Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Everyone Religious?

This essay was sparked by a post on Ex-Army entitled Everybody's Religious. Normally, I would have just posted a short comment but Google's gstatic is screwed up again so I was unable to. That gave me some more time to think about the question.

So, is everybody really religious? More importantly, am I religious? The more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer to that question really depends on how I define "religion". The definition I have used for decades is a positive one:

A thing is a religion if it asserts the existance of at least one of:
  1. the divine or
  2. an afterlife.

That seems pretty simple and straight-forward to me.

  • Christianity is a religion because it asserts there is a god (or gods, depending on how you count them) and it asserts the existence of an afterlife (resurrection).
  • Islam is a religion because asserts the existence of a single god and it asserts the existence of an afterlife (resurrection).
  • Hinduism is a religion because asserts the existence of a pantheon of gods (in some versions this is conceived of as a single god) and it asserts the existence of an afterlife (reincarnation).

Since either one of the above characteristics is sufficient to to make a religion I can add to the list:

  • Theravada Buddhism is a religion because it asserts the existence of an afterlife (reincarnation) but not the existence of the divine.
  • Sadducee Judiasm is a religion because it asserts the existence of a single god but rejects the existence of an afterlife.

There is a whole lot of human group behavior that does not fit the definition of religion above. For example, line dancing does not assert the existence of the divine nor of an afterlife so it is not a religion. Still, it seems to me that my definition is a pretty generous interpretation of the concept of "religion".

So, am I religious? So far, I find the evidence for the divine and the afterlife is insufficient to non-existent so, according to my definition above, I am not. However, there is a second, even more liberal, definition I infer from some of the half-baked arguments I've read over the years. I call this a negative definition because it does not require any positive assertions:

A thing is a religion of it takes a position on the existence of at least one of:
  1. the divine or
  2. the afterlife.

Using that definition atheism and agnosticism are "religions" (though I think line dancing is still exempt). Both take a position on the existence of the divine: Atheists do not believe it exists. Agnostics say it is impossible to know. A definition of religion that includes atheist and agnostics as "religious" strikes me as woolgathering but it does seem to summarize the arguments from the everybody-is-religious positions I've read.

I am sure there are more combinations of criteria regarding what constitutes a religion. In fact, each of us can define it pretty much anyway we want. So, unless all parties can agree on what a religion is, there is no possibility of rational discourse on the subject.

The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians -- and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay* fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe -- that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
-- H L Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924

*Though the term "gay" was already being used to describe a homosexual male by the 1930s, I am pretty sure Mencken was using it the sense of " having or showing a merry, lively mood."

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