My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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defining religion

On Friday night, i got into a discussion with a group of friends that reminded me of the kind of discussions that used to keep us up all night long back in college. The discussion centered around religion (from fundamentalism to spirituality). Being in the heart of LA, one of my friends was trying to assert that worshipping the TV is religion. I challenged him to define religion. In doing so, i had a flashback to a comparative religions class where we spent the bulk of the semester trying to do so.

Like many categories (i.e. “game”), religion is difficult because there are no clean boundaries or common qualities. At the same time, i realized that i have an operational definition because of a single conversation i had three years ago. Religion has three components: primary religious experience + core tenets/scriptures/narratives + rituals.

Broken down, all religions have a conception of a primary religious experience – an altered state where the individual communes with a higher being (“God”). In some religions, everyone experiences (or aims to experience) the primary religious experience (i.e. “enlightenment”) while in other religions, there are a handful of enlightened people who have a direct channel to the higher being and you must speak through them.

Religions also have scriptures or stories that are collectively understood and passed down in the form of text or stories. These typically include the religion’s ideas about live and death, moral norms, ways to live life, and methods of relating to the primary religious experience. Embedded in this component is the assumption that religion is not the same as individual spirituality because it involves community and collectively understood conceptions.

Finally, religions have shared rituals and traditions that are shared by all participants. These help solidify the narratives and form the foundation for how the individual interacts with the primary religious experience. Rituals and traditions also glue the community together. Of course, the “culture” of religions comes from the combination of rituals and narratives all in relation to primary religious experiences.

As i was reading New Scientist this morning, i ran across a scientific article about the values of religion in terms of health (written by none other than Robin Dunbar, the gossip/grooming guy who is connected to the 150 number). It made me wonder about the term “religion” in academic analyses – what definition are people using? What constitutes a religion? What doesn’t?

What about in everyday language? This is a term that we throw around all the time, mostly as a way to debase others’ practices. Could American TV worship really be conceptualized as religion? Baroo?

Anyhow… that’s my thought for the weekend. What other definitions of religion do y’all use?

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14 comments to defining religion

  • The definition I got from my own comparative religions semester focused on the etymology of the word: “lig”–as in “ligament”, “ligate”, “ligature”–all about knots and binding. So it was an almost purely social definition, people held together through shared rituals or primary texts. We pointedly skipped the primary religious experience. It’s a state shared by lone mystics and users of hallucinogens, and therefore not unique or necessarily common to the religious.

  • kt

    I’m sorry. You skipped the part about personal union with the Godhead, and spent the rest of the class talking about the map, not the territory?

    I don’t think you can call yourself religious without having a religious experience. I’m sure some people do, but I’d hardly think it is unique to mystics and entheogen takers.

    I mean, the whole point of all those rituals is to get you close to God. Academia is odd.

  • In case it wasn’t clear, i was arguing that all three were necessary for my definition of religion and that they all interact with each other within the context of the religion. I would argue that just the social binding is not enough – there are communities and companies and other social structures that fit that definition. In any case, i would also argue that there are shamanic-based religions as well as religions that grow out of mysticism.

  • I never said that the union with the godhead was unique to mystics, just that it was /not/ unique to the religious. The philosophical underpinning of my own experience was that the goal of any religion is effectively the same (Huston Smith: “many paths on one mountain”), so the point of taking a _comparative_ religions class was to focus on the elements that could be sensibly compared, e.g. history, ritual, terminology, intersections with daily life.

    Plus, this wasn’t exactly Academia. It was high school.

  • Mano Marks

    For mystics, religion is often less important. Particularly, Quakers (or I should say Unprogrammed Quakers, as I am) arguably have no rituals, and tend to be anti-ritual.

  • I would probably suggest that while your definition of religion is probably correct, or at least very close, “religion, minus the rituals bit” probably needs its own term, as well, and should probably be considered distinct from the “religion.”

  • You know, in research, when the types of studies, that you mention, are done, in my experience there is actually rather little attempt to define “religion” and to judge what constitutes as “religious”. The question simple asks the respondent to let the researcher know whether they attend religious services and how often, whether they consider themselves religious and whether that is a big part of their life (all of those questions or some). The respondent gets to define what they mean by religion/religious/service. Of course, this turns to another question, one of validity – what if every single person means a different thing? Yet the epidimiology studies are fairly clear that people who consider themselves relgious, even more, regardless of that, people who attent religious services relatively often, have better life expectancy. There are many hypothesized explanations to that and few of them involve defining religion. It’s a worthy philosophical question, and, personally, I don’t think it really can be defined with X=Y if it fits A, B and C else X doesn’t = Y. You know, I am sorry, I haven’t had a personal experience of union with the Godhead, I guess whatever my set of beliefs, it can’t be religious under this definition. But I think there is a difference between saying that there is something of value about participation in religous activities and defining whether activities can be called religous .

  • Mano Marks

    You know, any good student of information knows that categorization is not absolute. You can define a set of criteria and say that while some things are “religious” they are not best representatives of the category of religion.

  • jeev

    Paul Tillich defined religion as your “ultimate concern”

  • Religion seems to me personally to refer to something sacred, like life, love, people, relationships. There is also the transcendent, the divine Being, the Other that we are “part of” but “distanced from”, possibly at the same time. Language breaks down and meditation or some other direct form of contact allows for a “religious experience” or “spiritual experience”. Alot of this seems to depend on one’s upbringing and other experiences which have formed our perception of “spiritual and/or religious matters”. I also see religion as meaning “going back to the source” which comes from a Kundalini Yoga teacher I had.

  • I am less concerned with defining religion, than in eliciting Primary Religious Experience (PRE).

    PRE is the root and religious forms are what results from interpretation of PRE in the context of an individual and culture.

    PRE is, I believe the means to overcome the differences that divide us. If those who follow a religious tradition can reach back to that common place and see how the branches of religious tradition are connected through this ineffable nexus, then there is a point of common-union from which to appreciate other religious forms.

    In ec stasis unio.

  • Edgar Hunt III

    I found my personal definition threw science and a personal experience. If we look at what religion is and how it works along with the contents of religions we find that in science and religions are common areas. Religions speak of non physical realms and beings in those realms. Today science is teaching us of what to us would be non physical realms, meaning not physical as we know and define it. This is found in parallel universes and multi verse. Secondly religions talk of non physical exchange of information, prayer and meditation and visions. these are exchanges of information by means other than the 5 physical senses recognized by science. In studying parellel universes science states that the exchange of information between universe is allowed by the laws of science. that also is a common and agreed area. Lastley information ahead of time or phrophecy is also agreed upon by science and religion. science says these thing are allowed to happen in the laws of nature and religion states they are and have been happening threw out nature. there really is no dissagreement between science and religion if you look at things in a propper perspective. religion is in fact a procces of nature which man is a part of. religion is a procces of the exchange of information in a universal scope with extra sensory senses that all human beings have. Religion is a procces of nature just like talking or listening is a procces of nature. When you get into the content of the information being exchanged and the organizations that make claims based on that information, well that is another subject. So Religion is the super luminal exchange of information between human beings and other beings in other universes. Those being may well be ourselves in a future life, life after death.

  • Edgar Hunt

    The procces of religion in nature would be the exchange of information between beings of different universe by other than the acepted five physical senses. Regarding the 1st ammendment, congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Religion is a personal procces of nature of the exchange of information, just like radio or tv. The coarse of science and government should be the evaluation and identification of the source and content of this information. Religion is the same as freedom of speech. It is not the talk that does harm it is people acting on that talk out side of the rules of law. Religion has in it universal laws which we call morals that apply in this life and are carried into the nexst life. just as federal law superceeds local law, moral law superceeds mans laws. So as we call the the laws of nature, the laws of man and the laws of the universe or moral laws that extend beyond the scope of physical life in the present and also still aply into the life of the future as understood is there by the content of religions.