Saturday, January 07, 2006

Defining Religion

H.E. offers "a minimalist analysis of religion that I'd argue, applies to all central cases of religion, excludes all beliefs and practices that are clearly not religion and explains why the borderline cases are borderline." Namely:
(1) The belief that there is some supernatural reality
(2) A cult -- public, private or both.
(3) The belief that there is some causal connection between the supernatural reality and the cult.

Sounds about right to me. See the linked post for more details.



  1. It's pretty vague (e.g., what exactly does he mean by "supernatural" and "cult"). While I agree that atheistic forms of Buddhism and Hinduism are religions, I'm not sure why you would call what they do believe in "supernatural." I'd probably also call Epicureanism a religion and it fails on both 1) and 3) (and probably 2), depending on what is meant by "cult").

  2. Is it possible to have a religion with a single adherant? if so I'm not sure I would call him a "cult" (although maybe I should).

    And a person who believes in a religion that has no connection to the cult - for example some sort of reincarnation budhism with no specific rules or a christianity where everyone goes to heaven or some such thing (I would think there would be quite a lot of people in some similar catagory). Still a religion?

  3. i dont know why we should consider atheistic versions of Buddhism as religions. a far simpler definition, i think, is to say that religious belief is the belief in the existence of supernatural beings; and religious practice is one that proposes a way to interact with the same. putting things this way, makes religion amenable to interpretation in terms of evolutionary psychology (such as Pascal Boyd or Aaron Lynch). and it also allows us to recognise the distinction between "spirtuality" and "religion", which is an idea which people have in Europe -- though not apparently in the US -- that it is possible to live a spiritual life (say, one informed by art or music or yoga or meditation and reflection or science or political ideals or moral aspirations) without reference to any supernatural beings.
    best regards

  4. PS it is of course all merely dickering with definitions. i am not sure whether that is much of a great way to do philosophy. ;-)

  5. I don't think it works, primarily due to the problematic nature of the meaning of supernatural. Under most formulations for instance I don't believe in the supernatural. Does that mean I don't accept religion?

  6. Gawain, I tend to agree. I think the kind of philosophy that spends inordinate amounts of time with definitions tied to our common sense notions of a term is ultimately unhelpful. Especially since our common sense notions of meaning seem subject to change.

  7. hey, Clark goble, yes, yes, yes. it occured to me as follows: analytical philosophy which analyzes concepts to make sure that they all fite together, has no way of telling us whether some of the concepts it tries to fit together are not false/fanciful/useless. ;-)

    as for supernatural: under the evolutionary psychology definition of religion, yes, that is indeed what it would mean. the evolutionary psychologists make this definition a very fruitful one: it leads to interesting results which can then be tested. but that only proves that defintions are useful as part of an argument, not as things in their own right.

  8. Which, Gawain, is yet an other reason to be deeply skeptical of EP.

  9. clark:
    i dont follow

  10. I think evolutionary psychology is highly flawed. The fact that it would say that someone who is deeply religious like myself is not really religious is yet one more reason to be deeply skeptical of the claims of evolutionary psychology.

  11. Evolutionary psychology is generaly deduced from the evidence - as opposed to hypothesised nad then evidence found to support it. this difference means that it is not hugely reliable outside of the context in which it was formed (ie for prediction etc).

    However it is quite interesting.

  12. Anon, but really Fontwell

    By etymology and also by inspection, I think religion is a belief in a system that proposes the soul/mind/consciousness of an individual can (re)join with that of a 'higher' being.

    That could be the Christian God in heaven, becoming enlightened as in Hindu/Buddhist system or other variations.


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