‘What is religion?’ Part II: Responses, Revisions and Further Applications


I’ve been very pleased with the quality and quantity of responses my post ‘What is religion?’ got. I’ve responded to some on there, but my response to Ed Watson’s comment has become so verbose as to merit another post, so that forms the bulk of what’s below. I’ve revised my definition of religion in light of the comments I got, and that is included below along with some more experimental applications of it to religious issues.

Coming up: Artemis, Irish Catholics and ISIS.

All of God's rich creation.
All of God’s rich creation.


The full version of Ed’s comment is at the bottom here and is definitely worth a read.

He focuses on what I agree to be the weakest part of my definition, the specification that the matters religious beliefs concern must be ‘very important’ to differentiate them from similar things like magic or superstitition:

The term ‘importance’ in and of itself doesn’t characterise the difference precisely enough on either individual or communal levels.

This is true both in that it leaves a very vague spectrum without clear delineation, and also in that it doesn’t specify what it means for a religious belief to be about something ‘important’ – I said they had to be important to the believer, but this could exclude people who are religious but don’t really care about it.

I have seen definitions which specify a certain topic religious doctrines must address – such as the ‘moral order of the universe’ – but all formulations of that I’ve come up with so far have excluded something I’d want to include; for example, if Buddhism says that the ultimate order of the universe is beyond good or evil, there is no ‘moral order’ per se to the universe. I might steal a phrase from Clifford Geertz and say ‘general order of existence’, but I think that might be a little too loose – e.g. would the Marxist or Hegelian theory of history qualify? Or a religion like Satanism which denies any objective order (instead proposing that reality is ultimately chaotic anarchy, with might as the only law that matters)? I think if such a concrete specification could be made, the definition would be made a lot stronger, but I yet to think of a satisfying version.

Not too concerned with the moral order of the universe.
Not too concerned with the moral order of the universe.

One interim option is to say that the topics of religious belief must be considered the ‘most important things’ (as opposed to just ‘very important’), but that might exclude, for example, someone who cared passionately about politics but was only coolly religious. Maybe a distinction needs to be made between what is practically important and what is theoretically important to people – practically important topics being those which actually are given the most action and attention (which can be entirely interior, such as feeling strong emotions about it); theoretically important topics are those which would be given the most action and attention if people acted in ways consistent with the prescriptions derived from their worldview. For example, if you asked most people whether they thought the environment was more important than Breaking Bad, they may well say it is but care quite a bit more about the ending of Season 4 than their carbon footprint. To accommodate both weakly and strongly religious people, the importance of religious beliefs would have to be theoretical, not practical.

A religious devotion indeed.
A religious devotion indeed.

So to propose a revision in light of that point:

These beliefs and knowledge must be considered by the adherent to be about very important matters


These beliefs must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence.

‘Most important’ here means something like most fundamental or top priority, but again that definition needs to be made a little more precise. When I say they claim to relate, I mean that an explicit or implicit part of systems of religious doctrine is that the doctrines are important: ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God, and that is really important’ as opposed to ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God, but who really cares?’. The main point is that the importance is theoretical and doesn’t depend on what significance religious people attach to their religious belief, although of course if someone attaches more significance, they could be considered more religious. ‘Relate to’ also allows for some prioritization of religious doctrine in a way that ‘be about the most important matters’ wouldn’t. For example, the doctrine of Apostolic Succession might not be considered about the most important matter in existence, because the doctrine of Salvation is about a more important matter – but it does relate to the most important matters as part of a larger doctrinal system.


One example is  “a stereotypical Irish Catholic in America….[who] attaches next to no direct or explicit importance to the doctrine” – does the fact they don’t care much about the doctrine mean they aren’t religious?

They would certainly count as culturally religious, like many people in England are ‘culturally Anglican’, singing Christmas carols and going to church at Easter etc. without necessarily buying into the doctrine. Similarly, there are lots of cases of cultural phenomena which work in every practical way like a religion but I would say fall short as they do not relate to a non-material realm, such as Mao’s cult of personality: a good example of a ‘cultural religion’. Whether he would count as fully/genuinely religious or not depends on whether, or with what certainty, he believes the Catholic doctrines to be true. In the unrevised version, it would matter how important he thought those doctrines are – with the revision, all that matters for whether those doctrines  count as religious is their internal claim to relate to the most important matters in existence.

In Bible Belt America, “belief in God is considered extremely important….[but]  one could argue that its importance is to be found in its being used to guarantee an existing way of life rather than in moulding a way of life around it.” I think here Ed is getting at the causal relationship between the religious ideology that perpetuates a society and a society that perpetuates a religious ideology – is the society based authentically on the religion, or is the religion there post hoc to rationalise the continuation of the society? I would argue that it doesn’t really matter so long as the religion is honestly believed to be true, it is still religion.

And I really think these guys mean business.
And I really think these guys mean business.

Ed goes on to ask: “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?” I think that in my unrevised definition this was left ambiguous, but having changed the  specification of the beliefs from ‘considered by the adherent to be about very important matters’ to ‘must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence’, I think it becomes clear that the ‘importance’ of the belief is inherent in what the beliefs claim about themselves (the believer must of course believe they implicitly or explicitly claim that about themselves) and not dependent on any function the beliefs actually play in the mind of the believer beyond being there, and stimulating experience and action for full religiosity to be present. While you are right to point out that superstitious beliefs could have great practical or emotional significance to the superstitious person, until the superstitious person starts believing that their superstitious beliefs do claim to be about the most important matters in existence, they are not a religious person.

With the example of someone’s personal prayer and whether that counts as religious, first of all I’d say that’s a very good example of what I mean by religiosity as opposed to religion – individual practice without reference to or involvement by others who concur. The distinction I make earlier about theoretical versus practical importance might help here. The practical importance depends on things like how strongly someone feels a connection to God while praying or how the insights they reach during prayer influence their lives in general. The theoretical importance depends on what they believe about God. If they don’t believe anything in particular and just have a psychologically comforting feeling that God is listening to them which they enjoy and pursue through prayer, I’d want to call that spirituality rather than religion – religious experience without religious belief. If they believe that God exists and that there is a significance to His existence apart from his utilitarian function in providing them with spiritual comfort – such as that they will meet him in the afterlife – I would call that religious belief, experience and behaviour and I would say that person is religious but not part of a religion if it is purely individual.

This also raises the interesting example of an atheist praying with genuine conviction in a desperate situation – in that moment, are they being ‘temporarily religious’? They have of course ‘important beliefs’ in that moment because they belief God can save them from their desperate situation, which is the most important conceivable thing to them in that moment. I would want to say yes. Someone’s religious status can change over time, and there seems so reason to set a lower limit on the time frame for changes. The fact this kind of thing happens so much raises a lot of interesting points about our potentially innate capacity for and tendency to religiosity, but maybe that’s for another post.

No atheists in here.
No atheists in here.

An interesting example comes with Ancient Greek sacrifices to Artemis – was it “indicative of a general consensus that there are important non-physical truths which could impact one’s ability to hunt”, and if not, does it cease to be religious as it doesn’t relate cognitively to non-physical truths?

I would say that if it is believed that a goddess exists to receive the sacrifice, that is the non-physical truth which makes it religious. If that belief disappeared, it would be ‘culturally religious’ but not truly or fully religious. A good analogy might be the British coronation ceremony. Clearly this ritual is central to the traditional culture of this country and functions like a religious ritual, involving prescribed behaviours and with the capacity to induce profound and unifying feelings on those who witness it. It is definitely part of British ‘cultural religion’ – as it’s to do with a political institution, the term ‘civil religion’ applies as well (commonly used about rituals like saluting the flag in American schools). It becomes a truly religious ritual if one believes that there is something other than the physical or human elements at play – for example, if one believes in the Divine Right of Kings, then it is a sacramental investiture of divinely granted authority – that is the non-material element that turns it from civilly or culturally religious (function like a religion in culture or society) to truly religious (the above, plus based on religious belief).

As well as questioning the idea of ‘importance’, Ed addresses the material/non-material distinction I make. First of all, I would clarify that in my first post natural and material are synonymous, as are non-material and supernatural. Something like consciousness, which is arguably inherently qualitatively different to unconscious matter and energy, counts as material if one believes that it is caused purely by matter and energy – neurons – and does not exist in any independent way. I’m reminded of Jung’s idea of synchroncity – ‘meaningful coincidence’ – which can be formulated in one of two radically different ways. Either, we think that our minds without our awareness attribute meanings to genuinely random coincidences – a kind of confirmation bias – or we think that it is because we would find them meaningful that coincidences happen. For the latter, there is entailed a causal connection between our subconscious minds and coincidences in the material world that is not compatible with materialism. As far as I can tell, I similar distinction would apply to luck if one were to be logically consistent – however, most gamblers probably don’t consider the metaphysics of a lucky streak!

So that raises the question – do religious people have to know their beliefs are non-material or is it enough that they logically entail the existence of something non-material, even if they are not aware of that? I will have to consider that further, but instinctively lean towards the latter, as the former might exclude religions from cultures which have no concept of a distinction between a material or non-material realm. As for the point about how much importance they might attribute to luck, the way I’ve revised my definition in light of your comments helps here. If it is merely very practically important – he cares a lot about luck and bases a lot of his actions on it – that is not enough as long as he does not think that his beliefs about luck include the doctrine that those beliefs concern the most important matters. If he did believe that, and luck was conceived of as something like fate, then that would be a move some of the way from superstitious to religious belief.

P.S: where he says that his hypothetical characters “believes knowledge of luck to come from instinct rather than observation”, that is spot on the kind of thing I mean by epistemic privilege and a good example of the wider applicability of the concept:

“How do you know your horse is going to win?”

“I’ve got a feeling. I just know.

Turn it upside down.....deep, eh?
Turn it upside down…..deep, eh?


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 must claim to relate to the most important matters in existence. 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.


CN: speculation etc.

I think one of the things I’ve already shown here is that one of the most productive things about having a go at this kind of question, even if we don’t arrive at a fully satisfying definition of religion, is that all the examples used to find the edges of religion show us what is almost, but not quite, religion. This reveals what religion’s neighbours in the great scheme of human concepts, actions and experiences are, and what phenomena it is related to and linked to – so far we’ve got philosophy, superstition, culture and spirituality. Even if we can’t define religion (but I still think we probably can), by exploring attempts to define it we learn a lot about it, and we can also learn about all the related concepts I’ve listed and more by starting from the study of religion as a phenomenon in the world.

You know you want to.
You know you want to.

One classic example of how studying religion can help us understand what’s actually going on in the world is in the intersection and interaction of religion and politics. As well as ‘religious politics’, there are ‘political religions’, which I would define as something that acts like religions generally do in the world but lacks the essential doctrinal criterea to truly be called ‘a religion’. Personality cults are the most obvious examples, with the North Korean Kim Dynasty and the Mao cult being the ones I can think of that came as close as possible to deifying their leaders without ever declaring them supernatural. They can in practice be studied as religions though, with the mutually reinforcing relationship between doctrine, practice and experience being examined in much the same way.

In Maoism, for example, one of my criteria for religious belief – that it be about the most important matters – was certainly fulfilled, as within its Marxist-based materialist metaphysics, nothing was more important than the Revolution. Revolution good, everything else bad – the simplicity the doctrine could be boiled down to for his peasant and student supporters contributed to the experiential component in the fanatically strong emotions and dedication it stimulated, and of course greatly in the practical component with both the passion and scale of activism during the Cultural Revolution. The bizarre excesses his followers went to – such as violently changing the name of a theatre from ‘Peace Theatre’ (‘peace’ being a counter-revolutionary concept) to ‘Revolution Theatre’ – can be best understood using concepts which have been historically applied to the psychology and sociology of religion. For example, one psychological explanation for why religious people are on average happier than non-religious people is ‘existential certainty’ – religious people are confident that the most important questions of life have been satisfactorily answered. For Mao’s followers, the answer to every question was ‘revolution’, and that tangible and practical answer to all of life’s troubling questions is part of the reason so many people did so many evil things under his reign.

And they enjoyed it too.
And they enjoyed it too.

The most evil form of religion in the world at the moment is of course the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a truly abhorrent apocalyptic cult that is the worst branch of the worst branch of Islam. While volumes could be written about the religious ideology of ISIS and how it works to make them effective, I will focus on just one aspect here – how the concept of epistemic privilege form my definition of religion is relevant. I contend that the best way to understand their ideology and how it works is not to second-guess them, but to listen to what they actually say and how they present themselves, just as you would do if you wanted to understand what the adherents of any religion think.

This video, made by Vice extraordinarily with a journalist embedded with an ISIS  propaganda chief, gives an excellent insight into their ideology and I thoroughly recommend everyone interested in either religion or the world to watch the whole thing. What is shown is largely controlled by ISIS propagandists (although the commentary was added later and is independent), so it gives a sense of how they want to present themselves – not all that dissimilar a principle from how we base our interpretations of Biblical texts on what we think the author’s agenda was in trying to present those events.

One of the pivotal arguments for their legitimacy  is that their laws are the laws of God, and all else is the law of man – this argument is essentially one of epistemic privilege. Knowledge of the true law comes from God, so no human argument, no matter how good, can challenge it. Human moral instincts when they go against what is commanded by the State are a form of idolatry as they are placing human concepts of morality over those of the State, which are those of God as it has been divinely ordained. The Takbir ‘Allahu Akbar’ – ‘God is great’ reminds each member of the supremacy of God’s will over theirs, and in moments of great need the simple exhortation allows them to suppress emotions such as fear, guilt and repugnance which would impede what they believe are their duties in accordance with their doctrines. I assume that not everyone who has carried out atrocities for ISIS is a psychopath with no moral instincts, so the fact they are able to so successfully suppress their moral instincts in line with religious doctrine – specifically the religious doctrine that nothing human can question the divine authority on any matter (a very strong doctrine of epistemic privilege) – demonstrates the extraordinary psychological and social potency of religion.

Studying even seemingly esoteric principles of religious doctrine such as epistemic privilege can be surprisingly illuminating of what is happening in the world. Belief, feeling and action reinforce one another in an extraordinary powerful way and can drive people to the greatest good and the greatest evil imaginable.


2 thoughts on “‘What is religion?’ Part II: Responses, Revisions and Further Applications

  1. Again, fantastic post. From a personal point of view, you’ve given accurate and charitable accounts of each of my points, and picked out what I was trying to say (what is important…) with extraordinary precision (which is a nice ego boost tbh, aside from anything else). I also think you give sufficient responses to those points, keeping the character of your original intention, but revising your phrasing in a way which makes this post an excellent example of your general point that exploring definitions can help us clarify what we know and think.

    The point I’d raise now (and this is a general point which has been vexing me for a while) is the extent to which definitions actually exclude the ‘false’ or ‘less good’ versions of what they’re trying to define, and if so whether or not they in fact remain defintions.

    More clearly: a lot of the elements of your definition aim to pick out ‘true’ religion, or ‘actual’ religion (in a sense I’m sure Kierkegaard would very much appreciate). Under this, those examples of ‘religiosity’ become something like false or pretend religion. The problem however, as I see it, is that when we call something ‘false religion’ we still seem to impute that it is in some sense religion; that is, that it bears enough in common with ‘true religion’ that the two can be set side by side with each other as examples of a common type, with one being a true example, the other false. (A similar example could be made with kindness perhaps: we can say of someone that they are exhibiting false kindness insofar as their actions are actually selfishly motivated, but in doing so we still classify their actions considered apart from intention with examples of ‘true kindness’, and so make an identification (however slight) between the two.) On this basis, I’d probably argue that a full(?) definition of religion should (somewhat paradoxically) cover/include examples of false religion, and so cover examples which obviously fail to meet the conditions set by the definition.

    One could perhaps argue that to say something is ‘false religion’ is the same as to say that it is ‘not religion’, so that this problem only arises due to a trick of language (that the phrase ‘false religion’ gives the illusion of calling something religion in order to call it false). If so, my response would probably be to say a) this may well be the case in a given number of cases, and b) that in many cases of intra-religious dialogue the phrase ‘false religion’ is used (by Kierkegaard and Luther, for example) to pick out the good from the bad of a certain kind, only then pursuing the very Augustinian implication that the less good is less real, and that this form of dialogue does begin from the presupposition that what is being inveighed against *is* in some sense religion, which can only then be discarded due to forgetfulness…

    All of which is a little reminiscent of something I read yesterday about the introduction of the word ‘Catholic’ to describe the Church (by a church father who’s name I’ve forgotten and who someone here will probably be able to call to mind): that it is used to pick out the true, as opposed to the heretical, church, but that a heretical church is an active possibility. In an effort to sum up: I’d be inclined to suggest that definitions centred around the ‘true’ form of something presuppose the possibility of that thing existing in false form, just as catholicitiy presupposes the possibility of heresy, such that the definition itself must presuppose and cover both truth/catholicity and falsity/heresy. On this basis, it seems to me that definition (almost by nature) has the paradoxical function of including the very things it wishes to declare false within itself, so throwing into question whether or not a search for definition is the same as a search for ‘true’ existence. Which applied here: I’d ask whether or not a definition of ‘true’ religion could claim to be a definition of religion as a general phenomenon.

    (Sorry, that was long winded and somewhat tangential; I hope I haven’t placed too much of an interpreted burden on ye!)


  2. (Also: the further application section in this would stand well as a post in its own right: superb writing, imo.)


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