How to Choose a Religion II: Definition of Religion

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of choosing a religion, we have to do some groundwork. Three issues deserve some thought:

1. What is a religion?
2. Why would you want to have one?
3. Pitfalls to avoid before you start looking.

What Is a Religion?

Official Definition

According to the Oxford English dictionary, a religion is:

1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

2 a particular system of faith and worship.

3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

Set aside definition 3; that’s just intended to allow uses like “he follows NASCAR religiously”.

plightofbeeLet’s look at 2 first, a “system of faith and worship”. “Faith” can be taken to mean “belief without evidence”; but most highly religious people I know do not believe without evidence. Instead, they have plenty of evidence for their beliefs — much of it highly personal and idiosyncratic, i.e., not scientifically testable. But it’s evidence for them. So maybe we should adjust this to say “a system of worship and non-scientifically testable beliefs”.

Now go back to definition 1, specifically the word “superhuman”. This word, along with its friends “paranormal” and “supernatural”, are slippery things, because they refer to things that are unexplained by science. But as science changes and grows, more and more “superhuman” and “supernatural” things become human and natural. Mental illness, for example, was once thought to be caused by gods and demons; lightning was thought to be the province of the thunder god; and even as I write, many people still believe evolution to be supernatural.

In both definitions, then, religion is to be found outside the bounds of science; but, since the boundary of science is always changing, perhaps there should be no boundary at all.

There are other problems with the definitions. One makes reference to deities, but there are religions (Theraveda and Zen Buddhism, some kinds of Taoism, certain shamanistic beliefs) that don’t mention gods at all. “Worship” is mentioned, but unless meditation counts as “worship”, this isn’t necessary either. “Controlling power” is mentioned; controlling what? The universe, or just people? Presumably the universe. And I don’t know what the word “particular” is doing in the second definition. What would it mean for a system of belief to be “non-particular”?

We’re left with something like “a system of beliefs concerning the powers that control the universe”. That works for me.

Science as a Religion

Notice now that scientific theories also fit under this definition. Instead of deities, you have forces and particles and probabilities and so forth. These are the powers that control (or “determine the properties of”, if you prefer) the universe.

But let’s be careful: there’s a difference between the scientific method and a scientific theory.

A scientific theory can easily be equated with a religion. If you believe it, then you believe something about the controlling powers of the universe. If you accept the Law of Gravity, then that’s like a little god for you — a god that helpfully bangs masses together all over the place. You confidently expect your god to give you a hand as you try to remain on the Earth’s surface each day. Luckily, this god requires no worship or sacrifices; but then, she can be quite merciless if your airplane engine gives out.

But the scientific method is different: it encourages doubt. The whole point of religion, of course, is that you’re supposed to believe it; but in science, the best you can ever really get is “such and such has been repeatedly observed in many experiments.” (Notice the hidden reliance on a social system? Science doesn’t exist without multiple observers. Does anything strike you as strange about that?) Everything else is theory, and subject to falsification. Even theories that seem pretty well established, like the law of gravity, can be falsified tomorrow if experiments show its predictions to be false.

So someone who believes strongly in science and the scientific method really has to be agnostic. After all, experiments might show anything. Tomorrow, an observatory in Chilé might peek into a heretofore undocumented portion of the night sky and notice a winged, robed figure forming stars out of nebulae with her bare hands. You never know.

So much for defining religion. By my definition, you are religious whether you’re Christian, Wiccan, Taoist, shamanist, or an atheistic scientist. The only kind of person who’s not religious is the agnostic; and if you’re agnostic, I highly recommend you read the next post, because I’m going to explain to you why you should get off the fence and take a stand.

Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro


  1. […] How to Choose a Religion II – Definition of Religion […]

Speak Your Mind