What is religion?


As far as I know, I am the only Oriel undergrad in memory to focus not on classic theology or Biblical studies, but on the weird and wacky world of Track III: so-called ‘religious studies’. While this may make me something of apostate to the Orieldox tradition, I think it has at least enabled me to have a serious go at working out what religion actually is, something which may be of interest in itself even to the most traditional expounders of the True Doctrines of Christian Faith. I go into what religiosity is – including the two fundamental religious doctrines – what religion is, and how we distinguish between different religions, such as to say Christianity is a religion and Islam is another religion.

I think the Burltonian Theory of Religion (not that, in my modesty, I’d want anyone to call it that….) could even help with doing actual theology, and I invite all those better than me at theology – i.e. all those reading this – to either ponder and respond to that or tear my definition to pieces. In particular I’d be interested to hear examples of things that we would want to say are religion, but are excluded by my definition, or things that are not religion, which are included by my definition. For the time being I’ve limited myself to two extended applications of my definition: especially for all you PhilThes, the difference between theology and philosophy (Tertullian take note); and, what the very essence of religion [maybe] is.

Skip to the end for the interesting bit, but it does make reference to the rest so may not make a great deal of sense on its own For tl;dr purposes I’ve whittled my definition down to three words, which even someone with the my attention span should be able to get through.

Here we go:


Consensus of religiosity.


Religiosity is individual and is 1. denial of metaphysical materialism and belief that knowledge relevant to the non-material realm can or has been gained from sources in a position of epistemic privilege; these beliefs and knowledge must be considered by the adherent to be about very important matters 2. normative action based on those beliefs 3. subjective feeling and experience related to those beliefs. These cognitive, practical and experiential components interact and none necessarily has causal priority. Religion is a consensus of religiosity between multiple persons. This means that the members of a religion have a commonly understood agreement on beliefs, perform commonly understood and accepted actions based on those beliefs and have similar and commonly understood feelings related to those beliefs. A religion is a particular example of a consensus of religiosity, and the boundaries of different religions depend on how much detail of what must be agreed upon in the consensus is specified.


 Religion is something that exists in human minds and actions. If there were no humans, there would be no religion This does not mean that no religion is true as, for example, scientific concepts also exist in human minds as hypotheses and models but also correspond more or less to reality. ‘Religiosity’ refers to the existence of religion in the minds and actions of an adherent in isolation –  it is a theoretical abstraction as individual religious concepts very rarely exist without reference to the religious concepts held by other people or other people’s religious actions and feelings. Religiosity has three components, the cognitive, practical and experiential components. These three components mutually interact and none necessarily has causal priority – for example, a religious experience (experiential) may cause a change in behaviour (practical), or the performance of a ritual (practical) may induce a religious experience (experiential). One or more may be weaker or stronger, but all three must be present and connected to some extent for full religiosity to exist.

THE COGNITIVE COMPONENT means the things that are believed to be the case by an adherent. While this may not be explicitly stated, conceptualised or understood, all religiosity involves believing something about reality. In some cases – such as the Chalcedonian Creed – this is made precise, explicit, and systematic. At the other extreme, tribal shamans may have never defined or systematised even to themselves what it is that they believe, but for them to think they can journey to the spirit world to cure illnesses, they clearly must assume that the spirit world exists. There are two beliefs that must be held in the cognitive component of religiosity, and which therefore must be present for something to be ‘a religion’.

Ceci n'est pas un religion.
Ceci n’est pas un religion.

The first is a denial of metaphysical materialism; the second is that knowledge relevant to the non-material can or has been gained from a state of epistemic privilege. While my amateurism in philosophy may be showing at this point, what I mean by denial of metaphysical materialism is the belief that things exist which are not part of the physical, natural, material world. This may exclude the ontology of Richard Dawkins, but does leave open many ontologies which while non-materialist, could not be considered religious (such as Cartesian dualism) – that will be addressed later. There are a few more points to be made about this – firstly, religion does not require belief in a deity (as in a superior, personal supernatural being) as this would exclude many things we would want to include within the category of religion, such as animism and some types of Buddhism. Secondly, some religions do not have anything like the specifically Western philosophical concept of ‘metaphysical materialism’ – however any concept which says that there is more to reality than nature/the material will do, including those which don’t differentiate between ‘nature/the material’ and whatever else may exist.

Neither of them agree with Richard Dawkins.
Neither of them agree with Richard Dawkins.

One way of arriving at a particular doctrine of metaphysical non-materialism may be through reason, or observation, or any other process which is – and this is the important bit – open to access and revision by anyone. This, however, is philosophy and not religion. Something all religions have in common is the belief that their knowledge of their doctrines is at least in part derived from means to which not everyone has equal access – what you might call a state of ‘epistemic privilege’. ‘Epistemic’ as it to do with knowledge, and ‘privilege’ as access to this knowledge is inherently unequal and unique. The most familiar example in Abrahamic religions of this is the doctrine of Revelation. The authors of the Old and New Testaments were revealing something from God that could not be discovered by humans unaided – hence they have an epistemically privileged position in that the knowledge they reveal could not be accessed by just anyone before they had revealed it. Whether we believe that the Biblical authors were aware of the knowledge they were revealing or not (e.g. for Christians, whether Isaiah knew he was foretelling Christ or not) is irrelevant; the point is that the knowledge was not available to common discovery by uninspired human thought. Another source of epistemic privilege is religious experience – the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism come from the fact that Buddha had a particular religious experience of Nirvana. While anyone could theoretically have the same religious experience (and the Buddha would whole-heartedly encourage them to try and do so!), the criticisms of those who haven’t can have no bearing on the validity of the Buddha’s teachings – they can never understand until they are in the same epistemically privileged position as the Buddha in having been there too. Another example is that a Christian’s personal relationship with and experience of the risen Christ may convince them that Christ is their saviour in a way which someone without that faith would simply not be able to know. Some non-religious doctrines involve epistemic privilege (such as feminist standpoint theory and implicitly classical Marxism), but do not believe that the knowledge gained from the positions of epistemic privilege refers to a non-material realm.

Check your epistemic privilege.
Check your epistemic privilege.

Some religions may combine or mix and match all sorts of sources of epistemic privilege, but  the essential difference between religion and philosophy is that, in philosophy, any argument is just as good no matter who says it or when, but in religion, there is always somewhere along the line a trump card of a level of knowing to which all are not equal. For epistemic privilege to be religious, the knowledge subject to privileged access must be relevant to religious belief, i.e. belief about whatever is non-material in existence or about the practical and experiential components discussed below. I realise ‘epistemic privilege sounds very silly, but it’s similar to just a looser definition of revelation which includes things like Eastern religions in which divine truth is revealed in religious experience.

The delineation between religious beliefs an magical/superstitious beliefs comes in the level of importance attributed to the topic of the belief by the believer. For example, a lot of people have a casual belief in ghosts to which they don’t ascribe much importance; this becomes a religion when it is considered very important and significant that ghosts exist, as in Spiritualism. ‘Importance’ is a quantitative not qualitative distinction, and there is a continuous spectrum between religious belief and magical/superstitious belief – Catholic popular piety in Latin America provides a vivid illustration of this. One minute they might be asking a saint to intercede to help with a business deal; the next for intercession to help with salvation – it’s all part of the same internally coherent system. A lot of definitions of religion specify what the important matters religious beliefs must concern are – such as the ultimate nature of reality, the moral order of the universe, or the final fate of humanity – I do not as different religions consider different things to be important and there is no one topic they all have in common. For example, agriculture is not considered to have a religious level of importance in western Christianity, but in primitive fertility cults it is an absolutely ultimately important matter of life and death; and hence their religion might focus on appeasing rain gods to bring about a good harvest. Religious beliefs must be about topics considered important by the religious believers, but what those topics are varies enormously. I add ‘very’ here to point out that religion tends towards one end of the religion vs magic/superstition spectrum, but it is by no means a precise dividing line.

Somewhere between superstition and religion.
Somewhere between superstition and religion.

So the cognitive component of religiosity is denial of metaphysical materialism and belief that knowledge relevant to the non-material realm can or has been gained from sources in a position of epistemic privilege; and these beliefs and knowledge are considered to be about very important matters by the believer.

THE PRACTICAL COMPONENT refers to what religious people actually do. This lumps together ethical codes and rituals altogether in one go, as they can’t always be separated out – the Ten Commandments – prescriptions of religious action – for example tell people not to work on the sabbath, which leans towards the ritual end of the spectrum, and also not to murder, which leans towards the ethical. There may be examples of people holding religious beliefs (fulfilling the cognitive component of religiosity) but not acting on them; we may call them semi-religious (specifically, cognitively religious) but not fully religious as religion remains for them a theoretical abstraction only. I specify that the actions are normative as this entails a sense of obligation – they are something they, or people in general, should be doing. This specification excludes things such as trivial actions like opening your mouth to state or discuss your beliefs, or researching Church architecture because you are interested in the history of your religion. A confession of faith, for example, can be normative if it made as part of a baptism ritual which you have an obligation to undergo if you must be saved. Rituals and ethics (and everything on the spectrum between of ritualistic ethics and ethical rituals) are normative and therefore are the essentially religious actions; anything else are optional actions related to a religion without which someone could still be considered religious. Likewise, if ethical actions such as refraining from murder, or rituals such as matriculation, do not relate to or depend upon religious belief (as defined above), they are not religious and do not fulfil this component.

So the practical component of religiosity is normative action based on religious beliefs.

Only one of these rituals is religious.
Only one of these rituals is religious.

THE EXPERIENTIAL COMPONENT is the subjective religious feeling people experience. This can cover everything from life-changing, ineffable visions of God to a general feeling of peace and tranquillity in a Church. If an atheist experiences an emotionally (n.b. not cognitively) identical feeling of tranquillity in a Church, this is not a religious experience if it cannot be connected to or put in the context of some sort of religious belief. In just the same way, even a dramatic and profound mystical experience induced by a psychedelic drug is not a religious experience if no connection is made between the experience and religious belief. While someone may have religious belief and act upon it, if there is no subjective religious feeling, this can only be considered a partial religiosity. The religious feeling does not have to be strong or constant, but no-one is fully religious who has never felt something, no matter how modest, which they can connect to their religious beliefs.

So the experiential component of religiosity is subjective feeling and experience related to religious beliefs.

Not quite a religious experience. Sorry, hippies.
Not quite a religious experience. Sorry, hippies.

The cognitive, practical and experiential components combine to form a full religiosity. Causal interactions can happen in any direction or combination between them, and often do. In practice, they mutually strengthen each other as beliefs cause people to act in certain ways, actions induce feelings, feelings  increase the certainty of beliefs, feelings increase motivation for actions and actions reinforce beliefs.

RELIGION AS OPPOSED TO RELIGIOSITY is not an individual phenomenon. It is certainly hard to conceive of someone doing all the above in isolation, with no reference to others doing the same – even hermits were generally once part of some more communal form of religion and part of a tradition, and their own religiosity has been influenced by others and may be shared by others. If someone was doing all the above truly in permanent isolation, it would be fair to call them religious, but not to say that the mind and deeds of one man constituted ‘a religion’. For religiosity to turn into religion, it must involve more than one person, and it is shared between people by ‘consensus’ – more on that later. In terms of the numbers involved for religiosity to turn into a religion, there really is no set line. Very small cults we might term micro-religions rather than religions, but so long as they are consensuses of religiosity, I think the difference between them and huge religions like Christianity is one of quantity and not quality – and a taxonomy along those lines may be possible, but is not essential to the definition. What I mean by consensus is common agreement and understanding. Not just that we both think something, but that I know that you know, and you know that I know and so on. We don’t just reach the same conclusions separately; we know we agree with each other. Agreement needn’t be on a personal basis of course; Christians know they agree on certain fundamental points with other Christians without having to ask them individually.

They definitely agree about something.
They definitely agree about something.

Consensus applies to the cognitive component in that different members of a religion believe all believe that certain things are true. All Muslims believe that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger – note that that very short creed goes into both the metaphysical non-materialism of Islam (one God, Allah, exists) and the epistemic privilege (Mohammed, not anyone else since, is his messenger). This agreement does not have to be explicitly formulated into agreed-upon statements – all members of a tribal shamanic religion know that all the others believe that there is a spirit realm, for example, even if they have no theologians to write them some Nicaea-style bullet points. Consensus applies to the practical component in that the members of a religion both to some extent do what other members of a religion do, and understand why other members of a religion do what they do. They are in agreement on some fundamental ethics or rituals (remember that those do exist on a spectrum) and even if they do not all perform the same actions – for example, not all Catholics become monks – there is a common point of reference for all their religious actions through which they can understand the religious significance of the religious actions of others. Consensus applies to the experiential component of religion a little more vaguely, but it still does in that people have religious experience (which refers to a whole spectrum from the everyday to the life-changing) in similar ways, and that they can empathise with the religious experiences of others in their religion. When a Hare Krishna devotee says he feels a serene consciousness of God when he chants the mantra, another devotee will ‘get it’. Of course we cannot know exactly what another is experiencing, all that matters for the experiential consensus is that people think they understand the others and think that the others understand them. While religious experience can be very personal and unique, it does tend to have features in common: these can be loosely connected to the beliefs of a tradition, e.g. a Christian religious experience might tend to be one of trust in a personal God, while a Buddhist one might be a feeling of inner peace and detachment from emotions. Even if people within the same religious tradition have very different religious experiences, they still have common points of reference for them, especially in that they are related to similar religious beliefs or connected to similar religious practices.

And so do they.
And so do they.

A PARTICULAR RELIGION is a particular example of a religious consensus. For example, you might define Christianity as the religious consensus which holds that Jesus was the Son of God. An element of the practical dimension could be added by specifying that Christians must be baptised, or even one of the experiential dimension by saying that to be called part of Christianity, people must have a certain attitude of faith towards God. Are Mormons Christians? It simply depends on how much you include in the consensus that must be held. For example, if Christians are just people who believe that Christ was the Son of God and try to follow what they think were his teachings, then Mormons are Christians. If we add to that consensus requirement the need to believe that the Old and New Testaments are the totality of scriptural revelation, then Mormons are not Christians. The more detailed you make the required consensus, the more specific beliefs, practices, and experiences of individual religiosities will be required and the more people will be excluded from the delineation. So the question ‘What is Christianity?’ really depends on how specific you want to define the Christian consensus to be. It isn’t just a case of steady expansion or contraction of one defined consensus of course; different emphasis can be placed on different components of religiosity: for example, a delineation based on orthodoxy will focus on the cognitive component and a definition based on orthopraxy will focus on the practical component.

Maybe Christians, maybe not.
Maybe Christians, maybe not. Certainly heretics.

A hierarchical taxonomy is possible, going from religion in general at the top, to families of religions (e.g. Abrahamic, Dharmic, Animistic), to particular religions, to denominations, to sub-denominations to finally individual religious minds – individual religiosities. At each level, the set is narrowed by specifying in greater detail the consensus held between the individual religious minds. Where ‘particular religions’ are distinguished from ‘families of religions’ or ‘denominations’ is really somewhat arbitrary, but the process of ever-greater differentiation is always the same – increasing the specificity of the consensus. For example, Hinduism is conventionally called one religion, but the different forms of Hinduism have less in common with each other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do – if we were to be consistent, we might divide Hinduism into three or four different religions, or alternatively roll those Middle-Eastern religions into different denominations of ‘Abrahamism’. By convention, however, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are referred to as four different religions and there really is no problem with this for most usage so long as the inconsistent standard of delineation is understood.

So a religion is a particular example of a consensus of religiosity.

Or, to sum up: religion is consensus of religiosity.

Now you know.
Now you know.


Content note: wild speculation ahead.

THE ESSENCE OF RELIGION: A few attempts to define religion have gone beyond specification and categorisation and tried to come up with some sort of essence of religion, an elemental unit from which all the rest derives, just as the essence of water in all its forms is two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to an oxygen atom. I’m not sure that in this case it’s even possible, but very speculatively based on the above:

The essence of religion is belief that important knowledge about a non-material metaphysical realm can be gained from sources in positions of epistemic privilege.

I pick this out as the essence because the cognitive dimension seems to be more of a common thread among the experiential and practical than vice versa. Lots of things involve ritual or profound experiences; a few fewer involve metaphysical non-materialism; fewer still strict epistemic privilege; but it seems that only religion involves the idea that the way we gain knowledge of the non-material realm is from sources in positions of epistemic privilege.

Which brings me onto my next point:

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY: Alright this is pretty speculative again and those of you who actually do philosophy/do more theology than me may have some devastating points to make, but:

Theology differs from philosophy of religion in that it assumes some propositions derived from sources in positions of epistemic privilege to be true.

Philosophers of religion start with just observations about the world and human reason, and use them to try and develop some doctrines about religious matters; theologians start by assuming certain propositions to be true (e.g. ‘God is revealed in Jesus Christ’, or ‘the Quran is the word of God’, or ‘Atman equals Brahman’) and then build on from there by various methods. I don’t think I’m distorting Anselm too much to call this something like ‘faith seeking understanding’ – the faith bit is the assumption of propositions revealed by sources in positions of epistemic privilege to be true; the seeking understanding bit building on from there by methodical thought and reflection. To put that in Thomist terms, when you do theology, you are doing something identical to philosophy until you move from natural to revealed theology. When you start to base theology on revelation, you are working from a source which reveals things humans could never possible work out without it – it has epistemic privilege over us – and you have transitioned from basically just philosophy into theology proper.

And THAT is what Athens has to do with Jerusalem.


9 thoughts on “What is religion?

  1. Great work Tertullian. You asked about counter-examples. Here’s a contender. What would say about a philosopher who argued against metaphysical materialism *from* a feminist standpoint? I saw a citation yesterday for a paper along just those lines.


  2. Excellent piece. I’d press on the phrasing of the distinction you make between superstition/religion though: it seems to me that the term ‘importance’ in and of itself doesn’t characterise the difference precisely enough on either individual or communal levels.

    Particular questions might be: would a stereotypical Irish Catholic in America (I.e. attaches next to no direct or explicit importance to the doctrine, not least because they disavow belief in it, but observes the worship and upholds certain values anyway) count as religious/belonging to a religion?

    Or; when does a belief go from being unimportant to important? I.e. Does a belief in God count as important in an instance where someone prays each night, and believes God is listening, but where this prayer is the only practise they have which is influenced by a genuine belief in the divine?

    Or; is any and every type of importance relevant to religious belief? One could perhaps argue (again, taking an American stereotype) that though belief in God is considered extremely important in Bible-Belt America, one could argue that its importance is to be found in its being used to guarantee and existing way of life rather than in moulding a way of life around it (it could in fact be a belief in any deity, so long as that deity was thought to provide absolute assurance of the morality of how one wants to act, however that might be). In this instance, does the particular belief expressed actually have an independent importance, in virtue of which it could be called religious, or is its importance solely derived from the abstract function in plays as a cognitive guarantee? And is this relevant to whether the belief counts as religion or superstition?

    Or; we might ask about Greek religious practise; whether or not a sacrifice at the temple of Artemis was actually indicative of a general consensus that there are important non-physical truths which could impact ine’s ability to hunt, and so whether or not any importance was actually (individually or communally) attached to belief in such truths. One could then ask whether or not sacrifice at the temple of Artemis would cease being religious if it could be shown that it was not in fact premised upon a belief in the importance of certain non-physical truths relating to luck in hunting.

    My instinct is that importance is actually very hard to pin down and that it might not be constitutive of religion or religiosity, but I’d be interested in more specific accounts of how you understand the word to be at play here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. (The distinction between material/non-material could be interesting to explore further as well. I’m wondering whether or not a materialist can believe in luck as a phenomenon of natural origin but not a strictly material nature (on which, there seems to me to be an important distinction to be made between non-material and supernatural, which is relevant to your choice of words towards the end), if they can place enormous importance on the place of luck in life, and believe knowledge of luck to come from instinct rather than observation (in a sense similar to subjective experience in religious life), and then base their practise around the beliefs that arise from these instincts. If so, would this person count as religious in your sense?)


  4. Thanks Edwin for the post. I wonder if you need to do a bit more work on the nature of ‘epistemic privilege’, which is doing quite a lot of work in your scheme. What role is the word ‘just’ playing in the first sentence of the final paragraph? Hope to meet you at Oriel at some point.


  5. To Alec: The first thing to say is that even if that did qualify as a religious belief, there are other criteria to fulfil for religiosity, and then others to go from religiosity to religion. HOWEVER from the sound of it is possible that under this definition it could count as a religious belief depending on the specifics, such as how strict the position on epistemic privilege is. For example, a weak position might be something like ‘it is difficult for someone in your position to know this but theoretically possible’ (along the lines of the slogan ‘It’s hard to see racism when you’re white’), but a strong one would be something like ‘it is impossible for someone in your position to know this unless I tell you’. For it to count as religious belief I’d want it to be towards the stronger end. A weak doctrine could even be used in philosophy of religion in something like ‘someone who hasn’t studied formal logic wouldn’t understand the ontological argument’!

    Do you have a link to the article so I can judge in more detail?


  6. To Edward: Yes, I have hung quite a lot on ‘epistemic privilege’ but in think in all its multifarious forms it does play quite a fundamental role in all the religions I can think of – there probably are ambiguities or problems with it I haven’t noticed yet and as ever I do invite suggestions as to what those are. ‘Just’ in that sentence means ‘nothing except’, as opposed to just as in ‘fair’ or ‘justified’.


  7. To Ed Watson: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there on what is the weakest part of this – that the specification of the topics of religious belief is only that they need to be ‘very important’, and that it’s really not clear what this means or includes. I’ve made a bit of a revision in light of that, to be revealed in a future post….


  8. There are too many Eds in this whole thing… But either way, looking forward to reading future revealed truths from a position of relative epistemic privilege regarding the role of importance in religious belief!


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