How would you define RELIGION?

There is this interesting article from the Harvard Human Rights Journal by T. Jeremy Gunn, which I recently read. And as the God/s have willed it (keeping to the theme of religion) that article is found online here: The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of “Religion” in International Law.

Since the article is available online I will just provide the few main points, rather than the more detailed summary that I had initially planned. And spend more time on the interesting issues that arises (at least to me) after reading the article.

1) Basis
There are two main approaches to definition:
– Essentialists: Identify elements that are essential and necessary before it can be a religion.
– Polythetic: No religion have a specific element in common yet they all share a form of resemblances to each other.

2) Real Religion?: Sects and Cults
Some have tried to distinguish between “real” religion or cultish religion. One question that I would have is, is it possible to have a “Jedi” (Star Wars) religion if say the person in question really and truly believes in it. Some more relevant examples mentioned are the Scientologists, Falun Gong.

3) Religion: A view across the trenches
One interesting problem with regards to religious discrimination and how it may be necessary to look at those who seek to discriminate and persecute as a point of definition. Specifically on what they perceive as the characteristic. Example given is that of racial discrimination where biologist would provide that race is not a scientific concept. You should look at the article as it explains this interesting concept far better than I do.

4) Religion: Culture & History
The article talks about how religion may not really be about religion. It may relate to the person’s identity, way of life such as rituals, policies against women or homosexuals etc. And in such instances, the person may not actually have that much in depth knowledge of the religion in question. Examples would include things done in the name of Islam in the Middle East but is not practiced or condoned in say Indonesia. Or perhaps closer to West, the divide over churches on the issue of same sex marriage.

5) Types of Persecution
The article goes on with regards to various types of persecution although the one that is the most interesting relates to persecution through application of “neutral laws.”

As stated in the article there have been attempts to define religion but they have not been successful. Thus the following are some issues that came to my mind when reading the article.

A) I was wondering how would you people define it, taking into account the various issues raised in the article on the elements of religion.
B) Whether should there be any distinction between cults and religion and if so would that allow, say a”Jedi” religion and would preventing such recognition be against the protection of religion.
C) How can we define religion to take into account it being the identity or customs of a particular region rather than of the particular religion?
D) Also with regards to the issue of discrimination, where a particular religion is persecuted by another for some perceived characteristics that is clearly false and not part of the religion, how should we deal with such a situation.

Wider Context: Importance of definition
The definition of religion obviously goes towards determining whether protection is offered to a particular group. An example given in the article talks about immunity for refugees facing religious persecution. But it can affect rights in other areas.

Religion has often been used as a shield by countries to “protect” certain practices that seem more rooted in the culture of the place such as female genital mutilation or to be used as a sword in persecuting certain groups of people such as homosexuals, race, etc. If one were to define such practices as culture rather than religion it would mean a great deal of difference.

But the question is how much of what is acceptable ultimately is due to society. For example, violence against women has been supported by some passage in the bible but most people, even the bulk of conservative Christians would not seek to argue that curtailment of domestic violence is a curtailment of religion. Yet one might argue why is the position taken different with regards to sexual minorities.

Misc: Some Final Thoughts
There are some side questions that are not really related per se but yet it popped up when I was reading the article. Freedom of religion generally means that one is free to choose their religion and a corollary to this is the freedom to proselytize. Do you think the freedom to proselytize is an example of a neutral law that actually favors the missionary religions, for there are many religions where proselytizing is not a major part of the religion.

Finally, with regards to persecution and perceived characteristics. In the lead up to Nazi Germany, there were anti-semetic literature making the wild and obviously bigoted accusations that the Jewish people were poisoning the blood or are somehow evil or morally corrupt. One question is why did the people made these wild accusations. Could it be them (both the perpetrators and the bystanding public) seeking to verbally and mentally justify, at least to themselves the actions taken, when deep down they know such actions are inherently wrong? There is no such vilification of murderers, criminals, etc because we inherently know what they did is wrong. If so, is the situation the same with respect to homsexuals where the wild accusations made against them are quite similar, that of “poisoning the human blood,” being evil and morally corrupt.

Hindsight allows one to look back and easily state that something is wrong but the trick is to determine that something is indeed rotten in the state even before history and the majority kicks in. For those who believe in religion, perhaps in each generation and region there is a test to see which path a person would take, the path taken by a majority which loudly trumpets its policies like a gaudy salesperson selling its products of perseuction, passing off the name of morality and goodness but ultimately is the path to perdition. Or the path taken by the minority working and fighting for the rights of the persecuted and being a true guardian angel, earning their wings before ascending.

1 thought on “How would you define RELIGION?

  1. I read through the introduction and look forward to getting time to read all of it.  The problem I think is honestly not the universal definition of religion, but the definition of religion practical to law.

    Here is my universal definition of religion:  Religion is any belief system about the supernatural and/or paranormal.

    This definition however is not very useful to lawmakers when they are trying to figure out who gets protection and who doesn’t.  In the context of trying to define religion so that laws can be made to protect some over others, I would say that it is impossible to define it in such a case because the pluralistic society we live in is going to conflict with which and how to hold up certain fundamental values that all the variety of religions will disagree on.

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