Definitions of religion

Bruce over at Fallen from Grace posted a response to David Lose’s article for the Huffington Post arguing for atheism as a religion, and now I feel compelled to chime in with my two cents as a religious historian.

I agree with Bruce on several of his points, but I think there’s a serious problem in discussing the question of ‘is atheism a religion’, that there are three distinct but inter-related ways of looking at ‘what is a religion’.  One is personal, one is academic and one is legal.  Bruce’s response is primarily from the personal perspective, which is really the first and most important one.  I wholeheartedly believe that people should be allowed to identify themselves.

The problem arises from the academic perspective on religion, that is a damn hard to come up with an academic definition for ‘a religion’ that includes all of the things we want to include that doesn’t also include atheism.  Any definition that includes Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, central Asian shamanic cults and Hellenic polytheist reconstructionists will probably be so broad that atheism will be included, as well.  Atheism has a set construction of divinity and of mankind’s relationship to that divinty.  It has organizations and communities that gather together because of their shared beliefs.  There are atheists books, atheist publications and, I would argue, with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, atheist missionaries.

If this were merely an academic issue, then on some level it wouldn’t matter.  In the academic study of religions, we routinely set functional definitions that we recognize might not be acceptable to members of the religion, but which are nevertheless useful for academic consideration.  In particular, in studying the history of religions, scholars are often the most concerned with trying to demarcate the borders between religions – what distinguishes first-century Christianity and Mandeanism?  First-century Christianity and Judaism?  What are ‘the Abrahamic religions’ and how does this concept change over time?  These questions have very clear answers for members of the various religious traditions, but for scholars, there is interesting historical information to be mined from the overlaps and disparities between these traditions.

The whole issue becomes far more complicated when we include the issue of a legal definition of religion.  If it were merely an issue of the personal conviction versus the academic definition, we could all happily go our separate ways.  However, for various reasons, not least among which is the US Constitution, there are times in which the government needs a definition of ‘a religion’.  And again, we’re faced with the same problem that any definition broad enough to include everything we want to include would probably include atheism, as well.  Unless, of course, we specify that atheism is not a religion.

But honestly, I think that would cause as many problems as it would fix.  I know it’s become fashionable in the US to argue that religion is constantly being forced on people, and I grew up in the right part of the US to know how that feels.  But there’s a similar problem being faced by religious communities in the US, who feel that atheist organizations aren’t playing by the same rules, that they’re being allowed to missionize to people about their conception of God in circumstances in which a religious group would never be allowed to do so.  I don’t think that intentionally excluding atheism from any set definition of religion would be a benefit to anyone, except possibly atheist missionaries.

Really, sometimes I think that, as much as I love my subject, we do make everything more complicated.  Perhaps if there weren’t people like me running around trying to define what a religion is, and isn’t, everyone could just identify themselves.  So, I guess, sorry? . . .  Our bad.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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5 Responses to Definitions of religion

  1. Brian Westley says:

    I think it’s better to consider atheism to be: not holding the creed “god(s) exist.”

    In my opinion, it makes comparisons more logical, because you are comparing at the level of creeds instead of religions, which tend to have sets of creeds.

    For example, atheists can also be members of religions that don’t have “god exists/gods exist” as a creedal requirement. They can be UUs, Jews, or Buddhists, because you don’t have to believe a god exists to be accepted as a member of these religions. There are even a few religions that require atheism, such as the Raelians, or F.A.C.T.

    Consider someone who eats pork; this would be a violation of some religious creeds, but not all religions have creeds against eating pork (or meat). It wouldn’t make much sense to routinely divide people into “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, 7th Day Adventists, and pork-eaters” because pork-eaters can still belong to a wide range of various religions. The same is true (to a much lesser degree) of atheists.

    In some cases, it might be useful to divide people into pork-eaters and non-pork-eaters, just as it might be useful to divide people into atheists/theists, or atheists/monotheists/polytheists. At least there you’re using the same metric to sort people into groups.

    This also helps legal situations. If you can’t legally promote the idea that god exists in situation X, you can’t legally promote the opposing creed that god does not exist in situation X, either. Either both are legal or both are illegal. This would also avoid problems with creeds that are not religions in themselves, such as trinitarianism. Trinitarianism isn’t a religion, it’s a creed of some religions. But saying it isn’t a religion doesn’t make, say, promoting trinitarianism in public schools suddenly legal (or the inverse, stating that trinitarianism is false in public schools). Just like atheism, trinitarianism or opposition to trinitarianism is arguing over creeds, so it would have the same legal standing in situation X. Finally, this also shows why removing an illegal sign such as the ten commandments from a public school is not promoting atheism, since a blank wall does not promote any sort of creedal stance.

  2. Uzza says:

    I’ve been involved in the martial arts, and they have all the marks of a religion. (Falun Gong comes to mind–what’s it?) I’ve even heard of people “excommunicating” their students.

    creed, ideology, philosophy, style, or Japanese ryu, it’s just splitting hairs. Whatever it is, it’s a product, and there is a fine line between endorsing it and promoting it. The IDF teaches Krav Maga to their soldiers, so that’s an endorsement, but it doesn’t seem like govt promoting it.

    In the legal dept, we need to define every term we use, and stick to it, no matter if it isn’t the same as in common usage. Atheism should be a ‘religion’ for legal purposes, let the academics argue the fine points.

    • Wow – I knew martial arts had elements of Asian religion, but I didn’t know you could get excommunicated! Can you get kicked out for wrong belief, or just for failing to keep up at it?

  3. Uzza says:

    Well in this case the guy started a new school without his teacher’s ok, so the teacher refused to recognize his rank or him as a student. Him using the term ‘excommunicate’ was unusual, but otherwise it was just a typical schism. These thing fit Brian’s religions-without-a-god-creeds.

  4. Pingback: Muslim for a Month | askanislamicist

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