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"Religion" Redefined

"Religion" Redefined


I ran into Bill Hartnett recently, an author and policy advisor in privatization and sustainable development.

I asked him about his thoughts on the most effective ways to ensure sustainable development, and he cited the motto “reduce, reuse & recycle,” but also stressed the importance of education and getting the message out.

“It’s hard sometimes to convince people to abandon a view that they are firmly committed to,” I said. “What we need is a highly contagious mind-virus.”

“A meme,” said Bill.

“Right. I believe that what we need is a secular alternative to religion.”Before I could go on, he interrupted:

“Well, when you say that, what do you mean by ‘religion’?”

“Well,” I said, “Religion means many things. One aspect includes a commitment to a deity or some supernaturalism.”

Quickly, he fired back:

“What do you mean by supernatural?”

“It means a commitment to a belief not grounded in a naturalistic method like the scientific method. Such a method requires us to be open to any data that might contradict our deeply held beliefs.”

I was right where he wanted me.

"But the Dalai Lama has said that we should question and reexamine even our most deeply held beliefs in light of scientific evidence.”

Bill was right, of course.

This is what the Dalai Lama’s website says:

In the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience. Because of this methodological standpoint, I have often remarked to my Buddhist colleagues that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.

Of course the Dalai Lama himself was chosen based on the supposition that he was a reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas! Perhaps he doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but that would put him starkly at odds with Buddhist orthodoxy. I also highly doubt that he would ever say “Gee. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and maybe war isn’t such a bad thing after all,” no matter what evidence might come to light. We all have biases based on our affiliations.

I tried to steer the conversation back on course, frustrated that I had been unable to articulate the implications of my theory for Bill’s specialty of sustainable development.

“We could spend all day talking about what the word ‘religion’ means, but the basic thesis is that we need a secular alternative to religion.”

Said Bill, “You know those proofs that prove something that is mathematically impossible? Usually there’s something wrong in the very first step – like dividing by zero. If you don’t define religion it sounds to me like you are dividing by zero. Religion is not an edifice – it may not even exist.”

“Well, words are just labels. I can choose to define ‘religion’ however I need to. Right now, I am just trying to lay out the sketch of an idea for you. This is chapter 1. In chapter 2, I can rigorously explicate my definitions.”

We tabled the conversation about the definition of religion at that point, but it is important to be clear about what I mean when I use that word. As I pointed out to Bill, I could define “religion” however I want to. But it is a word in English, that most of understand as referring to something. That “something” usually includes Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.

One way to define it is that religion is a set of ideals coupled to a positive thought regimen backed by an institution. Under this definition, religion requires no supernaturalism or deistic thought, and in fact the Alliance for Positive Thought would fall under that definition, as would the Dalai Lama’s conception of Buddhism. But most (I’ll go ahead and call them) religions seem to include a deity or supernatural entities. Buddhism’s commitment to deistic thinking is questionable, but there is a disconnect between the views of practitioners and the Western popular conception. Buddhists are highly superstitious, practicing offerings and devotions that have no explanation as part of a “science of mind” (the Dalai Lama’s characterization of Buddhism). Fear of death is often cited as a reason fo religious belief, which is addressed in Buddhism by the belief in reincarnation. The rest of the traditions on the list explicitly refer to supernatural phenomena, and with the possible exception of Judaism disavow the possibility that any scientific discovery could force a reevaluation of dogma.

As Bill noted, and critics have frequently pointed out, “religion is not an edifice” – religious beliefs are diverse in their characteristics. My goal is to show that there are some commonalities in these diverse traditions which are useful, and can be reused minus ANY trappings of revealed knowledge or mythology.


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