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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

How might a Christian define "religion"?

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Because I live in an apartment, the amount of space that I have for books is somewhat limited. As a result, several years ago I developed a "plan": Every time I purchase a new (to me!) book, I will make room for it by discarding one or more of the books currently in my library.

Recently, I received a book from Amazon, and as I looked through my small library for a book to discard, I chose Nicholas Wade’s 2009 book: "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures" 1 -- a book that I had purchased in 2013 -- as a possibility. Before consigning the book to the recycle box, however, I spent some time skimming through it, and while doing so wondered why I had not discarded it shortly after buying it, after reading just a few pages! Although I had read it through, done a lot of underlining, and made a number of marginal comments, the fact that few of the latter were complimentary made me question why I had read the entire book!

Skimming the book again a few days ago, I paid attention to the final chapter especially, and found some statements that I found of at least some interest. Let me begin the present essay, then, by quoting some of those passages, because they provide a useful "lead in" to the topic of the current essay, as shown in the title.

  1. The essential element of religious knowledge, from an evolutionary perspective, is not theology but the practical rules of moral, military, and reproductive behavior, the distilled collective wisdom of leaders past and present as to the guiding principles most likely to ensure a society’s survival. (pp. 277 – 78).

  2. Religion is often taken as fixed and unalterable, responsive only to its mysterious internal laws. But could it perhaps be changed, reshaped in a manner that enhanced its cohesive properties and diminished its clashes with modernity and rationality? (pp. 279 – 80)

  3. A Western religion without gods could perhaps be made compatible with scientific knowledge about the human condition. But how, then, would such a religion assure people that their lives had a significance beyond material existence and that there was some larger purpose that transcended the cycle of birth, reproduction and death? (p. 281)

  4. New religions can only emerge out of old ones, but perhaps the originator of a new sect might one day see how to draw inspiration from Durkheim’s analysis of how religions function. (p. 283)

  5. Many people no longer develop their innate propensity for religious behavior, leaving unfulfilled a substantial component of human nature. Is this their fault, or society’s fault, or perhaps the fault of the unchanging religions on offer? (p. 284)

  6. Maybe religion needs to undergo a second transformation, similar in scope to the transition from hunter gatherer religion to that of settled societies. In this new configuration, religion would return all its old powers of binding people together for a common purpose, whether for morality or defense. It would touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry. (p. 285; this is the final paragraph in the book)

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Let me note here first that the reference in point 4 above to "Durkheim" is to Émile Durkheim [1858 - 1917], an early sociologist, whose last book (published in 1915) -- "The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life" -- presented his ideas on religion. 2 It has been said of Durkheim:

"According to Durkheim, religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective reality. Recognizing the social origin of religion, Durkheim argued that religion acted as a source of solidarity. Religion provides a meaning for life. Durkheim saw it as a critical part of the social system. Religion provides social control, cohesion and purpose for people as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reaffirm social norms."

Given that Durkheim was a sociologist, it’s not at all surprising that Durkheim’s interest was in the role that religion played in society -- i.e. how it functioned. Wade is also interested in religion from a functional standpoint -- adding to Durkheim’s interest in how religion functioned in a societal context, an interest in societal survival.

Wade sees individuals as having an "innate propensity for religious behavior," and senses that religions such as Christianity are in need of updating -- "transformation." He adds, though, that "New religions can only emerge out of old ones . . . ," and that any new religion created should ("would," in his language) "touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry."

Reading these passages caused me to ask myself -- as one who had been raised in Christianity -- how a Christian should define "religion." Using Wade’s principle that "New religions can only emerge out of old ones," it occurred to me that a good starting point in creating a new religion would be to look to the Christian Bible. And in doing so, it occurred to me that I should specifically look in the Bible for definitions of "religion."

In doing so, I found that the word "religion" occurs very infrequently in the Bible, with this quotation from James 1 being one of the few:

27 "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Jesus is quoted in Matthew 25 as saying something very similar:

34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me'."

Finally, there is another similar passage in Isaiah 1:

13 "Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations --
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.

14 "Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

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These three passages (the James passage more specifically) state that a "religious" person will:

1. Look after orphans;

2. Look after widows;

3. Feed the hungry;

4. Give drink to the thirsty;

5. Invite strangers in;

6. Give clothes to those who need them;

7. Look after the sick;

8. Visit those in prison;

9. Cease doing wrong, and do right;

10. Seek justice; and

11. Defend the oppressed.

All of these "commands" involve -- and only involve -- doing what one can to contribute to the well-being of others! What these three passages suggest to us "moderns," then, is that one use that principle to guide one’s life -- as a Christian (or whatever!) -- and then add to the above list actions that would

(a) have the same basic purpose while also

(b) being within one’s personal realm of capability.

The latter would include one’s income, amount of free time, education, skills/talents, geographical location, etc.

What’s odd, about "Christian," so defined, is that virtually all denominations that apply the label "Christian" to themselves require orthodoxy (correct belief) -- rather than orthopraxy (correct actions)! What that means is that one may be unable to find a local church that is oriented to "religion" in a Biblical sense!

What are one’s options, then?

1. Initiate a "religion" church in one’s locality.

2. Start attending a church that is at least somewhat a "religion" one, and then attempt to convert the members!

3. Attend no church, and "be religious" as a lone individual.

What’s also odd is that as I reflect on my conclusions, as stated above, as they relate to Wade’s comments on religion, as quoted above, I perceive a total "disconnect": I perceive no overlap whatsoever between the two! On the one hand, this tells me that Wade is utterly lacking in his familiarity with the Bible!

On the other hand, however, I admit to full agreement with the final passage from Wade’s book, quoted above! Because of that, I would recommend, as a possible new religion, what I call "NeWFism" -- named for the religion’s central institution, the New Word Fellowship (NeWFism). My "Justifying NeWFism" describes that new religion (which exists only "on paper" so far), and provides links to a number of my other writings on NeWFism.

I perceive NeWFism as a Biblically-based new religion that simultaneously satisfies the requirements that Wade has specified for a new religion. What more could one raised in Christianity ask of a new religion?!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Nicholas Wade, "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures," Penguin Books; (Reprint edition 2010). Available in Kindle, Hardover and Paperback versions. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.

  2. book cover Emile Durkheim, "The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life," Dover Publications, (Reprint edition, 2008). Available in Kindle, Hardcover and Paperback versions (Cover design differ). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.

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Original posting: 2016-MAY-23
Latest update : 2016-MAY-23
Author: Alton
C. Thompson
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