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Eric Reitan on Defining Religion

The fact is, we use the term “religion” in a variety of ways. And this fact makes it difficult to talk precisely about religion, let alone attack it with valid objections. Whenever usage is so varied, there is a real danger that one will fall prey to what philosophers call equivocation — that is, the fallacy of using the same term in different senses in the course of a single argument or discussion, without noticing the shift. … Is religion a comprehensive and unsurpassable account of everything that matters to a person? If so, the naturalism secular humanists would qualify as their religion. Or is religion a private matter of how the individual relates subjectively to what is taken to be the fundamental reality? If so, the physicist’s awe and wonder at the vast beauty of the cosmos would be a religion. Or is religion a social construct, its metaphysical pronouncements (if any) an incidental by-product of its goal of creating loyalty, obedience, and cohesion among society’s members? If so, Marxist ideology would have been the religion of the former Soviet Union. Or is religion an attempt, through metaphors and ritual practices, to bring our lives into alignment with an inexpressible transcendent reality? If so, then most world religions would paradoxically be true religions even as they reject the accuracy of Hick’s account (since thy don’t typically take themselves to be engaged in merely metaphorical discourse). The point, of course, is that “religion” is used in all these ways and more.


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