I have recently read an interesting article on the current state of religious studies. There are currently three opinions on what “religion” is and I believe that all three of them are wrong.
The typological view claims that some particular religion is the truest expression of religion. In the West, this usually turns out to be Protestant Christianity. All other theologies and religions are “religions” insofar as they are similar to that central type. So this means that Buddhism is much less of a religion than Catholicism. This understanding of religion takes the ontological claims of religion seriously. However, it also treats followers of ‘false religions’ as if their beliefs are less deserving of the term “religion”. Since our discovery of world religions in the 17th and 18th centuries, such a point of view has become ignorant. These beliefs may be false, but they are no less religious than Christianity.
The naturalist view claims that religion is a distinct aspect of life. In this I believe it is correct. However, they usually conjoin this belief with two other beliefs. First, naturalists believe that only some people are religious. Second, naturalists believe that religions must be studied as if they were all false. The second belief is the most central and the reason for the first belief. However, in my series on religion, I showed that the first belief was false. Everyone is religious. So unless we wish to accuse humanity of incurable irrationality, the first belief is false as well. Exactly one religion is true. We cannot examine religion at all unless we are willing to consider the truth claims that each religion makes.
The nihilist is the final point of view. They deny that religion is a true category. Usually they begin with the naturalist perspective. They claim that there is no naturalist way to understand religion while maintaining that religion is a distinct aspect of life. If all religions are false, then religion is just as aspect of history, culture or sociology. Likely, it is a mixture of all three of these depending on which aspect is being considered. As a critique of the naturalist position, the nihilists are completely correct. However, they are unable to offer a single argument for why we should begin by assuming the two assumptions of the naturalist. Without that argument, their position has no good reason to be believed.
Having rejected all three of the current ways of understanding “religion”, I suggest that religion serves an organizing function in our lives. All of us must pursue what is good in our choices. But our choices do not take place in a vacuum. Our choices are formed out of our understanding of what is ultimately good. What that ultimate good is and our purpose in relation to that is our religion. Since everyone who acts rationally must pursue an ultimate good, everyone who thinks rationally is also religious. The naturalist who claims that he is not religious is “not religious” only because he does not believe in a traditional religion. Perhaps he is a humanist, a transhumanist or a follower of the New Age. Whatever the case may be, it is this way of understanding religion that is the best and only proper way to understand it. I should note that this understanding of religion places religion firmly within philosophy. Theology – if there is a God who has revealed truths to us – would fall within its own discipline.