The word “religion” is a semantic amoeba with dubious usefulness because it is so ambiguous and yet so few people dare to challenge it. The ambiguity is part of the nature of the category, because it’s hoped to prevent conflict and because of ideas about tolerance, to be politically correct. The power struggle over how to define religion for various conflicting purposes is as much part of the problem as whatever “religion” really “is” in all its manifestations. Unspoken, the premise is that if I can convince others that certain idea-systems aren’t even religions, then I can rule out Islam or Taoism or Plains Indian systems because there’s no need to take them seriously or even try to understand what they’re talking about. This is only another side of the evidently basic biological drive to define all rival peoples as NOT people, but only animals of some sort, not as elevated as we are. This justifies killing and enslavement, because that’s how we treat animals.
Part of the power of stigma and subversiveness is manipulating separation boundaries to give permission for what we want to do anyway -- which is to get rid of competitors on our turf. An alternative, but related, strategy is the idea of Evil as inside-out Good. Much of the interest in Satanic, Dionysian, or depraved cults of death, and other exciting systems, comes from the need for a defensive “religion” that uses the figures of the conventional in reversals. Upside down crosses, etc. The idea is to shock and repel attempts at control by mocking them with evil versions of what is conventionally accepted as good or at least powerless. (The Stephen King strategy: the horrifying prom girl or the homicidal dog.) One can’t be TOO unconventional, or no one will realize that they are being opposed, which is a different kind of subversive strategy, more dangerous.
People who obey social rules are considered “religious” without religion. My extended family is a good example of the religious “nones”. They are entirely respectable: no drinking, no smoking, no cursing, no drugging, no gambling, well-dressed, well-kept nice homes, newish cars always clean, good jobs, achieving kids -- but clearly not the result of attending church because they don’t. Nor are they this way because of believing in God or any other impossible magic ideas -- though if you had a clipboard in your hand they would tell you they believe in God.
They believe in not risking, in not inviting criticism, in having nice friends who share conventional mainstream indignations and affinities. This adds up to something that is more like participating in the dominant culture than what books describe as religion. If something embarrassing happens, it is soon explained and the subject changed. If something truly tragic happens, then the talk is of “healing.” This is the default. It is no one’s “fault.” It’s simply what is. Their worst flaw is protective hypocrisy. This is not ethics by rule, but “teleological” (controlled by the goal) so as to return to peace and respectability.
Watch out for the following, because it has a lot of unreliable sarcasm in it. It’s a list of various and sometimes irreconcilable but meanings of the word “religion” accepted in various contexts.
1. A system for organizing one’s life with the goals of safety and prosperity. This is often culturally bound, esp. in the handling of topics forbidden to discuss, like abortion, sex outside marriage, same sex relationships, resistance to sexual dyads or variations. It might be called morality. The Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.
2. Belief in a god or gods, either as a reassurance or as an intimidation. For some people, god or Jesus or Buddha as a role model. (Why imitate when you could become?) Conventional mainstream people, like much of our pop media, can only imagine religion in terms of “God,” so the struggle over defining an imaginary being obscures everything else.
3. Denial of a belief in any god or gods. (A-theism and science count as religions.) Or seeing god in everything, maybe including ourselves, or just ignoring the issue altogether.
4. Complex theologies developed through reflection rather like mathematics, often called “systematics.” These are very serious, the basis of schools for professional clergy and scholars, and sometimes as much dressing up culture with theory as insights into reality. They often are related to politics in their role as justification.
5. Mystic awareness of the sacred. People do write about this and love to read about it, but it is the ultimate version of something that needs no words: just point.
6. The sacred as a system of taboos meant to protect, respect, preserve -- like not walking on graves, wearing or not wearing a hat in a dedicated sacred building, and so on. Not eating other people might be the most extreme example, but there are cultures where cannibalism shows respect and merging.
7. A theology used by institutions to justify themselves and therefore merged with one particular system by use of terms like “god” in pledges and legal matters. God as a wax seal of authenticity.
8. Ultimate authority, sometimes used to justify nations and the claims of their leaders. A “tie-breaker” or mediator that can avoid violence, like the Pope in medieval Europe.
9. Magic. Casting spells and controlling events or people.
10. Ghosts and dragons. Escaping to impossible events, a craving for miracles.
11. Valorization of the naturally sacred: mountains, oceans, trees.
12. Social efforts to control whatever seems harmful, whether suicide, oppression, killing of children, and other taboos about sex, food, money, clothing, and so on. This is where morality meets magic. (Stopping tragedy seems impossible except with miracles.)
13. The effect of writing on religion is profound. But the Sacred “Book” is valorized how? The Bible is “curated,” meaning censored by a committee of old men at the Council of Nicaea. The Apocrypha is part of the material left out from the same period and reputedly from the same prophets.
14. Virtue can be an inadvertent plan for extinction. One reason to protect the stigmatized is that they might be better suited for the bottleneck times than conventionally adjusted people.
My interest in this new field of “Deep Time” is of intense usefulness to me because I think one source of clarification might be going back to a period BEFORE there was any religion. How did religion form? How do human brains recognize what is sacred in the terms of Eliade, a felt difference that sets some situations apart? What, even in our modern brains, still wants to pray? How can interacting molecules floating in a red soup separated from the world outside our bodies by a thin easily-torn skin, make us feel so convinced that we have a unique identity and that we are making our own choices?
Some, who see religion as “organized” and therefore a matter of institutions with hierarchies and duties, claim religion did not exist before agriculture was invented, because there is no evidence of temples before that. (Their “definition” of religion requires temples). But if one goes to the kind of religion we call “spirituality,” which is just about as variously defined as “religion”, that certainly is not confined to agricultural communities. Pre-industrial hunting is trying to become in harmony with the world and therefore sensitive to opportunities to get prey. If the farmer’s religion is based on crops, the hunter’s religion is based on sign, and there you have it: Jacob and Esau. Still arguing about what to eat.
Luckily, partly because of the new research on how the brain and body neurons function to guide us, what genetic research reveals, and the greatly expanded understanding of the planet’s time-line, there is a body of people thinking about these issues. There’s still the issue of virtue giving eternal life in some other place, the problem of how a decidedly finite and vulnerable body can live forever and whether anyone would really want to, and just what might a “soul” be like -- a part of one’s identity that is separable from one’s body but imperceptible and possibly not even conscious.
Have the terms of survival really changed? Is virtue a waste of energy?