What is religion?
To get started, let’s just get down on paper all of our first impressions about religion. Don’t do any research. Don’t look it up on Wikipedia. Just write down, in a stream of consciousness, all your thoughts and feelings about religion.
As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein showed us, it may be impossible to craft precise definitions of even the simplest words. Take “cat” for example: We can’t define “cat” without limiting the concept so much that in excludes some rare specimens (a hairless or tailless cat, for example), or expanding it such that it includes animals from other species (dogs, for example). The same is true of the word ‘religion.’
But don’t fret. A definition doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be useful or valuable in some way. And whatever you write will be just perfect for accomplishing one of our purposes here, which is to make ourselves aware of our preconceptions.
This idea of bringing our preconceptions to awareness comes from the work of a religious studies scholar named Ninian Smart. Smart thought the best way to study religion was by a method he called “phenomenology.” His idea was that we should first try to make ourselves aware of our preconceptions of what we are studying. Then we should “bracket” those ideas. In other words, we put them to one side. That way, when we observe the phenomenon at hand, we will approach it in as neutral a way as possible, without judging it prematurely. Here is an example:
If I am a Roman Catholic Christian, I may walk into a Buddhist temple and think “Those people are sitting on the floor and praying to Buddha.” And, if I am in a Pure Land Buddhist temple, then I may be right. But if I am in a Theravadin Buddhist temple, I will be mistaken. Where did I go wrong?
According to Smart, if I take some time to be aware of my own perspective, I will realize that my initial impression of these Buddhists is based on my own experience of Christian church. Often in Roman Catholicism we are kneeling on the ground and praying to God, to a God who is represented by a statue of Jesus. Or we may ask a saint—again, represented by a statue—to pray to God for us. So, it only makes sense that I will immediately think that a Buddhist is praying to Buddha. But if I am aware of my preconceptions and I bracket them, I may be able to see what I am really observing: People sitting on the floor in silence in front of a statue of Buddha. Once I observe things in this less-judgmental way, I can do further research to see what is going on inside the Buddhists’ minds. I can ask them: Were you praying? Meditating? Sleeping?
We can’t see clearly what other people are doing if we aren’t aware of what we ourselves are doing. That is one of the purposes of this first journal prompt: Get down on paper all of your thoughts and feelings about what religion is. It will be interesting to see what is the same and what is different in your partner’s answer.
So, go to it! What is religion anyway?
As you may know by now from your own engagement with this question and your experience reading your partner’s response, there is no one right answer to this question. Some of you probably answered that religion is the way human beings have access to the divine. Others may have written that it is a source of inner strength and hope. Some of you may have said religion is the foundation for society. Still others may have said that religions are the sources of great evil in the world. Many of you probably had a combination of these things.
What you may not know is that you have recreated some of the history of religious studies in these responses. Theologians who study religion have said it is the way to reach God. Psychologists have said religion is a powerful inner resource or a harmful delusion (see Carl Jung or William James for the former, and Ludwig von Feuerbach or Sigmund Freud for the latter). Sociologists have said religion is a way of ordering society or a method of social control (see Peter Berger and Karl Marx). Some have claimed that religion is a source of evil and violence in the world, as the crusades, or the inquisition, or the actions of the KKK might lead one to think. Others have shown that religion is a source of peace and justice, such as when Mahatma Gandhi led South Asians to independence using nonviolent civil disobedience rooted in satyagraha, or when The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. similarly inspired the United States Civil Rights movement with the words of the Jewish and Christian prophets.
Another of Ninian Smart’s contributions to the study of religion is his insight that all of these perspectives are correct. All religions (and worldviews) are multidimensional phenomena that function in all kinds of ways: psychologically, sociologically, politically, economically, artistically, spiritually. We tend to see religion in whatever terms are most important to us at the time we are thinking about it. It is helpful to add other perspectives and insights to our own in order to get a better sense of what exactly this thing called “religion” really is. We are reminded of the famous Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. Each blind man encountered a different aspect of the elephant. The one who felt its leg thought the elephant was like a tree; the one who felt its tail thought the elephant was like a rope; the one who felts its ear thought the elephant was like a gentle breeze; the one who felts its trunk thought it was like a snake; the one who stepped in its droppings thought…well, you get the idea.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson also put his finger on a kind of resolution to all of these conflicting views of religion. In his book Two Sources of Morality and Religion, he showed how we may be talking about different things when we say the word ‘religion.’ There is the kind of religion that is the glue that holds a community together, the practices and values and beliefs people share. This kind of religion is also sometimes manipulated by people for their own purposes, especially political ones. But there is also religion that exists more quietly, that emerges from those personal moments of awe and wonder at the universe. These moments are called mystical experiences, and they are actually quite common even though they are not as visible as the other trappings of religion. So, when one person says, “Religion is the source of all the wars!” and another argues, “No! Religion is my personal peace and salvation!”, they may both be right.