|Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism.|
Back in the late Neolithic when I was in grad school, I was asked a question on a comprehensive exam, “What is religion?” This is a live question in the field of religious studies. Is Marxism a religion? Is scientism? Is secular humanism? If they are not, why is Confucianism? Is Taoism? What about Buddhism? After all, it says it has no god. Freemasonry?
This is also a live question in jurisprudence. We recognize a right to freedom of religion. What if I say my religion requires me to use mescaline and marijuana as a sacrament? What if it requires human sacrifice? Do you have the right to make that criminal? What if I say my religion means I cannot serve in Vietnam? But then, nobody wants to serve in Vietnam. Can’t anyone say so? What makes their claim a religious one?
At the time, it being a relatively relativistic time, I ducked a dogmatic answer. I suggested there were generic similarities we could use to classify: is there a regular worship service? Are there rules of conduct to follow?
At the time, I thought this was satisfactory; given the implied truth that there was no clear and definite answer. My grad supervisors thought so too.
It has taken me more or less a lifetime, but I now suspect I can do better.
Here is the definition I propose: a religion is a truth claim. Short and sweet.
Seems almost too simple, but I think it works.
We are all here to seek truth. Every once on a million kalpas or so, someone stumbles upon one. Bound to happen.
And so a religion grows and extends around this precious pearl.
To be clear, I am not talking about, for example, what we call the truths of science. That is a misnomer. There are no truths in science. There are properly only hypotheses that have not been disproven. Popper, rightly, says that to be scientific, a statement must be hypothetically capable of being falsified. But to say so is also to say that it is not a decided truth. If a thing is indeed established as true, there is no longer any possibility of disproving it.
If, on the other hand, you come up while strolling on life’s beach with some shiny thing, something you, even if you alone, are utterly convinced cannot be disproven tomorrow, that exists of its own authority and is absolutely true, then, Bob being your near relative but a little beyond your nuclear family, you have a religion.
Other things follow from this core of truth, but it is in truth the core. With it, you must have a religion. Without it, you cannot have one.
So: let’s go through the list of proposed religions.
Buddhism is a religion. The contention that it does not believe in God is not the point. It is founded on the Four Noble Truths, which are absolute truths about human existence.
They are, roughly,
To exist is to suffer.It is worth noting that these truths are entirely compatible with the truths of Christianity, or the other monotheistic religions, or probably any religion. There is no question of the one negating the other; there is no question of claimed truths being in contradiction.
Suffering is caused by ignorance.
Ignorance can be overcome, and suffering ended.
The following techniques end ignorance: to wit, Buddhist practice. “Skillful means.”
Confucianism is a religion. It does not clearly enunciate the point, but it is founded on the absolute reality of moral right and wrong, and on the contention that the good, if known, must be followed. It shares this conviction with the ethical monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. No conflict here. Other religions may not share this truth, of the absolute nature of right and wrong; but no notable religion in our sense denies it. Again, Confucianism is perfectly compatible with the other religions.
Marxism is not a religion. By its own terms of reference, it is a scientific theory, open to being disproven. As such, moreover, it has been disproven. So it is bad as science, and worse as religion. Some people, many people, have erroneously elevated Marxism to the status of a personal religion. They are simply in error. Their claimed truth, the hypothesis of dialectical materialism and the value of labour to production and the succession of classes and ideologies in history, and so forth, is false.
The same with Scientism. Scientism is a fundamental misunderstanding of science, thinking that it establishes truths. This is wrong as religion, and wrong as science. First of all, science makes no warrant that its hypotheses are true; secondly, science keeps disproving them; so accepting them as truth in the proper sense is simply, again, a mistake.
The first to commit this error was probably Galileo. Not incidentally—this is why he ran into conflict with the religious authorities of the day. Put simply, the inquisitors were right on this, and Galileo was wrong. The most recent obvious example is “climate change” alarmism, which puts too much faith in the latest scientific hypothesis. Not that it ought to be ignored, but it is not a dogma or a certainty.
Science, on the other hand (very much not the same as Scientism), if not itself a religion, is properly seen as an extension of the Christian religion or monotheism generally: it is founded on the realization that the universe is ordered, that it makes sense and follows laws. This presupposes a Creator. There is a reason science arose where it did. It is based on the perceived truth of the existence of God. This does not mean that any specific product of science, any scientific hypothesis, is true.
It is not just that science, like Confucianism, is fully compatible with monotheism. It is that science presupposes monotheism, is an expression of it. Without the truth of monotheism, there is no science. So it is not in itself a religion. Any more than is, say, going to Communion.
Secular humanism is also religious in its foundations, but not itself properly a separate religion. It is founded on the assertion of human rights and of essential human dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” Properly speaking, this is again a form or branch of monotheism, compatible with and historically deriving from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It requires belief in the Creator. Conversely, belief in the Creator requires it.
Taoism is a religion. It believes in an absolute reality, the Tao, which it believes is ineffable—that no words can possibly describe it. Nevertheless, it can be directly experienced. It is not really in disagreement with Judaism or Islam or Christianity; the reality it perceives may well be the same. Judaism and Islam agree that it is ineffable. There is a conflict with Christianity if this ineffability is past of the fundamental revelation; if it is considered part of its truth that truth cannot be spoken. But then, this assertion is almost an automatic self-contradiction in any case: if truth cannot be spoken, then the truth that truth cannot be spoken cannot be spoken. Yet that is what you just said. So it cannot be true.
So it cannot itself be a part of the truth. Rather, it is a strategy, a way of conveying the truth. Leaving Taoism fully compatible with other religions.
Paganism, shamanism, is not a religion. It does not believe in any absolutes; it is empirical, simply dealing with what works and what seems helpful. Did the dance make it rain? Did the god accept the sacrifice? It believes in the reality of the spirit world, but even this, I think, only provisionally: it is what appears to be so. The reality of the physical world, similarly, is provisional. Real or not, I do not want to stub my toe on that rock. Shamanism in practice is not compatible with any of the religions, with a few exceptions. It can get along with Taoism, because Taoism makes no definite assertions.
Is mathematics a religion? Yes, it is, to my mind. I believe, like Plato or Pythagoras, that mathematical truth is a priori: the Pythagorean theorem is true in the absence of any triangles. If you believe with some Aristotelians or with Hume, that all we really know is that so far, in all the examples we have looked at, 2 + 2 has equalled 4, and next time, golly, it may not, then it is not a religious matter to you. Pythagoreanism, indeed, is a religion, and is founded on mathematics as an essential truth. For Christians, mathematical truth is a part of the Logos—the fundamental truth of the universe. It is part of the effable nature of God.
And the same is so for logical truths; things like Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction. Yes, they are by their nature religious, and are incorporated into Christianity as part of the nature of God.
The essential truth of Islam is of course contained in the simple formula: there is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. From that, everything else deduced.
Similar declarations of truth, longer or shorter, simpler or more complex, can be isolated for any other religion.