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Religions are Apps

One of the coolest things I’ve learned is that there is no agreed upon definition for “religion” in the study of religion.

I find this fascinating. (It’s based on the work of Peter Byrne, explained in detail here, for you intelligentsia types.) You can usually recognize religion when you see it, but it’s almost impossible to define. Games are the popular analogy—can you come up with a single definition of “games” that accurately describes Monopoly, solitaire, Dungeons and Dragons, soccer, Civilization, hopscotch and Mario Bros.?

The Best Wrong Answer

You can probably cobble together some franken-definition that covers the major types of games, but people hate definitions like that. Most people will ignore a long, complicated explanation and just say something like, “Games are contests that are meant to be fun.” Succinct, elegant… and wrong. (Some games aren’t even contests.)

Same with religion. Most of us base our definition on our upbringing. If you were raised Christian you might say that religion is about believing in a higher power. But that doesn’t describe Mohism.

Then there are definitions based on a political view—for example, some atheists define religion as a belief in the supernatural. This makes it easy to call religions superstitions, and it doesn’t lump in atheist-friendly philosophies. It’s good for their platform.

Probably the most famous bad definition is, “Religion is… the opium of the people,” taken from Karl Marx. When people say this they usually mean religion pacifies the poor so they don’t rise up against the rich (though that’s not necessarily how Marx meant it). This is a double decker: it’s based only on the religions Marx knew firsthand and it’s consciously part of a political agenda.

But Surely with Google…

Nowadays we savvy Googlers can easily find out that these definitions are wrong. Buddhism teaches that higher powers are an illusion, LaVeyan Satanists do not believe in the supernatural and Vodou overthrew rich slave-owners.  There have been tens of thousands of religions in human history, some of them about as similar as apples and lava. In the 1800’s only a few of these religions were treated seriously by Westerners, and you could easily define religion to cover those few. But it’s not the 1800’s, it’s the age of information, and we can do better.

Tibetan Buddhist jhator or “sky burial,” where the body of the deceased is fed to vultures – just like Jews and Christians do. Right?

Check your Phone

Understanding religion is no more difficult than looking at your phone. How would you define apps?

You probably wouldn’t–at least not every app at once. That isn’t how they’re useful. It doesn’t matter what video games, camera filters and animal track identifiers have in common. It matters that you’re going camping next weekend and you want to identify birds. The animal track app came up when you searched “outdoors” so you look at that one. You ask what it does and whether you can use it.

That’s how I view religion. Most people start off with one by default, just like you get free apps with your phone. If your parents’ religion (your free apps) meets your needs, or if you become lapsed/agnostic (you don’t really use apps much), the story ends there. Otherwise, you search. You decide what type of thing you’re looking for—compatibility with science? Less dogma? A cultural connection?—and see if there’s a religion that offers that.

There really is no such thing as “religion.” Statements like “I’m not a fan of religion,” or “Religion helps people live a good life,” are zero-content statements. They’re inaccurate to the point of almost being silly.

But consider, “I’m not a fan of Christianity, because I feel there is no evidence for the existence of a God,” or “Vodou helps people, because it uses music and ritual to connect them to their heritage.” Those statements refer to real practices and beliefs, and make intelligent (if still debatable) judgement calls. Saying “All religions are ____” just means you don’t know much about religion.

So What?

When we talk about “religion” as a single, monolithic idea we start to treat it that way. We shut ourselves off to options. Worst of all, we begin to assume that we know what people think or believe when we really don’t at all.

Religions can fill a wide variety of needs, and not just things like hope or comfort. Some religions are great for physical fitness, mental health, critical thinking, imagination, entertainment, building community or even winning war. Some have glaring errors and some make claims we could debate till the end of time. But none of them fill every need, and they each do something different.

By assuming you know what “religion” is you only put up walls. By asking people what religion is, you open dialog and learn what gives others meaning.

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.


14 thoughts on “Religions are Apps

  1. Hi Drew — fantastic site!

    You might be interested in the linguist’s viewpoint on this, which I laid out in a few posts on the definition of paganism and religion last year. The most relevant post in the series is here: Is Paganism a Religion? In those posts, I describe the ‘prototype’ theory of meaning, and argue that there is a ‘prototypical’ religion in European languages — Christianity. We decide whether other things are ‘religions’ based on that standard. The more like Christianity something is, the more likely we are to label it a religion. In fact, the very idea that belief is central to the definition of religion derives from the centrality of belief and faith in Christianity.

    None of this takes away from your central point — that religions need to be judged on their own individual merits and uses, rather than on some abstract standard applied to the whole category. In fact, I argue in the post that the word ‘religion’ might best be abandoned, particularly with reference to paganism, and that ‘devotion’ might be a better descriptor. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. :-)

    • Oh, that’s really interesting Jeff, I’ll try to check it out soon!

      When it comes to deciding whether something is a religion, I think the only fair way is the “opt-in” approach. A movement or belief system is a religion if the leaders or majority of adherents say it’s a religion. It’s not a religion if they say it’s not.

      Otherwise you have people telling secular humanists (mostly atheists) that their philosophy is a religion, and other people telling Taoists that they don’t count as a religion. It’s a sad state of affairs. Especially since religion status comes with certain legal rights, and having anyone decide who is entitled to those rights is dicey.

      Thanks for your comment by the way, I hope you keep enjoying the site!

  2. Our interests continue to sync up in interesting ways. I’m currently doing a project bearing on this very question, as part of an independent studies credit at the U.

  3. Faoladh says:

    There is a tradition in the social sciences of coming up with definitions of religion that are useful in the immediate discourse. However, I’ve seen that most religious studies academics have good things to say about one such definition in a more general sense. In The Interpretation of Cultures by Geertz, there is a short definition that leads into a 35 page unpacking of the individual statements of the definition. The short version is, “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” The numbers refer to specific sections of the “unpacking” of the definition.

    • Oh that’s a good one. I like that. You could lump non-religions under that definition too though, like political ideologies and secular humanism. Does he offer any explanation as to how they’re different? Or is this really a definition of ideology itself, rather than religion?

      • Faoladh says:

        I recommend reading the book to answer those questions. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, only that I have read the book (once, a while back), that I was impressed as a layperson with the discussions there, and that legitimate experts have recommended the book and specifically this definition to me.

        It is difficult to separate ideology from religion, so much so that it is difficult to say that they are actually different things. It is quite possible that the only real difference is in arbitrary categorization, resulting in a slightly differing social perception, so that, for instance, Leninism is an ideology, despite having rituals, hierarchy, scriptures, and many other trappings that we would normally consider religion, while LaVeyan Satanism is a religion, despite having, as you note, no real conception of the “supernatural” (I’d argue that neither do most other religions, outside of Christianity, but that’s splitting hairs in this context), and, in fact, being not much else than Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy with differing symbols and rituals.

        As for why it is important to have a definition that encompasses all religions, we currently have, in the US, a small but increasingly vocal group of Dominionists who are making the claim that those things which are not Christianity, or at least related to Christianity such as Judaism, are not religions, and do not deserve equal protection under the Constitution (see, for instance, the WallBuilders amicus in McCollum v. California). Any definition which excludes one or more actual religions, then, is dangerous to members of minority religions in the US, since it could be used to support that Dominionist argument. In any case, are we to conclude that something which describes itself as a philosophy (Objectivism) has no standing for protection under the Constitution, but something which is substantially similar but describes itself as a religion (LaVeyan Satanism) does? Is it merely a matter of self-identification? What about those religions which consider themselves as “not a religion, but a lifestyle” (such as I’ve heard the practitioners of some forms of evangelical Christianity say)? I say that we should use the narrowest definition which includes all things we conventionally describe as religions (and Geertz’s definition above seems to fit that criterion), then let anything else that falls in with them be considered as well (eg Objectivism, Leninism, Scientific Materialism, and so on).

  4. Great points Faoladh. This is exactly why I favor the “opt in” approach rather than a global definition, but I hadn’t thought about philosophies or lifestyles needing legal protection too. Do you think that they would be better covered by free speech rather than freedon of religion? Or is that insufficient?

    Interesting stuff, thank you for your comments!

    • Faoladh says:

      While possibly free speech would protect the majority of philosophies, remember that speech is much more legitimately proscribed in the US than religion is. With copyright and trademark law, state secrets, the ability of alleged authorities to occasionally prohibit some books from distribution (see Wilhelm Reich), inciting riot, and shouting fire in crowded theaters, speech is relatively closely circumscribed in the US. Contrarily, to advocate domestic terrorism (Operation Rescue), racial pogroms (the “Creativity Movement”), and the like are all protected religious expressions.

      Obviously, I am not saying that it’s a good idea to push the idea of domestic terrorism as an expression of faith, but it is a situation where the normal protections involving speech are at least partially circumscribed in a way that the protections involving religious expressions are not. There may also be issues with people whose legal rights are partially circumscribed (prisoners, for instance) should have access to writings regarding their philosophy (say, an atheist who subscribes to the beliefs of Scientific Materialism who wants access to books by Dawkins or on a particular subject), but are not guaranteed that access under speech could legitimately have it under religion. And yes, I do know that the New Atheists are pretty adamant about not being a “religion”, but that may be due to their intuitive sense of “religion” as Mr. Lilly presents it above – that is, that they see “religion” as “like Christianity” – and that they may come to perceive it more broadly if it is presented more concisely as a general rule than as a mapping of a prototype.

  5. My fiancée Alison Shaffer has her degree in comparative religious studies, and recently did a lot of research into the legal status of religion in the US and the UK, which she wrote about for the Wild Hunt. I read her the definition of Geertz above, and she found it compelling, although personally I think it still owes too much to Christianity-as-prototype. I think it applies poorly to pagan religions, for example, since it relies on a ‘sense of factuality’ which seems to imply a difference between what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘imaginary’, a difference I’m not sure is particularly relevant for pagan religion. The definition also fails, I think, for Zen Buddhism, which explicitly rejects symbolism of any sort.

    The core issue, again, is that Christianity is seen as the prototypical religion, and it is not a particularly representative example… It’s as if Europeans had lived for thousands of years with penguins as the prototypical example of a ‘bird’, and now were scrambling to extend their definition to accommodate wrens, eagles, and ravens.

    • I have to agree that it’s still rooted in Christianity or at least theistic religion. I spoke with a Buddhist lama who explained that the gods are not real at all, only useful as symbols in meditation. No aura of factuality there.

      The wording “clothing these conceptions with… an aura of factuality” also implies that the conceptions are false. In many cases that’s unproven and, to some, it could be offensive.

    • Faoladh says:

      I apologize that I can’t provide the full unpacking of that phrase here (again, it takes about 35 pages to fully unpack the concision in that sentence). I recommend reading the section of that book before making any judgments about technical issues regarding that definition.

      • I will definitely read the definition. But the very fact that Geertz feels like he needs to take 35 pages to define “religion” indicates to me that he either misunderstands language, society, or both. If he thinks he’s defining the English word “religion”, he shouldn’t take 35 pages to lay it out — the concept simply isn’t that complex, and as any linguist can tell you, words just don’t have nice pat definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions attached; their meanings are clusters of related prototypical examples. On the other hand, if he’s describing a social construct that exists in the world, independent of the English word “religion”, then again, it should not take 35 pages to describe. The US Constitution (which is itself an attempt to describe a social construct, and more complex than most) is only 4 pages. Either way, Geertz would have done better to list out some examples of the kind of thing he was discussing, and then elaborated a theory about how these examples were similar or different. He could have avoided this error if he knew some basic facts about language and semantics. …I guess it’s obvious I feel strongly about this point :-) but it’s disheartening to me that so many people, in academia and elsewhere, make simple errors like this when the basic facts have been known for a generation.

  6. Pingback: The Opt-In Approach to Religion « Rogue Priest

  7. Pingback: The Religious Atheists « Rogue Priest

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