This blog is about religion. We all pretty much have an idea of what a religion is. But if we’re asked to define it, the problems start. What is religion?
The question has a theoretical interest and a practical interest. From a theoretical point of view, all disciplines that deal with religion cannot disregard an idea of their object of reference, even if only to delimit their own field and understand what should be of relevance to them. What then falls within the philosophy/history/sociology/psychology etc. of religion?
What can we consider part of the so-called religious studies and “religious sciences”? A first and generic understanding of the object comes from ordinary language: however, science – which in principle must be normative and work with univocal concepts – cannot be content with the vagueness of common understanding.
Specialist knowledge arises precisely from the questioning of naive assumptions. One can reasonably object, however, that these questions are abstract, and concern those few who have the perversion of porsele.
But the problem also has practical consequences. First of all, political, social and juridical, since laws regulate what they recognize as “religion” with a series of prerogatives or constraints: from the possibility of access to public funding, to the prohibition of ostentation of symbols, etc.
Evidently, I must have a definition to decide what to include or exclude. Why do I grant the status of “religion” to a certain organized group of people (the Christian churches, or the Jewish community), but not to others (e.g. Satanists, or Scientology, or Freemasonry)? Why, therefore, do I then qualify certain holidays as “religious” or certain places as “of worship” and give them certain legal guarantees?
Just as the theoretical question receives an answer from common language, so too, with respect to political questions, there appears to be a solution based on commonly accepted practice. It does not seem necessary, not even with respect to concrete problems, to define religion. At a public level it is plausible to accept as “religion” everything that, starting from a first average understanding of the meaning of the term, does not conflict with the legal system and therefore does not disturb public order.
With respect to this, however, it is worth noting that public order itself is historically relative – and an analysis of what is meant by, for example, “common sense of decency” immediately shows this. Moreover, some empirical cases might show us how we might not all be completely satisfied with the possible consequences of such a position.
On the basis of this definition, then, I will have to exclude perhaps the “religions” of ancient Greece and Rome, in which the instrumental and political element appeared to be very accentuated, and the relationship with the personal life of the individual, who in fact comes into contact with the divinities in an often senseless and tragic way.
One must then pay attention to the fact that a definition of religion that separates the “spiritual” from the rest of social life is probably not able to give full account of the nature of Judaism, in which “religion” is superimposed on the people, to the extent that ethnic belonging is sometimes almost privileged with respect not only to beliefs, but also to orthopraxis and therefore to possible conversions, accepted but not encouraged.
But perhaps not even part of Islamism can be traced back to the mere “spiritual” aspect, given that civil and religious spheres are not always clearly separated or in any case separated in a way that appears to be in keeping with the European and Western criteria of a fundamentally Christian and Enlightenment tradition.
The category of “religion” therefore seems to adapt first and foremost and almost exclusively to the Christian context (or heir to that tradition), and it is no coincidence that it has been shown that it is a historical product of an almost entirely intra-Christian and even more specifically Western affair. The concept of “religion” was then universally applied, but with evident problems of “translation”.
Not only do many non-Indo-European languages not possess an exact equivalent of the term, but also in ancient Greek, as well as in Sanskrit, it would be difficult to find a cast or provide a rendering. The word, moreover, evidently does not appear in biblical scriptures, so even with respect to Christianity the “religious” discourse seems to be the result of a construction.
The name “religion” comes from a Roman context and therefore of Latin language, and is transmitted to the new Christian horizon, which will gradually become the object of knowledge. This happens especially in the modern age, when the medieval presupposition of Christianity as true philosophia and true religio is exhausted, and what was previously defined mainly fides christiana comes to be a religio among other religions.
The process is the result of an external criticism of Christianity, but also and perhaps above all the result of reflection within Christianity itself and the result of its theological disputes; the idea of “religion” has irenic as well as critical aims, as is clear in the practical and political path (cuius regio eius et religio), which is articulated in parallel with theoretical reflection, it runs mainly along the public-private axis and gives rise to the story of secularization that reaches us today.
“Religion” is therefore a term that must be relativized and contextualized, in space and time. It has no univocal meaning, it does not refer to a well-defined essence or nature, nor does it have a range of closed characteristics. Rather, “Religion” indicates a series of phenomena that present some vague similarities between them.
If one observes these familiarities, some considerations may surprise us; but precisely for this reason they must impel us to reflect. Therefore, after having laid the basis of the problem, with this pars destruens, in a future text I will also try to propose an idea and a definition of religion to act as a pars construens.