Last week Robert Gressis objected to my challenge to Ralph Jones to define what he meant by “religion”.
Robert started by quoting me:
“If you think this thing called ‘religion itself’ is such a problem, then I assume you can give a succinct (emphasis on succinct) and clear definition of what it is you mean when you use the term.”
He then commented:
“First, I’m not sure your claim follows. If someone said to me, “since you like games so much, I’m sure you can give a succinct and clear definition of what a game is”; or, “since you dislike hypocrisy so much, I’m sure you can give a succinct and clear definition of what hypocrisy is”; anyway, if someone said that to me, I’d be confused. I’d say, “well, maybe I can, and maybe I can’t; but I have a reasonably good idea of what games and hypocrisy are, and I like games and dislike hypocrisy; is that OK? If it’s not OK, why is it not OK?””
Robert’s illustrations (e.g. a person who “likes” games or “dislikes” hypocrisy) are effective at making his general point: a person violates no obligations by holding attitudes and beliefs about certain concepts even if they cannot provide a clear and succinct definition of the concept. A rough and ready ostensive definition may suffice for practical purposes.
But the conversation doesn’t end there. The illustration I gave of the moral action group’s use of the term “obscenity” brings us much closer to Ralph’s use of the term “religion”. I wrote:
“Imagine a moral action group in Washington DC that is lobbying to get rid of “obscenity” in the media. They then begin to target everything from Metallica to Jimmy Fallon. So you ask “How do you define obscenity?” If the members of the group couldn’t answer, that’d be a serious problem. After all, they’re the one seeking to marginalize this broad range of media and entertainment voices.”
Let me say more about this inability to define the term being “a serious problem”. Let’s say that performers like Metallica and Jimmy Fallon and their fans were being impacted adversely by the actions of this moral action group in ways extending from the creation of a broad public stigma of their cultural products to various concrete actions like boycotts and record burnings.
The extent to which the moral action group’s use of the term obscenity serves to marginalize Metallica, Jimmy Fallon and others is the extent to which those impacted would have a right to demand a defense of this public, social marginalization. And that would mean demanding to know the criteria by which they are being marginalized. Why is Metallica obscene but Bruce Springsteen or Katy Perry is not? What is it about Jimmy Fallon’s comedy that crosses the line while Jim Gaffigan remains untarnished? The extent to which our moral action group wants their judgments to be taken seriously as a means to order the public square is the extent to which they have an obligation to define their use of the criteria of public censure. And if there is one thing that is clear in this conversation, it is that folks like Ralph Jones want their judgment about “religion” to be taken seriously as a means to order the public square.
Next, Robert writes:
“Second, If Ralph gives a definition that covers a lot of religions (e.g., “a religion is an organized system of belief and action that includes belief in supernatural entities and recommends specific, ritualized actions about how one ought to relate to these activities”) but not all religions (arguably, some versions of Buddhism and Christianity won’t count as religions on this view, since some versions of those religions don’t include belief in supernatural entities), then will you say that the definition is defective? I.e., must Ralph’s definition be neither over- nor underinclusive? If so, he’s not going to be able to provide a definition. But to the best of my knowledge, no one has given such a definition of religion. And if I’m right, then that’s some evidence that no one is able to. So you might be making an impossible demand of Ralph.”
I have an especial interest in forcing folks like Ralph to define religion because I believe it can be shown that the kinds of definition Ralph would require to marginalize groups like Christians and Muslims while protecting all secular groups can be shown to be inadequate.
What if religion, whatever it is, is something written into our DNA? What if human beings are Homo religiosus? In that case it will become all but impossible to marginalize people based on the claim that certain people are “religious”.
Let’s think about it like this. Imagine a political action group that began to target the beliefs and practices of “wise” human beings by targeting groups like Mensa, the North American Chess Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You’d immediately press them to define what they meant by “wise”. And you’d probably point out to them that human beings are called Homo sapiens, the “wise” hominid. Consequently, wisdom is not something you have or don’t have in our species. Rather, it is a term of degree, something we all have and reflect to greater or lesser degrees. (Of course there are human beings who do not yet have wisdom [e.g. developing fetuses] or who will never be able to attain it [e.g. an anencephalic infant] or who have lost it [e.g. an Alzheimer’s patient] but that’s another discussion.)
The point is this: it would be foolish to target the chess club or Mensa or the AAAS as being formal organized societies which in some way define themselves with respect to “wisdom” or “reason” since we are all wise and reasonable to varying degrees. And that includes the very political action group targeting these societies.
What if the same is true of “religion”? Thus, you have organized formal groups like Christianity and Islam, but they are simply higher expressions of an orientation that is present in all human beings. If this is the case then fighting against “religion” as a member of Homo religiosus is as hopeless as fighting against wisdom as a member of Homo sapiens.
So then what might religion be in its essence? I suggest it is something like this: “a belief about the ultimate nature of reality and the proper way to relate to it.” Press most people and they will be able to express convictions in this regard. And these convictions will result in various attitudes and practices which will be formalized to varying degrees.
It also may be the case that people will state one set of beliefs but their actions will suggest another. For example, many people may identify beliefs which are broadly Christian and yet live as if some form of consumerism is really the functional religion by which they order their life. Consequently, people will be more or less consistent in matching their beliefs to their practice. Their beliefs and practices will be more or less formalized, and more or less adequate. But whether one locates the source of their religiosity in something like God as defined in the western monotheisms, or whether they identify it with science or the human species or material consumption, they are all religious.