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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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  • Oct 8 2012: I can sense your disapointment in my argument. I don't say science does not work. For a light bulb to light up, it makes no sense praying. My only contention is religion to me is same sense of wonder and curiosity that led Edison to invent the light bulb. What we normally term as religion is an organized effort to spread a system of thought. Would request you to read a book called Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. The 2nd chapter argues that the established knowledge gained in religions goes through the same kind of rigor and scrutiny as the knowledge gained from scientific methods. The expression and the techniques are different but the principles of the scrutiny are the same.
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      Oct 9 2012: I actually have browsed that book. Interesting, but I found a lot of it new agey nonsense.

      Believers in the subjective, traditional religious or new age seem to like to borrow the prestige of science, or claim they are equal. Science has actually helped us better understand reality in a consistent repeatable way as demonstrated in technology.

      The so called spiritual path leads to a different conflicting subjective belief for every person. That are probably all wrong, except for one at best.

      You said for your there is no difference between religion and science and any field of study.

      But you do acknowledge science works.

      Then you refined your contention to a similar sense of wonder from science and religion. Fair enough.

      I guess religion is a human endeavour, and so is science. But the approaches are completely different in most cases. Certainly the outcomes are.

      Science is our best approximation of understanding reality we have. In some fields our understanding has been tested over and over, demonstrated, backed with evidence, accurate predictions etc. One ever improving approximation of the truth. We use science to build and create, to understand reliably.

      One "truth" approximation in science. Multiple often untestable conflicting subjective beliefs from the spiritual path.

      I must be missing something if as you say the principles of scrutiny are the same?

      Religious and spiritual beliefs are typically based on a spirit realm and spirit beings that we have no evidence actually exist. Completely different to science. Because they are intuitive and subjective people can make up whatever they like. And they do. And they can not all be true. And much can not be demonstrated or tested.

      The key similarities seem trivial to me. That is they are human activities, and make claims about reality.

      .What am I missing?
      • Oct 9 2012: Let's just take religion and the conclusions it draws of the ultimate reality. Here I would be citing 2 instances from 2 vastly different faiths across 2 time periods and also across 2 geographies. The reason I am chose these 2 examples is because I wanted to be sure that there is no influence of one on the other and hence we can safely say that the conclusions drawn were independent and achieved by following indigenous methods.

        The 1st example is from a book called Sufism by William Chittick (page 17) where the poet/saint Rumi is describing the condition of Hallaj (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansur_Al-Hallaj) when his love for God reaches the ultimate limit. Rumi says " When Hallaj's love for God reached it's utmost limit he became his own enemy and he naughted himself. He said "I am Real" that is "I have been annihilated, the Real remains and nothing else" Strangely this is the same condition which is described in a Hindu scripture called Chandogya Upanishad which was composed in mid of the 1st millenium BCE in India. In a conversation between a Udakka and his son Svetketu, the father talking about the ultimate reality says "Tat Tvam Asi" which translated to English means "Thou art that". So the self is being completely identified with the Ultimate Reality and there is no distinction between the two in the ultimate state.

        The question naturally arises as how can different faiths across different time periods and geographies talk about god in the same language. The expressions here are eeringly similar and makes us wonder at the commonality of the experience. Now there are other examples as well of the same experience. In Buddhism the concept of contingent existence states that nothing arises on it's own. The pre-existence of a lot of factors makes way for something to exist, which in turn would mean that the ultimate reality is experience of my own existence as contingent to everything around me. So my own self gets dissolved in everything else.
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          Oct 10 2012: It is easy to explain similarities using science and reason.

          And the differences.

          So you found some similarities. It's a bit like saying there are similarities and differences in languages.

          Although languages are not making conflicting claims about reality in the way religions do.

          Buddhism also states we reincarnate and does not need gods. Islam has a god, and no reincarnation.

          The similarities you can pick out don't answer all the differences.

          So which beliefs are true and correct. Reincarnation or paradise/hell? Any proof.

          Is your proof simply that there are similarities.

          That is not proof.
      • Oct 17 2012: "Science has actually helped us better understand reality in a consistent repeatable way as demonstrated in technology." - please be careful with such a bold statement. I hope you realize you're using "better," subjective, with the all-inclusive "we."

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