Defining ‘religion’: four options

In Units 1.3, ‘Family Resemblance v. Suprahuman Essentialism’, and 1.6, ‘The Three B’s: Belief, Behavior, and Belonging’, I’ll be introducing a handful of definitions of religion to my students who are taking ‘Religion in Global Context’ this year. Unit 1.3’s first draft is finished. Unit 1.6 will be complete next week, probably. I’ll share them in due time. For now, I’m writing out some of my thoughts on these definitions as part of my thinking-process.

Family Resemblance

The first theory, and the one that probably resonates the most with me personally, is the ‘Family Resemblance’ theory. This way of defining religion is inspired by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the definition of words. Wittgenstein challenges the idea that there can be a definition of the word ‘game’, as one example, that actually represents all the things we call ‘games’.

In his book, Philosophical Investigations (§ 66), Wittgenstein asks these questions:

“Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. – Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!”

As we can see, there are board, card, and ball games. There are games we play without an opponent. There are games without a winner/loser. There are games like ‘ring-a-ring-a-roses’ played by kids that are for pure fun/amusement. We might say that this game has a goal (fun! falling!) and rules (sing this song until you fall down). But does it have a feedback system? If someone doesn’t fall, can they still have fun? Do they ‘lose’? You get the idea.

In an excellent summary of Wittgenstein’s thinking, ‘Wittgenstein: Family Resemblance’ (very much worth reading in its entirety), FEEST.IO says this:

‘The ‘family’ that constitute games may share various features between them, but need not all share any one feature, like in the following sets:

{A,B,C} {B,C,D} {C,D,E} {D,E,F}

‘We see here that ‘C’ is common to the first three sets but not the fourth just as balls may be common to rugby, golf and tennis but not chess. However, golf, tennis and chess share the feature of being non-contact whereas rugby does not. We would call all of these activities games, however, even if they are not united by any singular property.’

The same might be true of religion. Maybe four religions have divine beings but the fifth doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s not a religion. It just means that not all religions share the exact same features.

To see this idea applied to religion, I recommend Andrew Mark Henry’s ‘What is Religion?’:

Suprahuman Essentialism

Of course, what bothers some philosophers is that Wittgenstein’s family resemblance approach seems to leave the door open for all sorts of things to be considered a ‘religion’ including sports, Wall Street, and even Coca-Cola. Yes, Coca-Cola. See Henry’s view on that idea here:

So, while I don’t know of anyone who would argue in a Platonic/Augustinian sense that the word ‘religion’ has some essential meaning—some ‘form’ if you will—there are scholars like the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who advocate for definitions that at least include some sort of suprahuman being. This isn’t a ‘superhuman’, per se, but something above human. Let me share Smith’s definition from his book,  Religion: What it Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, p. 22 (emphasis mine):

Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.

Smith’s definition covers a lot of ground. It can include more ‘personal’ gods like those common to forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can include the dynamic found in Hinduism which has both a monoid (Brahman) and various gods. It can include ‘the Dao’ of Daoism, which is impersonal, and sort of like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars mythology. It can include ancestors and their veneration, as we find in all sorts of cultures. But it rejects all non-theistic ‘religions’, whether that be a form of Buddhism, Confucianism, Satanism, Dudeism, whatever.

The Albanese Definition

Catherine Albanese of UC Santa Barbara has a definition of religion known popularly as the ‘4 C’s’ listed in her book, America: Religion and Religions (the summary of which I’m drawing from Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil, pp. 118-119):

  1. Creed: ‘an explanation about the meaning of human life’;
  2. Code: ‘rules than govern human behavior’;
  3. Cultus: ‘rituals that perform the creed and codes’;
  4. Communities: ‘that are bound together by the other three elements’.

The Bostian Definition

My colleague, Nate Bostian, has one more C. His definition of religion that’s he taught students is this. Religion is:

A Religion is a shared CONSCIOUSNESS of Ultimate Reality, Supreme Value, or Collective Identity, which is bounded by a shared CREED of beliefs about the world and humanity, a shared CODE of moral values and standards, and a shared CULT of sacred rituals and events, – all of which unify and bind together an identifiable COMMUNITY of persons.

In essence, this definition is an agreement between Smith and Albanese.

I won’t push my students to choose one. In fact, I hope that the course continues to complicate their understanding. They’ll learn about a variety of religions with Hinduism and Judaism receiving the most attention. Confucianism will be highlighted toward the end to complicate matters further. They’ll encounter Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Pastafarianism, and Dudeism, at least. As you can see from that list, some of these aren’t religions by one definition but are religions by another.


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