A thought experiment

Some scholars of religion criticize the very category of religion. There are several possible critiques, including:

  • “Religion” as typically defined by Western scholars assumes Western religion as a norm, so that for example belief in a supernatural, transcendent deity is a defining characteristic of religion, even though significant numbers of Buddhists and Confucians do not require such belief.
  • “Religion” can’t be separated from the larger culture; there is no religion separate from art, politics, sport, etc.

So here’s a thought experiment. Let’s jettison, just for the moment, the usual definition of religion as something separate from the rest of culture, something that requires belief in a perhaps unbelievable deity, and something the must be associated with a hierarchical or otherwise organized institutional structure.

Once we jettison that definition, we can understand religion as something that is akin to art and politics: it is something that is integral to culture, something that cannot easily be separated out from culture. Using this model of reality, we can make more sense of some otherwise baffling phenomena. Celebrity culture in the West, for example, may be considered as a religious phenomenon: Oprah and Princess Diana are saintly figures in just the same way as the Dalai Lama and the Pope are, which makes it more understandable why they receive the kind of religious veneration as the Dalai Lama and the Pope. Sports may also be considered as a religious phenomenon, right down to the orgiastic frenzies, reminiscent of Bacchic rituals, in which those who are not followers of one’s own sect are physically assaulted. Art and music may also be understood as religious phenomena: we’re all familiar with analogies between rock concerts and religious rites; and, speaking for myself, I get as much religious inspiration by going to an art museum as I get in a worship service.

If religion must be understood more broadly in this way, how then are we to characterize Western-style organized religion? It is a subset of religion, a specific manifestation of the way our broader culture does religion. We might consider it a discipline; early Christians sometimes referred to what they did as a disciplina, and it is Christianity more than anything else which has narrowed our Western understanding of what constitutes religion. However, “discipline” is somewhat problematic because it implies that this kind of religion can perhaps be done by oneself, which is clearly not the case. We could also speak of institutional religion, as opposed to other religious activities such as art, politics, etc.; organized religion is a less accurate way of saying much the same thing, for to say “organized” doesn’t tell us that this is religion organized into institutions.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this thought experiment. What do you think?