What Is Religion?

As my first official blog in Huffpost Religion, I think it is worth positing the big question: What is religion? People of all places, colors and socioeconomic statuses have espoused a worldview that we in this country (and most of "Western civilization") call "religion." And now I'm writing a blog about it. But what is it, exactly?

While it seems like something too obvious for most people to question, scholars in the field of religious studies have struggled with this question for decades. Anthropologist EB Tyler defined it as "belief in spiritual beings" in the 19th century. Renowned theologian Paul Tillich defined it as a person's "ultimate concern," whatever it may be. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined it, more technically, as a "system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." What Tyler lacks in specificity, Geertz makes up for in obscurity. After 7 years in graduate school, this question still plagues classroom discussion, threatening to bog down dialogues ad infinitum until a working thesis can be settled. So why on Earth would I attempt to answer this in a 1000 word internet blog?

Spoiler: I won't.

In my field of early Christianity, "religion" has stopped being a useful analytic category for me, and in my own work I have ceased using the word altogether. This has not been a burden, because as soon as I say it I would be obligated to tell the reader what I mean by it, which I do not want to do. Greater minds than mine have dug much further down this rabbit hole than I care to. "Surely," you may ask, "ancient Greeks and Romans were religious too, right?" The short answer is yes, but the long answer is that they were not religious in any way our current conceptions can appreciate without radically changing what we mean by "religion." In a world where civic duty was a religious duty, and the emperor was a quasi-divine figure to whom subjects were expected to sacrifice, what good would carving out a conceptual realm that I could call "religion" as opposed to "politics" do? This is the issue.

Today, in a secularized government and society, we think of religion and politics as separate spheres. This is not a theocracy (despite the wishes of some!), nor is it a papacy. The American government is a secular democracy in which religion is (supposedly) free to thrive but not affect secular politics. We cannot make laws out of religious preferences. Religion is something we do "at home" and "in church." Whether for good or for bad, this is just not the case.

As a democracy, the law of the land is (supposedly) the will of the people, and vice versa. I propose that if the majority of the people are religious, a democracy is, de facto, no longer secular. This can be demonstrated by how, on both sides, politicians are elected as Christians. We all remember the fear mongered by many in this country when Obama was a "Muslim." In the 113th senate (2013-2015), there were 2 people out of 100 who were not religiously affiliated. 88 Christians, 9 Jews, and 1 Buddhist. Our House of Representatives is 93% Christian. Our president is Christian (nor have we had a non-Christian president in almost 150 years). Seventy-something percent of our population is Christian. How then are we a secular nation? We are not. We have the delusion of separating religion from politics, but when we vote for leaders who match our chosen faith because they will then make laws that reflect that faith, we shouldn't keep telling ourselves that there is some inherent divide between religion and politics. Religion cannot be separated from politics in a democracy so long as the majority of the population is religious and votes on their religious convictions. To pose a crude hypothetical situation, say 51% of our country is Christian, the other 49% is Jewish, atheist, Hindu, etc. If everybody votes and Christians will only vote for a Christian who will make laws which are acceptable to them, then no non-Christian will ever be elected, and no law that does not pass Christian scrutiny will ever pass. Is that a secular democracy?

Before I lose you in the abstract, I'm writing this to demonstrate that this is in fact our reality. Non-heterosexual marriage and abortion have taken the national spotlight this century in unprecedented ways. While I admit that there are certainly non-religious arguments that are made against these issues, the vast majority of dissent comes from religious people, on religious grounds, and the politicians who fought/fight these issues are by and large Christians, coming at them with Christian rhetoric.

Turning it up a notch, we see this in action with Syrian refugees and Muslim terrorism. Current presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed closing our borders to Muslims because there might be a terrorist among them. He has a lot of support and he is not the only politician proposing this. But this is a secular democracy, right?

To return to the topic with which I began this blog, what is religion? Religion exists as a category that we, as a culture, have separated from politics, but this just cannot be done. Politics are religious. In future posts, I will be talking about a mix of ancient and modern topics that can be deemed "religious" in nature. I hope that this serves as an introduction that, despite how we have chosen to define "religion" in our world, it is far more complicated than we generally allow, and inherently implicated in our daily life, whether we participate in "secularism" or not. Religion, among other designations, is how we vote. To quote James 2.26 (my translation), "Faith without action is dead."