This post is part of the series What is Religion?
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There is no common definition of religion that scholars agree on. Ordinary people dont know what it is either. At the same time, we all know that certain things are religions Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Native American beliefs. Various definitions of religion have been proposed, but they are either too broad and include things that are not religions or they are too narrow and do not include things that are religions. Religion is the final structuring commitment of an individual.
There are many narrow definitions of religion. Some may think that religion is a belief in God (or gods), but this is not true. Many Eastern religions have members who are atheists. Buddha did not believe that there were any gods at all. Nonetheless, he and his followers are very religious. Their lack of belief in God (or gods) does not make them any less religious than Christians or Muslims. Others may believe that religion is a belief in sacred texts. While it is true that many religious have or use sacred texts, many others do not. Tribal religions, for example, hand down their traditions orally. Still others may believe that religion is a system of worship. While many religions do worship God, many others do not worship anyone.
There are also many broad definitions. Some believe that religion is ones belief about the meaning of life. But someone might share these beliefs while belonging to different religions. For example, many Christians and Muslims believe that God is the meaning of life, but they are not the same religion. Consider that there are also some Christians who do not know the meaning of life, but who are very religious something this definition considers impossible! Another definition claims that religion is the experience of the sacred. Not only do some very religious believers have no experience of sacred things, but some non-religious believers do!
I claim that my definition of religion does not have either of these problems. Commitments can be temporary or lifelong, deep or shallow. One might be committed to helping the environment and display that with the specific commitment of recycling. One might also have beliefs and practices that arise because of our commitments. For example, we might believe that the environment is important, it is worthwhile to protect it and harming the environment will harm us in the long run. A structuring commitment is a commitment that one can appeal to in order to gain or lose commitments from an individual. For example, someone who is committed to the environment will be convinced to recycle on the basis of their commitment to the environment. One could also use their commitment to the environment to convince the lose their commitments to particular company that is destroying the environment. Not all structuring commitments are equal. Some structuring commitments can structure others. A final structuring commitment is one that is not structured by any commitment whatsoever. It is the highest commitment that one could possibly have.
Using the previous examples, I can show that my definition is neither too narrow or too broad. Christians and Muslims are both committed to God above all else. The nature of their commitment is different because they understand God differently, but they would agree with this at least. Buddhists are committed to enlightenment, not to God or gods. Naturally, this makes them just as religious as other religions. Native Americans who practice their traditional religion(s) display their commitment to a right ordering of life in line with nature as their religion. My definition includes all religions. Having a understanding of the purpose of human life may bring about a structuring commitment, but it does not have to be a final structuring commitment. Having religious feelings or experiences is the same. So my definition is not too broad either.
My definition also includes all religious practices, beliefs and everything that might rightly be considered religious. Ones final structuring commitment is what religion is. What sort of practices come from it, beliefs that cause one to adopt it or that arise from it, people that organize under the same commitment and all other elements of life changed by religion can be said to be religious in a secondary sense. It is in this sense that religious rituals, communities, prayers, experiences and the like are religious. It also excludes all non-religious practices, beliefs and the like. Ordinary people do not believe in scientific beliefs (about the solar system, plant biology or the like) because of their religion. Many believe that science tells us that human beings evolved from ape-like primates. This is not by itself religious, and my definition allows for that fact. Simply having a worldview does not make that worldview religious, but there is a connection. After all, many people do have the final commitment as a central part of their worldview.
Continue reading this series:
Religion is Exclusive