Definition of Religion and Related Terms

Copyright 1996 by Paul Connelly

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Why Do Religions Persist?
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Premodern, Modern, and Postmodern Eras
Fantasy, Science Fiction, Religion, History
Is It True?
Theology as Divine Mind Reading
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Personality and Roles in Religious Communities

What Is Religion?

A number of modern scholars of religion have commented on the difficulty of defining what religion is. Over the centuries, influential thinkers have offered their own definitions, with greater or lesser degrees of assurance, but virtually all of these definitions have been found wanting by the majority of scholars. In some cases the definitions are too narrow, defining religion in terms of the speaker's religious beliefs or those of his or her culture and tending to exclude the religious beliefs of other cultures. In other cases the definitions are so vague and inclusive that they do not sufficiently delimit religion from other areas of human thought such as psychology, law, economics, physics, etc.

There are several problems in trying to make a definition of religion that is not overly vague and general, but that still is “inclusive enough” to not leave out any of the beliefs and practices that seem religious to most intelligent people. By their nature, religious beliefs tend to motivate other aspects of human behavior beyond those which would strictly be considered to be of religious concern. And the institutional structures which promote most of the so-called major world religions have taken on, in their periods of rapid growth, many other beliefs and practices that have little relation to the core religion but that helped a given institution to accommodate the political and social realities of its host cultures.

The ubiquity of religion seems to argue for some innate “religious instinct,” on the one hand, while the diversity of religious forms and the frequent conflicts among them seem to argue that religion is more a socially acquired characteristic of human life, on the other hand. How do we resolve this conundrum?

The key insight in arriving at a resolution is that religion always begins in an experience that some individual has or that some small group of people shares. The response that this person or group makes to the original experience is what begins the process of interaction between the religion and the community. In extreme cases we can imagine a religion which lived and died unknown to all but the original experiencers, because their response turned inward and never created an interaction with others in the community; or a religion in which the response to the original experience so quickly and completely assimilated it to the traditions of the community that the germinal religion never acquired an independent identity. Most recognizable religions fall somewhere between these extremes, and thus acquire the identity by which we can recognize them.

So we can offer the following as a definition that takes the above factors into account.

Religion originates in an attempt to represent and order beliefs, feelings, imaginings and actions that arise in response to direct experience of the sacred and the spiritual. As this attempt expands in its formulation and elaboration, it becomes a process that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses.

What Are the Sacred and the Spiritual?

This definition has to be supported by two other definitions. We characterize the experience that initiates a religion as being of the sacred or of the spiritual (or of both together, as is not uncommon), rather than being simply any sort of life experience. So what are the sacred and the spiritual?

The sacred has also been called the holy or the numinous or the divine. Each of these terms has slightly different connotations, but we can offer a general definition that captures the common meaning.

The sacred is a mysterious manifestation of power and presence that is experienced as both primordial and transformative, inspiring awe and rapt attention. This is usually an event that represents a break or discontinuity from the ordinary, forcing a re-establishment or recalibration of perspective on the part of the experiencer, but it may also be something seemingly ordinary, repeated exposure to which gradually produces a perception of mysteriously cumulative significance out of proportion to the significance originally invested in it.

Thus the sacred powerfully seizes our attention in the moment that we experience it, yet it seems an extension of something persistent from other times beyond memory or into times that are still unfolding. Mircea Eliade characterizes the sacred as that whose manifestation “ontologically founds the world,” and we can agree in the sense that it establishes new borders, boundaries, centers or other points of orientation, inviting us to see the world from a new perspective. Whether experienced in the startling flash of divine presence or sudden realization of enlightenment, as is more commonly portrayed, or through the slowly dawning recognition of significance where none was seen before, perhaps less frequently described simply because it is not as dramatic, the sacred reorients us to a new life and makes return to our old way of looking at the world difficult if not impossible. It is also important to point out the mysteriousness of what is experienced. Without mystery there is no incentive for further exploration, and hence no religion.

The term spiritual originally derives from a word for breathing in and out, and has since acquired many connotations around non-corporeal entities or “spirits” that can enter and leave the physical body and breach its boundaries. So in a general way, not keeping strictly to this sort of notion of the spiritual, we can say that spiritual concerns are those which relate to the shifting border between self and other or self and world. There is much overlap between the spiritual and the mystical, although the mystical is perhaps more narrowly restricted to experiences that are intellectually ineffable and that have an ecstatic affective component. We can try to capture the more general sense of the spiritual in the following definition.

The spiritual is a perception of the commonality of mindfulness in the world that shifts the boundaries between self and other, producing a sense of the union of purposes of self and other in confronting the existential questions of life, and providing a mediation of the challenge-response interaction between self and other, one and many, that underlies existential questions.

The first question of existentialism, of course, is “Who is it that is asking this question?” In an existentialism without spiritual belief, we can pose questions to the world but without hope of answer, and we can be challenged by the world yet without hope that our response will truly affect it. With spiritual beliefs, something seems to go in and out of us; the border can shift or become more or less permeable. We are no longer always and necessarily isolated, but interconnected with and in some sense overlapping the world beyond our apparent physical boundaries.

In some ways the sacred and the spiritual seem to pull in opposite directions, the former toward demarcations and exceptions of startling proportions, the latter toward commonalities and blurring of previously accepted boundaries. That most religions include both in their germinal development shows that the differences may be complementary, however.

From Direct Experience to Complex Tradition

The founding experience and the initial response to it (for instance, the shaman's response to experience of an hallucinogenic mushroom, the Apostles' feeling of the inrush of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Buddha's enlightenment, etc.), as initially articulated and ordered, give rise to an ongoing process of elaboration and meaning-creation that occurs as the foundational events are embedded in a system (for instance, the tradition of shamanic healing practices, the codified creeds and ceremonies of the Christian churches, the monastic culture of Buddhism, etc.).

When considering a religion, it is valuable to provisionally separate the earlier and later steps, but this is not always easy to do after the passage of any appreciable amount of time. The benefit of doing so (when it can be done) is that it helps to indicate which of the accretions of belief, practice and custom in the religion derive from secondary interactions with its host culture (for instance, those which help it grow to institutional status, those brought in by converts who may not have access to the foundational experiences, etc.). This is not to say that we should be more concerned about the allegedly pristine form of a religion than about its later development, but rather that we gain a fuller picture of the religion by understanding what factors contributed to its growing in different ways at different times. And it also seems noteworthy that, in certain generations, many more adherents of a religion may attempt to return to the experiential roots of the religion and seek to recapture or recreate the original experiences that inspired the founders, either by attempting to re-enact practices that were current during the lives of the founders, or by wholly novel means.

If we look at the many types of belief and practice that are found in religious traditions, we can position them with respect to a set of three polarities, each one being representable as an axis. These three polarities are:

In a perhaps impossibly idealized religion, beliefs and practices start out more based on the authority of the founders' direct experiences, oriented toward the non-ordinary time of exceptional experiences, and focused on gaining understanding and knowledge of what the experiences means. As the religion matures and becomes more enmeshed with its host culture, authority is seen more and more as based on traditions handed down, with significant events being seen more as part of historical time, and with a greater focus on conduct and behavior. This is an oversimplification, but the following diagram indicates some of the characteristics of religious thought and activity as they fit within the three dimensional matrix just described.

religion in 3 dimensions

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