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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: It is an irrational belief system of some anthropomorphic entity or power that exists outside of natural laws and is based on no evidence. There is also usually some extraordinarily ridiculous fact or concept that must be believed without question in order to be part of the religion.

    It is usually accompanied by a magic book with apocryphal origin(s) and a hierarchical control system to keep the believers in a state of fear. Facts presented in the magic book may not be questioned or investigated in any way and any scientific progress that contradicts the magic book must be attacked as vehemently as possible.

    The central entity in the religion does not appear or talk to any ordinary believer, but does communicate through its hierarchical control structure.
    The central entity in the religion usually has a series of confusing and often contradicting rules for receiving his/her/its blessing. The receipt of the blessing always occurs after the death of the believer provided that all of the rules are followed for the entire life of the believer.

    Practice of the religion may also include telling everyone else in the world about the religion while not allowing the reverse. Occasionally, the religion takes on a xenophobic aspect and anyone not converting to it is seen as an enemy and or sub-human who must be exterminated.

    If you have a belief system that meets the above description you probably have a religion, or an undiagnosed mental condition. The separation of the two is too intricate a task to be described here.
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      Sep 26 2012: Gordon, I'm curious about this religion that you're describing. I would agree with the merits of evidence, so I'm just wondering about where your sentiments are rooted. By your definition, an observer might even construe you as religious? By this, of course I don't mean that you explicitly affiliate yourself with a named religion; but that your response definitely seems to have an ideological and moral slant to it. In other words, a religion by another name, but a religion nonetheless. An advocate of religion, in the spirit of the original question (Catholicism, Islam, etc.) might say that your account, so commonly held today, is a caricature that is based on many assumptions that is not representative of true religion.

      Thanks for the comment.
      • Sep 26 2012: My comments are about religions in general including Catholic, Islam, Mormon and even scientology.
        My sentiments are based on my recognition of religions as a great evil that do no good and are a crutch left over from our days of huddling in caves trying to figure out what the lightning is doing.
        I am militantly anti-religious, an atheist by any other name. My description covers most if not all religions in that they all have some specific thing matching a description.
        For example, the Catholics must believe that Jesus died and arose in three days, otherwise you cant be a catholic.
        The Mormons must believe that Smith found his tablets, translated them and then lost them.
        In Scientology you must believe that souls ("thetans") reincarnate and have lived on other planets before living on Earth
        These are all different central belief systems but they hold the common characteristic of being ridiculous statements that must be taken as fact without question.
        All organized religions are hierarchical power systems in which the devotee must be considered a serf. The deity always seems to have the ability to watch its charges day and night, judging you for things that you might only think of.
        Most religions demand that everyone convert to their chosen creed else we would not have the word missionary.
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          Sep 28 2012: Hi Gordon,

          This is simply inaccurate, even irrational. Of course religions - all of them - have to be viewed in their entirety, otherwise one can't possibly make any sorts of assertions about them. I find that many critics of religion have scant knowledge about the literature, but confidently make grandiose claims about them. Reading a verse in a chapter in the Bible does not make one an expert on Christianity. What if the claim is tethered/balanced by another principle in another chapter?

          We could extend your logic to the following: it makes no sense to refer to oneself as a "loving" person and then proceed to destroy people's lives. A golfer who has never touched a club. A farmer who has never seen soil. Could a Christian be Christian without believing in Christ?

          Contrary to the caricatures of secular society, Catholicism, as an example, makes very particular claims that are very pertinent to our lives. I highly recommend informing yourself of its claims, and you'll recognize that some of the assumptions held in your response are actually not based in truth.

          Many thanks,

      • Sep 28 2012: That actually a farily humorous position to take.
        Religious spokepersons are well known for making statements about topics that they are totally ignorant upon...like science...and often say hateful things about books they have not even read.
        One of the habits that I dispise is of course a religious person who quotes one verse of the bible out of context because it vaguely sounds like it supports his/her position. They are ubiquitous and often have their own TV shows.
        I agree that I would not label someone who destroys peoples lives as a loving person. I would label them a sociopath or perhaps a psychopath (depending). A golfer who does not watch golf is a TV viewer, a farmer who does not farm is probably an absentee landlord.
        Although it is currently not possible for a Christian to not believe in Christ that may change over time as it has with the Jews who no longer have to believe in God to be a Jew. That was not always the case.
        Catholicsm, as with all other religions makes claims about things it cannot know and doesn't know. If their statements seem pertinent to your life it is a coincidence.
        My criticism of organized religion (as opposed to spirituality) may seem harsh, but that is from long acquaitence to organizations that I think have done much evil that they should answer to.

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