This was my nightmare essay question I dreaded getting on my Master’s examinations. Literally–nightmares. Thankfully it didn’t come up and I survived talking about the importance of Sacred Space in the Hindu diaspora in Great Britain, but that is for another day. Still, the question “What is religion?” came up again and again throughout my course, and it was one that we–the precocious, and (let’s face it) naive, young scholars that we were–thought we all had the perfect answer to.
What do we mean when we talk about “religion”? If you give yourself a minute to think about that, chances are that so many things come to mind that the concept becomes much much bigger than the word itself, and encompasses more than any simple word can express.
From a Western perspective, the first thing that we often think of when we hear “religion” is Christianity. Generally we think of a specific example or manifestation of this thing that we call “religion.” Therefore, we often think of “organized” religion (Sidebar: I have a few problems with “organized religion.” What are we contrasting it with–“disorganized religion?” As far as I can tell, for religion to be religion it has to have some sort of structure or “organization,” although this does not necessarily have to be explicit. It doesn’t need to be a completely compartmentalized part of human existence to be considered religion, but there needs to be some essence of something special or distinct about it, and that often requires some sort of structure). Therefore, what we really have here is an answer to is “What is a religion?”
It is much more difficult to come up with an answer to “What is religion?” Basically, the question is trying to get at the core of the concept. Whether we can or should even try to get to the center of it all–namely a universalized definition of the concept religion–makes this even more difficult, and nearly impossible.
In the social sciences, there are many, MANY definitions of religion. It has been equated with society, reduced to belief in deities, and expanded to encompass many if not most aspects of another amorphous concept, “culture.” Why is it so difficult to define?! Scholars have been attempting for centuries to no avail. There is an exception to every single definition out there, or at least something missing. These definition are either too minimal in that they reduce religion to something so vague that it can barely describe any specific manifestations when applied back to what it is supposedly defining, or so specific that only one or two religious traditions can comfortably be described by them.
All of this can leave you dizzy, so what’s the point? Instead of answering the proposed question of “What is religion?”–because we can chase our tails with this one all day–let’s take a step back, and think, why is this so difficult to define?
An answer? It is so difficult to define “religion”–or to say exactly what religion is–because it is everywhere. Therefore, many would say that it is fundamental to the human person. Now, I know that many others today would disagree with me, but I urge them to think about it. You will find manifestations of religion in every single culture around the world and throughout history. We are predisposed to have religion.
Although there is a very strong argument claiming that even the concept of “religion” is a Western conception based specifically in Christianity and thus applied (first by “Orientalists” and other conquerers, explorers, and later, ethnographers) to other cultures in order to make sense of them, it is foolish to say that “religion does not exist.” Just because we cannot define something concretely does not mean that it does not exist. Other than “God,” what’s more difficult to define than cultural concepts? Right, nothing! So, we can reject this idea based on the fact that the alternative–denying the very existence of religion–is foolish, and turning a blind eye to a fundamental human phenomena.
Since–I hope we can agree–religion is everywhere, even in the most distinct cultures, we can argue that this proves its fundamental necessity for the human person (also, since it hasn’t “died out” like many scholars have proposed over the last 200 years). Religion fulfills the need of the human person for something more. It fulfills so many needs throughout time and space that we could never really list them all (i.e. collective identity, meaning of life, to name a few)! There are even many scholars who say that there are parts of the human brain that are predisposed to actually experiencing the divine–something outside of our realm of understanding and reality. Woah. Talk about fundamental.
“Religion” is so big, and yet so culturally and individually specific, that it is nearly impossible to pin down. This oscillation between the universal and the particular–or even the collective and the individual–makes the concept of religion so amorphous and vague.
What, then, about people who say that they don’t have any religion? I would say that the need is still there. Have you heard about the new “Atheist Church” that started in London a few years ago? I believe that this is the perfect example of the need for ritual, and for something more than ourselves in one’s life. With the slow disintegration of religion in parts of the world–or even on the small scale within families or communities–the concept and practice of “ritual” dies away too. Although it is often then sought in other places–not all of them useful and productive–the need for ritual and finding meaning outside of oneself is still there, and often being satisfied by something other than religion, its initial source.
So, then what is religion? I’m not sure we’ll ever have a definition on which we all can agree, and really, that’s ok. We’ll come back to this from time to time, looking at different aspects of this multifaceted quest. Really, all that matters is that we are asking the question and understand its value, and maybe, in our travels, we’ll stumble across part of the answer.