What is religion? I found myself thinking about this question today. It’s a big one, unless you already decided long ago what religion is and therefore you don’t have to spare it another thought. I’m not exactly sure yet how to organize my thoughts on the subject, so I’ll share some ideas that may or may not flow one to the next, but I hope together they form something like a coherent whole. After all, that’s the root meaning of “religio,” re+ligere, to re-bind or re-attach. The Latin ligere is the same root word as in ligament. In this primal sense, religion is a shared life orientation or practice which binds together the way we see existence.
I don’t have the reference in front of me, but I learned that the adjective “religious” preceded the noun “religion.” The religious were those people who had taken a vow to practice a way of life. They were the cloistered, the mendicants, the desert fathers and mothers, the monks and nuns and covenanted mystics, as opposed to the “laity” who had other primary vocations such as archers and harpers and smiths and actors and weavers. So, before there was “religion,” there were the “religious,” those whose primary vocation was to practice a particular form of living.
Arguably, there is no such thing as “religion” in the Bible, at least not in the modern sense. There was such thing as life and culture and worship practices and roles and myths and stories and wars and poetry. If there was religion, it was the way a person or group would express their relationship to their culture and the diversity of other cultures surrounding it. In other words, religious practice was a verb; it was something you did. It was not a noun, something you had or belonged to.
The Bible itself doesn’t present just one religious expression, but a variety of them, sometimes agreeing but often in conflict. The ordered 7-day story of creation in Genesis was a polemic against the Babylonian story of creation. Both started with chaos, but in the Babylonian version chaos was overcome by an act of cosmic violence. In the Genesis version, chaos was overcome by nonviolent speech that resulted in a word of blessing. In the Bible, people didn’t ascribe so much to a religion as to a people or a culture.
What is religion today? For some, it is their chosen spiritual path. For others, it’s the tradition they have been born and nurtured into. Some think it is a pathology, a scourge, and an unwillingness to accept the creeds of modern post-englightenment culture. For others, there is only one true religion and it is the one they happen to belong to.
For my part, I am prone to think that to all humans are religious in the sense that all humans have religious questions. Where do we come from and where are we going? What is the meaning of life? What value shall we humans place on our own existence and the existence of the Earth and our co-creatures? What does it mean to live an ethical life? Does anything matter outside of my own personal needs? How do I interpret the full range of human experiences from my basic observations through my deepest intuitions? There are many more.
Someone reading this might be thinking, “Yes, I have those questions, but why do we need to call them ‘religious’? Why can’t we just call them “Questions about life’?” You certainly could, but I want to highlight that the tendency to divide people into religious and not religious is usually done from the religious or anti-religious side as a way of ascribing greater value to one’s own side and lesser value to the other’s. From the religious side, this sounds like, “Non religious people can’t be ethical because they have no greater power to provide them with a basis for their ethics.” From the anti-religious side, it sounds like, “Religious people insist on believing things that can’t be proved or logically justified.”
I think a more honest and wholistic approach would be to recognize that all humans have “greater powers.” In fact, most of us are beholden to several of them despite our professions of a particular faith. It’s a confirmable fact that people with no professed religion are ethical, often more observably ethical than people who claim the name “religious.” A question for all humans is, “What is the deeper basis of your ethical action, whether you have acknowledged it or not?”
It’s true that religious people believe things that can’t be proven or repeated or logically explained, but that is the case with all humans, even those who insist most vehemently that only logic and reason and science should guide our thinking. Perhaps they are right, but the reality is that lots of things guide our thinking, not all of which can be observed, proven, or reasoned. I have a friend who is an avowed devotee of logic yet he is the first person to cry at a wedding. It just overcomes him. True, a neuroscientist could explain the origins of emotional triggers, but the explanation would not do justice to the fullness of his experience, would not exhause all “reasonable” explanation for why this moment impacted this person in this way.
This far into my post, I’m realizing why people write entire books on this subject. There’s a lot to ponder. I’ll close with this. I recently finished “The Religious Case Against Belief” by James P. Carse. I bought it over ten years ago and finally picked it up again this past fall. Carse concludes that religion can’t be defined because it is too large a phenomenon to define. Consider that a religion doesn’t just create culture; it spans cultures. Christianity is, arguably, the most diverse multi-cultural phenomenon in the history of the world. Religions have an incredible ability to splinter and merge, to spawn innumerable interpretations and expressions. Buddhism has countless variations growing like fractals from three main branches. Religion creates and influences culture, include art and music and drama and literature and even science. Islamic scholars invented algebra.
I know I’m just scratching the surface of the conversation here, but I think it’s a conversation worth having and it’s worth deepening the conversation beyond the slogans slung back and forth. My own contribution is to suggest that all people are religious in the sense that to be human is to have questions about the depth of reality and the meaning of life on the planet we share. Instead of deciding who is religious and who is not, placing everyone in one or the other camp, and then dismissing them based on our category placement, let’s engage seriously with other people and with the variety of religious commitments we hold, traditional and otherwise.