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Is there such a thing as "religion"?

Is it at all appropriate to speak of "the" religion or "the religions"?

I'd like to plead for a modular conception of religions, not as homogeneous "things", but as a bundle of elements that are and were composed differently in different cultures and at different times.

These (core) elements/modules include (the list is not exhaustive):

1- Dealing/exchange with supernatural actors or entities (ancestors, spirits, gods, karma, dharma)
2- Myth (proto-scientific narrations that give explanations of the world)
3- rituals
4- magic
5- taboos
6- emotionally charged symbols
7- Music and dance
8- Changed states of consciousness
9- notions of the hereafter
10- moral rules
11- sacrifices
12- Dichotomy sacred/profane
13- Dichotomy pure/impure

The following is important:

(a.) Not all of these modules occur in every religion.
(b.) Each of these modules can also be found in non-religious contexts, they can "migrate" to the realms of politics or art, so that the impression can arise that fascism or the cult around a star is "quasi-religious". The litmus test would be whether one ascribes supernatural abilities to the leader or the idolised star. Only if this is the case it could be called a genuinely religious phenomenon.

Matias 8 June 2

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Missing modules: pedofília, inquisition and creating misery.

zesty Level 7 July 11, 2019

I expressed to try to breath willfully and of faith. Which way do you breath better. I think breathing willfully is better. Others may breath better differently depending on their religious background and experiences. Possibly under stressful conditions would be apt for experimenting.


Semantics are fun to play with, but usually prove nothing

This is not playing with semantics, and I did not try to "prove" anything.

@Matias Yes it was, and yes you did.

@Bobby9 Be more explicit (if you can): What exactly did I try to prove?

@Matias Quoting YOUR words "I'd like to plead for a modular conception of religions, not as homogeneous "things", but as a bundle of elements that are and were composed differently in different cultures and at different times."

"I'd like to plead" is defiantly an attempt to prove something.


Seems about right to me. I have always considered religion a "differential diagnosis" where you have a list of stuff like this and you need, say, 8 or more of them to be considered a religion. And I like that this makes gods optional. Not all religions have deities they're pushing.


You’ve listed the fleas, the muddy paw prints, the hair on the sofa, the barking, the slobber, the wagging, and panting, without ever mentioning the dog itself.

The core of religion is transcendence. Liberation. Salvation. Nirvana. Enlightenment.

These have nothing to do with the supernatural, the hereafter, or altered states. In modern terminology, it’s about cognitive development. The core of religion is practice - not belief. And only secondarily is it about social cohesion. The hair and the fleas are only the epiphenomena of folkways.

skado Level 8 June 3, 2019

Not quite... Most "tribal religions" do not involve transcendence, liberation, salvation. Let alone Nirvana or even Enlightenment.
I'd say that the origin (and existential core) of "religion" is access to superhuman powers in order to get help, to cope with daily life.
The rest are later stages of cultural evolution. The bundle theory of religion can account for this conceptual messiness. It is like in biological evolution where features are gained and lost.

I would say learning to cope with daily life is very much related to transcendence. It is the daily struggles that are transcended. Do you have a suggestion where I could read about tribal religions? I don’t know much about them specifically. I’m just going on what I know about current major world religions.

"learning to cope with daily life is very much related to transcendence".
Apes learn how to cope with daily life, but they do not transcend it. Many people who grow up without religion cope with daily life, but they do not transcend it vertically (if I become a member of a political party or movement one could call this "transcending horizontally my sad little life" - but that is not religious, it is just expanding the circle of my "me"

One of the best introductions in the scientific study of religions is Pascal Boyer's "Religion explained". He is an anthropologist and uses a lot of (lively!) examples from his field work in Africa and elsewhere. He really opened my eyes about those "small" religions, and he addresses many misconceptinons that arise when we apply our understanding of religion (taken from "big" religions) to religion as such.


Ha! I see I already bought that book (on your recommendation) in fact I bought it twice! And still haven't gotten around to reading either of them! 🙂

@skado See... I bought it once and read it twice! 😇
I hope you'll finally find enough time to read it. It is rather scientific, not an easy read sometimes, but you really learn a lot.

I moved it to the top of the stack.


I disagree with karma and dharma being in a list of supernatural actors or entities; none of those last 3 words apply to them as I understand them. Some people may see them as such, but it’s a lazy interpretation resulting from treating philosophy as religion. I take your point and agree with the rest though; religion is a complex umbrella term with many factors, and you can take or leave each element of it as you will. It’s an a la carte buffet and probably no two people take the exact same things from the possible package.

When I speak of religion or hastily use it as shorthand to paint with wide brushstrokes, the best I can do is tell you I’m probably referring to western cosmology of abrahamic religions. Those do mostly have a lot of the same strengths, flaws, modules and purposes in common. Whereas there are many other religions that I don’t consider “religion” at all: Buddhism and Taoism, TST Satanism, church of the FSM etc are valuable philosophies that directly oppose what most people in my culture think of as religion. They’re anti religions, taking up the mantle of religious terminology as a way of beating prescriptive religion at its own game.

A lot of us atheists likewise have too narrow of a definition of what religion is from the outside. We tend to describe a conspiratorial bunch of lies designed to control us, which isn’t exactly how most religions came to be either. It’s a pastiche of the elements you’re describing that folks began using to their own ends almost incidentally. The ends don’t justify the means, nor do they dictate the intention of the means.


Good question.
And religions are practiced differently in different places and different times. Sometimes different sects of the supposed same religion are so different that they're antagonistic.
More general point is that abstractions always cloud reality.


The term "religions" is like the term "sports." Many sports have nothing at all in common and require widely varying levels of commitment, talent, and equipment. It doesn't make sense to talk about or have an opinion about sports. It just so happens I like the sports I'm good at and played as a kid as my parents watched.

I like your list. I would add ethnicity to the mix somehow or an in-group/out-group (us against them) dynamic.

Dan Dennett has several excellent talks on youtube regarding how the evolutionary process of natural selection works for ideas like religion. I recommend watching them. Here's one I like a lot:

Yes, I really like Dennett and his books. He is the only one among the so-called " New atheists" I can take seriously

@Matias I agree. Harris has lost his primary purpose and Dawkins always seems mildly petulant to me.


Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter fandom immediately come to mind. I remember some element of religious folks being against Star Wars in the '80s (in fact, I bought a bunch of vintage toys from a guy who's mother made him get rid of all of it because she was super religious). Of course, Harry Potter had a huge backlash by Christians (people tend to forget those early years).

My dad was a garbage man in the '70s, and found a bunch of Beatles records in the trash. Some kid's parents made him throw them away for being satanic.

Which leads up to Spock's devil ears.


"Each of these modules can also be found in non-religious contexts," Do they ?. Certainly not in my life apart from music and dance.

Yes absolutely, almost all of them have a secular counterpart. 9 and 13 are the only ones I’m not 110% sure of how to relate them to secularism.

1- karma, dharma I would argue are philosophical, non religious concepts to begin with. Karma is the cycle of cause and effect and dharma could loosely be considered the laws of physics or thermodynamics, any constant system of reality that does not seem to change

2- There are all sorts of secular myths; do you not watch or read any type of fiction? Used to be Robin Hood, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill etc; now it’s superheroes, GoT etc.

3- rituals. I don’t presume to know what rituals you’d identify with but I’m positive there are some. we’re all creatures of habit and certain sequences of events make us feel better. Your habits and routines are all rituals in a way.

4- magic Penn & Teller are secular magicians who make it a point never to lie to their audience about magic being “real” and yet they are capable of amazing us and giving us a magical feeling regardless. Most other art forms or avenues of design, creation or performance could be considered magic in the same sense for my money.

5- taboos (I think we can all agree incest is still taboo with or without religion... probably more so without 😉 )

6- emotionally charged symbols — Ad design & marketing are sociological fields of study where they intentionally manipulate our emotional reaction to symbols for capitalism’s purposes.

7- Music and dance, self explanatory you got that one

8- Changed states of consciousness — Psychedelic plants/drugs, or can also be objectively brought on through yoga, meditation, sex, group music or dance or intense exercise

9- notions of the hereafter (this might be the only one that really doesn’t exist outside religion although perhaps some people with a toe in spiritualism May believe in reincarnation but are otherwise not religious)

10- moral rules (I trust you’ve still got some without religion.)

11- sacrifices (we all make them in some way or another, unless you live life entirely selfishly on the hedonic treadmill, in which case I’d still argue you’re sacrificing love and everything else for superficial pleasure)

12- Dichotomy sacred/profane (the word fuck is a good example of both lol)

@Wurlitzer I'm not sure waht point the poster was trying to make. That certain behaviours are transferable between a secular and religious lifestyle ?
I agree with you up to a point but

  1. Dharma and Karma come from buddhism which in some quarters not even qualify as a religion because in most disciplines there is no diety to worship

2.Those are stories not myths although some may merge at times.

3.We may be creatures of habit. ie I have two mugs of coffee each morning but it is not a ritual. there is a big difference

4.There s no such thing as magic. As you say it is illusion.

  1. Taboos are a cultural phenomena
    6.They probably occur in religion. the cross, star of David etc and in secular life, a fan's football strip etc.

7.There is some great religious music. Handel's Messiah is the usual one listed but I often sing carols at Christmas but I don't take any notice of the lyrics just as I don't take a lot of notice of the lyrics of some of my favourite rock songs.

8.Certainly this occurs and in some animist or pagan religions psychedelic plants are used as a sacrament

9,Purely a religious concept I think

10.Yes like most people I have moral rules much more so than someone who follows the instructions of the old testament

11.The sacrifices in religion, from Incas sacrificing babies (if they did) to RC's not eating meat on a Friday are quite different from a mother giving up food so that her children are fed. surely it is the meaning behind the sacrifice that is important and they are totally different

12.A cultural thing but they do cross over for example saying "Jesus Christ" when something goes wrong could be a good example of both.

There are certainly similarities in secular and religious life but without the core worshiping or at least the belief in a diety it is a bit meaningless. .

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