A Spirituality blog from our Community

An Irreligious Question?

From Peter Hardy, Chaplaincy Assistant:

Some given data

Our ecosystem is an organic framework which environs homo sapiens -otherwise uncontrollable- so as to flourish.

A story is an narrative framework in which we understand purposes and meanings in events.

Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic practice that provides a supportive structure for self-correction and growth.

A university is an educational institution with a history of intellectual development.

A morality is a system of values which regulate the behaviour of members of the community.

A language is a social vehicle for communication which operates on a system of rules.

A gap in the data

What then is a religion?

Bad answer 1: a superstitious attempt to control natural forces. Counterexample– philosophical and post-Enlightenment religion.

Bad answer 2: a speculative explanation for what is unknown. Counterexample– much Eastern religion.

Bad answer 3: a series of practices that in the long term give meaning to life because of particular metaphysical beliefs. Counterexample– many philosophical religions, particularly Eastern ones.

Bad answer 4: a series of practices that in the long term give meaning to life regardless of one’s metaphysical beliefs. Counterexample– sports fandom is not religion.

A more promising answer

The theologian Edward Holloway suggested that a religion is best understood as an ecosystem.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard compared being part of a religion to a being part of a story.

The philosopher John Cottingham has said that a religion is form of therapy, it provides or encourages psychoanalytic techniques.

The theologian Nicholas Lash says that a religion is like a university.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim thought that a religion was best understood as a moral system.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that religion was a language of its own, with the orthodox theology as its grammar.


Thus I suggest that a religion is:

a) Not any particular phenomenon but a synthetic term used to mean…

b) a significantly distinct form in which each of these six practices have been interrelated as a complex network.

c) Where the network gives communal expression to the spiritual experiences of individuals…

d) and has authority over but not necessarily above (i.e. distinct from) the individual.


View the Next Part of Theology and Doughnuts.



Comments on: "An Irreligious Question?" (7)

  1. Perhaps a good discussion to have following on from this would be, what (if anything) is in religion for you, what does it do for you?

  2. Religion does not do anything for me except want to make better conclusions (see below) for me and everyone else.

    My answer
    The process of forming a religion is akin to that of the scientific processes, so treating each religion as (rather imperfect) science, the important part is what you have learned from the process. i.e. your conclusion. So

    ‘A religion is a set of conclusions’

    , which usually end up in a big tome and people fight either to make it unchangeable or at prioritising differing interpretations. In the former respect it is unlike science which always seeks to replace a conclusion with a better one. In the latter respect it is like a science but whereas science debates these things almost exclusively with reason, logic and based upon repeatable evidence, religionists just form a new religion and go their own way with their own bishops. Scientists may have some violent disagreements but never to my knowledge have wars broken out. They discuss in well respected journal which also have a reputation to defend. Worst case scenario is loss of reputation and total rejection by the science community, knowing that an established principle is NEVER the work of one person let alone an infallible one.

    Please tell me how my definition stands up to history, reason and logic. I applaud the fact that many religions are trying to emulate real science but some are being exposed for their weak science.
    PS My definitions never stay the same either and YOU could alter them

  3. Thanks again David, I’m not sure how I missed your comment (especially as I must have approved it).

    When we discussed this question in our workshop (made up mostly of Christians) these are more answers we had:


    A sense of direction, leadership


    Being fully myself


    Being part of something bigger

    Something permanently fulfilling, not dependent on circumstances

    A better way of living for me and others

    An end to loneliness

    An end to fear



    Unconditional love

    Being with God, being loved

    Full communion with God and others

    > We took these answers to be constituitive definition of salvation, since that is what religion is conventionally understood to offer.

  4. yes I TOO am finding it difficult to keep abreast of all your philosophy in different places. Have we/will we meet up at Reading Interfaith group? I am off to uni this afternoon to a faith debate on campus.

    Reply to the above.

    Humanism ticks all but three of the above boxes and not many people know that. You might expect the last two not to be in a Humanist Kitbag , but leadership?- Well I for one am taking the Quaker lead(?!!?) on this by not requirng a leader – they are fine of couse – if you can see where they are taking you – which we mostly cannot.

    Yet Humanism is NOT a religion and I hope my definition explains why not.

    Yet again in my book it is a faith – shall I elaborate or start a new thread?

  5. Forgot to tick follow up box

  6. Feel free to elaborate anything David. I’m surprised to discover that your posts on here approve themselves. I suppose this is because I approved your first one I have a setting that says no longer ask for approval of those once approved…

    I don’t go to many events on campus as I don’t actually live in Reading. I am good friends with Sean Oakley though who you probably know because he runs both the Atheist, Humanist & Secularist and Buddhist societies.

  7. Going back again to the original question of ‘what is a religion’, the philosopher Julian Baggini’s latest article in his series on The Guardian gives another answer that I can agree with: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/nov/21/articles-of-21st-century-faith Though of course, to say that those are the limits of religion itself, does not mean that one should not also have views about speculative questions of metaphysics, theology and history that are extraneous to religion.

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