religion, n. 1. the sum of truths and duties binding man to God. 2. personal belief and worship in relation to God. Religion includes creed, cult, and code.
By “creed,” what Wuellner has in mind is a system of doctrine. A “cult,” in this context, has to do with a system of rituals of the kind associated with worship and the like. The “code” referred to has to do with a system of moral principles. So, the definition is telling us that doctrines, rituals, and moral principles are among the key elements of religion.
Perhaps some would quibble over that part, though it seems safe to say that the best-known examples of religions all involve some doctrinal, ritual, and moral components, even if some religions emphasize some of these more than others do. But the standard objection to this kind of definition has to do instead with the reference to God. For aren’t there religions (such as Buddhism) in which the notion of God does not feature, or is even rejected?
In light of such considerations, it is common these days to define religion more broadly so as to include non-theistic religions. The trick is to avoid defining the term so broadly that it ends up including things that aren’t really religions. The desired happy medium would be something like the following definition, from John Carlson’s :
Set of beliefs, relations, and activities by which people are united, or regard themselves as being united, to the realm of the transcendent (often, although not always, with a focus on Absolute Being or God).
The idea here would be that, although not all religions affirm the existence of God, they do all affirm that there is some reality transcending the material world. A view that denied any such transcendent reality (such as scientism, whether in its positivist form or its scientific realist form) would not fall under a plausible definition of “religion.” This seems reasonable enough. For example, however we spell out Buddhist notions like karma, nirvana, etc., they are probably not going to be expressible in terms acceptable to a Rudolf Carnap or an Alex Rosenberg.
Nominal or real definition?
Having said that, it doesn’t actually follow that Wuellner’s definition is wrong. For it depends in part on what kind of definition we’re looking for. Scholastic philosophers distinguish between nominal definitions and real definitions. A nominal definition aims to capture how people use a certain word, whereas a real definition aims to capture the nature of the reality that the word refers to. Hence, suppose I ask you to define “water.” I might be asking for an explanation of how the term “water” is used by English speakers – in which case you might respond that it is used to refer to the clear liquid that fills lakes and rivers, etc. But I might instead be asking about what it is to be the actual stuff, water (whether we refer to it as “water,” “Wasser,” “agua,” or whatever) – in which case you might discuss its chemical composition and the like.
Now, nominal definitions are essentially descriptive. They are trying to tell us how people do in fact use words. There may be certain normative implications to the extent that we are aiming to track actual usage. We may find out that the way we use a certain word in is contrary to currently prevailing usage, and therefore “wrong,” but if a critical mass of people start using the term this way it will end up no longer being wrong but merely an alternative usage.
Real definitions, by contrast, are essentially normative. They are not trying to capture actual usage, even when they are not in conflict with it. Again, they are trying to capture the nature or essence of the reality itself, which doesn’t change with changes in usage. And there is an objective fact of the matter about that, even if there is no objective fact of the matter about how a word (considered merely as a string of letters or phonemes) should be used. (Anti-essentialist views often rest on a fallacious conflation of real definitions and nominal ones – as if a change in the usage of words could change reality itself. In fact, the most it can do is muddle our thinking about reality.)
Now, to evaluate a definition like Wuellner’s, we’d need first to know whether he intends it as a nominal or a real definition. Considered as a nominal definition, it would indeed be defective in just the way described, since people use the term “religion” to refer to non-theistic systems of belief as well as to theistic ones.
But that is surely not how Wuellner meant it. Rather he was, as a Scholastic and a Catholic, trying to capture the objective reality behind the phenomena we call “religion.” He would probably say that in light of the fact that God exists and that we are by nature oriented to seeking and worshipping him, religion arises in various cultures as a byproduct of this natural tendency. Like everything else in nature, this tendency is subject to distortion and frustration. Sometimes our religious inclinations might be directed toward an improper object, as in idolatrous or non-theistic religions. Sometimes they may be altogether stifled, as in atheism. But the natural inclination toward God is there all the same, and should inform any attempt at a real definition of religion.
Naturally, a real definition of a phenomenon like religion is bound to be controversial. But it is not a serious objection to such a definition to point out that it doesn’t correspond exactly to actual usage. It isn’t trying to do that.
Consider another example. Marx : “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Suppose this was meant as a definition of religion. I certainly think it is wrong. But it would be a stupid objection to say: “Marx, that’s not how people actually use the term. Most people don’t think of religion as analogous to a drug that enables them to deal with oppressive socioeconomic conditions.” Marx was well aware of that, of course. He was not doing lexicography, but rather what he considered to be a kind of scientific explanation of the function that religion performs in the sociopolitical order. He held that, whatever people think religion is about, the objectively true explanation of why it exists is that it helps to fortify an existing economic order by reconciling people to that order’s harsher aspects.
This is a functional explanation, just like an explanation a biologist might give of a bodily organ – and just like Wuellner’s explanation, albeit he and Marx attribute very different functions to religion (in Wuellner’s case, it functions to orient us in a certain way to God, and in Marx’s it functions to orient us in a certain way to the established economic order). And just as a biologist might appeal to an organ’s function in giving a real definition of it, Wuellner and Marx are each appealing to the function they attribute to religion in giving a real definition of it.
I think that Wuellner’s definition happens to be correct and Marx’s wrong, but that’s a separate issue. The point, again, is that we need to know what kind of definition a theorist is proposing before we can evaluate it, and that in the case of real definitions it misses the point to note that a definition doesn’t correspond exactly to actual usage.
Religions or philosophies?
But there’s another potential problem with the standard objection to definitions like Wuellner’s, even when considered as nominal rather than real definitions. For why should we count examples like Buddhism as religions in the first place? Well, everyone does so, you might say. But there’s a problem with that.
Suppose the purported counterexample raised against Wuellner’s definition was Epicureanism rather than Buddhism. That is to say, suppose the critic said: “You can’t define religion in general in terms of the worship of God or gods, because Epicureanism doesn’t feature the worship of God or gods.” A defender of the definition would no doubt respond by saying that Epicureanism is not a religion in the first place, but a philosophy, so that it isn’t a genuine counterexample.
But why not count it is a religion? After all, even if the worship of the gods doesn’t feature in it, the existence of the gods does, at least insofar as it isn’t denied. So, arguably the existence of some kind of “transcendent” realm is allowed. Of course, this particular transcendent realm doesn’t play a role in the moral life of the Epicurean, so that might be thought to justify not counting it as a religion. But now consider the example of Stoicism. Here too we have something like a transcendent reality – the divine logos or world soul – and one’s proper orientation to it does play a role in the moral life of the Stoic. Yet Stoicism too is usually classified as a philosophy rather than a religion.
Now, someone might conclude: “OK, so maybe we should classify these systems as religions rather than philosophies.” But why not instead conclude that Buddhism too is not after all a religion, but rather a philosophy? True, it has aspects that usually bring to mind religion rather than philosophy, such as certain rituals. But why not just say that it is a philosophy with which certain religion-like elements have come to be associated, just as Marxism is (with its personality cults in cases like the Stalinist and Maoist versions of Marxism)?
The point is that the range of the actual use of the term “religion” seems to be somewhat arbitrary. People don’t actually apply it to a clearly demarcated set of phenomena, but rather in a way that reflects criteria that are loose at best and maybe even inconsistent. Now, sometimes with nominal definitions, when we encounter usage that is loose or inconsistent in this way, we propose a stipulative definition to tighten usage up at least for some particular purpose (as in a legal context). And you could read a definition like Wuellner’s that way. Someone could say: “Sure, we don’t use ‘religion’ to refer only to systems that feature belief in a God or gods. But then, the ordinary usage of the term is a mess anyway. I propose that we reform existing usage by tightening it up and relegating systems that don’t involve the worship of a God or gods to the ‘philosophy’ category.”
Maybe that’s a good idea, and maybe not. But the point is that the actual usage of the term “religion” is indeed messy enough that even considered as a nominal definition, a definition like Wuellner’s can’t reasonably be dismissed too quickly on the basis of alleged counterexamples. For the counterexamples might reflect a problem with actual usage, no less than a problem with the definition.
These problems are not surprising given the history of the usage. For as scholars of religion often point out, the category of “religion” as we understand it today is actually a modern invention. Brent Nongbri’s book is a useful study. As Nongbri points out, we tend today to think of “religion” by way of contrast with “secular” matters, as if these are two clearly demarcated spheres of human life. But that is an invention of modern Europeans, and indeed an artifact of Protestant vs. Catholic and Enlightenment-era polemic. Non-Western and pre-modern Western thinking on the subject drew no such distinction.
True, there were distinctions like the distinction between Church and State and between the spiritual and temporal realms. But those distinctions are very different from the modern “religious” versus “secular” distinction. To be sure, and , the idea of Church and State as clearly demarcated institutions with distinctive functions is central to Christianity, though foreign to religions like Islam. But this was not taken to entail a separation of Church and State, any more than the fact that the soul and the body are distinct and clearly demarcated aspects of human nature entails that the body can exist in separation from the soul.
In ordinary human life, we have a variety of concerns – what to have for dinner, how to earn a living, where to send our children to school, who to vote for, how to fix a car, and so on. And we also have concerns about getting ourselves right with God, doing right by our fellow religious believers, and so on. Now, no one thinks that the fact that the concerns in the first set are very different in nature entails that there are clearly demarcated and hermetically sealed off realms like the “culinary,” the “economic,” the “educational,” the “automotive,” etc. that can or ought to be kept totally separate. No one calls for a “separation of economics and state” or a “separation of the automotive from the state.” That would, or course, be ridiculous. Yet modern Westerners pretend that the “religious” is some clearly demarcated and hermetically sealed off realm, an aspect of human life that can be (and, in the view of many, should be) conducted separately from those other aspects, which are purely “secular.” That conception of religion is, as Nongbri points out, a modern invention.
How did it arise? To understand this, we need to begin by considering the set of attitudes that Nongbri says it replaced. First, though the term “Europa” is ancient, medieval Europeans did not conceptualize themselves as “Europeans” – that is itself a modern secular category. Rather, they thought of their homeland as Christendom or as the respublica Christiana. And they didn’t speak of a variety of “world religions.” Rather, groups like Manicheans and Muslims were classified as heretics, insofar as they shared some beliefs in common with Christians but rejected others and (from the point of view of Christianity) distorted the ones they did share. And those who worshipped gods like those of Greece and Rome were classified as pagans, whose deities were in reality demons.
In other words, matters of “religion” were conceptualized from a distinctively Christian point of view. Now, Nongbri does in fact oversimplify things here. From the beginning, Christians did recognize a category of natural theology by which pagans were capable of some imperfect knowledge of the true God. All the same, he is correct to say that they took Christianity as normative, and certainly did not conceptualize it as one option alongside the others in a “world religions” smorgasbord. And the point is not that they thought of it as the best or even as the correct option. The point is that they didn’t think in terms of options at all. In particular, they didn’t think in terms of “religions,” any more than modern people think of physics, astrology, acupuncture, Star Trek lore, etc. as different possible “sciences,” with physics being the best or correct one. Rather, they thought in terms of there being (a) the truth about God and his relationship to the human race, and (b) greater or lesser deviations from this truth.
But then came Protestantism, which destroyed this unified view of the matter. And it did so not only at the intellectual level, but at a practical and political level – so much so that the sequel to the Reformation was decades of war. Thinkers like John Locke judged that a political solution to the problem of restoring peace would be to relegate theological disagreements to the realm of private opinions that ought to have no influence on public affairs, and can be safely tolerated to the extent that they are segregated from politics. And therein, Nongbri argues, lies the origin of the conceptualization of “religion” as an idiosyncratic sphere of subjective belief sealed off from the “secular.” I would add that this “subjectivizing” of religion was facilitated by a strongly fideistic strain within Protestantism that was hostile to the notions of natural law and natural theology. (See chapter 5 of my book for critical discussion of Locke’s theory of toleration.)
What happened next was that this compartmentalized conception of “religion” was projected by post-Enlightenment Westerners onto the rest of the world. Western scholars would look at, say, the ancient and complex set of philosophical ideas, devotions to various deities, moral attitudes, sociopolitical institutions, etc. to be found in India, lump them all together as if they were part of some unified system, and slap the label “Hinduism” on this imagined system. They would do the same with “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” and so on, and then announce that these various “world religions” are all instances of some general phenomenon called “religion.” Then they would look at now defunct sets of practices and ideas of the past, lump them together, and classify them as various examples of “ancient religions,” further species of the same general phenomenon of “religion.” And again, this general phenomenon was conceived of as an idiosyncratic, subjective thing in a sphere of its own only contingently connected to politics, morality, and the rest of human life – even though the ideas and practices in question had never been understood that way, outside the imaginations of post-Protestant, post-Enlightenment Westerners.
Now, one can debate whether the demarcations of the various so-called “world religions” are actually as arbitrary as writers like Nongbri imply. I think we need to be careful not to overstate things. All the same, there is some non-trivial degree of arbitrariness here, and it is certainly arbitrary to characterize “religion” in general as some idiosyncratic and subjective sphere separable from the rest of human life, the way that modern Westerners now reflexively tend to do.
The rhetoric of “religion”
The reason this characterization survives is the same as the reason it was introduced in the first place by early modern thinkers like Locke. It serves political and polemical purposes. It is a rhetorical weapon by means of which certain ideas can be put at a political and/or intellectual disadvantage right out of the gate.
Think, for example, of the double standard that many contemporary academic philosophers apply to arguments for God’s existence. Any other idea in philosophy, no matter how insane – for example, that the material world is an illusion, that consciousness does not really exist, that infanticide and euthanasia are defensible, that the distinction between the sexes is a mere social construct, that it might be morally wrong to have children, and so on and on – is treated as “worthy of discussion,” something we must at least hear out with respect even if we suspect we will not be convinced. But if a philosopher gives an argument for God’s existence, then in at least many academic circles, every eyebrow is immediately raised, every eye rolls, and it’s smirks all around – as if such a philosopher had just passed gas, or proposed wearing a tinfoil hat to protect against mindreading.
This is, historically speaking, extremely odd and idiosyncratic. In first-rate thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Anselm, Al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, Descartes, Leibniz, Clarke, et al. one finds arguments for God’s existence that are no less central to their thought than any other arguments they give for conclusions of a metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical nature. There is absolutely no objective reason to treat the arguments with any less interest and respect than anything else they say. And this would have been generally acknowledged as recently as just a few decades ago. But in recent decades, those who don’t have a special interest in philosophy of religion often not only neglect such arguments, but treat them as having a second-class status to which other philosophical ideas and arguments are not consigned.
The reason for this, I would suggest, has to do with the hegemony of the modern idea that “religion” is an idiosyncratic and subjective sphere having no essential connection to the rest of human life. It leads people reflexively to be suspicious of any argument for a religious conclusion, no matter how sophisticated and subtle, as if it were “really” “nothing but” an exercise in rationalization. Hence we have the absurd situation where a philosopher can give slipshod arguments for the most morally depraved conclusions whatever, and no one is ever supposed to think: “Hmm, I guess I’ll hear it out, but you do kind of wonder if he’s trying to justify being a pervert.” But if, say, an Alex Pruss or Rob Koons presents a theistic proof, no matter how rigorously, the circumstantial ad hominem suddenly becomes a decisive refutation: “Oh come on, we all know that he’s just trying to rationalize his religious prejudices!”
Or think of the rhetorical game New Atheist types play in order to cast doubt on the rational and moral credibility of the general phenomenon of “religion.” They will lump together, as representative samples of “religion,” ideas, practices, and people as diverse as: Thomistic metaphysics, sola fide, snake handling, Zen Buddhism, jihadists, the Tridentine Mass, Gödel’s ontological proof, the Heaven’s Gate cult, the Norse gods, the six schools of Indian philosophy, Lao-Tzu, Jimmy Swaggart, Pope St. Pius X, Kirk Cameron, Deepak Chopra, Adi Shankara, Joseph Campbell, Averroes, etc. The more embarrassing things on the list are supposed to make us doubt the worthiness of the others.
But you could play this same rhetorical game with any subject matter in order to make it look disreputable. For example, suppose we gave the following list as a representative sample of “science” and “scientists”: general relativity, phlogiston theory, caloric theory, the Periodic Table, pre-Copernican astronomy, phrenology, Lysenkoism, quantum mechanics, parapsychology, Lamarckian evolution, Darwinian evolution, Paul Dirac, Rupert Sheldrake, Alfred Wegener, Immanuel Velikovsky, etc. Suppose we kept Isaac Newton off the “science” list and put him on the “religion” list, since he wrote more about the latter topic than the former. Suppose we took Deepak Chopra off the “religion” list and put him on the “science” list, on the grounds that he uses the word “quantum” a lot. And suppose we did the same with the Heaven’s Gate cult, because they talked about comets and extraterrestrials. We could by such a tactic make science look pretty stupid to people who didn’t know much about it, just as New Atheist types are able to make religion look stupid to people who don’t know much about it.
Hence we have a further reason why “religion” has turned out to be a difficult concept to define, which lies in the political and polemical interest some have in making the definition come out a certain way. And this interest has its roots – like so much else in modernity – in the apostate project of supplanting what once was Christendom.