defining religion

Religion is precisely everything we humans have so far called religion. And it is that which we will in future call religion. But it is nothing else: it can be given no further definition, and only a fool would today quarry the word for its precious metaphysical essence. Religion is a vague and intangible substance which derives much of its power from this very indeterminacy. The reason for this is that there really is no such thing as religion; there is only an idea that does not correspond to a reality. Religion is a false concept; it does not cut the world at its joints; it doesn’t mean anything in particular.

Of course, some will yet hope to gather the multitudinous historical instances of religion from the far corners of this world and, through academic inspiration, pen the definitive text that will reveal the hidden meaning of the word, that which we speakers meant all along, but never quite understood. How quaint! And should we nevertheless succeed in convincing these deluded searchers after the Truth that religion is no one thing, they will simply set themselves to searching for many things. They will come to believe that religion must be understood as a set of family resemblances. Thus a thing becomes religious, if it is composed of a handful of the other things: mystery, a community, supernatural happenings, supernatural knowledge, a sacred text, rituals, etc. This divide-and-conquer strategy is, however, doomed, if only because it merely describes how we use the word religion, it does not explain it.

Many a prophet has arisen over the millennia, preaching the imminent doom of all matters religious, either because the gods just don’t care, or because they retired after setting everything in motion, or because they simply died. Yet it is these prophets who invariably went hoarse before the religious folk got around to disappearing. These silly prophets were not always wrong, but they certainly were always barking up the wrong tree: they either were two steps behind religion, preaching the death of a god that no one believed in; or they came up with ersatz religions that no one would buy. You will know a true prophet if his prophecies come to pass. Our enlightened prophets didn’t know what they were talking about, because they never stopped long enough to give a good look at religion and realize it’s much more complex than their little brains could understand. Those who simply say “religion, religion” will not get anywhere. Only those who delve deep into the arcane secrets of this horrendously complex thing called religion will know the truth and will be able to set us free.

The thinkers of things religious must therefore stand warned: not only are they researching no thing in particular, but that which they are looking at is continuously changing – and will transform itself to work around their definitions. Define religion, and religion will change to prove you wrong! This is no weakness, but rather an incredible strength: religion can adapt – and always has – to new environments. It is the chameleon of world institutions. Therefore, do not try to squeeze religion out of existence, for it will simply slip through your presumptuous fingers; rather, nudge it along, gradually transforming it into what you would like it to become. Not the proud but only the humble and patient student of religion will win in the end. A frontal attack will not work because religion has no front – or back: it is that which it is, which is quite a bit, but it is no thing in particular. Caveat scholar.

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2 Comments to “defining religion”

  1. Is this a definition… of sorts? A prophecy?

    Aren’t all definitions over-generalized approximations, based on usuage? Moving targets, unless we say, “no, it is this and only this” – an arbitrary human act to define the rules of a game… and the game not necessarily a true reflection of reality.

  2. i guess it’s a rant. as to definitions: definitions do change over time as they should, the particularity of this present case is that the thing being defined is itself changing, which doesn’t usually happen with say, zoology.

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