What is religion anyway?

Several years ago I was invited to write an article on religion, infertility and assisted reproductive technology. It’s a field that I’ve been involved in for many years. Just today, in fact I gave a lecture in the Flinders University School of Biological Sciences on the subject.

Writing that article required me to do some thinking on the question, What is religion anyway?  I’m still thinking about that question and, yesterday, when a friend mentioned that it had been the subject of some pretty intense debate among some young adults he knows, I thought it might be useful to share the short section of that article that dealt with the question. Just a contribution to the conversation, mind you. As I said, I’m still thinking about it.

If you want all the references, or to see how it related to infertility and ART, the publishing details are here…

looking-out-on-the-dome-jerusalem-israel-places-1-screensaver“Religion” is famously difficult to define.  In 2006 a 19 year old university student won the Miss Australia title and the opportunity to compete in the Miss World pageant.  Sabrina Houssami identifies as Muslim.  Her father is a Lebanese Muslim and her mother is an Indian Hindu.  How many preconceptions are contradicted in this little news item?  Beauty queens are dumb.  Hindus and Muslims are bitter enemies.  Muslim women are controlled and closeted by the men in their families, and are certainly not to display themselves in beauty pageants.  But, as Miss Houssami said of herself:  “I think the advantage for me in this country is I have adopted some western values and being Muslim means I have eastern values too.  As long as I believe the right thing and treat others well…it shouldn’t matter what religion I am.”  So here is one more preconception to be questioned: that religion is primarily about beliefs or doctrines.  Miss Houssami seems very clear about her identity as a Muslim without worrying too much about the doctrinal details.  And there is nothing unusual or irreligious about this.

Western Christianity has an obsession with intellectual conformity that is not shared by other religions.  Judaism, for example, has a rich intellectual heritage and yet, as a “religion”, it is much more about belonging and practice than it is about belief.  Taken as a whole, religion does not even require belief in God or gods; unless we are prepared to exclude great non-theistic religions like Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism from the definition.  Even in the case of Christianity doctrine changes over time, is commonly regarded as subordinate to the command to love (Matthew 22:34-40), and will generally be weighed according to its utility by believers trying to make good decisions about the health and wellbeing of those they are responsible for and care about.

This is the point.  Intellectual assent to distinctive beliefs is less likely to be a factor in a person’s religious identity than “strong loyalties to those beliefs and to the system protected by them” (Mol, 1986).  That is, religion is fundamentally non-reflective; in spite of the contrary impression created by the prominence of doctrine and casuistry in public religion; especially Christian religion.  Religion operates at the level of feelings and commitment, and has to do with what is now loosely called “spirituality”.  In order to anticipate and accommodate the sheer strength of personal investment involved in religion it is necessary to learn to recognize it when you see it; whether it be in a social, political or clinical context.

A religion is not reducible to its central sacred insight but involves a constellation of “sacred things” (Durkheim, 1976).  A religion is a complex whole formed not merely by its doctrines but by these together with its myths, authority structures, buildings, rituals, and organizational and relational patterns.  It is, in other words, a “cultural system” that is inherited from the preceding generation and transmitted to the next generation (Geertz, 1966).  A religion is like a language that one must have begun to learn before being able to grasp what is being said in it.  It is a “cultural-linguistic system” that for speakers is the “medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought” (Lindbeck, 1984).  A religion is not essentially an institution to which its participants relate and try to conform.  Rather it is best seen as something that people do themselves; as families, communities and as individuals within them. 

To paraphrase Gustafson, religion is the way people negotiate their prosperity in relation to the powers that bear down upon and sustain them (Gustafson, 1985). 

These powers may be personal or impersonal, supernatural or part of the natural order.  They are the source of health, sustenance, shelter, companionship, meaning and hope.  Telling and re-telling the key stories, maintaining shared patterns of social and domestic behavior, setting individuals apart to represent the group’s best aspirations to itself, constructing sacred places, objects and rituals that will sustain an orientation towards the good and the true, practicing a commonly recognized suite of moral and spiritual disciplines: religion is the way a community (and the families and individuals within it) sets about to prosper through being itself.

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