Over time, the word of “religion” has been discussed, defined, and debated. The sociologist Èmile Durkheim defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Paul Tillich says religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life” (The Spiritual Situation in our Technical Society). William James pronounced religion to be “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (The Varieties of Religion Experience). Hundreds of scholars have come up with their own definitions of religion, some much more detailed than others, and there has yet to be a single, universal definition.
Why is the definition, or lack thereof, of religion important? Without one accepted definition, almost anything can be presented as a religion. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, has grown in visibility and popularity since it sprung up in 2005; scholars have written and discussed sports – particularly football and baseball – as forms of religion; parts of the United States appear to adhere to civil religion, “worshipping” the American flag and military; and Yeezianity made its debut just a few days ago, as followers of Yeezus – Kanye West’s alter ego – are united in their love of the celebrity.
While Yeezianity is a joke, Pastafarianism and the religion of sports are not. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a group of critical thinkers who proclaim they are “not anti-religion, we are anti- crazy nonsense done in the name of religion” (http://www.venganza.org/about/). Many papers and books have been written by reputable scholars about the parallels between sports teams, their fans, and traditional religious groups – the collective experience of winning, or losing, a big game can seem a lot like the collective experience of worship. And the practice of reverence towards the American flag and the U.S. military is common in many parts of the country, particularly in the South. Many definitions of “religion” allow these examples to be classified as religions, and it is a rich area of religious studies.
Yet these examples, with a lack of emphasis on the divine, are not the only things to be excluded in some ideas of religion. There are many Christians who proclaim that Islam, with 1.6 billion followers across the world, is not a religion. Within Judaism and Christianity, certain fringe groups are rejected by the larger church and not considered valid expressions of religion. The Mormon church has often been the subject of ridicule from adherents to other “traditional” religions. There are thousands of people who believe in a variety of deities, rituals, and lifestyles, and who are told their religions and their faiths are invalid.
Without a universal definition of religion (and the word “religion” was imposed by Westerners on a variety of cultures without such a word), we are free to decide what qualifies as religion and what does not. It’s a blessing and a curse, it allows for freedom and oppression.
What is religion? Religion is.