a belief in sacred things. Religion is a delusion. Religion is a projection. Religion is a drug? Unfortunately, none of these definitions, or the many similar ones, provide a satisfactory definition that everybody can agree with.

Some definitions of religion are too narrow, like the notion that religion is just about supernatural things. Narrow definitions ignore important aspects of religion, like its ideological or social functions.

Some definitions of religion are too broad, allowing you to call everything from political ideologies to girl scout troupes (Swanson 1960) a religion.

Finally, some definitions of religion are heavy handed, even mean spirited.

After hundreds of years of inquiry, scholars still can’t agree on what exactly religion is. No definitions seem adequate and nothing captures its core essence.

All this has led some people to say that you can’t really define religion, that there is no real essence, that is is a game played in language by humans attempting to understand and communique about their world.

So is religion really that hard to understand? Personally, I don’t think so. I think, at essence, religion is quite simple. I think we can define religion simply as an institution designed to meet the human biological need to know and understand.

[pause to let that sink in]

As an institution, religion is easy to understand. Institutions are basically a collection of ideas which create and govern a set of behaviours [organized into roles] which are designed to meet some sort of individual, social, political, or economic need. It’s basic sociology.

Take modern schools. Schools are basically a set of ideas [pause] which create and govern a set of behaviours that when put together are designed to meet a specific need. In the case of schools, this is basically society’s need for an educated citizenry and trained workforce. Schools educate and train the next generation of citizen and workers. Schools meet society’s need for education and training.

Or, take the modern military. The military is also a set of ideas which create and govern a set of behaviours which are designed to meet a specific need. In the case of the military, it is society’s need for defense, or the imperialist need for domination of others through the use of deadly violence.

All human institutions are like this, and religion is just the same as all other institutions. Religion is a set of ideas which create and govern a set of behaviours which are designed to meet a human need. In the case of religion, the need that religion is setup to meet is the human need to know and understand. When you go and sit in a pew, or at the feet of a guru, you are there because you are hoping that the priest or the guru can satisfy your need to know and understand by answering some questions.

Of course...

Religion doesn’t provide answers to all questions. Religion focusses primarily on the big questions; questions like is there a god, or who am I, or where did I come from, or why am I here. When you go and practice religion, whatever that religion is, you are doing so because you feel that the religion satisfies your need to know and understand. You sit there and listen because you believe you are getting answers to life’s e big questions.

And that’s what religion is. Religion is an institution setup to satisfy your human need to know and understand, specifically to provide you with answers to life’s big question.

You know this is true. Not only does religion always provide answers to the big questions, but as soon as you start to feel that your religion is not giving you correct answers, you’ll either find another religion, or give trying to find spiritual answers and become and agnostic or an an atheist.

This definition is also a reasonable one, since with it you can clearly delineate religions from other social institutions.

Using this definition we can clearly see that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions because they all provide basically identical answers to the big questions.

Here we can also place Buddhism and Hinduism, because they are institutions and they provide answers to big questions

Using this definition, we can also see that the various flavours of new age spirituality are religions as well, because they are institutions (theosophical institute, eckankar, oprah), and because they provide answers to big questions.

Finally, we can see that freemasonry is a religion because it is an institution that provides answers to life’s big questions, as is Scientology, as are many other human activities..

Girl scouting, on the other hand, would not be religion because although it is meeting a child’s need for activities and for socialization, it does not, officially, provide answers to big questions.

This definition seems to make perfect sense. With it we can easily tell the difference between religion and not religion.

There is one problem with this definition as stated although, and it is a big one. With this definition, some things get pushed into the category of religion that you wouldn’t think would qualify.

For example, if the distinguishing feature of a religion is that it is an institution setup to provide answers to life’s big questions, then by this definition, science is also a religion because science is an institution and it does provide answers to big question.

Of course, nobody is going to want to admit that science is a religion. Everybody will agree, science is not a religion. Every body will agree, there is something different about science. The question is, what makes it different? It a good question and we will deal with what distinguished science from religion in part two of lesson.

Until then remember, religion as a social institution set up to fill our needs to know and understand by answering the big questions of our existence. This definition is sensible, logical, and good at distinguishing religion from not religion except when it comes to science.



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