Ten Definitions of Religion

Prosper asked: Please can i get about ten definitions of religion?


Okay, hopefully this is what you meant – as far as I’m aware, the ten definitions of religion is something that has started to appear on forums about religion, based originally (I think!) on someone pulling a definition out of a dictionary.

The definitions are as follows (I recognize that there are actually 11, but for some reason, online it seems to be referred to as the ten definitions of religion – maybe religion goes up to 11?):

/rɪˈlɪdʒən/ [ri-lij-uhn]

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
7. religions, Archaic. religious rites.
8. Archaic. strict faithfulness; devotion: a religion to one’s vow.
9. get religion, Informal.
a. to acquire a deep conviction of the validity of religious beliefs and practices.
b. to resolve to mend one’s errant ways: The company got religion and stopped making dangerous products.

Because this is a dictionary definition (or a denotation, as dictionary definitions are sometimes called), the definitions are meant to be either/or options – anything could be considered a religion if it adheres to any of these definitions.  Because denotations are meant to cover all of the possible usages of a word or term, they’re also heavily tautological – so, like with definition no. 2, the Christian religion is a religion because Christianity is a religion.  That’s functionally important – it’s worth noting that that’s one of the ways the word ‘religion’ gets used – but it’s not necessarily informative for formulating a functional definition of ‘religion’ for, say, the law.

Based on a quick googling, the ten definitions seem to get used most often in discussions of what is and isn’t a religion, which I would argue is deeply problematic, and demonstrates a misunderstanding of how denotations work.  Denotations aren’t meant to limit how words should or shouldn’t be used; they’re meant to highlight where those limits already are, based on current usage.  So, for example, you can use the word ‘game’ to refer to a sport or to a dead bird you plan to eat.  You can’t use it to refer to your shoe, or if you do, no one will understand you.  Similarly, we now use the ‘apple’ to refer to a small, sweet round fruit produced by the malus tree.  However, four hundred years ago, they used the word ‘apple’ to refer to any kind of tree-fruit.  It’s not that there are fewer kinds of malus-fruit now than then – it’s just that how the word is used has changed.

The problem with using dictionary definitions to answer a question like “is atheism a religion?” is that you’re not asking “does the word ‘religion’ fit in the sentence correctly?”, you’re asking for a value judgment as to whether we can or should expand the meaning of the term ‘religion’ to include ‘atheism’.  Based on those eleven definitions, and how the words ‘religion’ and ‘atheism’ are generally used today, my answer would be maybe.  Both definitions no. 3 and 6 would seem to point towards atheism being a religion.  But that doesn’t really answer the intent of the question, whether in its treatment in modern society or under the law, atheism should be treated the same way as organizations which we have marked out as ‘religions’.

Generally, legal definitions start with the denotation, and then pare it down to fit specific cases, and that’s exactly what’s happened with the legal definition of ‘religion’.  It does not include a way of life or avid interest in a subject – you can’t get a reduction in your taxes because you *really* care about the Presidential election or the Yankees, even though those are both cases where, in common speech, we might talk about someone ‘being religious’ about something.  At the moment, atheism and agnosticism fall somewhere between those limits – being an atheist certainly has something to do with your larger world view and belief in the creation and creator of the universe (namely, that you don’t believe in one or chose to recognize one).  However, neither group yet has the kind of communal infrastructure seen with religions (although, as a scholar, I would argue the rise of atheist apologetics, like the works of Richard Dawkins, may suggest that such infrastructure is beginning to take form).

I suppose the problem is actually the definition of the word ‘definition’ – the definitions of words change naturally over time, but it’s less clear if you can change what a thing is (particularly an abstract concept like ‘religion’) simply by changing the definition on the page.


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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4 Responses to Ten Definitions of Religion

  1. Uzza says:

    To get ten definitions, all you have to do is ask ten people, because words don’t mean things.

    Your friendly local grammar nazi says ‘pare, not pair’.

    • Well spotted – corrected now!

      (And now I’m pondering whether correcting homonyms should qualify as grammar nazism – I know correcting ‘their’ and ‘there’ does, but those are distinct parts of speech, whereas noun homonyms are grammatically the same, in terms of how they work in the sentence. Is spelling nazism a thing?)

  2. Jamie says:

    Hello, I actually enjoyed viewing the information on your site. Appreciate it

  3. Very interesting details you have noted, appreciate it for posting.

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