Science and Religion: What is Religion?

From my last post one can see how difficult it can be to tightly define a concept. Lot’s of people like to live in a sort of blurry framework where words they use are made to apply to whatever situation they want. This allows people to relabel what they are actually doing, saying, or believing into a viewpoint they can control (or not have to think about). In the modern world, “science” has been adapted for all kinds of social and political programs that have little to do with actual science. Whenever called out on this methodology, they and their supporters often retaliate with the explanation of “nuance.” But this is an illusion; this kind of “nuance” has become a sort of intellectual nihilism and is actually the counterfeit of critical thinking.

Of course, this is a blog. And anyone can disagree with my definitions. I am simply trying to hone in on the essence of two ideas which dominate modern culture: science and religion. And if my definition of science is to narrowing for some, my definition of religion will be equally uncomfortable, but in almost the opposite way.

Daniel Dubuisson writes an excellent work entitled The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. In this work Dubuisson notes nearly two centuries of eminent scholars and thinkers who define religion in many different ways, and explains that the common denominator between all these definitions is “a lack of criteria.” Religion has been equally used to describe groups, beliefs, superstitions, dreams, visions, rituals, customs, traditions, behaviors, and personal or collective psychologies. In the ancient world, there was no word for “religion.” The first use of the word as a reference to a belief system of a church came by way of Christian thinkers writing in Latin and demarcating their beliefs from all others.

I am going to offer here a strictly functional definition of religion: what religion does and how it does it. In order to do this, I am going to present what all religions have in common. I will take these commonalities and propose a broader conceptual framework for “religion.” I understand that if my definition of science was too narrow for some, my definition of religion will be too broad. That’s okay. These ideas will at least challenge people to reconsider their own views and definitions, and perhaps help some think of these things critically.

There are two kinds of religion: Public Religion and Private Religion. A public religion I call a Church. Private religion is something else altogether, and it must be understood that public and private religion are of a completely different order and are not synonymous. This is important, simply because for many decades now the demarcations between public religion (church) and private religion (one’s own belief system) have been so thoroughly blurred in our culture that they are no longer differentiated. Why is this important? Because in our secular society there is (and should be) a division between Church and State. But this division was never meant to be a separation of private religion and State, despite the fact that this is how the concept is currently being used. Now, all religious rhetoric, however that is being defined, is being banned from any public campus or discourse. This was never the intention of the division of Church and State, and this calamity of culture and intelligence comes to us because we have changed the meaning of words.

Public Religion. A Public Religion is a social institution. We call it a Church.

1. A Belief in a Supreme Good. All social institutions have a supreme ideal for which they are built. One enters the social institution in order to aspire or in some way reflect to that ideal. This ideal I will call the Supreme Good, and for most religions, this supreme good is God(s). The central deity of a system is the ideological, moral, intellectual, ethical, and social perfection of that system. This god(s) is what one seeks to attain within the system. However, the supreme good of a public religion need not be a personified deity. Modern versions of Buddhism have no central deity, and the supreme good within the system is Awakening or Enlightenment. One becomes a Buddha, one does not worship a Buddha. On the other hand, in Christianity, the supreme good is God, known as Jesus Christ. One attains eminence in the Christian faith by “taking up the cross” and keeping his commandments. This is an important distinction to make: a supreme good need not be a personified being.

2. Moral Directives. These are the commandments of the religion; the “Thou shalt not’s” and the “Thou shall do’s.” These commandments or moral directives are always associated with the Supreme Good of the religion. Thus, in Buddhism, the moral directives become the Noble Eight-fold path to Enlightenment. In Christianity, the moral directives are the Ten Commandments, but especially “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” These moral directives often are associated with punishments if the moral directives are not kept. Karma is the universal return of rewards and punishments within the religion of Awakening. Christianity has the Law of the Harvest; that which you plant is what you will eventually reap.Christianity also has a Hell where people will spend eternity if they have lived sinful lives. Traditionally, Buddhism also had a kind of hell in that material existence was dreaded. In early Buddhism, the end of Enlightenment was to escape the wheel of rebirth in the material world. Some modern forms of Buddhism have altered or eliminated this idea.

These moral directives are attached to the Supreme Good and offer a form of “salvation. ” If one lives worthily, one will attain to the Supreme Good of the religion. For Buddhism, living mindfully at every moment and becoming awakened as a Buddha is the salvation of the system. For Christianity, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven is the salvation of the system.

3. Social Directives. These are the rituals and customs of the religion. These customs are instituted as a social reinforcement to the Moral Directives. One cannot simply just think or believe in something, one must do something about the belief. In organized religions, all sorts of social practices are set up to help people live the religion and keep the moral directives. Keeping with our examples, in some Buddhist traditions, monasteries are set up where participants come to together in social unity to meditate and teach. There are often communal meals. Within this monastery the new neophytes are instructed on the moral directives, how one really is to journey on the path of right thinking and doing. The new participants also often do the mundane chores of the group as a way of service and refinement. In Christianity, weekly meetings or worship services are attended where a priest or priestess reads from the scriptural cannon and instructs everyone on the Christian way of moral right and wrong. All kinds of other social activities are also planned,including food and clothes drives, service projects, and Bingo night. 

Further, there are many rituals which reinforce the moral directives and attaining to the supreme good. In Buddhism, meditation takes on ritual significance, as it is done repeatedly, and in the same context. In Christianity, there are all kinds of rituals, including the Eucharist and baptism, which are ritual events reenacting cosmogonic relationships. One eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ as a witness that one will be worthy of Christ; one is baptized forming a covenant of discipleship as well as enacting a ritual recitation of rebirth.

4. Hierarchy.  Every Church has a political structure with an authoritative hierarchy. These people pronounce the moral directives, oversee the social directives, and sometimes define and redefine the Supreme Good. The Pope is the leader, his Cardinal’s are his Council, and the various priests oversee the various flocks. There are Buddhist masters that acolytes seek out to learn the right path, and some Buddhist groups have a strong master-student relationship. But unlike Catholicism, which has a strong centralized political structure, some sects of Buddhism are localized around a small group, some of which have no centralized leadership. I would not call these groups, therefore, a Church. For me, a Church must have a clear authoritative hierarchy who manage the three points above.

Private Religion.

In order to define private religion I will refer to a great insight given by Carl Jung in his essay Psychology and Religion. Jung demarcates “religion” from creeds (i.e. the Church from the private religious experience.) Jung writes “Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of original religious experience” (6). For Jung, real religion is private, internalized experience, “‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (6). Again, for Jung the numinous is an involuntary condition, an external power, that causes “a peculiar alteration of consciousness” (4). Of greater importance in Jung’s thought, is the fact that this kind of religion is part of human consciousness, and that the psyche and the numinous are intimately connected. Man is more than a homo sapien, but is especially homo religiosus; the psyche has an existential drive towards meaning and some form of transcendence.

I agree with this thinking. All human beings have a belief system linked to a set of metaphysics that adumbrate a transcendent ideal. This inner world constructs, all by itself, its own forms of behaviors which reinforce this ideal. In short, every human being is a religious being, and has an interior adherence to the exterior principles of religion stated above. That is to say, every individual has a belief in a Supreme Good, and a personal belief system of the right moral actions and behaviors which support and cause to manifest that Supreme Good. Further, every human being has an idea, even if it be a vague one, of an authoritative source from which one can learn about that Supreme Good.

For me, the inner life comes down to this: a person’s  private religion is his or her habits. But not just habits of action, what people habitually do, but also and especially habits of mind and desire, what people habitually think about and want. If you study a person’s habits you will eventually see what a person worships. And in seeing that, you will also comprehend that the individual has constructed a life around that “god.”

For me there are absolutely no atheists. There are people who do not prescribe to a Church, but everyone has a belief in a god (the supreme good), even if that god is nothing but themselves. There are all kinds of gods in private religion: success, money, power, truth, goodness, reason, beauty, etc. The greatest god in this world, however, appears to be the endless worship of the self. This is an irony to be sure, for as Jung expertly explains, many people have created a system of habits (neurosis) which hide the authentic self from consciousness. In fact, many people use public religion as the exact tool to hide true enlightenment within private religion.

Religion and its Consequences.

Now, here is the thing, if you look at my definitions of religion you will see that they can be broadly applied. And this will make many people cry “foul.”

First off, I believe everyone has a religion and everyone believes in a god (their supreme good, however that is defined). Further, everyone constructs a religious program of moral beliefs, actions, and wants within their habits. What a person habitually does, thinks, and wants is their religion.

All social institutions are constructed from private religious concerns. All of them. However, often the social institutions codify those private religious concerns into public and corporate wants. In many cases, the social institutions begin inflicting the private religions of their leaders upon the consciousness and conscience of their followers.

What my definition is doing is repealing the distinction secularism made when it was birthed during the collapse of public Church control. Secular beliefs insist that “religion” is associated with a belief in a supernatural god extolled by priests and priestesses. This is a narrative that is simply looking at the dress without seeing the body it is covering. In my definition, secularism is a religion, and many secular institutions are in fact Churches. The University is a Church. The Corporate Board is a Church. Political parties and government agencies are Churches, controlled and regulated by popes, priests, and kings who are simply wearing a different dress.

Take the university system as an example. At a secular university the supreme good is “Reason”. But what is Reason? This too is vaguely defined, and is often said to be consistent, critical, and scientific thinking. But is Reason practiced on the university campus in a consistent, critical, and scientific way? Sometimes. But more often then not the answer is No. The Reason of the University is quickly swept into a culture that has moral directives that might not be consistent, critical, and scientific. There is an “enlightened” way to “think” on campus, and which reinforces the Supreme good, which is labeled Reason but in fact is nothing more than conformity to a specific ideology. This campus quickly develops social directives to reinforce the only good way to think, and soon students are protesting this or that cause or experimenting with this or that social tradition, all under the guidance of a strict authoritative academic and socio-political hierarchy.

I am not saying any of this is bad. What I am saying is it is religious. There is no educational venture that is not religious.

Many will say that education is the opposite of religion. But they have not thought things through. It is interesting to me that for countless thousands of years human beings lived within religious institutions. The whole world was nothing but various forms of theocracies throughout history, and the demarcation of the secular world is when the Church was removed from government and education.

The Church was removed, but religion was not. Why were human beings living within religious theocracies throughout all of history? Is it because they could not think of getting rid of God? If human consciousness and culture has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, why is it modern people think they can negate such extraordinary evolutionary processes the moment they dispatch of their idea of God? The argument is we no longer need theocracies because in fact we have evolved. But this sudden reorientation to secularism as an idea that religion is no longer necessary makes biological evolution nothing but a colossal trifle, a simple and stupid thing that can be picked up and put down whenever one needs.

Biological evolution, on the other hand, has encoded into the physiology and consciousness of the human being a religious pattern. Again, we are homo religiosus. We are finite beings in an infinite universe and are always speculating and creating metaphysics about our place in the universe. These speculations will always align themselves  to an array of moral and social directives focused around the ultimate meta-physic, whatever that might be. Human beings are always constructing religion.



One comment to Science and Religion: What is Religion?

  1. Patrick says:

    John, great blog, generates a lot of thought in my mind… You contend that their are no atheists–do you not think that some humans are simply content with the desire to survive or to exist with some level of comfort? Maybe a stereotype could help me clarify the question–imagine the guy that some how just gets thru high school, takes on a mindless job that pays for basic comforts, like a home with a TV and a recliner and beer. I don’t necessarily see in that person a deep seated concern for any specific supreme good?

    Along another line of thought, do you consider that “curiosity” could be someone’s supreme good? You talk about how humans are always speculating (about our place in the universe). I also think that evolution has bestowed on us humans, a desire to understand the world and how it works. Is that curiosity, in some, just a desire to understand that which can help perpetuate survival, without concern about our place in the world?

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