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What IS religion?

There is, without a doubt, an intensifying debate between advocates of religion and those opposed. A good place to start in this debate is what we mean when we say "religion." A social scientist might construe religion as "a set of beliefs and practices that are grounded in a particular iteration of morality." I think this definition is insufficient. We need to explore and be clear on what religious people mean by religion, otherwise, no fruitful conversation will ever occur among the participants of one such debate!

To aggravate the issue, it is absolutely true that there are many who refer to themselves as "religious," but are unaware of the basic premises and arguments of religious philosophy - this doesn't add to the debate either.

Both sides of the question consider the matter of great importance. There is a call for an intelligent discussion between religion and common culture - and there's no better place to have it then TED!

Would anyone like to take a stab at defining religion?


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    Sep 25 2012: Good question. My answer challenges some of my own former beliefs about Atheism.

    I'd say that most concisely stated, Religion is a belief in the nature of existence. I would have preferred to use the term "the universe" to include everything that exist but we no longer use it that way (darned physicists).

    By that definition, Atheism, as we generally think about it, is a religion that hold that nothing exists that we can't observe or rationally conclude based on observation. I'd note that I prefer this definition because it includes Buddhism that has an irrational belief in the soul(and a number of it's attributes) but does not posit a deity. It also excludes a number of philosophies that offer ideas about morality but don't say much about what may or may not exist(Confucianism for example).
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      Sep 26 2012: Robert, thank you so much for your honesty. You're on the right track in terms of your characterization of atheism, but I think it's incomplete. The question, I would think, is the nature of God - the focal point of a religious person's beliefs. For example, the deist conception of God is not at all held by the most ardent advocates of Christians and Muslims (etc.). In other words, God is not a deity figure at all in the Christian and Muslim conception. In fact, God as a deity would be something that Christians would also disagree with.

      While things in existence could be rationally observed, thus held, there is still no contradiction regarding the existence of God if one were to characterize God as Aquinas did: ipsum esse.

      Thanks again for the comment!
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        Sep 26 2012: I have to disagree that the question is the nature of God, given that you've offered a semantic dodge trying to subsume my concept of the universe under the heading of God. In essence, the way you're defining God is everything that exist. OK, I believe that things exist, therefore I believe in God. This says nothing about whether I believe these things are intrinsically interconnected, form an intelligence or have emotions as a group ("for God so loved the world..."). This is a major problem with Christianity as they like to play games with semantics. Notice that we don't even have a word now that would distinguish the concept everything that exist, from a very specific personality reveled in the Bible that performed specific actions and has specific desires. Perhaps this is where you were going with trying to parse the definition of "deity"?

        The prerequisite question is how do we know what exists and what it's nature is. The empirical paradigm gives clear criteria, but I'll admit that I am open to other possibilities. What is your criteria for believing revelations of a series of Jewish mystics? Would these arguments apply equally well to a series of Indian mystics?
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Robert,

          It isn't a semantic dodge at all. I mentioned in the response Aquinas' characterization: ipsum esse. I suggest you google it.

          In the Christian conception, God is not - not! - simply everything that exists. That's just absolutely not it. That falls more in line with nature mysticism, like "the force" in Star Wars. If it's ingredient in the universe, by definition, it isn't God.

          The reason why I am claiming that we need to get these terminologies right first is because if our definitions aren't right, we're not even in the same world, haha! In a court of law, the judge, at this point, would turn to one of us and say, "uhh, counsel, you're in the wrong room."

          If you're defining God as "everything," my goodness, Robert, I agree with you! It's plainly not the Christian conception. Furthermore, no one believes in God BECAUSE things exist. That misrepresents the argument too.

          Thanks again Robert.
      • Sep 26 2012: "In other words, God is not a deity figure at all in the Christian and Muslim conception."

        The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition:
        de·i·ty n., pl. de·i·ties. 1. A god or goddess. 2.a. The essential nature or condition of being a god; divinity. b. Deity. God. Used with the.

        Your statement is simply inaccurate. I can assure you that every priest who has studied Latin would tell you that the Christian God is the Deity. Please be more careful with your use of words.
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Barry,

          Dictionaries offer definitions, yes, but not exhaustively so. There is a wonderful talk here on TED by the lexicographer, Erin McKean (it's highly-recommended, super entertaining!), where she critiques the obsolete model of dictionaries. The talk was met with much fervor, and its applications are even now reverberating in academic spheres. For example, a sure way to get a big, fat F on an academic paper is to exclusively rely on dictionary citations as evidence in an argument.

          I am further suggesting that your claim is not grounded in truth. By priests, I wonder with whom you've spoken - I happen to be acquainted with many.

          Deity, in theology, claims a very specific understanding regarding the divine nature. The Romans' views of their gods were radically different from the Christian understanding. Zeus was construed as one of the gods, having particular attributes and having a particular influence on the world. His nature as a god was indeed a "deist" conception. Deity, almost like a human kind of being but with supernatural capacities (and much better-looking!), who puppeteers humans and is in control of every aspect of the world - this is not how Christians and Muslims view God. It would surprise me to hear a priest refer to Christ as a deity, truly.

          By all means, please explore this claim for accuracy. Or if you'd like, you can ask me questions, and if I don't know the answer I'll try to find them for you.

          Many thanks.

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