It is contentious and perhaps futile to define Religion, at least from someone on the outside.
Given my humble expertise, it would be wiser to allow the expert to set our minds right on this before we begin. For the willing, take five to properly inculcate yourself with the brilliant article by the guest author, our expert on theology.
What is religion?
The first important distinction that must be made is between 1) the claim for the existence of ‘God’ (which includes not only postulations of divine entities, but wider metaphysical claims in general) and 2) the existence of religion. Religion in its strictest sense refers to the sociological phenomenon of the institution of religion - the entire system of symbols, rituals and faith-based worldview of a belief, as well as a doctrine uniting a moral community under its creed.
This God/Religion distinction is a crucial one, since contrary to common association, the two are not analogous. Whether or not one believes the former (God) exists, the latter (religion) most certainly does, and has had an undisputedly significant socio-political presence in the world for a substantial proportion of civilized history.
Indeed, one needs make only a simple observation to recognize the difference; there are examples of religions with many gods (which for our purposes we shall refer to as deities or supernatural entities), religions with only one, and even religions with none at all.
Given this alone, it would stand to reason that postulating a supernatural being is not sufficient as a theoretical or practical requisite for a religion in its essential form. Yet the postulation of a divine entity is but a doctrinal aspect of religious belief; that is to say, merely a part of the larger teachings of a particular faith. Different faiths make truth claims of their own, which oftentimes appear peculiarly suited to the needs of their own societies (this is more evident in pre-modern societies which lack the explanatory capabilities of the empirical mode of thought) But since the exact content of different religious teachings tend to be contradictory, and religions do not share overarching doctrines in either particular or even general respects, it is also reasonable to conclude that it is not in the content of the respective doctrine alone that religion as a general phenomenon – across societies - is truly conceived, but that the nature of it may be located in someplace else indeed.
It is thus erroneous and exceedingly simplistic (although it has too often been, and continues to be, the case) to equate religion directly with the existence of God or with the numerous details of religious doctrine. Yet it continues to be necessary to point this out, since both proponents for religion (and even some reactionaries against it) can be somewhat myopic in their handling of the subject in debate, as has been mentioned above. Even if the case may be made against the scientific validity of religious truth-claims (the basis on which the ‘New atheists’ often launch their arguments of negation from), attacking religion in this manner nevertheless demonstrates, at best, doctrinal fallacies of religious texts and fails to acknowledge other subtleties and mechanisms in what is essentially a complex social institution.
What then is it? What is this phenomenon known as religion? Having exhausted the validity of varied doctrine in explaining the development of what is essentially a universal social construct (glaring hint here) the next logical step is
to examine its social implications; its function in society.
Shi Han, Chee
For the patient and inquisitive, you would have developed some thoughts after perusing the short article from above.
The ability to enlighten, such is the strength of a logical and succinct writer. Shi Han has always been a confidant of mine, one whom I share countless ramblings on the 'harder' issues of life, the post-materialist.
Each conversation I have with him is akin to teaching the caveman to use a flint and start fire. (that I am the caveperson of course)
A sociologist by training, his article aptly brings to light the intricate interaction between the society and its Religious Institutions.
To be more careful here, I shall tread on clear articulations on the figure of speech, lest I risk sparking off more contentions.
For me, the religious institution holds together those of similar faith. I bring forth the famous quote by Karl Marx:
Religion as the Opiate of the Masses
I bring your attention to the word ‘Masses’. As Shi Han very clearly pointed out, it is not just the form, symbols or teachings, but more importantly the fellowship, the following.
A Messiah is only so because we made him/her so. We, the followers of this same belief, the same message and the same yearnings, all gather in the same setting and spread the Good word that we honestly believe in.
We create this intangible authority that provides solace in the respective milieus that we live in.
To say that Catholicism is hedonistic is to claim that Protestantism is Ascetic, both of which cast this overtly sweeping veneer over their profound teachings.
Though neither human behavior can be said as a culmination of the human’s respective faith, we can most certainly accord that to the particular epoch that we hail from.
That our most innate primal behavior, to band together and form a collective, because as cliché as it is, No man is an Island. This is how we include and exclude, how we create the Haves and Have not’s.
It is a beautiful and enlightening epiphany to realize that we are all vulnerable to ridicule and that ultimately, we all put our faith in something that holds ‘true’ over the test of time.
There seems to also be a proportional and direct relationship between our faith and our depravity. Pathetic yes, but we are all Human, All too Human – Nietzsche.
I forget when I indulge, I endear when I am without.
You and I, we are always on the lookout for an insertion, a chance to be within, not without. We sing songs (hymns) or chant sutras, engage in similar activities to create the collective effervescence; that sense of belonging to a bigger entity, that you are not alone.
After we are bound to a collective, we are obliged to observe the traditions.
Now, in bureaucratic terms they call it the Law. The former risks expulsion and exile, the latter risks incarceration. Both of which subject the deviants to physical distance from the ‘innocent’ public. (note the dual meaning behind the word innocent)
Do you want to be kept informed, or be left untouched and live life the way you imagine it to be?
The system always protects the masses from the radical. Though there are grey areas to which we can call someone radical, I most certainly insist that there are absolute red lines that we demarcate on certain behavior.
This has been an awfully long read by now, so before I end, thank you for having this patience to bear with me through this evocative post.