Defining Religion: Mission Impossible

Defining Religion: Mission Impossible

Philosophers and theologians have struggled in vain over the centuries to adequately define ‘religion’. What is religion? We have no trouble identifying a religion when we see one, but defining the essential qualities, components and characteristics of religion has proven to be a virtually impossible task. Definitions thus far have generally suffered from gross ethnocentrism, like that of the 19th century religious philosopher James Martineau, which holds: “Religion is the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind” – or else definitions have been either too exclusive or too inclusive. An example of a popular definition of religion which is far too inclusive, is found in philosopher John Hick’s application of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” approach. Wittgenstein’s model, which he applied to language, is based upon the premise that family members do not share every single feature – members may share eye colour, build, hair colour, etc., yet despite the differences which exist between them, they share certain characteristics and are a definable group – a family. This approach, however, is far too inclusive, opening the definition of religion to non-religions like atheism and even certain branches of science, such as sociobiology, for example.

To date, no one has proffered a precise definition of religion, but here is my own attempt at cautiously yet imperfectly defining religion:

Religion is a human institution and/or social-psychological phenomenon with identifiable rites, rituals and practices – that transmits a belief-system and core set of ethics through non-evidentiary forms of instruction, the goal of which is generally the transcendence of the individual and/or group beyond the observable and/or measurable material human condition toward some unknowable, but generally believed, metaphysical end – and which, frequently but not always, focuses on and/or worships some divine or non-divine figure or focal point in order to compel the individual and/or group to aspire to achieve the aforementioned transcendence.


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