Thursday, June 03, 2010

A definition of religion

A redated post.

“Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality which inspires worship or total devotion.”

From Peterson, Basinger, Reichenbach, and Hasker, Reason and Religious Belief 4th ed. Oxford University Press, (2008).

Based on this definition, is secular humanism a religion?


Eric Koski said...

Surely this can't be an adequate definition. The capitalized letters in "Ultimate Reality" are a dead giveaway that something isn't being made explicit here.

I'm tempted to say that those who consider Secular Humanism a religion need to learn to read. What does "secular" mean?

I suppose, to insist that Secular Humanism is a religion is a thinly veiled way of saying that there is no such thing as Secular Humanism. Reformed Apologetics deals in this sort of nonsense.

Victor Reppert said...

1 sec·u·lar

Middle English, from Anglo-French seculer, from Late Latin saecularis, from saeculum the present world, from Latin, generation, age, century, world; akin to Welsh hoedl lifetime
14th century

1 a: of or relating to the worldly or temporal, secular concerns b: not overtly or specifically religious secular music c: not ecclesiastical or clerical, secular courts, secular landowners

The real issue has to be what aspects of the religious life get carried over and/or replaced when one goes to a humanistic world-view.

Victor Reppert said...

I am wondering, too, if this definition of religion passes the Buddhism test. There are two tests that I use to determine if a definition of religion is adequate. It has to include Buddhism. And it has to exclude the Dallas Cowboys.

Victor Reppert said...

I take it that Ultimate Reality for the secularist is the physical world, or the Cosmos, that is all that was or is or ever will be. But does the cosmos, naturalistically understood, inspire or require a response of total devotion? Don't think so.

Eric Koski said...

"not overtly or specifically religious" is close to the mark. Those who call themselves "secular humanists" ought to be given the benefit of the doubt here, and I think it's clear that their intended meaning is simply "not religious".

The 1980 Secular Humanist Declaration devotes a section to "Religious Skepticism". There's some (needless) fuzziness to what is stated here, but it's clearly intended that a secular humanist need not be religious in any way, shape, or form.

"Ultimate Reality" is simply a source of confusion. I think it's clear that secular humanists can be metaphysical realists or anti-realists, if that's what's at issue. "worship" doesn't sound like something secular humanists tend to do; nor do they necessarily exhibit total devotion to anything. (Nor do most Christians, in practice.) Secular humanists can honor, respect, love, cherish, or experience with awe or wonder. None of these amounts to worship or total devotion.

"... what aspects of the religious life get carried over and/or replaced when one goes to a humanistic world-view." Be careful here. The mere fact that the world-views may have elements in common certainly doesn't make one an instance of the other.

I had the same twinge about Buddhism (Theravada or Zen, at any rate). Some of my comments above may apply here as well.

Eric Koski said...

I suspect that religion is in reality a cluster concept anyway, which will frustrate efforts to define it. Hastily labeling something a religion -- and then drawing far-reaching implications from that labeling -- seems like a bad idea. Which won't stop some people.

Victor Reppert said...

Maybe we have to respond like that judge talking about porn, "I know it when I see it."

Eric Koski said...

Well, you can analyze the concept (as philosophers have been known to do), but you may not get to syllogize with it (which will disappoint some people).

RichardBarnes said...

What is key in the question is how one defines "religion". I understand that many believe there to be a necessary "higher power" element to whole thing and many dictionaries cater to that crowd deliberately. Nevertheless, as a language professional myself, I happen to believe language to be a tool belonging to all who use it but without a central linguistic authority. In other words, the purpose of language is to communicate meaning. It matters little but to personal preference which words one uses, how one spells them, how one arranges them, etc. as long as it's certain your meaning has been communicated to those you wish to receive your meaning. There are many who wish to establish clear cut laws or rules in the use of language, however, they overstep their place in that the language YOU use belongs to you, however, you cannot own the language used by others nor can you dictate any language but your own in your individual need to relate meaning.

As to the word "religion", when I use it, I intend it to represent the idea of putting one's experiences, beliefs, values and goals into practice with some degree of authenticity, i.e., in a way that might be considered reverent or passionate or devoted. I do not intend any reference to an "ultimate reality" or "higher power" because I believe these concepts to be unnecessary to the issue of religion. Having said that, it then is entirely possible that one who does not have superstitious belief in "higher powers", in "deities" or "spirits" or the like, can be religious in that they put into regular practice the sum total of their experiences, beliefs, values and goals. This has the meaning that every single human being has a religion-of-one designed piece by piece, moment to moment which best suits precisely who and what they are. Our individual religions will certainly have some commonalities with that of others and we may believe we have the "same" religion but, upon close examination, there are always differences unique to ourselves. Any group of two or more people will certainly have common experiences, common beliefs, common values, common goals, but no two will have the SAME and cannot. For a set of practices to be a legitimate "religion" they must necessarily emerge from the uniqueness of the individual or, in the very least, seem so appropriate to the individual as to have been their unique invention. One need only look at the linguistic roots of the word "religion" to know that one can only genuinely "connect" or "reconnect" with whatever one seems to have an intimate and relatively effortless relationship. A dictated or compelled "religion" is nothing of the sort. Like two fluids flowing into one another and becoming one fluid, so too must one's connection or reconnection - religion - emerge organically by the merging of self and nature or, perhaps more accurately, the re-merging of self and the same.

There are those among us who wish to limit the meaning of "religion" for all to serve their own agenda of advancing belief in "higher powers". They certainly have the right to define the words they themselves use, however, can have no right to define words for others. As I have said, I define "religion" in my own fashion and believe it perfectly legitimate to do so as long as I make clear to others my meaning when using the word. My meaning is in no way a directive to others to use it precisely the same way and I think it despicable for one or more human beings to insist on the right to do so.

The principles of secular humanism CAN be practiced religiously and, I believe, if one practices those principles at all in one's daily life, one has turn secular humanism into a personal religion to some extent. Again, if two or more individuals turn the principles of secular humanism into daily practice, i.e., if each creates their own secular humanist religion, although they have common beliefs, values and goals, perhaps even common practices, they have not necessarily created a "religion of secular humanism". That individuals share commonalities in their experiences, beliefs, values, goals and practices does not necessarily mean they have created an official or organized religion - even they claim to have done so.

Again, in my own view, "religion" need not contain superstitious beliefs in "higher powers". A secular humanist can be and I think necessarily is religious. Of course, they are not religious in the same ways a jew, christian, muslim, hindu or buddhist is religious and need not be. Certainly, the implications of secular humanists acting religiously with regard to their principles for others who are not secular humanists are not the same as the implications of the religious behaviors of others for secular humanists.

The secular humanist does not insist their slogans onto publicly owned properties or monies, they do not insist on religious oaths, they do not wish to dictate with whom one can have sexual relations or marry, they do not wish to dictate what one can or cannot watch on television or in movies, or read in books, magazines, newspapers, they do not attempt to dictate what cures you are allowed to use and one's you cannot, they do not wish to ban you from alcohol or gambling or dancing.

If any anything, a secular humanist insists you will not dictate your small-minded restrictions to them or to others against their will. If you wish to live in a self-imposed life of bondage and if others volunteer to live similarly, that is certainly your choice. You simply will not impose that bondage on others.

You are not and will not be given choice in that particular principle common to secular humanists.

Matteo said...

I've always regarded the general category of religion to be that which answers the question: What, ultimately, is the Big Picture?

The attendant sub questions would be:

Where did we come from?

What is our purpose?

How may we achieve this purpose?

These all entail:

Is there a God?

If so, what is His nature?

If so, Has He told us anything?

If so, what do we owe Him?

If not, what is the nature of reality? Is mind primary, or is matter?


In that sense, atheism or secular humanism are as much a religion as any of the others.

In the sense of liturgy, corporate worship, prayer, and other such things, they are not.

Atheists and secular humanists love to equivocate on this whole issue, because in the second sense they are not religious and can claim to be free of religious bias. However, in the first sense they are no less religious than anyone else. Often, they are not aware of this, and are thereby the blindest of anyone to their own biases.

There is a saying: "There are no non-religious people, only false Gods."

TD Hinkle said...

Even as a Christian, I wouldn't have any problem with just giving up on the word 'religion'. If you do that, your left simply with two systems of thought making competing truth claims.
So much of what characterizes the debate between Naturalist Secular Humanists and Theists is the false dichotomy of faith vs reason and science vs religion. The consequence is that so many atheists view Naturalism to be a neutral position, rather than just another worldview.

Anonymous said...

I understand excluding the Dallas Cowboys, but the Arizona Cardinals? -- Bilbo

Victor Reppert said...

With or without St. Kurt?

Gordon Knight said...

Probably the difference between a religious world view and a non-religious one is the extent to which the worldview is considered practically important.

This has the odd consequence that someone who believes there is a God but does not think this God is important to life (or afterlife) is not religious. So you can have non-religious theists.

Of course someone can have an ethical view that is practically important without any beliefs at all about ultimate reality, natural or supernatural. Unitarians are sometimes of this stripe. Is Unitarian Universalism a religion? Or I should say, are the non-theistic,non-pagan etc UUers religious, since you can have almost any view and be a member of the church

Michael Boswell said...

On this definition of Religion, the answer is no, it excludes secular humanism. My reasoningis simple. There might be corporte identity.

Christianity has the church - its corporate identity. However, it has a number of para-church orgainisations. All secular humanism have is a some secular humanism.

Anonymous said...

Victor, you might enjoy Mark Webb's recently published article "An Eliminativist Theory of Religion." (I *think* that was the title. It's in Sophia.)

Timothy Linehan