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Definition of religion - Unbeliever's Land
...The continuing chronicles...
Definition of religion
I've tried to make this point before, but I doubt I've ever said it this well.

From Greta Christina's blog, in her recent article entitled Atheism and Diversity:
Religion is a hypothesis. [*]

Religion is a hypothesis about how the world works, and why it is the way it is. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, at least in part, because of immaterial beings or forces that act on the material world.

Religion is many other things, of course. It's communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies, philosophies. But those things aren't what make religion unique. What makes religion unique, among all other communities/ philosophies/ etc., is this hypothesis of an immaterial world acting on the material one.
It's that simple. The communities, cultural traditions, political ideologies, and philosophies may be positive, such as the ones generally associated with liberal Christianity. Or they may be negative, such as the ones generally associated with fundamentalist right-wing Christianity. They may be centered on love, or hate.

But what makes it RELIGION is the supernatural-basis-for-the-natural-world hypothesis. Take that away, and you pull back the curtain revealing the TRUE Wizard of Oz. Take that away, and you find out that Santa Claus was really Mom and Dad, who scrimped and saved for months, and stayed up half the night, to build that bicycle for you.

Take that away, and churches become community centers, where good is done out in the open, and evil has fewer excuses.
“With or without religion, you will have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
— Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics.
Take away the supernatural, and you lose the magic. But you gain the WORLD...

* [Technically, of course, "immaterial beings" (i.e. God) isn't even a hypothesis. God is just a half-assed guess. By definition, a hypothesis has to be falsifiable. There has to be SOME TEST, whereby all parties will be forced to say "Yup, you're right, this PROVES the hypothesis is wrong." And religion solved THAT little difficulty long ago. They made faith a virtue! Now, the more unlikely God appears to be, the more True Believers pat themselves on the back for their faith.]

Current Emotional State: good good

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amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 14th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I wave to you as you occupy your weird corner of the noumenal realm-- glad you're in a good mood, sorry you sound like a goober.
unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: December 14th, 2009 04:17 am (UTC) (Link)

That's the least-like-you thing I've ever read... :(
amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 14th, 2009 10:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Dear Reed, I'm sure you've run into Christians characterizing atheism and assuring you Firmly what you believe and what you are and why. I bet they sounded like goobers. Because they were.

As I understand it, there's a Utah phrase: "being ignorant to." It signifies denying validity to people's own reality-- generally not with malicious intent, often feeling terribly kindly about it, and hoping to enlighten the silly deluded creatures they spoke with.

When you assure me of What Religion Is-- confusing one of many possible definitions with Reality-- when I've read you in the past telling me that I do faith or religion wrong because I don't do it in the only way you can fancy poor weaklings who do religion doing it-- with particular instrumental motives-- it embarrasses me. Because I like you.

A view from outside brings gifts of larger perspective and context, and poverties of lack of personal experience. A view from inside brings gifts of embodied cultural context, and poverties of presumption. Both views are useful. It's not wise for either to claim ultimacy.
unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: December 15th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
re⋅li⋅gion (noun):
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Is a book club a religion? Is surfing the Web a religion? Is eating ice cream a religion?

Surely the word has to MEAN SOMETHING -- and you seem to get upset whenever I try to define it.

I really don't think "worshipping a supernatural entity" is THAT controversial a definition of religion.

Am I incorrect in believing that even your variant of Christianity still worships God and/or Jesus? Am I wrong that even you would consider these entities "supernatural"? Am I wrong that you (and your fellow church leaders) consider faith a positive thing?

I frequently DO generalize Christianity as if it were all the right-wing psycho version of itself, which is not fair -- although that IS the most visible form of Christianity -- as well as the fastest-growing.

But apart from a basic disagreement on whether or not religion is a Good Thing, I fail to see how I mischaracterized ANYTHING in this post.

I don't claim you "do faith or religion wrong" -- I wish all Christians did 'em as you do -- but I do think it's a Bad Idea to tell people that it's acceptable to believe anything you want, so long as it feels right. And whether or not you would actually say that in so many words, I don't see how you can deny that that is what faith effectively *DOES*.

One man talks to God -- and does what God says.

One man talks to invisible unicorns in his garage -- and does what they say.

One of these two people is considered "crazy" by society, and most individuals.

amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 19th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Reed, first of all, if you wrote the things you write couched in language like "As an atheist, I understand religion to be [comparable to a man talking to invisible unicorns in his garage]," I wouldn't have any problems. How can i dispute your understanding of something of which there are as many understandings as there are of religion?

However, you post about what religion is. (It is possible that you might assert that since it's you writing of course it's your understanding. Whether or no, a posting that talk about religion is that's intended to convey personal understanding and one intended to evangelize that understanding of religion are indistinguishable based on their words.)

When you post about what religion is you post as an essentialist. When you declare that a given definition of religion is the correct one you are either beginning a line of reasoning to establish the validity of your claim, or you're declaiming your understanding of the noumenal realm. (Which is not directly sense-able to hoi polloi, if you recall your Plato.) Either is a valid thing to do: however, arguments can be compelling or not, and I've long noticed that Platonists have very different perceptions of the noumenal realm-- or access to different and incompatible noumenal realms.

In your posts on religion, you consistently acknowledge only two alternatives: either religious practicioners/adherents are like a man talking with invisible unicorns or piggybanks, or they "believe anything they want, so long as it feels right." Oops, sorry. I have reread and see that those aren't supposed to be alternatives, but equivalent. The actual alternative is that religion is a term that means nothing.

That is, as it happens, dismissive language at best, attack language at worse.


Edited at 2009-12-19 01:33 pm (UTC)
amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 19th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
When religious adherents respond by suggesting that you lack some expertise, you could consider that you might lack some information or perspective. I haven't seen that from you.

Now, as to the controversialness of definitions: yes, that is a controversial definition, yes, asserting that religion necessarily involves worship of a supernatural deity is controversial among those who actually study-- and take information on-- religion.

You will have noticed yourself that the definition you quote is numbered 1. In most dictionaries that indicates another definition or more to follow. I bet it did in your dictionary. Beyond dictionaries, there are scholarly arguments about these things. As there are among scientists on definitions. And usually the more basic the concept, the more definitions. Defining life is extremely controversial, and skilled scientists working in the origin of life use definitions of life as instruments, to guide test criteria and procedures and explain them.

In leading a Christianity and World Religions adult ed class recently, I used this definition for discussion purposes:
Preliminary definition of religion (due to John Hick): An understanding of the universe, together with an appropriate way of living within it, which involves reference beyond the natural world to God or gods or the Absolute or to a transcendent order or process. This definition includes, e.g., non-theistic Hinduism and Therevada Buddhism, but it doesn't include, e.g., communism and humanism.

I might use another definition for another purpose, but that's a pretty good general-purpose one for me.

I want to add a memory I find salutary for myself, and which I offer you as an indication of a way to take definitions to be things people mean by a term (which I bet is never going to be your approach), and as a way to take insider information.

As recently as a couple of years ago, I thought that when people called themselves atheists that indicated (apart from anything else) adherence to an axiom that no divine entity exists. whatever divine would mean to such a person. I posted something or other on LJ containing this belief I had-- in passing, I think, but I'm not sure. And people who called themselves atheists informed me that they didn't assert belief in such an absolute, but just didn't think the universe looked that way to them. (I would formerly have thought that anyone with that stance would call themselves agnostic or negative-side agnostic. I'd been one.)

I could have insisted that they weren't atheists, I guess. It didn't occur to me. I think that would be an ignorant way of behaving. Instead, and with delight, I altered my understanding of how people understood their atheism.

As to your final disjointed riddle: Social norms determine who's considered crazy. Social norms in the world I live in would call both of these men (why men and not people, I wonder?) crazy-- if that first guy's religion is best characterized as conversation with and obedience to something immaterial. Check your DSM. Check ordination requirements for mainline religions, which insist on oodles of psych testing just because it is widely recognized that people who think God's after us to do something are frequently nuts. What I will assert is that characterizing all religion or faith as fundamentally conversing with and obeying God-- especially with your interesting unicorn parallel-- is incorrect. Social norms in the United States do not so characterize religion/faith. I understand that that irritates you. Please understand that you're evangelizing about it-- so far as I can tell.

Edited at 2009-12-19 01:30 pm (UTC)
amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 19th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC) (Link)

Treating what I think are purely rhetorical questions as genuine

Is a book club a religion? Is surfing the Web a religion? Is eating ice cream a religion?
By my understanding of religion, they can be, though they aren't often, and probably just as well.

Am I incorrect in believing that even your variant of Christianity still worships God and/or Jesus?

I (mostly :D ) skip over use of the word "even," which invites discussion of the concept of invidiousness. You're not wrong, but I don't think you know what worship is-- or at least, know it in other than some kind of cargo cult or Son-of-Sam form.

Am I wrong that even you would consider these entities "supernatural"?

I don't really use the term supernatural, since it depends so critically on what one understands nature to be. And even if we say "I'm talking about cultural norms"-- well, those have changed a lot. And so I don't use the term.

Consider the Higgs boson. Natural or supernatural? A lot of people will disagree about whether hypothesized is necessarily supernatural, today. A hundred years ago? If you could put the concept of the Higgs boson in terms that could be understood by, say, Marie Curie, I suspect it would sound supernatural indeed. Obligatory citation of Arthur C. Clarke's third law. (And in the realm of the noumenal: consider the original meaning of "atom." Where oh where, is our pretty little noumena?)

Making an attempt to infer what you mean by the term-- yes, I would consider those entities supernatural. By which I mean that I think that scientific hypotheses dependent on such entities would be-- is-- stinky science or non-science.

Am I wrong that you (and your fellow church leaders) consider faith a positive thing?
Can't speak for everyone. I'm pretty sure that some church leaders-- I hope mostly those I don't feel that much fellowship with-- do. As for me, I never thought before of considering it positive or negative. I consider it a Thing. Not much different, in many ways, from faith that my senses have a pretty good link with a physical world that really exists.

Edited at 2009-12-19 01:48 pm (UTC)
unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: December 21st, 2009 12:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I rarely ask purely rhetorical questions -- if there is an answer to a question I ask, I ALWAYS want to know what it is...

I don't think you're this... philosophical... in daily life. I think you, like everyone else, have a basic handle on reality and unreality. I don't think you have any problem taking for granted that fairies and leprechauns don't exist. Maybe someday we'll find a leprechaun! -- but you're not holding your breath.

I think it's only when discussing religion with an "outsider", where suddenly every term has to be defined and redefined, and where you come off acting like reality is so complex that no two people can possibly describe the same phenomena.

There IS an objective reality out there. We may never fully understand it, but science brings us closer to it.

Maybe someday an intelligent creator "God" will be scientifically known to exist. So far, the track record is quite the opposite. Anytime science collides with religion, it is religion that has to backtrack.

Religious leaders KNEW, directly from God, that the world was flat.

God lied.

There is an objective reality -- and the world is not flat.


I am completely baffled by any difference you apparently see between your definition of religion and mine. I suppose you prefer the inclusion of "the Absolute" and "transcendent order or process" -- but everything listed is explicitly referred to as being "beyond the natural world" -- and you just can't find a better definition of "supernatural" than that.

I also guess you prefer the word "understanding" to the phrase "set of beliefs" -- but again, semantics.

[You say my definition necessarily involves "worship" of a supernatural deity, and say that that is controversial -- but 1) the definition I quoted never said worship, and 2) your definition said essentially the same thing that mine did! Please reread both definitions and tell me where MINE is so much more controversial than yours...]

By either definition, religion promotes faith -- belief without proof. You can't have an "understanding of the universe" involving a "reference beyond the natural world", without faith that this thing "referred" to exists!

I am also completely baffled by how you can claim to not consider "faith" as positive or negative. If computers don't exist, my job as a programmer is pointless. If God doesn't exist, your job doing His will is pointless.

And let me stop and rephrase. You help people. Helping people ON ITS OWN TERMS is never pointless. But if your impetus for doing so is fictional, you need another impetus. I don't see how you can "not have a stake", so to speak, in God's existence. And faith is the only tool for deriving that existence.

unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: December 21st, 2009 12:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Treating what I think are purely rhetorical questions as genuine


And now you want to mix up faith in God, with faith that your senses perceive the physical world.

Again, philosophy. And again, I don't think you REALLY fail to see the difference -- I think you just like to throw up smokescreens.

Yes, there is SOME level in which everything in the universe is in doubt. Start with "I think, therefore I am" and build outward.

I exist. You exist. The keyboard I type on exists. The screen I'm looking at exists. "God" is not like you, me, the keyboard or the screen. "Faith" in the existence of God is a fundamentally different animal than "faith" in the existence of my computer keyboard.

You know this. I know you know this.


I think you're in the faith biz, whether you think of it that way or not. I don't think your job description can be otherwise. You may not spend much time thinking of faith -- you may have much more down-to-earth issues at hand -- but that's still the crux of it.

You're fond of the COMMUNITY your religion provides. Reread that first quote from Greta Christina in my post. It says YES, religion is many things (and I expanded on that, saying that those things, the communities, philosophies, traditions, and ideologies -- could be positive or negative, based on love or hate). But the element that DISTINGUISHES religion, is the "supernatural-basis-for-the-natural-world hypothesis", as I said -- and as your own definition of religion seems to agree.

Without the "beyond the natural world" part, you still have communities, traditions, ideologies -- but you don't have RELIGION. Humanism -- again, by YOUR definition -- is not a religion.

Take away the supernatural -- which you agree, includes God -- and the forces of good can keep right on serving their communities. If faith is neither positive or negative -- your words -- then you can do without it.

It's the bad guys -- the Falwells and Robertsons, the Bushes, Cheneys and Roves, the right-wing whack jobs -- that can't do without faith. Without faith, how do you justify killing abortion doctors? For that matter, how do you justify flying planes into the World Trade Center?

Faith is the opposite of Reason -- and these days, we just can't afford to continue encouraging "unReasonableness".

Edited at 2009-12-21 12:31 am (UTC)
amaebi From: amaebi Date: December 21st, 2009 05:04 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Treating what I think are purely rhetorical questions as genuine

Well, Reed, I keep trying to tell you that for me and for people who experience faith as I do, there isn't all that difference between reliance on relationship with God and reliance on chairs. It's a little unclear to me whether you think I'm lying to you, being disingenuous with myself, or simply wrong.

But it's clearly not worth further effort.

I like you and I'll continue reading you, even when you're explaining to me what my life is like and I'm not understanding. :D

smart_ted From: smart_ted Date: December 21st, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Treating what I think are purely rhetorical questions as genuine

Hi, Mary Ann has been linking me to this conversation with you for some time. And I have to say, you really don't know Mary Ann if you can say, "I don't think you're this... philosophical... in daily life." MA is EVEN MORE philosophical in real life. I have known her for over 20 years now.

Also, I am an atheist. Probably one of the ones she referenced earlier. I don't think there is a god, haven't my whole life -growing up with a committed communist has some effects--but I am perfectly willing to accept that there might be. I am also perfectly will to accept that other people view the world in a say completely differently than I do and that we can both be right.

I don't think that religion is the the heart of evil, for me it is the conviction that there is only one way to do things and that everyone must follow that singe method. Whether it is a supernatural being, god, unicorns, or a political party, or the "scientific method" (which I really, really like) -- it is the conviction of Truth and Rightness and Everyone must fall in line that creates evil. Sadly, many religions, particularly, in the west, want that. Personally, I like the Shinto idea -- this is the way we interact with the world, but we can add or subtract what makes it better for us to interact with people and the world. My grandmother? Shinto/Methodist/Buddhist and the most practical woman in the world.

Believing that there is something beyond, doesn't mean that you don't understand the physical world, but if MA believes that a supernatural entity helps her help other people, why should she change? She isn't hurting anyone, she certainly doesn't force her beliefs on anyone, she simply helps them live there lives believing whatever they want. I don't see it, but it makes the world a better place. If it made the world a worse place, then yeah, I can see wanting her to change, but it doesn't.

Anyway, as one atheist to another, I think that what Mary Ann feels she's not getting across to you is that for her the physical world, in a very philosophical sense, IS what you perceive, not what IS. For me? It makes my brain hurt, but she does it easily.

smart_ted From: smart_ted Date: December 21st, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Treating what I think are purely rhetorical questions as genuine

Sorry about the spelling problems. My keyboard is starting to fight me and I tend to type faster than it responds. :-) Lisa
unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: December 22nd, 2009 07:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, hi! :)

I know I come off as raving by the end of these discussions with Mary Ann. I can't help it.

A GREAT DEAL of what she says "makes my brain hurt".

I don't want MA to change. I just want her to MAKE SENSE (to me). Is that so much to ask? ;)

She objected to me reducing religion to a single definition -- but then provided a definition she uses, which I swear says exactly the same thing.

She says faith is neither positive nor negative -- yet she relies on God at the same level she relies on chairs. Is she saying that ISN'T faith? I give up.

And yeah, I *DO* think religion either directly causes, or at the very least enables, most of the evil in the world. It encourages anti-intellectualism. Religion claims that faith is a path to knowledge -- and usually, on par with (or superior to) scientific knowledge.

Whether or not there IS a God, the human "experience" of God is a "gut feeling" -- and THAT is indistinguishable from everyday, non-religious "gut feelings".

"Gut feelings" *CANNOT* be treated equally with science and the scientific method. We've come too far to return to the Dark Ages.

No matter how badly liberal religious folk may wish otherwise, reason and faith have always stood, WILL always stand, in direct opposition to each other. No matter how much good Mary Ann does (and I believe she does do good) -- by simply promoting faith in her community, she erodes reason. And in this day and age, I simply don't think we can afford that any longer.

If by that last paragraph, you're suggesting that Mary Ann truly lives in a fact-free world -- where if a person perceives unicorns in their garage, then "who are we to say they're not there?" -- where each individual REALLY DOES have "their own truth", in an absolute sense -- then there really is no hope of communication between us. As far as she's concerned, she REALLY DOES live in another universe than I do.

I'm hoping that's not so, and she and I can at least agree that there IS an external reality, even if we can't agree on what it is...
amaebi From: amaebi Date: January 1st, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
It took me a while to decide whether to respond, but as you see, I decided to, in a limited way.

Yes, I share with you the faith that there is external reality-- and I even have faith that my senses give me some useful access to it, that your senses give you some useful access to it, and that our senses probably agree reasonably well. But it's faith: there's no objective proof.

This is due to an interesting feature of scientific inference well-known to philosophers of science: That having the statement "A implies B" and having oodles of B doesn't give you an ounce of objective A.
unbeliever64 From: unbeliever64 Date: January 2nd, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yay! We can completely agree on something again! :)

Well, I wouldn't call our perception of external reality "faith" -- at least not on anything like the same level as religious faith -- but apparently you DO. Faith in God *IS* the same as faith in wall or chair. (It takes a stunning amount of mental effort on my part to conceive of anyone thinking this way -- I'm not at all sure I can actually do it.)

You're talking my language in that last paragraph. You are absolutely correct -- from a purely logical standpoint (which I frequently advocate!), if "A implies B", and "B" is true, this says nothing about "A". Many things (even completely contradictory things) might also lead to "B".

(If "B" turns out to be false, however, we've established that "A" is also false.)

Science is rarely about PROOF, however. If "A" is the most straightforward (known) explanation for "B", and "B" is established as true, then barring further evidence, "A" can at least be tentatively accepted (not proven) as true. Especially if other, independent study also points in the same direction.

If later down the road, we find something that contradicts "A", we'll just have to re-evaluate our thinking. That's science. :)

We can never prove God false. For that matter, we can never prove that we don't all live inside The Matrix, with machines tending to our REAL bodies as we jointly experience this artificial "reality".

But as things stand, we have no evidence of God (or The Matrix), and there are more straightforward explanations for what we perceive.

I stand by my original post (which I thought was very well-written and fair) -- religion is, charitably speaking, a hypothesis. Scientifically speaking, there are better ones.

[I still wish I knew how MY definition of religion was in any way more restrictive or demeaning than yours...]

Thanks for the response...
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