A Definition and Application of "Religion"

As we come to the end of my third academic year, I am doing a mental review of what I can change and improve for next year. As chaplain and religion teacher, one of the conversations I quite frequently get into is exactly what is religion, and what counts as the study of religion. In particular, certain vexing questions are often asked:

Does religion require positing a God or other Divine Beings? If so, what do we do with religions that do not have an explicit place for Divine Beings, such as various forms of Buddhism or Confucianism?

If we are going to define religion in such a way that we include "religions" that do not have God(s), what stops anything from becoming a religion? If I have an ultimate concern for finding the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, and I pursue this concern "religiously", does that then make me an adherent of the religion "Grilled Cheese Sandwichism"?


In pondering this and working through my own understanding of what makes Religion genuinely "religious", I have worked out the following definition:

"A Religion is a community formed around a shared consciousness, and bounded by a shared creed, code, and cult."

This definition is based around what I teach as the "5 C's" of religion: Community, Consciousness, Creed, Code, and Cult. Since these terms are being used in a special sense, I will further sub-define what I mean by each.

1. Community: A group of people who share common characteristics, who can be identified as members of the religious community both by those inside, as well as those outside, the religion. In order for religion to be religion, it must be practiced by a community. It cannot be merely a privately held belief, or a superstition or ritual practiced by an individual. It must be a comprehensive system that is shared by a group. As such, while "spirituality" or "philosophy" may be held by individuals, a religion is a communal activity.

2. Consciousness: An awareness of an essential defining feature of life, whether that is (a) a shared Founder, Prophet or Spokesperson for the Divine, (b) a shared History, Narrative or Story, (c) a shared cultural and ethnic Identity, (d) a shared sense of Ultimate Concern, or (e) a shared experience of Transcendent Reality. This consciousness must be "essential" to the communal and personal life of the members of the religion, in the sense that, without this consciousness, they would experience profound existential difficulty and disorientation, even to the point of finding it difficult to continue life together.

3. Creed: A shared cognitive understanding of what Reality is, whether rigorously defined in an actual creed, confession, or catechism, or loosely held as a set of viewpoints that explain how Reality works.

4. Code: A shared affective commitment to a set of morals, values, or virtues which guide how we should act in the world, whether rigorously defined in an ethical system, or loosely held as a set of taboos and expectations.

5. Cult: A shared volitional enactment of a set of rituals and practices which rehearse and re-present the consciousness, creed, and code of the community. This includes the materials, artifacts, tools, time, and places that are set apart for use in these rituals and practices.

Boundaries: And finally, religious communities tend to have a central, and a peripheral, way of defining who is, and is not, part of the religion.

At the center of the community is their defining consciousness. If someone does not possess this central consciousness, even if they hold/perform the creed, code and cult, they are often not considered as fully or legitimately part of the religion by other practitioners of the religion.

Likewise, on the periphery, the creed, code, and cult forms a "boundary mechanism" to define who can, and cannot, legitimately consider themselves a member of the religion. Most religions have an implicit or explicit scale of peripheral boundary inclusion and exclusion.

Though using different kinds of terminology, this usually has a scale that ranges from:
1. "Orthodox" (those who well within the boundaries of the creed, code, and cult)
2. "Heterodox" (those who skirt the boundary, or who add in elements from other religions or worldviews)
3. "Heretics" (those who substantially deviate in one area, but who otherwise are within the boundaries, and who consider themselves still to be an adherent to the religion)
4. "Proselytes" (those who are being drawn to the religion, but who have not yet fulfilled the criteria of creed, code or cult)
5. "Apostates" (those who consciously deny the boundaries of the religion and do not consider themselves members).


Now, how does all of this impact what we can, and cannot, study as a religion? I will briefly deal with most of the "5 C's", starting with consciousness:

The type of consciousness that is at the center of various religions is wildly divergent, and this divergence is much of what gives rise to the differences found in different religions. As stated above, not all religions have a "sensus divinitatis" (sense of the Divine), so that they postulate a God or other Divine Beings as essential parts of Reality. Some religions are effectively agnostic or even atheist. Yet, all religions that I know of have a central community consciousness of Something or Someone that they coalesce around.

For monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this is a consciousness of a certain type of God. Yet, these religions also have a strong consciousness of shared history that holds them together: Jews coalesce around the story of Covenantal Calling, Exile, and Return; Christians around the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; Islam around the story of Muhammad.

For Buddhists, the story of the Buddha is important, but not the core of consciousness. Rather, Buddhists look to a common experience of Transcendent Reality in Enlightenment and Nirvana (even though this Transcendent Reality is NOT often interpreted as a God or Person). Sufi Muslims, Evangelical Christians, and Bhakti Hindus would also have consciousness of Transcendent Reality at the center of their religion, yet unlike Buddhists they WOULD interpret this Transcendent Other as a God whom one can personally know and love.

For Hindus and Jews, cultural and ethnic identity is as defining a feature as any in their communal consciousness. And both would stress a consciousness of the Ultimate Concern of conforming to one's communal "Duty": Jews in adherence to Torah, Hindus in concepts of dharma and karma. And almost all religions have the teachings of Founder(s) or Prophet(s), interpreted in Sacred Writings, in their communal consciousness: The Jews have Moses in the Tanakh; Christians have Jesus in the New Testament; Muslims have Muhammed in the Quran and Hadiths; Hindus have the writings of the Rishis in the Sruti and Smriti; Buddhists have the Buddha Dharma in the Tripitaka. Now, every religion has a different place for these Sacred writings: Some have them at the very center of their consciousness (Jews, Muslims), and some put experience, narrative, or ethnic identity ahead of them (Hindus, Buddhists).

Could then a group of atheists be said to practice a religion? Perhaps. It depends on whether they possess a common code or cult (see below). Certainly there are already atheist and agnostic religions. Various forms of Buddhism fit this bill, and they have a common creed, code, and cult. Likewise versions of Confucianism and Unitarian Universalism are effectively atheist religions. Certain forms of secular socialism- whether the French worship of the Goddess "Reason" in the late 1700's or Russian Marxism of the 1900's- certainly had a strongly defined creed, code, and cult while denying the existence of Reality beyond the strictly empirical. Recently in the U.S. and U.K. there have been stories of groups of atheists and agnostics gathering for shared rituals, songs, and encouragement in what are often called "secular churches" (cf. the work of the atheist philosopher Alain De Botton). These are certainly religions in the beginning stages.

Could then a fictional, farcical or satire religion be considered an actual religion? Again, it depends. Two infamous examples of this are the "Church of the Subgenius" (formed in the 1970's as part of Punk Rock culture) and the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" (formed in the 2000's as part of the "New Atheist" culture). Neither has an identifiable communal structure, nor do they have (many) shared rituals. Rather, both were formed primarily to mock the perceived absurdity of existing religions, particularly "western" monotheistic religions.

For both, the "consciousness" at the center of their "religion" is mocking, inauthentic, and non-essential. That is, the whole religion could be dumped without changing the lives of the adherents at all, and without causing them any existential distress. To classify as a religion for me, a consciousness must be held by a community which they experience as essential to life: For instance, if Jews lost their Story, they would loose their identity; If Buddhists lost their experience of Enlightenment they would loose what makes them essentially human; Etc. Thus, the Churches of the Subgenius and Spaghetti Monster could be studied as protest movements, as works of satire, or as culture jamming. But studying them would not give a researcher insight into what it means to be an authentic adherent of religion.

On the other hand, the U.K. has had several recent censuses in which increasing numbers of people have identified their religion as "Jedi". Could this in fact be an actual religion, and no longer merely a fictional creation by George Lucas in the Star Wars media franchise? It is conceivable that there are people- perhaps many- who hold an essential consciousness of Star Wars' brand of "neo-hindu" metaphysics, in which we are part of "The Force", and in which we are engaged in an Epic Cosmic Struggle of "The Light Side" versus "The Dark Side" of this Force. They could see the Star Wars stories as a kind of founding Myth, presenting Spiritual Truths in Symbolic Form (i.e. Although the stories never happened in History, nevertheless they channel and re-present truths about metaphysical Reality). Thus it is conceivable that such a community could have an authentic consciousness of these "truths" as essential to their lives and identity. Furthermore, people who practice Jediism (or Jedi Religion) seem to have begun to organize. Simply google "Jedi Religion" and several websites will come up which are dedicated to Jedi "doctrine", ethical standards, and "canonical" stories. There even seems to be several communal rituals associated with this movement. So, is it a religion? I would say yes, albeit a very young and (as of now) ineffectively organized religion.


Now I want to return to the question of "Is atheism a religion?" Members of the "New Atheist" movement, such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, are very vocal that atheism and skepticism cannot and should not be considered a "religion". It is anathema to their creed to have their cognitive-social-emotional-aesthetic-political project lumped in together with the cognitive-social-emotional-aesthetic-political project of most religions. This, even though they share substantial overlap with the number of facets of human life affected by each system of adherence, namely that both are cognitive-social-emotional-aesthetic-political projects. The creedal structure of New Atheism is remarkably well outlined by Hitchens to possess elements of cognitive adherence, ethical norms, and even the beginnings of ritual/aesthetic enactments:

"Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful... We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow. Most important of all, perhaps, we infidels do not need any machinery of [moral] reinforcement..." [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (pp. 9-10)]

Hitchens even begins this by trying to distance himself from religious "belief" by saying "our belief is not a belief". And, if by belief he means "trusting in explanations of the universe without any evidence or in spite of all evidence" then he is right. He does not hold a belief like that. But then again, almost NO ONE holds a belief like that. Most people, when asked to reflect on why they adhere to certain ideas about the universe, will point to various types of evidence, such as personal experience, trusted authorities, scientific investigation, logical connection, and ideas derived from literature. What we accept as evidence, how we weigh it, and what should be excluded, are all part of the philosophical discipline of epistemology. And epistemology in turn helps us determine which beliefs- i.e. cognitive ideas about how Reality works- are justified and which are not justified. So it is that Hitchens' list of New Atheist ideas are a list of which BELIEFS he holds to be rationally justified. Nevertheless, it is a creedal list of BELIEFS.

So, it is clear that "creed" is a demonstrable element of New Atheism. A collection of "canonical" literature from Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins will easily illustrate this, in addition to the extended quote above. And their "canonical literature" is also dripping with ethical pronouncements of right and wrong, good and evil, healthy and sick (cf. Hitchens' title "God is not Great: How religion poisons everything", which itself is an ethical rallying cry against other religions as sick, wrongful ways of ordering human life). Obviously, the element of moral "code" is part of New Atheism. And on behalf of a man I deeply respect and enjoy reading- Hitchens himself- I salute this element of New Atheism. His rants against other religions not withstanding, Hitchens in particular has a clear vision of an open liberal society based on universal justice. I can only pray that other religious leaders would gain such a clarity of vision and pronounce it as boldly as Hitchens did.

If it is demonstrable that "New Atheists" possess a central consciousness of ultimate concern (which they do), an implicit creedal structure about how Reality works (which they do), and a moral code which guides their decisions (which they do), the question now becomes: Do they have a cult? Hitchens himself starts to head there when he says "We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature". For Hitchens, and most other atheists, there are numerous practices which "sustain the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul". These practices include reading and discussing literature, engaging in debate, listening to music, viewing art, producing works of beauty, and enjoying the wonder of nature. But are these practices something engaged in as a community, regularly, as intentional acts of "cultic" practice? I do not think so. At least not yet for most Western atheists (as opposed to, say, Zen Buddhist atheists).

For this reason, I would not (yet) call New Atheism a religion.


This lack of "cult" is not a praise for New Atheism. For, without "cult", how can they even organize as a cohesive social unit to accomplish reform and change in the larger society? If their community is to endure internally, and to effect change externally, they must organize to enact their beliefs. However, anything they do to intentionally organize and practice their beliefs and ethics together would then become "cult", and thus they would enter into the realm of religion. Without cult, New Atheism is simply deficient as a both a social movement and as a religion.

On the other hand, atheist philosophers such as Alain De Botton have realized this weakness in the New Atheist movement, and have begun to organize intentional communities with shared rituals and rites of passage. Much of the thought behind this can be found in his book "Religion for Atheists". The Christian philosopher Catherine Pickstock hit upon this deep truth in her 1997 work "After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy". As the title alludes to, the work of philosophizing is not limited to devising systems of belief and ethics and then writing them down. In order for them to make a difference in human lives- embodied personal and communal lives- they must be embodied and enacted as a shared community. They must become the cult, the liturgy, of the community to be enacted in liturgical and practical ways.

This is true for Christian philosophy and Atheist philosophy, Buddhist philosophy and Marxist philosophy. All philosophy must find a way to be embodied and enacted or it is still-born or abortive. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of "New Atheism". It is not atheist enough precisely because it is not a religion: It does not have a cult to sustain and empower its practitioners to live into their convictions.

To put it in other terms, it seems that humans are "homo religiosus" (religious personal beings). The way we have evolved over time has hard-wired us for religion, for ritual, for enacting our convictions in social ways. Theists will say this hard-wiring is because evolution is intended by the Divine to make us into spiritual beings, while non-theists will say this hard-wiring is simply because of evolutionary advantage. Perhaps both are right. Whatever the metaphysical cause, to the extent we DO NOT enact and ritualize our convictions, we fail to live into our true humanity. Or perhaps we demonstrate that what we think we believe we do not actually believe, because we cannot imagine enacting it or are afraid to enact it.

And thus, we return to the definition of religion I am proposing, and how it affects how we judge our own, and other, religions. Perhaps one of the criteria by which we can judge the relative effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a religion is whether or not it can sustain a healthy community of practice over extended time which is identifiable in terms of consciousness, creed, code, and cult.

Can the core consciousness of a community issue forth into a comprehensible creed that seems to be coherent with Reality (at least as the adherents experience Reality)? Can it guide a consistent ethical code, and produce the type of moral actors that it calls for (i.e. if the moral system of a religion calls for us to practice peace and justice and compassion, does it actually, regularly produce people who embody peace and justice and compassion)? Finally, can this creed and code be enacted and embodied in rituals that sustain and nourish the community, and elicit the type of consciousness that is at the core of the community?

If the community cannot sustain its core consciousness, or forms practitioners who are at odds with the espoused moral values of the community, or implodes constantly in disagreement so it is unable to enact and ritualize its consciousness, it is an incomplete, unhealthy and ineffective religion. If, on the other hand, the community has a creed that elicits and empowers its core consciousness, it forms people who embody the core values of the community, and it has a vibrant cultic and social life, then it is an effective, healthy and comprehensive religion.

Of course, religion would have to be judged by other standards as well which are external to the religion itself. Does a religion possess a sufficient epistemology that is able to integrate knowledge claims that arise in the world outside of the community (i.e. from science or other cultures)? Does a religion contribute to the health and flourishing of society in general? How does the religion treat those who are outside of the religion? These are all vital questions. But it all leads to this realization:

Perhaps the question is not whether religion in general is good or bad, or whether or not we will be religious. Perhaps, instead, we need to realize that we are all implicitly religious, and tend to form communities with a central consciousness, bounded by creed, code, and cult, so that we can be fully human. The question then becomes not "whether we will be religious", but "whether or not the religion we practice is healthy and effective, or unhealthy and ineffective".

*A final note: The idea that religion is formally bounded by the alliterated words "Creed, Code, and Cult" was first brought to my attention by the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft. Although we may have areas of disagreement, I think this is pretty catchy and substantially correct, so I have built my definition upon it. Thank you Dr. Kreeft.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.