Religion 101

It has occurred to me that, over the course of some 113 blog entries and counting (this one marking number 114, since starting this little blog back in July of last year), that I have not yet attempted to precisely define the specific subject matter of this “Religion 101” blog.

What is religion, anyway?

I mean, can we define it, in a way that really works for everyone who uses the term?

The task is perhaps not as simple as it may seem. Some definitions of “religion” may be too narrow, while other definitions may be too broad.

For instance, many people might tend to define “religion” in terms of being about belief in God (or gods), and perhaps worship of that God (or gods).

But then you run into religions such as Buddhism, or some forms of Hinduism or Taoism, within which “God” per se simply does not figure. (And neither, for that matter, does “worship.”) In light of this, defining “religion” in terms of belief in (and worship of) God or gods would seem to fall somewhat short.

On the other hand, sometimes people define “religion” in terms so broad as to end up simply being too vague to be genuinely helpful. Religion might be thought about in terms of what one “worships,” but in a way which stretches the meaning of the term “worship.” Sometimes one hears language to the effect of, “Oh, that guy just worships sports,” or “Football is that guy’s religion.”

Alternatively, sometimes one hears that “Politics is that person’s religion,” along with the suggestion that some sort of political or even philosophical “-ism” constitutes this or that person’s “religion.” But surely we do not mean that literally. (Or do we?)

Defining “religion” might turn out to be a slipperier enterprise than it might at first seem. As one religious studies wag once put it (unfortunately, I cannot now remember who put it this way), when it comes to religion, “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

In this blog entry, I’d like to attempt something a little more “interactive” than has been done in past blog entries. I’d like to invite each and every reader of this little blog to take advantage of the “Comments” feature available here, and to post a comment in which a stab is made at defining “religion.”

In other words, dear reader, how do you define religion? Are some definitions perhaps too narrow and restrictive, or alternately too broad and loose? What definition of “religion” best works for you — and why?




Finally, another way of attempting to underscore and clarify how science and religion can be viewed as each occupying and specializing in very different, and even non-overlapping, domains or areas of inquiry (which, being non-overlapping, would mean that they cannot ever really contradict or conflict with each other) is by suggesting the following:

Science addresses “how” types of questions, whereas religion addresses “why” types of questions.

Science is very, very good at addressing and answering complex but ultimately somewhat superficial “nuts and bolts” types of questions about the origin and nature of empirical reality. How did the universe come into being? (What are the physics behind it?) How did stars, galaxies, and solar systems form? How do time and space “work”? How did life come about? How did human beings ultimately arrive on the scene?

Notice that all of the above are “how” questions, rather than “why” questions.

By “why” questions, I mean to refer to much deeper and more abstract sorts of questions — questions of ultimate meaning, of ultimate value, of ultimate purpose (if any).

Such questions ask not merely how the the universe came about (in a “nuts and bolts” sense), but why the universe came about (in the sense of there being some deeper, underlying meaning or purpose or value to a universe having come about). They ask not how life came about, but why life came about. They ask not how the human condition came to be what it is, but why it came to be what it is.

Existentially speaking, why is there something, rather than nothing? Why is there a universe, in the first place? Why do we human beings exist at all? Not how did we come about (in terms of physics, biology, etc.), but why?

To move from cosmic to human terms, the difference between “how” and “why” comes down to this: medical science, for instance, can tell us how a person died, but not why a person died (in the “ultimate” sense). That is, medical science can tell us all about the specific details and mechanisms of the physics or the biology or the chemistry that led to a given individual’s demise; but it cannot tell us anything about the much deeper and non-superficial ultimate meaning or ultimate purpose (if any) behind such an individual’s demise.

This is the difference between a coroner’s nuts-and-bolts report detailing how a person died, and someone attempting to respond to a loved one’s anguished and urgent existential question as to why that person died, in effect seeking to find some greater “meaning” — or some deeper sense of “ultimate meaningfulness” — behind such an otherwise seemingly senseless tragedy (as when a grieving parent asks, “But why did my child have to die?”).

I keep saying “if any,” simply because not everyone believes or agrees that there are any such deeper reasons, or meanings, or purposes, behind reality. For the non-religious, the universe simply is, and that’s that; no deeper “meaning” or underlying “purpose” exists at all, beyond just that simple brute fact.

Science simply cannot — and does not — address such deeper “why” questions about meaning, purpose, or value; that’s not its job. Science trades in empirical matters of hard facts, not in existential matters of ultimate meaningfulness.

Religions, however, affirm that there is some sort of deeper, underlying, “ultimate meaningfulness” behind life, the universe, and everything.

Of course, religions also differ among themselves as to just precisely what that deeper, underlying meaning, purpose, or value actually happens to be. Different religions will offer varying, sometimes conflicting answers to such questions about ultimate meaningfulness.

Religions may couch their answers in terms of God, or Brahman, or Buddha-nature, or Tao, or a host of other religious concepts and contexts; but at the very least, one thing that religions generally have in common is that they do positively affirm that such answers do exist to questions about “ultimate meaningfulness” — questions that empirical science, by its very nature, cannot ever provide any answers for, or otherwise even comment upon, one way or another.

To the extent that all of this is so, it would seem that science and religion do not and cannot conflict, insofar as they operate in very different domains or areas of inquiry, and so offer answers to very different and non-overlapping types of questions (“How?” vs. “Why?”).






So, what happens if or when religion ventures beyond its own purely non-empirical (or strictly “spiritual”) backyard, and starts making claims regarding empirical (detectable, testable) matters?

Such claims would fall properly within the purview of empirical science, which possesses the tools and the expertise to investigate and assess such claims. Any such empirical claims as religion may venture to make are, therefore, subject to scientific scrutiny — and to scientific verification or otherwise.

This means that, so long as religion limits itself to insights or assertions regarding such inherently non-empirical matters as the reality or nature of God or the Divine, of the soul, or of the afterlife (or to such non-empirical abstractions as the meaning of life or the ultimate purpose of existence), it remains safe from empirical scientific criticism.

However, should religion make assertions or claims about empirical reality, it then opens the door to the possibility of being proven wrong. This can and does happen, such as when religion has made claims about the earth being flat (and covered by a domelike firmament), or about the earth being the center of the universe (with sun, moon, planets, and stars all rotating around its terrestrial/cosmic axis).

Many today would say that much the same sort of thing is once again playing out now. Within certain theologically conservative contemporary religious quarters, specific claims and assertions — scientifically testable ones — are being made about such empirical matters as the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the age of humanity.

For instance, Young Earth Creationists (or YECs) claim, on the basis of scriptural (religious) evidence, that all of creation is no more than six to ten thousand (6,000 to 10,000) years old.

By contrast, mountains of converging empirical evidence from a broad spectrum of scientific fields and sub-disciplines paints a very different picture, according to which the universe is nearly 14 billion (13,770,000,000) years old, the earth itself about 4.5 billion years old, life on earth dates back about 3.5 billion or so years, and primitive humans first appeared a little over 2 million years ago (modern humans being only perhaps 200,000 years old).

Notwithstanding creationist claims to the contrary, the empirical evidence in favor of this scientific consensus regarding the age of the cosmos and of life on earth is overwhelming (literally over 99.9% of scientists working in relevant fields accept the factual reality of evolution). And so here, it would seem, we have a clear-cut case of a genuine disagreement or conflict between science and religion.

Notice, however, that such a conflict or disagreement arose only when religion ventured beyond its own sphere, into the realm of empirical claims and assertions. Had it refrained from doing so, instead restricting its claims to non-empirical realities (the soul, the Divine, the meaning of existence, etc.), then its claims would have remained impervious from the empirical challenges of science.

Some see this as a weakening or a diminution of religion, conveniently limiting its sphere of expertise to areas which are forever safe from scientific criticism. Others see this not as an attack or criticism of religion, but instead as a fundamentally corrective insight into the perfectly legitimate and natural limits of religion’s proper domain or real expertise.

After all, just because the objects or focuses of religion (God or the Divine, the soul, the afterlife, etc.) are non-empirical and therefore beyond the scope of empirical science to discover or study, does not necessarily also mean that they do not exist, or are irrelevant; it simply means that they are not — and cannot be — subjects of empirical scientific study.

If, most fundamentally, religion and science are “apples and oranges,” then how can they ever truly conflict — unless a wayward apple tries (illegitimately) to be, or to function like, an orange?

(To be continued, in Part Four.)