Tag Archives: religion

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?