Every man has a religion
The present essay traces the volume’s central question “What is religion” from a theological, anthropological and socio-biological perspective. In my opinion it is a crucial question affecting all of human species, since as proven by history, religion holds great potential for peace and reconciliation, yet concomitantly it is the source of great conflict and tension, thereby showing its ‘Janus face’. The complexity and the difficulty of defining religion are well illustrated by scholarly debates.First, there is the problem of what a definition has to accomplish and secondly, the concept of religion itself appears to be culturally biased despite its global acceptance. The problem extends here especially into the legal and political context of religious diversity. The UN proposes a broad understanding of the freedom of consciousness including naturalistic worldviews indicating no legal definition of religion has yet garnered a consensus and no convincing general theory of religion exists.
An essayist discussion of a definition of religion is best to begin with the unsettled debate on the etymological origin of the Latin term religio. Cicero used the term religio (piety,diligence, relegere) to describe the diligent compliance with traditional codes of practices regarding the Roman temple cult as opposed to inordinate religious practices, or superstititio (ecstasy). Four centuries later, an alternative understanding was proposed by Lactantius and St. Augustinus, who understood the term as being derived from religare (linking or binding), connoting a bond of piety between devotee and God. In the middle ages the term religiosus came to denote the Christian clerical order in canon law, precisely in that meaning it is used until today. In contrast to superstition, religion indicated a certain set of doctrines believed to be true. The era of Reformation then resulted in the close linking of Christianity and political structures, religion gradually became more locally defined and religious and political identity converged. At this point, Christian religion came to denote dogma in both meaning and practice, confined to established churches as the idea of dogma as personal choice was just on the rise. During the era of Enlightenment, an abstract understanding of the term religion developed in Europe, building the sub-structure for contemporary approaches of a definition and interpretation of religion.
As Europeans began to study religions, they tended to use the religions most familiar to them, namely Judaism and Christianity, as a general model. The interaction between Europeans and non-European cultures in trade and colonialism initiated the stretching of the category of religion to an observable behavior carried out by natives. Highly simplified, and just as well conclusive, Bowen has assessed that Europeans assumed all religions would have three central elements: a central text, exclusivity, and separation. While this model of religion worked well to describe European practices, it fit poorly with religions in India, China, and Japan. First, in the East-Asian context, no single book provides a shared creed for practitioners of religion in these societies; instead, each contains a large number of books written on diverse aspects of life and on teachers and organizations of followers. Second, the idea of exclusivity does not fit with norms in these societies. Third, the idea of a separate religious sphere is historically not familiar to religious traditions in Asia. This is to say that the historically evolved concept of religion is difficult to extent across non-European cultures without due consideration.
The term religion thus was developed by Western modes of thought and imagination and does therefore not necessarily have equivalents in all languages. Non-European languages which did not borrow the term religion, do not show fully equivalent words and characterize the phenomenon with multiple terms. The words used in other languages for similar concepts have also substantially different histories. It is therefore safe to assess, that the interaction of non-Christian communities with the religious category is therefore an interaction with an idea that first developed in Christian Europe. Yet, one might not forget, that the World Congress of Religion in 1893 was crucial amongst other events in the global establishment of the European-Christian definition of religion in theological, academic and public discourses. During the nineteenth century the term religion also changed to include the history of religions, and most of the modern names for religions were coined. Today we know the above mentioned collections of texts and teachers under the general rubric of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Shinto, but these labels are ‘modern inventions’ (Bowen 2005: 27),
In the following, I will present a discussion of different scholarly perspectives on a definition of religion. ‘(T)here is no consensus, perhaps there will never be’, Jose Casanova (1994: 26) has remarked, ‘as to what counts as religion’. Jeremy Gunn has pointed out that ‘while the absence of an adequate definition of religion might at first seem troubling, it should be born in mind that the difficulty of establishing definitions is pervasive in academic fields’. He refers to two important aspects of definitions of religion. The first involves assumptions about the underlying nature of religion (what is being defined). The second involves the type of definition that is to be used (how the term is defined). ‘Once the underlying theoretical assumptions are identified, there still remains the difficulty of the form that the definition will take’ (Gunn 2003: 194).
In this context, a monothetical and a polythetical definition may be identified. A monothetical definition identifies the elements necessary for an observable behavior to be designated as a religion. Whenever a definition is essentialist, it assumes that religion has one or more elements in common with all other religions. Here the Sacred and its classifiers dominate the debate. The classic Frazerian definition of religion ‘religion consists of two elements … a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them’, or Spiro’s definition of ‘religion as an institution consisting of culturally postulated interactions with culturally postulated superhuman beings’ may serve as examples for essential definitions. The traditional approach has been to treat these constituent parts monothetically; that is, to consider all elements as necessary and, when taken together, sufficient to define religion.
Catholic philosopher John Hick has pointed to the major division between religious and naturalistic definitions. A naturalistic definition of religion treats religion as a purely human phenomenon and maintains the skeptical view that ‘religious experience is in toto delusory’(Hick 1992: 1). Naturalistic interpretations of religion ‘view the variety of religions as proof of religion as human projection and illusion’(Hick 1987: 333) and describe religion as ‘a purely human activity or state of mind’ (Hick 1992: 3). Such definitions have been atheist, relativist, phenomenological, psychological and sociological (anthropological). A dogmatic definition of religion has been developed within the confines of a particular confessional conviction. An exclusive dogmatic definition would hold that ‘it is all delusory except that of the own tradition’ and tends therefore to ‘construe all other traditions in its own terms’ (Hick 1992: 1). Dependent on the religion adhered to, in my opinion, varying degrees of a pluralistic, inclusive and exclusive awareness and understanding would prevail in the collective or/and individual structures bearing and shaping such traditions.
In this context, I’d like to refer to Hick’s (1987: 333) ‘pluralist hypothesis’. Hick has arrived at a third possibility of defining religion, a faith based or religious interpretation that views the same phenomenon as awareness of a range of human responses to a transcendent or mind-independent reality (the REAL). Accordingly, Hick has maintained faith systems ‘constitute different ways of life in relation to the Real’ which ‘transcends human manifold visions of it’ (Hick 1992: 236). Consequently, ‘an interpretation of religionmust account for the fact that there is a plurality of historical channels of thought and imagination formed by religio-cultural traditions’ (Hick 1992: 2). Hick’s effort to stretch the understanding of the Real, a mind-independent reality, from an exclusive to a pluralistic one is remarkable, yet, in my view, despite providing a transcendent and an immanent perspective, it is a problematical essential definition, since it implies out there might really be a mind-independent reality. Hence, its extension would cause the otherwise viable definition to exclude Theravada-Buddhism, Confucianism, and other non-theist expressions of religion. Still, the thereby derived “pluralist hypothesis” which conceptualizes religion as path or process constitutes a viable research tool regarding the organization of religious diversity.
‘(R)eligion takes such widely different forms and is interpreted in such widely different ways’, Hick (1992: 5) states, ‘that it cannot be adequately defined but only described’. Each religious tradition has been influenced by cultural forces which rest in turn upon a complex of geographical, climatic, economic and political factors. According to the anthropologist Talal Asad, it is thus required for scholars to determine what they mean by religion on a case-by-case basis. Asad (1993: 29) holds ‘there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes’. Consequently, religious traditions should be conceptualized as emic category in order to describe a particular belief system bound to its respective locally defined community of practice. In sum, one might assess the concept of religion has to be properly formulated in order to observe the required (academic, legal, civic, political) purpose at hand.
The second type of definition, the polythetic does not require that all religions have specific elements in common. ‘Although scholars occasionally define religion in terms of a single property’, George Alles (2005: 7703) has added, ‘they more often conceive of it in terms of an explicit or implicit conjunction of properties’. Hick (1992, 4) has posited ‘there are no characteristics that every member (of the family or the cluster) must have, nevertheless there are characteristics distributed sporadically and in varying degrees which together distinguish this form from a different family’. Polythetic definitions see no particular property as necessary to religion and consider the presence of a collection of properties selected from a master set as sufficient to make a specific item a member of the class called religion.
The anthropologist James W. Dow (2007) has defined religion not as a as an extra-somatic program but as behavioral capacity that had previously come into existence because of some success it had for survival and reproduction. He has remarked critically that the existence of transcendental entities which are the basis of religious thought and action cannot be validated by direct observation. Dow writes ‘evolution does not create essences. It creates new genetic codes, not grand conceptions’ (Dow 2007: 4). According to Dow, religious phenomena and religious behaviors can better be defined by avoiding vague intuitive elements or unobservable subjective elements such as meanings. Hence, in his view, religion was permitted through evolution, originating in the genetically inherited ability to environmental learning. Therefore, from the adaptation point of viewreligion has its function in human survival and reproduction in groups. Dow has concluded that religion’s ubiquity and its longevity argue in favor of its being adaptive in some way at this level.Dow then has proposed a provisional definition of religion according to modular complexes that have been set up by evolution to solve adaptive problems. Following the work of E. O. Wilson, he has developed a odel on the complex gene-culture evolution of religion based on three modules. These modules are thought to be solutions to particular problems of survival and reproduction, evolved at different times and actually providing three separate means for identifying religion. Behavior that is produced by any one of these three modules can be considered as religious. Thus religion is defined as behaviour within any of these separate modules. The modules have evolved at different times with different adaptive functions. The systems are maintained by modules in the brain that are biologically reproduced in most humans. Different cultures put diverse emphasis on the three modules.
Following the work of Wallace, Dow has proposed that twelve observable universal behavioral complexes or categories as minimal definition of religion can evolve out of these modules which show that religion can be defined by observable behavior and put the definition of religion on a much more operational and practical footing than definitions that refer to meanings. In order to describe the totality of this collection of behavior, he writes, a single concept such as religion may not exist in every culture, but these behaviors outline something that exists in most cultures and ‘seems to be the thing that allows Westerners to perceive something that is acceptably “religious”‘ (Dow, 2007: 7). Thereby he has debunked the specific conception of religion as a collection of unified behavior as Western-centric myth. ‘Religion is a collection of behavior that is only unified in our Western conception of it’. (Dow, 2007: 7).
In the foregoing, I have outlined various definitions of religion. Honoring the socio-biologist argument, I’d like to remark, religion has to be interpreted by reference to biological and cultural factors, since the human capacity for religious thought and experience has its foundation in the human biological substructure, which can only come to full expression with cultural inputs and processes. Still, both proponents of the anthropological and the socio-biological definition agree in one central point: culture and religion are to be understood as adaptation to the environment and as devices for survival and reproduction.
In my words, religion always comes in the plural as ‘way of life’ or ‘path’ and each path denotes a related particular system of knowledge and practices. Since survival and reproduction of social groups are linked with their ability to transmit and to learn knowledge, the human ability of adaptive environmental learning interlocks nature, human species, civilizations and their cultures. If we consider culture and religion as environmental learning processes to secure survival, then they approximate and unify in their adaptation capability genuine to the human species. This universal or generic capability of human beings to form religio-cultural traditions, which in turn shape specific or particular genealogies of thought and imagination, is addressed by a radical broad, polythetical and functional-psychological interpretation of religion proposed by Edmund Weber. The Weberian definition is rooted neither in a confessional nor in an explicit secular understanding, but defines religion as a process originating in human nature, precisely ‘the perpetual examination accomplished by human mind concerning the problem of its own existence’.
Religion meint (…) in ihrer eigentlichen Bedeutung die unaufhörliche Auseinandersetzung des menschlichen Geistes mit dem Problem seiner Existenz, d.h. daß er seine Existenz auf Grund seines evolutionär bedingten freien Selbstbewußtseins letztendlich als unbestimmbar erfährt, gleichzeitig aber in dieser Unbestimmbarkeit seine konkrete Existenz kreativ und selbstverantwortlich bestimmen muß. Weber 2009: 1
Accordingly, religion does not represent final solutions of all mysteries, but it represents ‘ den ständigen lebenspraktischen Diskurs auf Grund der problematischen Verfassung der menschlichen Existenz‘. As a consequence, resulting from the confrontation of human beings with its irresolvable capability for existential closure, human beings constantly and successfully try to absolutize specific modes of self-determination, or orthodoxies. In the final instance, such collective-orthodox identifications of existence cannot appease the indeterminate free human mind; rather such identifications alienate humans from human nature itself. Whether portrayed as religious, atheistic or rational; such orthodoxies tend, even if such efforts are eventually in vain, to resort to violence in limiting or even extinguishing the evolutionary accrued and thus unshirkable Geistesfreiheit (freedom of mind/consciousness) of human beings. In spite of the ever victorious orthodoxisms, the lore of evolutionary induced indeterminableness of existence rekindles in human awareness time after time, revolutionizing reified self-determinations and clearing the passage for alternative models.
Das Sein des Menschen gründet eben nicht allein in seiner konkreten Selbstbestimmung, sondern auch in deren Aufhebung durch die seiner Existenz eigene Unbestimmbarkeit. Die existentielle Auseinandersetzung selbst, Religion, ist kulturell vielfältig ausgestaltet. Welche Form der Sache angemessener ist, dafür kann es kein absolutes Kriterium geben. Jedes Kriterium wäre nur wieder ein Resultat einer fragwürdigen Selbstbestimmung. Alle Formen, sie mögen von einem illusionären höheren Standpunkt aus begeistern oder abstoßen, sind gleichermaßen Ausgeburten der Freiheit des Selbstbewußtseins. Weber 2009: 2
In the Weberian perspective, the question whether a mind-independent reality exists puts no constraints to Weber’s dense definition. For a study of religious cultures, the definition includes, in my view, traditional and modern types and forms of religion and religiosity and explains the modern differentiations, their fuzzy and shifting boundaries and necessary uncertainties, as expressed in Casanova’s Janus face metaphor. Religions are born out of process genuine to human species only. Religions have phenomenological, structural, functional, semantic, pragmatic, psychological, biological and environmental aspects. They are therefore temporary and unique expressions of the individual or the collective; and since they construct the very conditions for their coming into “effect”, they contain the necessary possibility of negation and extinction of their existence at the same time. Therefore all cultures –also the cultures we call great world religions – are multivocally in my opinion, insofar as they contain many divergent voices which might range from a pro- to an anti-attitude. Religion is an active process of environmental adaptation and a discursive process of reifying and in turn rebelling against reified structures, adjusting them and thereby keeping the answer of human species to environment, each other and perhaps a mind-independent reality actualized by rejuvenating religion in accordance with situation, time and space.
Overlaying biological substructures, religion as cultural system has been socially constructed in discursive processes according to human needs in a particular historical context. The values and beliefs a religion as cultural system conveys will imprint themselves on each society via the channels of cultural transmission and socialization. Gotama has differentiated following facets of religion: a teaching of ethics and moral, a spiritual-religious teaching, a spiritual-philosophical teaching, a social organization, a way of life and a path to attain bliss and liberation. Accordingly, religion is both a personal matter or individual practice and a social reality or societal institution. As demonstrated, no definition of religion has garnered consensus. Since everyone participates in the process of existential examination (religion), according to Weber, it follows thereof that every human being has religion, precisely because religion concerns not just a few, but all people.
Diese Auseinandersetzung führt damit jeder Mensch, geschehe sie nun reflektiert oder nicht. In diesem Sinne ist Religion keine bloße Möglichkeit unter anderen, sondern unumgängliche Notwendigkeit. Sie ist daher keine Angelegenheit einzelner, sondern aller Menschen. Religion oder wie immer er die Auseinandersetzung nennen mag hat jeder. Weber 2008: 1
In the final analysis, Weber has established, the truth of modern religion, which has equally outpaced atheism and traditional forms of religions, may only be achieved by the self-determined and self-accounted world within human beings. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it is difficult to say which religious system is the best, since the value of religion is relative to each individual. Similarly, the question of value depends on the frame of reference, which is for religious systems primarily whether it helps or harms the practitioner. Since people need a religious system that fits them, it is impossible to state which system might be best. The doctrine and teaching which fits best to student’s capacities (the special outlook and diposition) is the one that fosters the well-being of the student. From this perspective, we can clearly see that many religious systems have arisen in this world that are beneficial to a great many beings.
Although they have great differences philosophically, they all have precepts for cultivating a good attitude toward others and helping them, which means calling for the practice of love, compassion, patience, contentment, and appreciating rules of society. Since all religions share these goals, it is important to respect them and value their contribution. Hopkins/Dalai Lama: 7
Precisely because religious doctrines contain multivocal components that are usable for (or at least compatible with) social and political progress, religion should be part of the civil, public and political agenda. Why? Because ‘each religion has been beneficial for many people in the past, continues to be in the present, and will be in the future’. (Hopkins/Dalai Lama: 7)
Asad, T. 1993: Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, Md
Alles, G. D.
- 2005: Religion [Further Considerations]. In: Jones, Lindsay (Ed). Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 11. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 7701-7706. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. UB Frankfurt. (http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.ub.uni-frankfurt.de), accessed August 2008
- 2008: Religious Studies, a global view. New York.
Bowen, J. 2005: Religions in practice: an approach to the anthropology of religion. Boston.
Casanova, J. 1994: Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago and London.
- 2006: The Evolution of Religion: Three Anthropological Approaches. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. 18:1, 67-91. (http://personalwebs.oakland.edu/~dow/personal/vitae/papers.htm), accessed August 2008
- 2007: A Scientific Definition of Religion. 1-15. (www.anpere.net), accessed August 2008
- 2008: Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation? In: Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11:2 (http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/11/2/2.html), accessed September 2008
- 2010a: Dīn. In: Bearman, P. et al. (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online. Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main. (www.brillonline.nl.proxy.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/subscriber/entry? entry=islam_COM-0168) accessed: 30 March
- 2010b: Islām. In: Bearman, P. et al. (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online. Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main. (www.brillonline.nl.proxy.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/subscriber/entry? entry=islam_COM-0387) accessed: 30 March 2010
Gotama, A. 2002: Agama, Kepribadian dan Spiritualitas. Warta Hindu Dharma, June 2002. 424: 11-14
Gunn, J. T. 2003: The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of “Religion” in International Law. In: Harvard Human Rights Journal, vol. 16 (spring 2003), 189-217 (http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/ hrj/iss16/gunn.shtml), accessed August 2008
- 1987: Religious Pluralism. In: Eliade, Mircea (Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 12. New York. 331-333.
- 1992: An Interpretation of Religion. Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven.
Hopkins, J. (ed.) 2010: His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Becoming Enlightened. London et al.
Knoblauch, H. o.J.: Einführung in die Religionssoziologie. Accessed: 30 March 2010 (www.ssoar.info/ssoar/files/2008/131/knoblauch_1999_religionssoziologie.pdf )
Stark,R./ Bainbridge, W. S. 1985: The future of religion: secularization, revival and cult formation. Berkeley et al.
Stepan, A. 2000: Religion, Democracy, And The “Twin Tolerations” In: Journal of Democracy, 11: 4, 37-57
- 2009: Religionsfreiheit und Kooperation. Zum institutionellen Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche in Deutschland und europäischen Ländern. In: Journal für Religionskultur, 124 (http://web.uni-frankfurt.de/irenik/religionskultur.htm)
- 2008: Individuelle Religionsfreiheit und die moderne Gestaltung der Religionskultur. In: Journal für Religionskultur, 104
- 2007: Die Freiheit des Einzelnen und die Religion der Freiheit als Bedingungen interreligiöser Konvivenz. In: Journal für Religionskultur, 92
 This is a free translation from Weber 2008: 1. The unparalleled ten years of study with Prof Weber in Frankfurt left a deep impact on my understanding of religion and for various reasons I am deeply indebted to my mentor. I’d also like to thank the editors for having me invited to write a contribution to the present volume.
 I gratefully borrow this metaphor from Casanova 1994: 4
 The central text was assumed to be a collection of doctrines or beliefs that all adherents shared, ideally written in a sacred book that had been inspired by a god or gods. Bowen, 2005: 26
 Exclusivity meant that a person was a member of one and only one religion at any one time. Bowen, 2005: 27
 The idea of separation developed in modern Western Europe. John Locke advocated the separation of State and religion as a way of ensuring toleration and religious freedom. This argument became the basis of the separation of Church and State in France and USA. Bowen, 2005: 27
 I include India, China Japan and ASEAN in this category
 In Arabic, dīn has three distinct semantic meanings (1) judgment, retribution; (2) custom, usage; (3) religion. But the concept indicated by dīn does not exactly coincide with the ordinary concept of ‘religion’, precisely because of the semantic meanings of the words. Religio evokes primarily that which binds man to God; and dīn the obligations which God imposes on His “reasoning creatures” (…), and the first of these obligations is to submit to God and surrender one’s self to Him. (Gardet b 2010) Islam itself means submission, total surrender (to God), the Muslim is the ’one who submits to God’, and the two meanings merge into one another in aslama, ‘surrender to God’ (an inner action) and ‘profession of Islā’, meaning adherence to the message of the Prophet. (Gardet a 2010) In Sanskrit and Indian religions, we find terms as dharma (Law, Order), bhakti (devotion), ´srāddha (sincerity, faith), marga (path) or agama (traditional doctrine). In China religion is decribed with ‘Zong jiao’ (celestial doctrine) or ‘Tao’ (way, path, principle).
 Gunn, 2003: endnote 18, p. 217
 Stark/Bainbridge, 1985: 5; quoting Sir James G. Frazer,1922: 58
 Alles 2005: 7703 quoting M. Spiro, 1966: 66.
 The anthropological perspective on religion holds that religion is as a derivative of experience deeply rooted in contemporary and inherited cultural and social practices and discourses. A functional definition describes what religions do. Here the issue of extension causes problems, because the functional definition would include materialistic phenomena, as patriotism or other ideologies that may not be identified as religion. The substantive definition of religion contains definers that refer to constituent parts that make up religion. Alles, 2005: 7703
 Dow interprets religion as a type of irrational adaptation in the sense that it does not move individuals to solve problems rationally Cf. Dow, 2007, 3
 For detailed discussion see: Dow: 2007, 2006, 2008
 Dow, 2007: 3, quoting Wilson, E. O.;1978: 182-185
 Dow, 2007: 13; and Dow, 2006: 85
 Wallace‘s Behavioural Complexes: (1) Prayer: Addressing the supernatural. This includes any kind of communication between people and unseen non human entities; (2) Music: Dancing, singing and playing instruments. Although all music is not religious, there are few religions that do not include it; (3) Physiological exercise: The physical manipulation of psychological state. This includes such tools as drugs, sensory deprivation, and mortification of the flesh by pain, sleeplessness, or fatigue; (4) Exhortation: Addressing another human being. This includes preaching by a minister, shaman, or other magical-religious practitioner. (5) Reciting the code:Mythology, morality, and other aspects of the belief system. Every religion has its myths, symbols, and sacred knowledge; (6) Simulation: Imitating things. This is a special type of symbolic manipulation found particularly in religious ritual; (7) Mana: Touching things. This refers to the transfer of supernatural power through contact; (8) Taboo: Not touching things. Religions usually proscribe certain things, the eating of certain foods, contact with impure things, impure thinking, etc.; (9) Feasts: Eating and drinking. All celebrations are not religious, but most religions have them; (10) Sacrifice: Immolation, offerings, and fees. Sacrifice is probably the single most definitive behavior; (11) Congregation: Processions, meetings, and convocations. Religions organize groups. Their rituals identify groups and create group solidarity;(12) Inspiration: all religions recognize some experiences as being the result of divine intervention in human life (Dow, 2007: 7;11, paraphrasing Wallace, A. 1966: 62-66)
 Weber 2009, 2008
 Weber defines here ‘problem’ as an irresolvable task with which humans are confronted non-detachably
 I translate Geist with mind.Weber 2009: 1, own translation
 Weber 2009: 1-2; the paragraph draws heavily from Weber 2009: 1-2
 (…) der unaufhebbaren Unabschließbarkeit seiner Existenz (…) Hall