What is religion?
Here are a few excerpts from a discussion thread on the email blog Humanist Digest.
Mike was also in the conversation as was Paat who said, “…the term, religion; it does indeed, for Americans in particular, denote supernatural.”
I responded to the others in this line of quesitoning:
“Gary & Jack,
RE: What is religion?
As a forty year philosophy major I know the temptation to define religion
from that viewpoint, but it incorporates too little science in the opinion.
Sociologists have been taking a serious crack at for a hundred years now.
Many have hunkered down and affirmed their favorite definition from that
Dennett broke the spell on placing religion above scientific study and
though he is a philosopher, it is of science. Though he does not agree, no
explanation of why we have religion seemed remotely equal to the reality of
it until I came to see it as an evolutionary adaptation*. Nothing short of
that explains its universality across human cultures or the radical depth of
its reach to humanity’s core.
(Overly summarized) Religion is that species specific behavior [most] people
exhibit in response to the innate urge to express their religiosity
[religiousness, spirituality]. This behavior is rewarded in a number of
ways, but the genetic support largely comes from the release of the
neurochemicals of pleasure: dopamine, serotonin, and others.
The point being, for those who place their humanism and respond to it in the
same way members of a religion do, it may be their religion. For others, it
may be a secular placeholder, for others, an intellectual pursuit.
*See THE FAITH INSTINCT by Nicholas Wade for a neutral treatment; See: Religion is God’s Way
of Showing Us it’s a lot earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought for a
nonbeliever’s perspective [browser search: Amazon Douglas Falknor].
Mike made an oberservation that I commented on: “I think Michael brings up a good point and the tip of the iceberg when he says, “[people] will still see religion as being about faith based belief in the supernatural.”
I’ll more than admit that it isn’t the evolutionary source of religion that’s the problem. It’s the incongruity between that source and what the religious THINK is the source of their religion.
I think there are so many attempts at defining religion, and so many that fall short, because of the nature of the “impulse.” If the religious imperative, written in our genes, says nothing more specific than “satisfy the religious urge,” and those genes, given normal variability to start with, undergo replication a few billion times, consider all the errors, mutations, and added variability that normally occurs across isolated populations.
Consider further, the internal rewards for that “religious drive” and how the neurochemical, psychological, and social rewards must be differently programmed, even nuanced in our genes and epigenes, across evolutionary time and global distances.
Consider, too, the cultural differences that have modified the expression of “spiritual desire” [not trying to confuse the issue, but to show how different this religiosity can be] across all cultures. Given enough time, culture too, can seep (feedback) into our heritable characteristics.
Consider all the iterations of religious expression from animism to Catholicism, from Confucianism to voodoo. Isn’t it this same predisposition for religiousness that has driven tribal members to the point of trance through continual rhythmic drumming and nonstop dance rituals? Or the Buddhist practitioner to seek enlightenment?
Now put a definition to this based solely on the person’s activities and desires to relate to what he considers the divine. Without some consideration of all the above and more, there’s going to be little common agreement. Instead of the different experiences of the “eight blind men and the elephant” we will be like the eight blind men and the thousand-headed hydra.
WHAT DO YOU THINK RELIGION IS? AND WHY?
Entry filed under: freethought.