In the third part of my conversation with Ralph the atheist, “Randal talks with Ralph the Atheist (Part 3): Ralph replies, Randal parries,” Ralph offered the following definition of religion:
I’m happy to take ‘religion’ to mean ‘The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’.
This may accurately describe some religions, but it surely is not a description of the necessary and sufficient conditions of being “religious” or an “adherent to a religion”. And that’s a problem because when people adopt an errant, overly restrictive definition like this, they fail to recognize the true extent of religiosity.
Consider, for a moment, “Steve”. I met Steve (psst, not his real name!) when I spoke at a monthly meeting of atheists and skeptics a couple years ago. After the talk Steve explained to me with surprising candor how he had felt an emptiness when he left Christianity several years before after becoming an atheist. In response to this nagging emptiness, he opted to begin attending a Unitarian Church since Unitarians don’t require much of anything in terms of belief. Indeed, many Unitarians are atheists like Steve.
Thus, we have a situation where Steve was an atheist attending a Unitarian Church, a congregation which did not have as an identifying mark belief in the existence of a superhuman controlling power. Note that Ralph’s definition would entail that the Unitarians are not a religious group and Steve was not religious while participating in that group. But this is clearly false. The Unitarians are a religious group. They just don’t include belief in a superhuman controlling power as part of their core beliefs.
Even as he continued to attend the Unitarian congregation Steve also began attending to the atheist group to which I had spoken. He got “plugged into” that group’s monthly evening meetings, their Sunday morning breakfasts, their special events. Here was a group with which Steve shared commonality regarding his secular view of the world, here is where he could build community and fill the void that had opened up when he left Christianity.
Is Steve still religious in virtue of participating in this atheist group? And is this group with its set of common, shared beliefs, regular events and ritualized practices, functioning as a religion? Maybe, maybe not. That depends, I suppose. Put another way, it may be that the community is at least in part a religious community. And this is an important point, because it means that “religious” is not an absolute kind term that either applies to a commnity or not. On the contrary, it may be a degree term such that a community can be more or less religious, and thus more or less a discrete religion (or part of a religion).
This would seem to describe Steve’s current situation. When he left his theism behind and joined the Unitarians he didn’t leave religion behind. Instead, it took another form. And even now his religious identity continues to evolve in the atheistic community with which he identifies.