What is Religion?

A while back (actually it was very recent when I wrote this post, I just never posted it) I noticed that there was a link to an T&S post about John Dehlin and the action to review his standing in the Church.

But on the thread John made a statement that has been seriously challenged by others. It is:

For the record, I have no terms. I have neither criticisms nor suggestions for the church or its leadership.

If John here means this in context of “when in meetings with the Stake President” then I’m certain this is a true statement. But I personally have seen John write and speak numerous criticism of the Church and make numerous suggestions. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve read or heard anything by John at all that didn’t include either criticisms or suggestions. So I gulped when I saw John write this, knowing how people would likely react to it.

But one thing that I need to stop and ask here now is “so what?”

I mean really, isn’t there a sense in which ‘criticisms’ and ‘suggestions’ of the ‘church’ is exactly what we want? Challenging the Church (and by that I mean “the members”) to throw off unrighteousness and come closer to God through more charity, etc? If that is what we mean by “criticism” or “suggestions” then what could possibly be wrong with it.

Which brings me to the point I really wanted to talk about, which actually has nothing to do with John Dehlin other than using him as a springboard. What exactly is a religion? What makes on criticism of a Church or Religion ‘okay’ and another ‘unacceptable’ or even ‘heresy?’

Part of what frustrates me about a lot of the debates over issues like this is that we tend to close our eyes to the fact that Church’s and religions are sociological in nature. For believers we don’t want to see it that way because it’s “God in charge” and so we want to minimize just how humanly sociological our Churches and religions are. So from within this point of view, it’s uncomfortable to admit that a religion is something human that can be (at least in theory) described scientifically.

For non-believers or even those that practice-but-do-not-believe, they want to see religion as a cultural heritage. From within this point of view, it really is easy to see why people that feel this way would be offended that they are being in any way excluded just because they don’t hold some (or sometimes any) of the beliefs of their religion. Religions clearly are far more than just a set of beliefs and many religions (here I think of the Jewish religion in particular) are far more about ethnicity or practices than beliefs. 

So can we really say a religion “is something”? Or would it be more accurate to say that religions are many things to many people?

And here I am wandering around in the typical abstract sort of statement people make – and let’s face it, it sounds really good but doesn’t mean much.

So I am going to propose as a hypothesis (and right now, only a hypothesis) what a religion really is.

Here is the scary part: if I am right about this hypothesis, then the fact is that most of our debates can be easily resolved, because it means we already know the answers to most of the questions — we’re just afraid to admit it.

Since this view is going to be a bit long, I’m going to split it into a full future series. For now, I’m curious what other people’s hypothesis as to what ‘religion’ is. Bear in mind — and I think this is important — that the word ‘religion’ has mulitiple meanings. But despite this, when we think of ‘religion’ there is enough coherency of our use of that word to, in general, actually mean something.

9 thoughts on “What is Religion?

  1. Bruce N, it will be interesting to say where you take this. I’ll bite. A religion is a public expression of private belief systems where you meet with like-minded people to express beliefs, share ideas and, hopefully, try to better yourself.

  2. Defining “religion” depends on how broad or narrow one wants to define it. Like the term “Christian” it can include or exclude individuals or whole groups, simply by how it is defined.

    Religion can be an organized group or family of groups, or as Geoff notes, it can be a personally defined belief system wherein some choose to unite with other like-minded individuals.

    Religion has little or nothing to do with spirituality, IMO. It is only a set of beliefs.

    Some think that Religion should be manipulated to adjust to their own set of beliefs. This is true of Pastor Jeffress wanting to control the term “Christian” so that it neither includes Mormons or Catholics, and it is true of some within the LDS Church who want to change its doctrines and stances (women holding priesthood, gays holding priesthood and/or each other, etc).

    I think a major difference in criticisms is whether it is focused on an issue that a person feels needs to be changed, or if the criticism is an attack on an individual (i.e., ad hominem). The Church has no problem with LGBT members who strive to live the gospel. But that is a different issue than those LGBT who want to live their lifestyle and be members at the same time, and criticize Pres Packer (and others) for their apostolic stance (popular or not). They think themselves brave for making such attacks. But is it brave to stand in the front of a crowd and shout at the person who stands alone on his principles?

    I’ve read some of John Dehlin’s criticisms in the past. While some are helpful to the discourse, many are not. I can understand it needing to be reviewed and counseled by his priesthood leaders. While pushing for some different ideas, one must be certain he/she does not allow passion or pride to move him/herself outside of the religion’s tent. Otherwise, the person is no longer a member of that religion, but has set up his/her own religion or set of beliefs.

  3. I do think it is important to point out that a religion necessarily is a public process of worship where you join with other like-minded people, rather than personal spiritual worship that you do on your own. You will often hear people say they reject “organized religion” but are “spiritual” people. There is clearly a distinction between these two world views, which, I am guessing, will be crucial to Bruce’s point in these posts.

  4. If you want a sociological definition of religion, wouldn’t you do better to ask sociologists? Us internet commenters have no particular expertise in sociology.

    If I wanted to construct a relatively neutral definition that would be reasonably and reasonably correspond to how people use the term, I think I’d say something like “the human accommodation to the supernatural, or to the sense of the supernatural,” although I’d want to define ‘supernatural’ to include liminal experiences like death.

  5. I think criticism is okay from an LDS perspective when you have been ordained to the priesthood and have the calling which holds stewardship over the particular criticism.

    Otherwise, it’s not okay.

    I think religion is a set of beliefs involving a higher power of some sort. I also think that in order to truly be a religion, there has to be some level of acting on those beliefs. In other words, some sort of worship.

  6. Then why do people seek to impose their personal beliefs on an established religious system, rather than create their own?

    Many personal belief systems develop into religious organized religions. That is exactly what we get with Joseph Smith, who had his First Vision in 1820, but the established religion did not come around for another decade.

    In the disagreements with Mormonism in the past, groups have broken off and created their own formalized religion. Now, instead of breaking off and forming new religions, they seek to change it from inside. So, perhaps religion, or the definition of it, is changing somewhat?

  7. Why should one not criticize?
    Because focusing on negativity and judgement harms the individual and can cause disunity.

    Why should one not force others to not criticize?
    Because it is abusive. If you try and tell me what I’m allowed to do say or think, you’ve crossed a line. You’ll feel it in the defensive (and offensive) words I’ll use in denouncing you.

    Too many church members abuse others by trying to control their expressions, and that just isn’t OK.

  8. “Too many church members abuse others by trying to control their expressions, and that just isn’t OK”

    Psychochemiker, serious question about this.

    What is the ‘line’ in your mind between ‘controling others through abuse’ and the necessary border control that must exist with any group?

    Is it abusive is, say, Greenpeace decides to not let in (or even kick out) people that are entirely at odds with what they are all about?

    On the surface this seems fairly benign, but I suspect that it could be easily turned into a cry of ‘abuse!’ especially if we perceived Greenpeace to be a religion.

  9. I agree with Bruce. What if some members of the Church insisted on speaking publicly, including in Church meetings, regarding their personal political or lifestyle ideas. Can you imagine someone standing at the pulpit and encouraging others to go ahead and try a swinger’s lifestyle, because it was something wonderfully and freeing?

    There is a time and place for discussion and argument. And groups have the right to exclude those who do not agree with them on major issues.

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