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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 27 2012: Some religions have had many very good effects, for centuries.

      That is why they are still around.

      It does no good to debate with someone who believes in religion. They will go on believing.

      This is a competition. If and when it becomes clear that atheism is a better way of living, more and more people will choose it. If you want to destroy religion, the course of action is plain and simple: live well.
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        • Oct 10 2012: "I am still confused about what do you think what are the good and bad effects of religion."

          I am confused by your confusion. For the most part the good and bad effects of religion seem completely obvious. For centuries religion was the basis of moral behavior; many generations learned morality based on religion, and many behaved morally.

          IMO, one of the bad effects of religion, that is not completely obvious, is the emphasis on the afterlife. People who are primarily concerned with entering paradise after they die are not very concerned with improving the quality of life on Earth. Especially those who are taught that suffering is not only acceptable, but necessary.
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        Sep 28 2012: I would suggest that it is worthwhile to debate with someone who believes in religion. In fact, most religious people - especially in our age of unprecedented recognition of freedom - ask the toughest questions, on themselves especially, and religion offers them a coherent answer.

        When you say "live well," what do you specifically mean? One might bring up the question of ethics - or not, haha - but how would one, even practically, demonstrate that the ethic would endure?

        I ask, Barry, because I don't think the answer is simply to say "live well." Why? Because there happen to be so many opposed views of how to "live well." Who's right? For example, the great oppressions of our time offered a particular view of life that was diametrically opposed to ours - and it's interesting how most of them, as their first step, systematically eradicated traces of religion.

        This isn't to neglect the painful fact that wars have also been waged in the name of religion. Yes, this is true. We could demonstrate ever so scrupulously how this is against - against! - religious teachings. It does speak of the fact that humans have a tendency to err, and that there is a need for an enduring standard.

        Thanks again,

        • Oct 10 2012: By "live well" I mean do YOUR best according to YOUR values.

          Providing specifics about what I consider living well is irrelevant.

          The competition between atheism and theism will be decided by future generations based on the difference in the quality of lives of atheists and theists, and also on their reproductive rates.

          Perhaps I am becoming close minded about these issues. I am 63 years old and have experienced many discussions about religion and atheism. It appears to me that both groups are actually close minded on this subject. Many like to discuss, but it seems that no one is ever convinced to change. The discussions can be entertaining, and some of your comments are original (at least to me) and make me think.
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      Sep 28 2012: Ammar,
      The positive things are a sense of something greater, a sense that there is more to know than just what can be seen. I have had spiritual experiences that confirm to me that this is so.
      A sense that we are our brother's keeper. Mutual cooperation benefits all.
      A sense that life does not end when the body dies. We are more than a body.
      A sense that we are not alone even when the world is at odds with us.
      A sense that we can pray and it doesn't fall on deaf ears. Although, few know how to pray.

      The negative things are unquestioning beliefs that leave you without answers. My father became an alcoholic because he could not deal with his belief in purgatory. He drowned his fears in alcohol. Fortunately, the truth set him free. That is what drove me to question things in religion.
      The feeling that religious leaders see themselves as above others in their knowledge of God. They don't like you questioning things. They see it as a rebellious attitude rather than an inquiring mind.
      The acceptance that a sacred text is infallible and should supersede observation. The church's rebuke of science has been ongoing despite the fact that science has solved most of the problems created by the early church. The witch hunts were all based on misconceptions on what causes evil. It took science in understanding disease to bring it to an end. Yet they still think science is wrong.

      I am highly in favor of the spiritual quest. I am highly opposed to dogma. I think that the modern church is stuck in ritual. There is little change. It feels like a broken record. Sometimes it feels like romper room. And when the church tries to argue with science, it is completely out of its league.
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        Sep 28 2012: Hi Roy,

        Thank you so much for sharing - many would appreciate the strength you demonstrated through these experiences.

        I would simply submit that Church does not argue with science in the way that you construe it.

        The Church recognizes fully the merits of science as science. It only calls into question the claims that some people make in the name of science precisely when it deviates from its nature.

        Science, rightly so, can strongly make assertions about the observable, but when it questions theology, it's already beyond its reach. As soon as arguments are exchanged, science evolves into philosophy, and it necessarily goes outside of itself to keep on. That "science is right" and "religion is wrong" is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical one.

        In science, we present evidence and formulate theories consistent with our findings.
        As soon as science enters the realm of the universal, it ceases to be science. It becomes, as you say, dogma.

        In the end, the Church construes God as the true, the good and the beautiful. There is no contradiction between science and religion. If science demonstrates conclusively a particular thing to be true, which in turn happens to be contradictory with the Church's position, then the Church necessarily must alter its stance - this it has done many times in history. It remains the case that the war between science and religion is pure fiction, perpetualized by those who have an interest in doing so.


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          Sep 28 2012: I believe that personal experience is necessary in order to give credence to faith. There are many who can't defend their faith because they have no personal experience to draw from. Quoting of scripture alone is not sufficient in my realm of thinking. The witch hunters knew their scriptures. They were among the vilest of people that ever lived.

          Your arguments concerning the church verses science are only true to the open minded. I see claims in the religious sector which are often exaggerated to strengthen the argument against science. And I see denials of non worldly realities by science based solely on "show me the proof". Today science is recognizing the existence of the unseen, dark matter and dark energy being among them.
          The controversy between evolution and creation is still getting widespread attention. Science knows that life evolves. But there is much that we still don't know about it. Science also knows that the earth is not six thousand years old. This knowledge was first raised by geologists examining earth science, many of them being religious at the time. They questioned the literal interpretation of Genesis. Today geology has grown into a highly refined science that only strengthens the claims of a very old earth. Yet religious advocates are still trying to force creation science in the schools.

          The aggressive atheist's rebuke of spiritual matters is equally strong. They deny anything that does not conform to the scientific method as if science alone is the only criteria by which to judge experience. I have witnessed things that science alone can't answer.

          As to those who see a communion between religion and science, I see a growing trend in that direction. But hardcore fundamentalists and aggressive atheists are still very prominent in today's society. To them, the war between science and religion is very real.

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