A few weeks ago I blogged on the myth of religious violence. In the article I complained about those who define religion in an arbitrary fashion so as to marginalize a certain segment of the population. But how then does one define religion? I wasn’t really interested in offering a clear definition at the time. Rather, I was more interested in identifying the inadequacies of the secularist definitions of this concept. But now that the dust has settled let me offer a succinct functional definition of religion.
Let’s start off on a note of conciliation, for the secularists got one thing right. Religion is concerned with God in some sense. Where they went off the rails is in limiting the concept of religion to an arbitrarily narrow conception of God such that only those who adhere to that particular definition are religious.
So the first task is to define “God” in a suitably broad sense to capture the religious impulse. With that in mind, Paul Tillich offered a helpful definition: God, for a specific individual, is that individual’s ultimate concern. The World English Dictionary appears to lighten upon this concept when it defines “god” as “any person or thing to which excessive attention is given: e.g. money was his god.”
There is an enormous plausibility to this definition, much more than you might think at first blush. Think about Heinz. He is a member of the German Lutheran church in 1939. But does that mean that the Judeo-Christian God is his god? Not necessarily. Let’s say that Heinz reveres Hitler, spends his time imbibing Nazi ideology and teaching it to his children, persecutes his Jewish neighbors, and ultimately works faithfully in a concentration camp killing Jews. In that case it would be very plausible to say that Nazified German nationalism was Heinz’s god. Lutheranism was mere window dressing.
And from here we can see how one’s ultimate concern so readily slides into one’s religion. Your religion is the set of beliefs you hold and practices you fulfill, as an individual and in broader community, with respect to your ultimate concern.
In that important sense, it is not just the Christian (or Nazi) who is religious. So is Mr. Wonderful who, as I noted in my last article, is committed to a consumerist religion. And so is the secularist. What is the secularist’s ultimate concern? It depends on the secularist, of course. Spend some time talking to one and sooner or later you’ll get a picture of what they value. But the bottom line is this: gods are not something you choose or reject. The very nature of the human species is such that we identify our ultimate concerns and live in accord with them.