What Is A Religion (And What Is NOT)

This is taken (mostly) from a post I did a while ago ( Is Atheism a (Religion/Faith/Belief System/etc)? ), but one point I made in that post has come up again in a different context, so I thought I’d expand on one section of my earlier post.

A frequent commenter on my facebook page makes the claim that the United States is a religion. Not a christian country, but a religion itself (based at least in part on christian, roman, greek, egyptian, and possibly other influences). I find this position to be not only laughable, but his insistence on this point, despite being shown evidence to the contrary) has caused me to wonder if he truly understands what a religion is.

So, I’d like to answer two seemingly simple questions:
What exactly is a religion?
What is NOT a religion?

And from those answers, hopefully we can determine if the US really is a religion or if my first impression of this commenter was accurate.

First of all to give us a starting point we should define the word religion:

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.

The definition I have posted here is from that link above, and is the FIRST definition given, and I think the most commonly accepted and widely used definition.

So let’s break it down a bit.

a set of beliefs
Well many groups of people hold beliefs. I (along with millions of other people) own an iPhone. I own one because I believe it to be the best combination of phone, MP3 Player, PDA available in the price range that I was willing to spend. I would assume that among the many millions of other iPhone owners, some percentage of them also hold this belief. So are iPhone owners a religion?

concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe
Well nothing about my owning an iPhone or my beliefs associated with the iPhone is related to the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. Ok, I am also an atheist. While being an atheist tells you very little about me (for instance it’s possible to be an atheist and still not accept evolution; that position makes no sense to me, but there are those who hold it) it does mean that you do not believe that “god” created the universe (since atheist lack a belief in god). So is atheism a religion?

when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies
Well as I stated in my original post (which this one is based upon) atheism rejects all claims of “creation of a superhuman agency or agencies” (and as I’ll get to in a moment, has no “devotional and ritual observances” or “moral code governing the conduct of human affairs”). So I guess atheism does not count as a religion either.

usually involving devotional and ritual observances
Well many groups have rituals. As a baseball fan, when at a game, we have the “7th Inning Stretch”. As a Dylan fan, at concerts, many of us do what I call the “Hippie Dance” (and no, I won’t do it for you, do don’t bother asking). As a person who loves astronomy, many of us ritually look up in the sky on a clear night. All of these could be considered rituals or possibly acts of devotion. But are they religions? Of course not.

and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
There are two primary institutions that govern conduct of people: religions and governments. So how is somebody to tell the difference between the two, especially since in some cases the line can be quite thin (theocracies for example). But for me, the difference is obvious, where does the institution get (or claim to get) it’s authority from. The United States, and all other democracies, get their authority and power from the citizens they govern. Religions get their authority from a god or gods (or at least claim to). Think back to the earlier parts of the definition; Does the United States have anything to say “concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe” or is it “considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies“? While some people may set George Washington up on a pedestal, nobody claims he was anything other than a mortal man. While Jefferson may have written one of the greatest documents of his time, nobody claims he was divine (and as an aside, I think he’d clearly be offended if anybody did make that claim of him).


As we can see, if you remove the supernatural aspect of the religion, than ANY club or ground would be a religion.
The religion of democrats or republicans.
The religion of NAMBLA (well, some of there members may overlap with the catholic church).
The religion of people who follow the Atlanta Braves, or the Washington Nationals.
Etc, etc, etc, you get the point…

So what is a religion? It is an organization that claims to be created by or inspired by the divine that concerns itself with the creation of the universe, has something to say about the creation of the universe, and rituals.

And what is not a religion? Everything else. Including the United States.

About Rodibidably

Jeff Randall is a frequent volunteer for free-thought organizations, including the Center For Inquiry – DC. Having been blogging since January 2008, he decided that a community of bloggers would be an interesting new experience (or at the very least a fun way to annoy his friends into reading his posts more frequently). Since finding out about about the existence of, and then joining, the atheist/skeptic community in 2007 he has been committed to community activism, critical thinking in all aspects of life, science, reason, and a fostering a secular society.
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