Posts filed under ‘Defining Religion in a Pluralistic Society’

Defining Religion in a Pluralistic Society

Religious scholars faced with the question of how to define religious practice in today’s changing and pluralist society have examined the essential characteristics of all faiths and how these factors are manifested in the Scientology religion.

Many consider they already know the answer to the question, “What is a religion?”

The definitions employed from one person to the next almost always are defined by personal religious heritage and experience, yet history has demonstrated that this perspective is a perilous one. Such approaches have given us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds of years of bloodshed in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, and the troubles of Northern Ireland.

More commonly, restrictive approaches to defining religion lead to less violent but nonetheless equally destructive forms of discrimination and other violations of human rights—particularly against members of new or unfamiliar faiths.

For centuries Western thinkers approached the subject from the unique perspective of Judeo-Christian tradition. This approach revolved around two fundamental but related doctrinal concepts—a belief that there is a personal creator God separate and distinct from man, and that man’s highest activity is the worship, supplication and veneration of this god. If a set of beliefs did not manifest these doctrines, it was not regarded as a religion.

This doctrinal approach also reflected the way Western scholars analyzed religious thought and practice from the very beginning of civilized society until only relatively recently. For hundreds of years the terms “religion” and “Christianity” were virtually synonymous. Henry Fielding’s sarcasm in “By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law” aptly caught the prevailing belief of the times. In fact, England refused to treat Judaism as a proper religion for purposes of charity law until as late as 1837.

This deceptively simple standard by which religions were judged not only closed the doors to many religions but opened the doors to persecution—underscoring that “defining” religion is far more than an issue of academic concern. From it, uneven treatment, discrimination and even violence have flowed.

Fortunately, as contemporary society became more global and the variety of religious expression in the West blossomed, scholars and others began to discover that the doctrinal approach could not be applied easily to religions not grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition—a discovery that eventually brought about an enlightened change in view. The inherent bias of the traditional approach to defining religion was particularly obvious when indigenous or Eastern religions were at issue, since many of them either have no God or Supreme Being, let alone a personal creator God, or tend to view religion as an integral part of everyday life.

Indeed, in many indigenous religions there is little belief structure, and some Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Bhakti view doctrine as ancillary and even a hindrance to spiritual advancement. Moreover, how could anyone deny the religiosity of Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, which have no Supreme Being, when both predate Christianity by five centuries? What of the many Hindu sects which, while recognizing numerous gods, clearly subordinate them to the ultimate goal—union of the “Self” with the “Absolute”? And what of Taoism, which cannot be defined but only “discerned,” or Confucianism, where character is the goal and wisdom the path to attaining it?

Modern religious scholars now agree that the test for religion must be objective and cannot be based on concepts drawn from any one particular tradition. Use of a definition that is biased toward a particular religious tradition is certain to discriminate among religions, and has indeed resulted in varying levels of religious persecution. Rather, experts have broadened their view to achieve what Professor Bryan Wilson, Reader Emeritus in Sociology, Oxford University, calls “ethically neutral definitions” consisting of “elements [which] came to be recognized as constituting religion, regardless of the substance of the beliefs, the nature of the actual practices, or the formal status of the functionaries in their service.” In this way a religion’s beliefs and practices can be interpreted fairly and without bias.

There still are many different ways of defining religion. In more recent years the trend has been toward analysis through “comparative religion,” which approaches the understanding of a religion through cross-cultural comparisons of its component parts. This approach and the context from which it developed are discussed below.


For hundreds of years religion had been defined on the basis of doctrine, and primarily on whether the doctrine in question exhibited the same characteristics as Christianity. The earliest attempts to go beyond the confines of the doctrinal test occurred in the early 1800s when scholars began considering intuitive and experiential factors in order to give more emphasis to man’s inner religious feelings, which was fundamental to Asian religions but missing from the Western modes of analysis. This resulted in a more inward approach exemplified by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence”—as opposed to a feeling of “relative” dependence on something else, something divine.

For many years religions were interpreted by methods such as this which often were based more on speculation than actual knowledge of the true facts, particularly of Eastern religions. Eventually, in the 1860s the Oxford scholar Max Muller called for the creation of a “science of religion” that would interpret religion through an objective test based on actual facts and fair and accurate methods of comparison.

Anthropologists and sociologists in the 1900s argued that religious belief and practice could be understood only within the cultural context from which they grew. Led by sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, they posited that religion should be analyzed on the basis of its component societal factors, and they reduced religious belief to its social, economic, political, psychological and cultural components. But many of the approaches they advocated were subject to criticism on the ground that they did not address what many considered the essential element of religions: transcendence.

This concept of transcendence, which means “to go beyond,” “to bridge” or “to cross over,” is a fundamental characteristic of all religious belief systems and a central element in every modern approach to defining religion. Transcendence creates the connection between the natural world and the supernatural, allowing man to pass through the limitations of his biological or physical state to the place of the divine. This place may be physical, as a temple or a church, or conceptual, as an image or principle—or both.

The concept of transcendence, which means “to go beyond” or “to cross over”, is a fundamental characteristic of all religious belief systems. It allows man to pass through the limitations of his physical state to a place of the divine.

The distinction between the divine or the supernatural and the physical world—between the “sacred” and the “profane”—is another fundamental characteristic of religious belief and an inherent concept in most definitions of religion. This separation is most obvious in religious rituals, customs and trappings that appear distinctly religious.

Soon other broader approaches to defining religion were developed that drew on the work of Schleiermacher but avoided the “reductive” method that focused so much on societal factors. Two of the most widely known exponents of this new approach, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, advocated defining religion in terms of how one experienced the sacred, an awareness of which they described as an intensely deep religious feeling. They focused more on the objects that individuals believed were sacred or endowed with supernatural power, whether an object, a person, an activity or a structure.

Another approach, advocated by the religious historian Joachim Wach, also analyzed religion in terms of objects and religious symbols. Wach expanded the ordinary notion of symbols to include people and activities, even institutions—thus, any activity, thing or person could serve as a bridge or connection between the sacred and the material world. He called these activating links “forms of religious expression” and grouped them into three main categories: (1) theoretical forms of religious expression—doctrines, beliefs, myths and sayings; (2) practical forms of religious expression—services, rites and practices; and (3) sociological forms of religious expression—organizations, relationships and authority.

While contemporary religious scholars certainly have not settled upon a universal definition of religion, it appears that a consensus believes these three categories of religious expression accurately reflect the essential common features of religions. Their basic approach looks for:

  • A belief that deals with the supernatural, some “ultimate reality” that transcends the physical world. This ultimate reality may be a God, gods or Supreme Being, or it may simply be some supernatural principle such as a belief in the transmigration of one’s spirit;
  • Religious practices that enable man to contact, understand, attain a union or commune with this ultimate reality; and
  • A community of believers who join together in pursuing this ultimate reality.Thus most scholars of comparative religion now agree with this three-pronged approach because it is free of religious bias, is not intrusive and avoids evaluation of religious belief or practice. It is, in the words of Dr. Wilson, a truly “ethically neutral” definition.


    The United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other human rights treaties
    The United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other human rights treaties, protect and guarantee the wide variety of freedom of thought, conscience and religion which is found in the 137 countries around the world that have signed these covenants.

    While such a definition of religion may have been embraced by modern scholars as the correct approach to the subject, international human rights law mandates it as the only approach. And while international human rights instruments purposely do not define religion, they do establish core international standards requiring that governments not use discriminatory definitions or apply objective definitions in discriminatory ways.

    Unfortunately, it is all too apparent that religious discrimination occurs, even in democratic societies. The internationally acclaimed 1997 study Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report, prepared by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre in conjunction with experts from 50 countries, has found that religious discrimination and repression is broadly occurring through the application of “narrow interpretations” of the concept of religion.

    Some of the most important international standards to guard against this discrimination were developed by the United Nations, which seeks as one of its primary aims to encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” (Art. 1(3) of the Charter). These principles of equality and non-discrimination are of such fundamental importance that they are regarded as principles of customary international law, binding on all civilized nations.

    To further these principles, United Nations human rights treaties, resolutions and reports call upon all member states to use a definition of religion that is sufficiently objective and expansive to avoid discrimination among religions. For this reason, the United Nations has rejected tests derived from Judeo-Christian concepts as outdated and unduly restrictive and suggested instead an inclusive and “ethically neutral” approach like that followed by religious scholars.

    This mandate for religious tolerance is clearly evident in authoritative guidelines the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted regarding Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion in each of the 137 countries which signed and ratified it. The UN’s Human Rights Committee, responsible for ensuring that the Covenant’s signatories comply with its obligations, has expressly warned them not to discriminate against any religion. The Committee has directed the signatories to treat all religions equally, particularly those that are “newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community,” and those that may have a “nontheistic” system of beliefs. (para. 2)

    The UN’s foremost authority on religious matters, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, has underscored this mandate for a broad approach to defining religion, stating that a group which goes “beyond simple belief and appeals to a divinity, or at the very least, to the supernatural, the transcendent, the absolute, or the sacred, enters into the religious sphere.” The UN Religious Rapporteur also has pointedly rejected standards used by some national governments for granting religious recognition that were based on the size of the group or the number of years it existed.

    Other international authorities working in this area take this same approach. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, routinely issues decisions that recognize and protect the rights of minority religions. A related organization, the Human Rights Information Centre of the Directorate of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, has noted that the broad concept of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights is “not confined to widespread and globally recognized religions but also applies to rare and virtually unknown faiths” and that religion must “thus be understood in a broad sense.” And in April 1997, a body of religious experts convened by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group of more than 50 countries, confirmed that the United Nations’ broad standards should apply to any definition of religion in order to protect nontraditional and minority religions.



    An understanding of the essential characteristics of religion is crucial to identifying religion but falls short of a full grasp of what religion means in modern society. In this regard, the learning of religious scholars and sociologists is again instructive. Beyond isolating the sine qua non qualities of religion, many also point to common functions present in modern religion.

    Probably the most important function of every religion—in fact, their primary concern—is salvation. This is not limited to spiritual salvation which, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, focuses primarily on man’s ultimate destiny. Rather, the true meaning of salvation is found in the origin of the word, from the Latin word “salutas,” meaning “safety” or “wholeness.” Thus, salvation actually has to do with making man “safe” or “whole” in his present life. Religions accomplish this by giving their followers the means to ward off difficulty or by showing what they must do or believe to have a meaningful existence, safe from the major vicissitudes of life.

    Of course, the different paths to salvation vary greatly from religion to religion and range from placing one’s faith in a “saving” god to sacrificing to various gods, worshiping ancestors, conforming to specific standards of conduct, practicing certain rituals, and meditation.

    Another related and equally important function of every religion is to put forth cosmology. Every religion has its own distinctive view of the cosmos—the nature of the physical universe, including time and space, the world we live in, and man’s place in it. This cosmology forms the philosophical underpinning on which that religion is based and, in effect, becomes its “religious philosophy”. This religious philosophy, in turn, determines the religion’s doctrine and belief systems, provides its uniqueness, and frequently is the single most feature that attracts new members. As India’s noted Hindu scholar Sri Aurobindo stated, “A religion that is not the expression of philosophic truth degenerates into superstition and obscurantism.”

    Similarly, preservation of orthodoxy is a common feature of almost every religion, and a religion’s measures to ensure the integrity of its beliefs, practices, traditions and scripture range from the very simple to the legally sophisticated. Revelations 22:18 strongly admonishes against alteration or deletion of Christian religious text. In Catholicism, the entire Jesuit religious order is charged with seeing to the integrity of scripture. And the Christian Science Church, among many others, has employed legal devices such as copyright laws to ensure sacred works are not perverted or improperly used.

    Establishment of ethical and moral codes and guidelines governing behavior and “right conduct” figure prominently in virtually all religions, and is expressed in such varied forms as the Ten Commandments in Judaism, and the Golden Rule in Christianity, the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism and the way of the dharma in Hinduism. The late religious scholar and author Mircea Eliade noted that while religion concerns the sacred, it also guides human conduct: “By imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods—that is, in the real and the significant.”

    A spiritual healing element is one of the most ancient and fundamental religious functions, found in many of the ayurvedic practices of Hinduism, early Christianity, some schools of Buddhism, and in many modern religious denominations such as Christian Science and Pentecostal. “[A] religion that does not heal cannot long survive,” says Professor David Chidester of the University of Capetown, South Africa noting that it is only in the modern world that religion relinquished primary responsibility for healing the body and the mind.

    Almost every religion also provides some way to help members resolve personal problems. In religions from the Judeo-Christian tradition, this often takes the form of pastoral counseling, particularly when the parishioner’s problem has to do with marital difficulties, problems at work or at school, antisocial or self-destructive behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse, or simply the stress of day-to-day life. Increasingly, churches encourage members to resolve problems through methods such as reading books or listening to recorded lectures in the privacy of their homes. Other religions prescribe following special rituals as a way to resolve personal problems. Catholics often use the confessional for this purpose. Dr. Wilson has described this function as providing “proximate salvation from immediate suffering and travail.”

    Numerous other functions of religion could be noted here. But scholars and historians have stressed that the presence or absence of one or more of these or other functions should not be mistaken as a factor in “defining” religion. Rather, they furnish a deeper understanding of the greater meaning of religion in modern society, and what particular religions mean to their adherents.



    There is another source of definitions of religion—governmental bodies. Government officials regularly must determine whether a particular group is religious and therefore qualifies for some privilege accorded only to religious organizations. This privilege may be a special zoning variance, exemption from taxes, the authorization to perform marriages, or in some localities just the simple right to provide spiritual healing to the ill or distressed. In some countries, particularly those dominated by a state religion, religious groups are required to register and be approved by the government before they may function or even hold religious services.

    Every religion has its own distinctive view of the cosmos – the nature of the physical universe, including time and space, the world we live in and man’s place in it.

    Despite the specific cultural differences among countries, contemporary court decisions are adopting expansive definitions of religion that appear to fit perfectly within the “ethically neutral” approach taken by scholars of comparative religion. In just the past several years the highest courts in Italy, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and India all have rejected an exclusively theistic definition of religion. The Italian Supreme Court specifically directed that courts look to the opinions of religious experts when determining whether a set of beliefs is religious.

    In fact, the definition of religion adopted by the High Court of Australia in Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner for Pay-Roll Tax (1983) 154 CLR 120, could well have been written by a scholar of religion. In that opinion, the Court set forth a series of four indicia derived from an empirical analysis of accepted religions: (1) a belief in something supernatural, some reality beyond that which can be conceived by the senses; (2) that the belief in question relates to man’s nature and place in the universe and his relationship to things supernatural; (3) as a result of this belief adherents are required or encouraged to observe particular codes of conduct or engage in particular practices that have supernatural significance; and (4) the adherents comprise one or more identifiable groups.

    Yet many if not most governmental officials and judges who have to make these decisions are not always familiar with the nuances of the variety of religious thought. And in all likelihood, their views of religion have been framed by their own experience, by the concepts, practices and trappings of the religious world in which they were born and raised. Thus, it would not be unusual to have as many definitions of religion as there are decision makers. With this lack of objective uniformity, it also is easy to see how discrimination among religions can occur, unintentional or not.


    October 13, 2007 at 11:36 pm Leave a comment


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