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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Reconceptualizing “Religion:”
Proposing an innovative New Word Fellowship
(NeWF) -- a different type of religion with
no beliefs, no scripture, & no clergy:

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I would guess that most Westerners -- and perhaps especially those of us living in the United States -- in thinking about “religion,” we think of:
  1. A set of beliefs, each being “true;” examples being:
    • There is a Deity “out there” some place -- a single one (the belief that there are multiple Beings now being passé).

    • That Deity not only created all that exists (except for human-made things, of course), but also created rules for humans to obey.

    • There is an afterlife, and it has two phases:  A place of ultimate bliss (“Heaven”), and another place of misery (“Hell”).

    • To end up in the blissful place, upon death, one must have followed, to a “significant” degree, the rules created for, and made known to, us humans.
  1. Organizations:
    • Congregations.

    • Groupings of congregations, the highest level being the denomination.

    • Collections of denominations that are “similar,” thereby constituting a kind of religion, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
  1. Regular meetings, usually termed “services” 1 (weekly at least, usually), during which there are, for example:
    • Announcements as to future events.

    • Congregational and/or “special” singing.

    • Reading(s) from Scripture.

    • A sermon.

    • An “offering” (of course!).

Participating in these, and other, activities is typically labelled as “worship” -- the “worship” of God, of course.  One might think that what constituted “worship” was engaging in those behaviors enjoined by God -- behaviors that would take place especially during one’s time away from the “religious” meeting.  However, this is not the case!

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Insofar as “millennials” are losing interest in attending religious meetings, here is one explanation, by Rachel Held Evans:

"Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I [in speaking to fellow evangelical leaders] explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and religion, between compassion and holiness." 2

Related to this, I would suggest that what might “turn millennials off” is many -- if not all! -- of the characteristics of “religion,” as commonly conceived in the West, that I listed above.  Insofar as that’s the case, what should be noted of the above-listed characteristics of religion is that they are descriptive characteristics.  There is, however, another way of thinking about religion -- how, historically, it has tended to function.  From this perspective:

“one thing religion or belief helps us do is deal with problems of human life that are significant, persistent, and intolerable.” 3 

The value of adopting a functional approach in thinking about religion is that one can ask oneself:

If religion functions to help one deal with significant “problems of human life,” cannot that function be also -- even better! -- performed by either something other than religion, or by a religion that might have rather different characteristics compared with the “regular” religions?

I will not deny here that something other than religion might be able to perform its functions well, evenbetter; what I wish to propose here, however, is an institution that I regard as a “religious” institution, one that differs rather substantially from what is commonly conceived as “religious,” in that it:

  1. Has no belief system associated with the institution, including theological beliefs.  One must, as a participant in the institution accept -- “believe in”! -- the procedures associated with the institution, but otherwise is free to have whatever beliefs -- theological and otherwise -- that one wishes.
  1. It has no Scripture -- i.e., no “holy” book.  Individual participants may, of course, regard some book as “holy,” but the institution involved here itself recognizes no book as Scripture.
  1. It has no clergy associated with it -- because having one has infantilizing tendencies for those associated with meetings involving clergy members.

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The institution to which I have been referring is what I call a New Word Fellowship (NeWF).  I have described this institution from different perspectives in eight (8) -- so far! -- eBooks, one of which is this one:  Addressing Our Uncertain Future written in 2014.  (If you, in reading in it, find it of interest, and would like to read my other seven (7) eBooks, email me at  

Besides the above three “negative” characteristics, I will say here that the NeWF has an orientation to discussion -- discussion that is, however, structured, i.e., governed by a set of rules.  For more information, you will need to read the above eBook (and perhaps some of my other eBooks as well, if you so choose.)

So far, “NeWFism” exists only “on paper;” I am hopeful, though, that someone decides to implement it, for I think that it has characteristics that would be attractive not only to millennials, but many others as well.  In a very real sense, NeWF sessions would be “group therapy” sessions, but ones that can be perceived as sessions of a religious nature:  They need not be so conceived, but can be, I would emphasize.

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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. With Quakers, religious meetings are called “meetings” (!), with service being what Quakers do after their meetings.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?!
  2. Rachel Held Evans, "Why millennials are leaving the church," CNN Belief Blog, 2013-JUL-27, at:
  3. John Monaghan and Peter Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology:  A Very Short Introduction (2000), p. 124.

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Last updated 2015-JUL-11-
Author: Alton C. Thompson
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