Is “religion” as contemporary persons understand it an absurd term?

Victor Reppert questions a definition of “religion“:

“Religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality which inspires worship or total devotion.”

From Peterson, Basinger, Reichenbach, and Hasker, Reason and Religious Belief 4th ed. Oxford University Press, (2008).

[Reppert then asks] Based on this definition, is secular humanism a religion?

If one answered “yes” he would first be understood to be saying “therefore secular humanism is a religion”. But two other “yes” answers, to my mind, are closer to the truth:

1.) Yes, therefore this is a terrible definition of religion.

2.) Yes, therefore our concept of religion is absurd, since it includes both religion and its opposite.

The first assumes that our contemporary definition of religion is a useful concept, but it is poorly defined by Peterson, et al. The second is more radical- it claims that the reality that contemporary persons want to signify by the word “religion” is simply absurd. This is not because there is no such thing called “religion” but rather because when we group together all that we want the term religion to signify, we end up trying to unify contraries.

Words are tools made by the practical intellect, and like any tool they can be broken and abused. There is no impediment to one of our terms corrupting to the point of absurdity, and “religion” seems to be such a term.  I believe that we contemporary persons  wanted the term “religion” to have a meaning that ended up identifying one thing with its opposite. We wanted the term “religion” to name the common ground that was assumed to exist by an extreme and overly optimistic ecumenicism- a single common ground shared by Shamanism, The Seventh Day Adventists, spiritualism, Wicca, Arianism, etc. The more we tried to articulate this common ground, however, the more it showed itself as contradictory, vacuous, and overly-reductive.

One possible explanation of this is that religion is irreducibly relates to justice, and one simply cannot talk about justice without some reference to good and evil. We, on the other hand, want a definition of religion that makes no value judgments (as we call them) but it is not clear that such a definition is possible. St. Thomas defined religion as the just reverence to some power higher than man. We responded that we wanted to eliminate the idea of religion being just, since this would require us to include a value judgment about it when we spoke of it. St. Thomas’s response might well be “then you will end up trying to make one idea out of contraries; and religion will end up being the same nature as irreligion”. Alas, this seems to be what has happened.



  1. Kevin said,

    August 28, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    David Bentley Hart has an entertaining essay along this vein, published a little while back in First Things.

  2. AT said,

    August 29, 2009 at 2:42 am

    “Plato’s literary activity extended over fifty years, and time and again he asked himself anew: What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous? Toward the end he wrote one more dialogue, the Sophist, in which he added a new element to his answer: ‘The sophists’, he says, ‘fabricate a fictitious reality.’ That the existential realm of man could be taken over by pseudorealities whose fictitious nature threatens to become indiscernible is truly a depressing thought. And yet this Platonic nightmare, I hold, possesses an alarming contemporary relevance. For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language. This, says Plato, is the worst thing that the sophists are capable of wreaking upon mankind by their corruption of the word.” (Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power)

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