An Excerpt from The Myth of Religious Neutrality

An Excerpt from The Myth of Religious Neutrality

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1. Introduction

When we consider what religion is for mankind
and what science is, it is no exaggeration to
say that the future course of history depends
upon the decision of this generation as
to the relations between them.

–Alfred North Whitehead


To what extent does religious belief make a difference to the ways people understand and conduct their lives?

The popular answer is that it all depends on how religious a person is. It makes virtually no difference at all for an atheist, while a fanatic thinks and cares about little else. The popular answer then sees the majority of people as falling between these two extremes, and it takes religion to deal mostly with morality and a person’s eternal destiny rather than with the bulk of the affairs of life. Thus most of the affairs of day-to-day life are seen as neutral with respect to religious belief.

As a result of investigating religious belief and its influences for almost fifty years, I have become convinced that these popular opinions are completely mistaken. Instead, I find that religious belief is the most powerful and influential belief in the world. I further find that religious belief has the single most decisive influence on everyone’s understanding of the major issues of life ranging across the entire spectrum of human experience. Moreover, I find it exercises such influence upon all people independently of their conscious acceptance or rejection of the religious traditions with which they are acquainted.


The enormous influence of religious beliefs remains, however, largely hidden from casual view. Its relation to the rest of life is like that of the great geological plates of the earth’s surface to its continents and oceans. The movement of these plates is not apparent to an eyeball inspection of any particular landscape and can only be detected with great difficulty. Nevertheless, so vast are these plates, so stupendous their power, that their visible effects – mountain ranges, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions – are but tiny surface blemishes compared with the force of the mighty plates themselves. Similarly, the great historic traditions of religious teaching, and the institutions devoted to their preservation, are merely the surface effects of religious belief, which is a vaster and more pervasive force than all of them put together.

Among the reasons this influence is so often missed is that people are prone to two alluring mistakes about religious belief. One is to suppose that all the major religious traditions are basically like the one they’re best acquainted with. The other is to suppose that the likeness between religious traditions must lie in their most obvious and outstanding features. These two mistakes serve to keep hidden from view the true nature of religious belief, and thus most of its influence.

Our first task, then, will be to define the nature of religious belief by seeking common features among the central beliefs of the world’s religious traditions. The definition we arrive at will strike many people as surprising because it will show a number of beliefs to be religious that do not result in worship. For those under the spell of the two mistakes just mentioned, the definition will therefore seem strange and suspicious. In fact, however, one of its greatest contributions lies precisely in showing us why not all religious beliefs have rituals or ethical codes connected with them. Though surprising, this discovery is of enormous benefit as a first step toward exposing the vast array of unsuspected connections between the issues usually supposed to be religiously neutral and the religious beliefs which actually guide their interpretation.

In speaking of religious belief as influential over the entire range of human experience, I do not mean to suggest that we speak our native tongue or add a column of figures differently depending on our religion. Speaking and counting usually take place at a level of experience where our activity in, and acquaintance with, the world around us is remarkably the same for all people. But there is a deeper level of understanding which humans have always sought, a level at which the nature of our world and ourselves is interpreted and explained. In our culture, that level has long been sought through theories. It is by the theories of philosophy and the sciences that we probe the deeper nature of, and construct explanations of, all that we experience.

The central claim of this book is that no such theory can fail to be regulated and guided by some religious belief or other.

To many readers this claim will seem not merely surprising but outrageous. Scientific theories, especially, are supposed to be the most neutral and unbiased explanations of all. My claim may therefore tempt some readers to think that I cannot possibly mean it. So let me assure you right away that I am not overstating it now only to water it down later. I will not, for example, argue that all theories have unprovable assumptions, call these assumptions “faith,” and then conclude that religious belief in that sense influences theories. That would be a huge waste of time. Everyone in philosophy and the sciences knows that theories have unprovable assumptions, but a belief is not religious just because it is unprovable.

Nor will I argue that theory making is influenced by the moral beliefs of theorists, and then try to connect religion with morality. There are notable instances of moral influences on theorizing, and some are cases in which the morality was directly derived from a religious tradition. But such influence is surely not true of all theories and is not the sort of thing intended by my claim. Neither will I merely be pointing to the fact that scientists have at times borrowed ideas from religion or theology which they transformed and employed in theories. That falls far short of the sort of regulation I will argue for, as it is neither pervasive nor regulatory. Finally, the position that will be defended is not just another version of the oft-suggested view that philosophy and science are limited in what they can explain, and so leave gaps in our understanding that religious beliefs can fill. I am not merely claiming that theories “leave room for faith,” as Kant put it. Rather, I will contend that one or another religious belief always functions as a regulative presupposition to any abstract theory, and that this is unavoidable not merely owing to the historical/social presence of such beliefs in our culture but because it arises out of the very process of theory making itself.

To be more precise, I will contend that one or another religious belief controls theory making in such a way that the interpretation of the contents of a theory differs depending on the contents of the religious belief it presupposes. This should not be understood to mean that religious beliefs somehow inspire thinkers to invent just the hypotheses they invent, but rather that the nature of whatever a theory proposes is conceived of differently depending on the religious belief it presupposes. It should be clear, then, that this is not the claim that the proposals of theories are all deduced from religious convictions (though that has happened at times). Rather, I mean that some religious belief or other delimits an acceptable range of interpretations of the nature of whatever a hypothesis proposes. It is in this sense that I find the influence of religious belief to be utterly pervasive. And it is in this sense that virtually all the major disagreements between rival theories in the sciences and in philosophy can ultimately be traced back to the differences between the religious beliefs that guide them.

This means that theories about math and physics, sociology and economics, art and ethics, politics and law can never be religiously neutral. They are one and all regulated by some religious belief. It is in this way that the effects of religious beliefs extend far beyond providing the hope for life after death or the influencing of moral values and judgments. By controlling theory making, they produce important differences in the interpretation of issues that range over the whole of life.

This position is bound to provoke stiff resistance from many quarters, and doubtless one of the strongest objections will be directed against my claim that the influence of religious belief extends to everyone. Do I really mean to suggest that everyone has a religious belief, despite the fact that many people say that they neither have nor want one? On this point, too, I once again disagree with the prevailing popular opinion. Popular opinion says that a person surely knows whether he or she has a religious belief, and that anyone who claims to reject them all couldn’t be wrong about it. Besides, popular opinion says, isn’t it just obvious that lots of people are totally nonreligious?

These popular views appear plausible, in my opinion, because of the two mistakes cited earlier. If religious belief must involve worship and creedal adherence, then certainly there are many people without it. However, once the definition of religious belief is made clear, and its involvement in theories is exposed, it becomes quite plausible that people may hold such a belief without even being conscious of it.

All the same, I will not attempt to prove that all people are innately religious. The project here is more modest, but still significant. What will be demonstrated is that no abstract explanatory theory can fail to include or presuppose a religious belief. In that case, we may say that the only people who could possibly avoid all religious belief are those who believe no theory whatever!

Let me briefly outline how I propose to defend such a seemingly hopeless cause.

After defining religious belief, I will take a hard look at what goes on in theory making, distinguish some major types of theories, and analyze the activity of abstraction that is unavoidable in the construction of any theory whatever. It is the act of abstraction and its limits that will later be shown to be what make the involvement of religious belief in theories unavoidable. We will then examine the most popular ideas of about how religious belief and theories are supposed to relate, and discover why they are deficient compared with the more extensive influence we’ll discover. I will then clarify more precisely how religious belief exercises its influence in theories by offering a casebook of sample theories to illustrate it. The sample theories will be some of the most famous and important ever to be proposed in math, physics, and psychology. They will not only show how the influence of religious belief works, but also make clear why the competing theories in these sciences are ultimately due to the differences between the religious beliefs presupposed by each. The arguments as to why such influence is unavoidable follow the casebook chapters in chapter 10.

The discovery of this relation between religious belief and theory making is not merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, but is of enormous importance for the whole of life. For if theories differ according to the religious beliefs controlling them, then there will be ways that those of us who believe in God should have an interpretation of all theories we make or adopt which is distinct from interpretations of them that presuppose some other divinity. It is for this reason the book concludes with a blueprint for a program of constructing new theories or reinterpreting existing theories so as to bring them under the control of belief in God. This includes a brief sketch of a God-controlled theory of reality. The results of that theory are then explicated by applying them to a theory of society and to a political theory which are not only generally theistic, but specifically Christian. That is, they will be guided not only by belief in God but also by views of human nature, social relationships, and institutions that are found in the New Testament.

I want to make it clear, therefore, that the primary intent of this book is not to convert readers to belief in God, or to refute atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism, or any other “ism.” Insofar as such isms are mentioned at all, the references to them are always secondary to my main purpose. This book is addressed to those who believe in God. I write here as a Christian seeking to persuade my brothers and sisters in the religious family of those who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that our belief in a transcendent Creator mandates a distinct perspective for the interpretation of every aspect of life. And this distinct perspective extends to the construction and interpretation of philosophical, scientific, and all other theories because there is no area or issue of life which is neutral with respect to belief in God. In addition, I write to fellow Christians to show how the basically theistic interpretation of theories can be combined with Christian teachings to develop specifically Christian theories.

I realize this is not a position that has ever been held by the majority of Christians or other theists, despite the fact that so many Bible writers repeatedly teach that all knowledge and truth is impacted by having the right God. The failure to take this teaching seriously has resulted in a long history of Christians and other theistic thinkers unwittingly accepting theories that are actually incompatible with belief in God. Moreover, the absence of this insight into just how belief in God impacts theories is responsible for much of the present confusion over the relation between science and biblical religion. The position defended here will make clear why it is not true that science and religion are by nature opposed to one another. But at the same time it will show why holding that belief in God impacts all theories does not require that they are all to be derived from, or confirmed by, appeal to scripture or theology as fundamentalists attempt to do. It will thus present an alternative to all the currently prevailing views of the general relation of religious belief to theories.

The discussion of these issues begins at an introductory level. It assumes the reader to have no previous knowledge of philosophy, only a smattering of high school science, and to be unsophisticated about religion. As the book progresses, however, each succeeding chapter does assume what has been explained in previous chapters, so that it will not be possible to understand the position defended in the later chapters if the earlier chapters are skipped. Even at its most advanced level, however, the more technical points of argument have been placed in the notes so as to keep the text accessible to nonprofessionals.

Keeping the text at such a level of discussion has drawbacks, of course. Many points that could be raised need to be left out, and others that are included need more extensive analysis and argument than can be given at this level. Although this is frustrating, it does allow the position as a whole to be conveyed in one book, and the book to be accessible to readers with little or no philosophical background. My hope is that the treatment afforded the major points will be detailed enough to indicate the lines along which they could and would be further defended were the discussion more extensive.

Despite the limitations of starting at an introductory level, I pray this work will be able to sensitize even the most sophisticated readers to the great influence of religious belief, to encourage all who believe in God to work together to promote this position, and to encourage Christians to develop theories that are regulated by the teachings of the New Testament.


2. What Is Religion?

2.1 The Problem

Defining “religion” is notoriously difficult. The word is used in a large number of ways: it is applied to rituals, organizations, beliefs, doctrines, and feelings as well as to large-scale traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Moreover, the very subject of religious belief is often emotionally charged. This sensitivity is natural since religion concerns people at the deepest level of their convictions and values.

To help minimize these difficulties, let us keep two thoughts firmly in mind as we proceed. The first is that we are not now trying to establish which religion is true or false, right or wrong. We are trying to arrive at an understanding of what religion—any religion—is. In answer to this question I will be proposing and defending what is often called a “real” definition, that is, a definition that is more precise or scientific than those employed in common speech. The second thing to remember is that the definition I will offer focuses on one particular use of the term “religion,” the sense in which it qualifies belief. Our search for a definition of religion, then, will be a search for what distinguishes a religious belief from a belief which is not religious. This is because I take belief to be the key issue, since it is religious beliefs which prompt and guide the persons, practices, rites, rituals, and traditions we commonly call “religious.”

What, then, is a religious belief? Consider the question this way. We all have literally thousands of beliefs about thousands of things. At this moment, for example, I believe myself to be the blood relative of certain other people; I believe 1 + 1 = 2; I believe next Friday is payday, that there was an ice age about 20,000 years ago, and that there was a civil war in England in the 1640s. While most people would probably agree that none of these beliefs is religious, the ancient Pythagoreans regarded 1 + 1 = 2 as a religious belief! So we need to know not only what makes one belief religious and another not, but how it can be that the same belief can be religious to one person and not to another.

As we proceed, we must also keep in mind what any definition must do if it is to avoid being arbitrary. A non-arbitrary definition must state the set of characteristics uniquely shared by all the things of the type being defined. The way this is done is to inspect as many things of that type as possible, and try to isolate just the combination of characteristics which is true of them and only them. This is a difficult thing to do even for objects we can inspect, like computers or chairs, but it is even tougher for abstract ideas such as religious beliefs.

What makes such definitions possible is that we can all recognize things to be of a certain type prior to being able to define the type precisely. We all know a lot of things are trees, for instance, long before we perform the difficult task of analyzing the set of features possessed by all trees, but only trees. So while the process of defining starts by examining an initial list of things of the type to be defined, we need not examine all of them in order to formulate their definition. Indeed, we could not do so because we would already need to have a definition in order to decide whether to include or exclude any controversial or borderline case. So defining starts by examining a list of the things to be defined that leaves out controversial cases.

At first glance it seems an easy task to compile a relatively uncontroversial initial list of religions so as to look for a common element among their central beliefs. Virtually everyone would concede that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with Hinduism, Buddhism,1 and Taoism, can safely be placed on the list. Moreover, just about everyone thinks that the beliefs in the ancient Greek Olympian gods, the Greek mystery cults, the Roman pantheon, Egyptian polytheism, or ancient Caananite belief in Ba’al were also religious. Nor does it seem objectionable that teachings which have never generated a large following can still count as religions – the ancient Epicurean beliefs and teachings about the gods, for example. In fact, there seems to be a fairly large initial “short list” of religions which further includes Druidism, the beliefs about Isis and Mithra, as well as the teachings of Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and a host of other candidates. What, after all, could be the reason for refusing to acknowledge that these are all religions and their central tenets religious beliefs? They are (or were) all regarded as such by their adherents, and the adherents of at least the majority of them readily acknowledged others on the list to be alternative or competing religions.

But despite the availability of an acceptable list of religions, it has proven exceedingly difficult to extract any belief they, and only they, share in common. To illustrate this, let us now take a brief look at how poorly some of the most widely accepted definitions fare when applied to the traditions on our list. We will start with what are currently the most popular ideas, and then look at a few of the most influential scholarly proposals.

One of the most popular ideas is that religious beliefs are those that inspire and sanction an ethical code of some sort. In fact, many people suppose that the primary purpose of religious belief is to provide moral direction for life. Although this may sound plausible, the fact is that there are religions on our list which do not include any ethical teaching whatever. Ancient Epicureanism, for instance, made no connection between belief in its gods and moral duties to one’s fellow humans. According to the Epicureans, the gods had no concern whatever for human affairs, so a person could be morally rotten for all the gods cared. Other examples of religions with this same lack are the Japanese Shinto tradition and some forms of ancient Roman religion. To make matters worse for this proposal, there are clearly non-religious beliefs that do inspire or include moral teachings. For example, there are moral codes of honor in schools, sports clubs, armies, and even criminal organizations. This is enough to show that even if all religions did provide ethical teachings, that feature alone would not be sufficient to distinguish religious beliefs from those which are not religious.

Not all religious beliefs inspire worship, either. Aristotle argued for the existence of a supreme god he called the Prime Mover. But since he also held that it would be beneath the nature and dignity of the Prime Mover to know about or be concerned with earthly affairs, he regarded worship as futile. The ancient Epicureans mentioned above agreed. According to them, too, the gods care nothing about the world so the fact that gods exist is interesting to humans, but inspires no worship. Even in our own time, there are forms of Hinduism and Buddhism in which there is no worship.

Sometimes it is suggested that if the last two proposals were just broadened a bit and conjoined, they could form a successful definition. Suppose we take a religious belief to be one that generates ritual and/or ethics where the ritual can be of any sort rather than worship specifically? Won’t that do? The answer is, it will not. In the case of rituals it leads to the vicious circle of needing to know which rituals are religious in order to identify religious beliefs, and needing to know which beliefs are religious in order to know which rituals are. If there were a specific list of rituals generated only by religious beliefs, this could work. But there are many rituals that are at times religious and at others not: burning down a house, setting off fireworks, fasting, feasting, having sexual intercourse, singing, chanting, cutting oneself, circumcising an infant, covering one’s body with manure, washing, killing an animal, killing a human, eating bread and wine, shaving one’s head, and many more. So it seems clear that the only way to know whether a ritual is religious or not is to know what those who take part in it believe about it. If its motivating belief is religious, then the ritual may be. But without knowing whether it is done for a religious reason, even what looks like an act of prayer can be indistinguishable from fantasizing or talking to oneself. And notice that many of the rituals just cited have an ethical code conjoined to them when they are done for non-religious reasons, while others are believed to be unethical unless done for religious reasons! Rituals conducted by clubs with an ethical code or the ceremonies attending induction into an office of a company or government that has a code of ethics are examples of non-religious rituals accompanied by ethical beliefs, while the ritual killing of a human for religious reasons was considered pious by the Aztecs who otherwise regarded it as murder. I conclude, therefore, that this proposal fails. Religious beliefs are not necessarily those that generate ethical teaching and/or ritual; there are religious beliefs that lack both and non-religious beliefs that generate both.

Perhaps the most widespread of all the popular definitions is that a religious belief is belief in a Supreme Being. Many people not only seem to think this covers all religions, but also suspect that all religions worship the same Supreme Being under different names. This is simply mistaken. Not all the traditions on our list include belief in anything that has a uniquely supreme status. What is more, in Hinduism the divine (Brahman-Atman) is not considered a being at all. It is instead an indefinite “being-ness,” or “being-itself.” For this same reason Brahman-Atman cannot strictly be called a god, if a god is taken to be an individual and personal. Buddhism also denies the divine is a being, but goes even further. For fear that “being itself” is still too definite an expression, it insists on such terms as “Void,” “Non-being,” and “Nothingness” for the divine. So although these religions believe there is divine reality, they do not believe the divine is a being at all, let alone a supreme one.

Surprisingly, some of the most widely accepted scholarly attempts to define religious belief don’t fare much better than these popular ones. One of the most influential of the past fifty years was that of Paul Tillich, who declared religious belief or faith to be identical with “ultimate concern.”2 This expression is supposed to bare the bones of all religions. Tillich contended that all people are ultimately concerned about something, and the state of being ultimately concerned is a person’s religion.

But just what does it mean to be ultimately concerned with something? The most plausible way to understand the expression is to take it as referring to the state of being concerned about whatever is ultimate reality. This, though still unclear as to precisely what “concerned” means, seems to include dealing with ultimate reality in some way and so does sound like much of what goes on in religions. Moreover, there is reason to think that it is what Tillich himself intended.3 But even overlooking the ambiguity of “concerned,” there is also the problem of how we are to define “ultimate” so as to know which beliefs and concerns are about what is ultimate reality and are thus religious.

Tillich identifies the ultimate with “the holy” and “the divine,”4 but of course that is not much help. (What do those terms mean?) However, he does add that what is truly ultimate—the only right object of ultimate concern—is “being-itself,” or “the infinite.”5 Moreover, he makes it clear that whatever is infinite in his sense must be unlimited in such a way that there could be nothing distinct from it. He thinks that if someone were to say that God is ultimate but also believe that the universe is a reality other than God, that person would be inconsistent. For were there anything other than God, God would then be limited by what he is not and thus would not be infinite and so not really ultimate. The result of this, Tillich says, is that anyone ultimately concerned with that sort of god (a god who is a being rather than being-itself) would be putting his or her trust in something which is not really ultimate and would therefore have false religious belief (he calls it “false faith”).6

But by understanding “ultimate” in this way, Tillich’s definition of faith turns out to be too narrow. Rather than finding a common element to all religious beliefs, Tillich lapses into prescribing his version of what true religion is. Thus he fails to give a meaning to “ultimate” which can allow for false as well as true religious belief. For if religious faith is being concerned about the ultimate only in his sense, then anyone whose concern is with something taken to be ultimate but not infinite as he understands “infinite” would simply have no religious belief whatever. Tillich has therefore actually defined faith so that only his idea of true faith is faith at all. So whether his idea of true religion is right or wrong is beside the point just now, because it is a fact that there are religions which do not believe anything to be ultimate in his sense of “infinite.”

Tillich was, of course, aware of this objection but he failed to realize that it is lethal to his definition. He tried to sidestep its significance by suggesting, as I indicated above, that the religions concerned with something that is not infinite in his sense intend their concern to be for that which is infinite but fall short. His sidestep amounts to saying that true religion is concern or belief which succeeds in being directed to the infinite, while false religion is concern which intends to be directed to the infinite but misses. But this just will not do. For the theistic religions— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—hold to the doctrine of creation found in Genesis. They do not therefore intend to believe in anything that is infinite in Tillich’s sense. Instead, they quite deliberately believe in God the Creator who is distinct from the universe He created. They hold that the universe depends on God for its existence because God brought it into being out of nothing, not that it is part of God. Thus, “ultimate concern,” as Tillich defines it, is not a characteristic of these religions and so is too narrow to be the essential definition of all religious belief.

Another influential scholarly definition is this:

Religion is the varied symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to, that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.7

In other words, whatever is believed to be of unrestricted value is therefore regarded as the precise core of religious belief. This definition appears more plausible than it really is because of the way we sometimes speak metaphorically of a person’s obsessions as his “religion.” For example, we call a sports fanatic’s devotion to his favorite sport his religion because of the way that devotion is like the religious devotion of a saint or a prophet. But the fact that the fervor or dedication of a sports fanatic is like that of a saint won’t make a sport a religion any more than it will make a religion a sport. And that point aside, there are even better reasons to think this definition is just not right.

For one thing, there are polytheisms in which there are gods who are little valued or even hated.8 If religious belief were identical with belief in what a person values most, then belief in these gods would have to be non-religious! But if belief in a god isn’t a religious belief, what is? Here, and in all that follows, I will take it as a rule in need of no defense that any definition that makes belief in a god to be non-religious has thereby discredited itself.

Such polytheisms are not the only counter-examples to this proposal, however; Christianity is one also. For while it is surely true that what is of supreme value is an important part of Christian teaching, the proper ordering of values is presented in the New Testament as a result of belief in God rather than as identical with it. What a Christian is admonished to value above all is God’s favor: the kingdom of God and the righteousness he offers to those who believe in him (Matt. 6:33). But the New Testament also stipulates that to please God one must first believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). Clearly, then, if belief that God is real and trustworthy is a precondition for valuing God’s kingdom and favor above all else, then belief in God can not be the same as the valuing that results from it. In short, God, in Christian teaching, is not a value but the Creator of all values. And the proper relation to God is for us to love him with our whole being, not merely to value him. Thus it follows that Christianity is another counter-example to this proposal since defining religious belief as belief in whatever one values most would make the Christian belief in God to be non-religious. (Of course, this is not to deny that what people value most is often an indicator of what they regard as divine. But the fact that one’s highest value can reflect a religious belief doesn’t show it always does, let alone that religious belief can be defined by it.)

Although there isn’t the room here to examine a large number of other proposals,9 I don’t think it’s necessary since so many scholars of religion now agree that none of them succeeds and some have even concluded that no precise definition of religious belief is possible.10 As a result, the prevailing view these days is that religious beliefs have only “family resemblances” rather than any defining features common to them all. To appreciate why so many thinkers feel driven to say that, consider the obstacles to forming a real definition. Suppose, for example, we were to reply to them that every religion is characterized by a belief in something or other as divine. That seems true enough but not very helpful; it simply shifts the problem to defining “divine.” How, they would ask, are we to locate a common element among the ideas of divinity found in only the major world religions of the present? What common element is shared between the idea of God in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Hindu idea of Brahman-Atman, the idea of Dharmakaya in Mahajana Buddhism, and the idea of the Tao in Taoism? To isolate a common element among these seems daunting enough, but even if we could do it we would then have to locate that same element in the ideas of divinity found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Palestine, and Greece; the divinities of China and Japan, of the Pacific islands, of Australia, of the Druids, and in the tribal religions of Africa and North and South America. Isn’t it obvious, they ask, that there is no common feature to the divinities of all these traditions? Posed in just this way, I would have to agree with the negative answer their question anticipates. The putative divinities compared are, indeed, so diverse as to have no common characteristic.

But before we give up on a precise definition, it is worth asking whether the list whose teachings are being compared is as innocent as it’s being taken to be. Granted, the beliefs represented on the list are all prima facie religious, but are they religious in the same sense? Could it be that the list conceals a shift in the meaning of “religious” for the beliefs being compared? To be more specific, I’m asking whether it’s possible that some beliefs on the list are religious in a sense that is basic to others on that list, so that the others are religious only in a secondary sense. If so, the list has failed to distinguish beliefs that are religious in a primary sense from those that are religious only in a secondary sense, and this could be the cause of the failure to obtain a precise definition for the entire list.

Now there are at least two senses in which one belief may be primary with respect to another. One is a noetic sense, that is, a sense that concerns the order of our beliefs. In this sense one belief is primary with respect to another when it is a necessary presupposition to the other, such that no one could hold the secondary belief without already holding (or assuming) the primary belief. The other sense of primacy is ontic, that is, it concerns the order of reality. In this sense one belief is primary with respect to another when the object of the secondary belief is taken to depend on the object of the primary belief for its reality. In each sense, then, what is “primary” is a necessary precondition for what is secondary. In the first case, the primary belief is necessary to hold the secondary belief; in the second case the object of the primary belief is held to be what generates the reality of the object of the secondary belief.

My worry, then, is whether the short list of religions we started with is in fact an admixture of secondary as well as primary beliefs. If so, it may well be the case that the quest for a precise definition has been surrendered prematurely. For it could be that the primary religious beliefs do have defining common characteristics that the secondary religious beliefs do not share, leaving the entire list with only family resemblances.

Consider the following analogy to this point. Suppose we wanted to define what counts as a school, and we tried to do that under the description “educational organization.” Guided by that description we compiled a list of as many sorts of schools as we could think of, but also included in our list the parent-teacher associations (PTAs) formed in many communities as auxiliaries to their local public elementary schools. Suppose we then tried to form a precise definition of a school only to find there are no features shared by all the organizations on our list. The reason would be that although there are common features shared by a kindergarten, an elementary school, a high school, a college, a university, etc., these features are not true of PTAs. But PTAs are clearly educational organizations only in the secondary senses of that term. There can’t be PTAs unless there are schools, and we can’t believe that we need a PTA or form beliefs about what it should do to support a school without believing we have a school and without beliefs about what the school’s needs are. It is clear in this case that our failure to come up with a precise definition of a school would be the result of our listing an organization that is educational only in the secondary sense of supporting schools, along with organizations that are educational in the primary sense of delivering education to students. For while all schools have the common aim of providing education, exhibit the same general internal relationship between instructor and student, and operate with the same notion of authority based on the expertise of the instructor, PTAs do not share any of these features. Thus it would be our failure to distinguish between the primary and secondary senses of “educational” that would have led to the false conclusion that there is no precise definition of a school.

Whether this is what has happened in the case of “religious belief” is a question worth pursuing just because so much is at stake. So we need to re-examine our initial short list to see whether, within the same tradition of thought and practice, some of the beliefs on our list exhibit either dependency on other beliefs, or whether the objects of some of those beliefs are thought to depend on the objects of still other beliefs. Should this turn out to be the case, we can then remove the secondary beliefs from the list and re-examine the primary beliefs to see if they really have only family resemblances or whether they share some defining characteristic(s) after all.

2.2 A Resolution

Out of what we have seen so far, one thing seems clear: all religious traditions center around whatever they believe to be divine, but they disagree widely on what is divine. For example, the divine is variously believed to be one transcendent creator, two ever-opposing forces, a large number of gods, being-itself, Nothingness, etc. It is this great divergence of belief that brings to grief the definitions just reviewed, and which has driven many thinkers to despair of ever capturing a common element to all religious belief. So, in accordance with the distinction drawn at the close of the last section, I now want to inquire as to whether any of the beliefs on our short list is religious in a secondary rather than a primary sense.

The answer can only be, “yes.” In many polytheistic traditions there are accounts of how the gods came into existence. This means that the divinity of such gods is clearly regarded as derived and secondary as compared to whatever is divine in the sense of having unconditional reality and accounts for their origins (from now on I will call this the status of being divine per se). Take, for example, the account of the gods of ancient Greece as found in Hesiod and Homer. In Hesiod’s account, the natural world in an undifferentiated state is what just is; it exists unconditionally and gave rise to everything else after it generated a gap between the earth and the heavens he called Chaos. Following that initial change, all other specific forms of existence were generated including the gods. According to Homer the primordial reality was Okeanos, a vast expanse of watery stuff from which arose all else including the gods. Despite their differences, then, both accounts agree that the gods are dependent on a more basic reality so the gods are themselves derivative realities.11 This is why no one of them—nor all of them together – could be called “creator” in the sense that God is in Genesis. Moreover, the gods are not only secondary divinities because of their ontic dependency upon something else that is divine per se. They are also secondary in the noetic sense, since the beliefs about them depend upon the belief in Okeanos or Chaos. For no individual being could be believed to be a god—that is, a being with more divine power than humans possess—unless it was already believed that there is a per se divine source of all other things which confers varying degrees of power upon them.

The same is true of the myths of ancient Babylonia. In them, too, the gods acquire their divine status and power derivatively. For according to them,

The origin of all things was the primeval watery chaos, represented by the pair Apsu and Tiamat… . With them the cosmogenic theogony begins.12

In still other traditions the gods are beings with more power than humans. This is true of the Shinto tradition, for example, in which the divine per se is called “Kami.” In still others a divine power permeates all things but is concentrated in particular objects, places, or humans. The ancient Roman notion of Numen, the Melanesian idea of Mana, and the American Indian beliefs in Wakan or Orenda are instances of this.13 The same point has been noted about a number of African religions. Even though some of them believe in a supreme god, they maintain that belief in a different way from that of biblical theism, a way one writer has dubbed “diffused monotheism”

because here we have a monotheism in which there exist other powers which derive from the Deity such being and authority that they can be treated, for practical purposes almost as ends in themselves.14

It is not necessary to single out every case of secondary belief on the short list, since what is important is not how many of them taint the list but that the list is tainted. It has been forcing us to compare beliefs in divinities supposed to be divine per se, with divinities that are believed to owe their existence and superhuman powers to the divine per se; and we have been comparing beliefs which depend upon others as their presupposition to beliefs which are basic. No wonder we have found no common defining characteristics among them!

So what happens if we now remove from our short list all the divinities that are divine in a secondary sense? Won’t an essential definition of the remaining primary divinity beliefs still pose a daunting task? Surely the answer is “yes.” And for that very reason I now want to propose a way of looking at the remaining putative divinities that may help us to focus on what may be common to them all. The proposal is that we think of what may be common to the various primary divinities as the status of divinity, on the one hand, and distinguish that from the specific description of whatever is believed to occupy that status, on the other hand. This is a heuristic device, of course. There is no absolute difference between a thing’s status and its properties; its status surely is one of its properties. But trying to think in this way may help keep us from slipping back into assuming one or another of the definitions we found to be false earlier. It will help focus us on what it is about any alleged divinity itself that makes it divine per se, rather than reverting to focusing on how else humans may regard it (as object of worship, e.g.).

Let me explain this focus by using another analogy. If someone were to ask the question “Who is the president of the United States?” we could quite properly respond in either of two ways. One way would be to describe the person who presently holds the office of president. The other way would be to say that the president is the person who has the following duties and powers, and then go on to describe the office of the presidency. The difference between these two ways of answering the question “Who is the president?” is like the difference between the two ways we can answer the question of the meaning of the term “divine.” We may ask “What is divine?” meaning that we want a description of what it is that has the status of divinity. Or we can take the question to ask for a definition of that status, irrespective of who or what is believed to have it. The difference is important. If there were a presidential election so close that people disagreed as to who had won it, they would then also disagree about the description of the person who was elected to the office. But they would all still agree about the office for which the election had been held.

So the question is: is there anything that can, in a parallel way, be distinguished as the status of per se divinity? Is it possible that although the ideas of what has divine status are so diverse as to appear to have no common element, there is still common agreement among all religions as to what it means to be divine? If this were the case, the wide disagreements among religions would still be important. They would be disagreements about the correct identification of who or what has divine status, but they would still leave intact the universal agreement on what it means for anything to have that status.

Now this is exactly what I find to be the case! For I have never found a single religion that fails to hold the divine per se to be whatever is unconditionally, non-dependently real.

Please do not misunderstand this point. I am not saying that there are no disagreements whatever about what having divine status means. There are. But they are all disagreements about what else is taken to be true of divinity over and above non-dependence. So even though people may argue about the status of divinity per se, I’m saying that in fact they all agree on non-dependence and only non-dependence. Neither does this mean that every myth or scripture or theology has used the expression “non-dependence” or a synonym for it. Many do, but not all. Some writers speak of the divine as “self-existent” or “absolute” or “uncaused and unpreventable,” or “just there,” for instance. But others simply trace everything non-divine back to an original something the status of which is not emphasized or not explained. In such accounts the original something is therefore left in the role of having non-dependent reality by default: there is nothing it is said to depend on while all else is said to depend on it. Thus it is tacitly awarded non-dependent status. So no matter how little emphasized or tentatively held this point may be, the divine is still being treated as non-dependent so far as the account goes.

This definition seems to me to succeed while no other does. For openers, it can account for a common element among the beliefs in God, Brahman- Atman, the Dharmakaya, and the Tao, which was the brief list that appeared so daunting earlier. Moreover, I find it also covers all of the following primary divinity beliefs: the Nam in Sikhism, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) in early Zoroastrianism or Zurvan in its later development, the soul/matter dualism of the Jains, the high god of the Dieri Aborigines, the belief in Mana among the Trobriand Islanders, Kami in the Shinto tradition, the Raluvhimba of the Bantu religion, the Void, Suchness, or Nothingness found in various forms of Buddhism, and the idea of Wakan or Orenda found among various tribes of North and South America. It also holds for the ancient Roman idea of Numen, for Okeanos in the myths of Homer, and for a host of other ideas. Or, to be more precise, I should say it covers every religious belief I know of with respect to its belief in something as divine per se rather than in something that is divine in only a secondary sense.

That last remark might invite the rejoinder that my reading of religious traditions, though wide, can’t claim to be exhaustive, so that my definition may not be based on a sufficiently large empirical basis. To that I reply that the definition does not rest upon my reading alone. I discovered, after working it out, that this definition is not new but has had many advocates. It is based, therefore, not on my investigations alone, but on the cumulative reading and experience of many thinkers, a few of which I am about to cite.

To begin, virtually all the pre-Socratic philosophers conceived the status of divinity as being that which does not depend on anything else for its own existence, and they then hotly debated just what reality or realities have that status.15 The Pythagoreans are an example. For them the divine reality was numbers because they thought the objects of our ordinary experience are comprised of numbers and the relations between them. That is, they believed all things are made of numbers. In their view, the number combinations that form objects come into being and pass away, but the numbers that combine to form them are utterly independent and eternal. Both the status of divinity and the ascription of that status to numbers are beautifully expressed in one of their prayers, a prayer to the number ten:

Bless us, divine number, thou who generatest gods and men! O holy, holy tetraktys, thou that containest the root and source of eternally flowing creation! For divine number begins with the profound, the pure unity until it comes to the holy four; then it begets the mother of all, the all-encompassing, the all-bounding, the first born, the never swerving, the never tiring holy ten, the keyholder of all.16

Here the divine status of numbers is expressed as their being changeless and “the root and source” of all that changes. I take this to mean that all else depends on numbers, while they do not depend on anything whatever. (It’s in this sense that the Pythagoreans thought 1 + 1 = 2 was a religious belief, as was mentioned earlier.)

For Plato it was not only numbers that are divine, but entities he called “Forms.” He explicitly says that these are “self-existent”(Tim. 50 ff. and Phil. 53-54), and also refers to them as “gods” (Tim. 37). Aristotle, too, is about as explicit as possible on what it means for something to be divine when he says:

Therefore about that which can exist independently and is changeless, there is a science… . And if there is such a kind of thing in the world, here surely must be the divine, and this must be the first and most dominant principle. (Metaphysics 1064a33 ff.)

Notice that the divine is here characterized as whatever is able to exist independently from everything else, even though Aristotle adds that it is also changeless—a point not universally shared. He shortly after adds that being the “first and most dominant principle” means that it is “prior to” all else in the sense that all else depends on it.17

This view was not confined to Greece, however, as several Bible writers make assertions that seem to presuppose or entail it. One of these is nothing less than the most basic teaching about God, namely, that he is the creator of everything other than himself. This entails that he is the one on whom all else depends for existence while he does not depend on anything for his existence.18 Of course, God also has the status of being redeemer or savior, and of being the only one deserving of worship. But Bible writers regard God’s creatorship as fundamental. It is because he is creator that God can guarantee to redeem all who believe in him, and it is because he is redeemer that believers owe him adoration and thanks.19

Other biblical teachings also appear to presuppose this definition. One is the way some writers speak of having a false god or “idol.” For although many people today think of having a false god only as having a substitute savior or object of worship, Bible writers did not call something a false god only because it was worshipped (e.g., some of them refer to greed as idolatry). Rather, they call anything a false god or an idol if it in any way replaces the true God. From this point of view, therefore, having a substitute creator is every bit as much a false god as having a substitute savior. This is crucial for understanding the way Bible writers everywhere assume that all people are innately religious – that everyone has either the true God or an idol. For if being religious means only believing in something as savior or worshiping something, then it would be clearly false that all people are religious. But if it includes replacing God with something believed to be the non-dependent reality on which all that is not divine per se depends, then it is not at all clear whether anyone can avoid every such belief.20

During the Middle Ages, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and philosophers tended to lose the distinction between the status of divinity and its occupant—for good reason. Since all three religions accepted the transcendent Creator as the only divinity, the independent existence which other ancient thinkers had seen as defining the divine status was quite naturally thought of as an attribute of God. But notice that they did not take self-existence to be merely one more among many attributes God possesses. Instead they insisted that it is what is essential to God; God, they said, is the Being whose essence is existence. So they, too, recognized God’s unconditional non-dependent reality as the essential characteristic of His divinity.

And although the Reformers of the sixteenth century had many criticisms of medieval theology, they had no quarrel with that point. Both Luther and Calvin affirmed God’s unconditional reality. “There is nothing so proper to God,” says Calvin, “as eternity and self-existence.”21 And despite the fact that in theism there is no difference between the ontic status of divinity and the status-holder, Luther went a long way toward restoring the distinction – which is so helpful in understanding non-theistic belief.22

Finally, in the past century alone this definition of (primary) religious belief has been recognized again and again by a number of distinguished thinkers including: William James, A. C. Bouquet, H. Dooyeweerd, Hans Kung, Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, N. Kemp Smith, Joachim Wach, C. S. Lewis, Will Herberg, and Robert Neville, to name but a few.23

This, then, is my reply to the suggestion that my essential definition of religious belief is not based on a sufficiently wide empirical base. I think it powerful evidence that all these people, despite their widely varied times, cultures, languages, walks of life, and convictions about the further description of exactly what has per se divine status, all agree with the definition I formulate as follows:

A religious belief is a belief in something as divine per se no matter how that is further described, where “divine per se” means having unconditionally non-dependent reality.

Now although I find this definition captures the essential core of religious belief in its primary sense, it does not yet allow for beliefs in realities thought to be divine dependently rather than per se. Nor does it cover still other beliefs that also deserve to be called “religious” in yet other secondary senses. One such sense is that a belief may be about how the non-divine depends on the divine, and another is that a belief may be about how humans come to stand in proper relation to per se divinity. Such secondary beliefs must also be accounted for by any adequate definition since it is they that constitute the lion’s share of the belief content of most religious traditions. For example, while Hinduism teaches that Brahman-Atman is the non-dependent reality which encompasses all there is, it also includes beliefs about Karma, reincarnation, and various ways of achieving unification with Brahman-Atman. Christianity, too, does not end its teaching with the doctrine that God the Creator does not depend on anything in any way, but includes beliefs about God’s covenant with humans, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of believers to eternal life. Put more generally, the point is that the essential core of divinity is never all that’s thought to be true of whatever has that status. The essential core of divinity is therefore like an empty slot into which various ideas of what occupies the slot are inserted, and a fuller description of what occupies the slot is also conjoined to other beliefs, especially beliefs about how to stand in proper relation to the divine.

The simile of an empty slot should not, however, be misunderstood to suggest that a primary belief about what occupies it has temporal priority with respect to the secondary beliefs attached to it. It is not the case that people first locate the empty slot and then look for the right description of its occupant(s). Rather, it is religious experience that is the source of both beliefs simultaneously. The experience that is taken to reveal what is divine per se always yields some broader description of it over and above the mere status of divinity—even if that description is largely negative (as in Buddhism, e.g.). For that reason every belief in divinity per se arises in conjunction with an idea of how the non-divine in fact depends upon the divine, and an idea of how people can come to stand in proper relation to the divine. Thus religious experience is crucial here because, generally speaking, ideas of how to properly relate to the divine are not rationally deduced from the description of what is divine per se, nor are they purely historical accidents; rather, both are derived together from religious experience.

A belief is a religious belief provided that:

  1. It is a belief in something as divine per se no matter how that is further described, or
  2. it is a belief about how the non-divine depends upon the divine per se, or
  3. it is a belief about how humans come to stand in proper relation to the divine per se,
  4. where the essential core of divinity per se is to have the status of unconditionally non-dependent reality.

Two remarks are immediately called for. The first is that while I have called the beliefs defined in (2) and (3) above “secondary beliefs,” that was not intended to diminish their importance. As I was saying just prior to the expanded definition, they are secondary only in so far as finding an essential definition of religious belief is concerned but not in actual religious life and practice. In actual life and practice the teachings about what is divine per se are always embedded in secondary teachings of types (2) and (3), and those of type (3) are supposed to make it possible for humans to acquire the full realization of true human nature. I have already made the point that type (3) beliefs are not deduced (nor thought to be deducible) from the description of what has per se divine status. So it should be noticed here, by contrast, that the relation of type (2) beliefs to those of type (1) is often a mixture of logical implication and religious experience. This is because the description of what has per se divine status can’t fail to have some implications for a view of human nature, happiness, and destiny.

The second remark is that it should now be clear why and how including beliefs in gods that are not divine per se ruined the short list of beliefs used to attempt an essential definition of religious belief. These beliefs can now be seen as genuinely religious but only in a secondary sense, despite the fact that many of the traditions in which they occurred paid almost no attention to what was held to be divine per se.24 The gods in these traditions got the whole focus of attention because they were the only way humans could relate to divinity per se, that is, indirectly. It was precisely because of their enormous practical importance that beliefs in such gods served to obscure what was essential to divinity per se. At the same time, this failure also resulted in not taking seriously enough the obvious meaning shift the term “god” acquired depending on whether it connoted what is divine per se, as it does in Theism, or whether it connoted a reality that mediates the divine per se by possessing more divine power than humans, as it does in polytheism.

2.3 Replies to Objections

The first objection I usually hear to this definition is the discomfort it produces merely by its difference from the ordinary ways people use the terms “religious” and “religious belief.” After all, on my definition it turns out that ethics and worship are not essential to religion.

I can readily understand why this can be disturbing, but must remind you that essential definitions almost always produce such discomfort. Consider the example of whales. Many years ago they were defined as fish. The reasons for this were that they were shaped like fish, lived in oceans like fish, and swam like fish. But after more became known of them, they were redefined as mammals. It was learned that they are warm-blooded, lack gills and breathe air, bear their young alive and nurse them. So despite their fishlike tails and fins, and despite the fact that they live their lives in water, they have more in common with mammals than with fish. Perhaps that was disturbing to some people when it was first put forward, since it means that whales’ bodies have more in common with human bodies than they do with the bodies of fish! But a precise definition isn’t wrong just because it is disturbing or because it’s not what we already thought was true. We form them in order to learn more about what we’re trying to define, and that can also mean correcting something we’d mistakenly thought to be true. And there are now as good reasons for accepting (primary) religious belief to be belief in something as divine per se, as there were for redefining whales as mammals.

Keep in mind, too, that whenever we try to define a type of things precisely, the definition almost certainly leaves out many features we regularly associate with things of that type. When we think of trees, for example, we usually think of their foliage. But that is not part of the definition of a tree; some trees have no leaves at all. Similarly, there may be features of things we do not usually think are important but turn out to be among the defining features of their type. It is true, of course, that pre-scientific definitions can have genuine practical value in everyday life. I’m not proposing they all be abandoned. I’m only saying that scientific definitions may serve to refine our ordinary notions of things and afford us a greater precision that ought not be rejected just because the more precise definitions differ from our ordinary notions.

The second point to be made about this objection is that it stems from the fact that in Western culture most people’s ideas of religion are derived from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. In one sense that is quite understandable. It is only reasonable that (at first) we think of religious beliefs in ways derived from those we are most familiar with. But it is not reasonable to insist that all religious beliefs must be like those we are familiar with after we are confronted with others that are quite different. This point is especially pertinent to the objection that the definition defended here does not include worship as essential to religious belief. Many people have made such a strong association between religious belief and worship that they want to reject this definition of “divine” for that reason alone. All I can say to that is to remind you that there are religious beliefs embedded in cultic traditions which practice no worship, such as Brahmin Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism.

The case of Theravada Buddhism is also instructive for the issue of whether it makes sense to say that a person may be an atheist but still have a religious belief. We have already seen why people who believe, say, numbers, or a non-individual and impersonal reality, to be non-dependent have a religious belief every bit as much as a person who is devoted to a personal God or gods. And we have seen why the hallmark of a genuinely religious belief is not whether the object of belief is like the divinity of the religion a group of people is most familiar with. People under the spell of that mistake often take beliefs such as materialism to be the very reverse of religion. But that is not even plausible on this definition—and not only because of this definition. In the ancient world there were Greek mystery religions in which the divine was believed to be “the ever-flowing stream of life and matter.” And there is still a form of Hinduism in which Brahman-Atman is identified with matter. Nor can it be objected that materialists are almost always also atheists. It should be clear by now why many people may rightly call themselves atheists but still have a religious belief. In the strict sense, “atheist” means “no god,” and is the denial that either the biblical God or any other gods exist. But our definition has shown why someone who believes in anything whatever as non-dependent has a religious belief whether that is in a god or not. In this respect being an atheist is like being a vegetarian. If I know someone is a vegetarian I know what that person doesn’t want to eat, but not what that person does want to eat. Just so, if I know a person is an atheist I know what the person doesn’t believe to be divine, but that tells me nothing about what he or she does believe to be divine. (“Atheist” in the broader sense of denying that anything whatever is divine per se is a position I will show to be incoherent in the next chapter.)

For those who find this point objectionable the main obstacle seems, once again, to be the assumption that a truly religious belief would have to result in worship even if it was not promulgated by an organized group dedicated to that divinity belief. And surely there is good reason for the strong association of worship with religious beliefs. Feelings of awe and respect seem to be natural human reactions to experiencing something as divine per se, and worship is a natural expression for such feelings. Nevertheless, there are – as we have already seen—traditions that eschew this natural tendency. The reason this makes sense for them is a simple one: worship is surely appropriate when the divine is thought of as personal (or personified). In that case expressions of gratitude, for example, would be part of a personal relationship. But Theravada monks and Brahmin priests do not believe the divine is personal, so they do not worship. Similarly, the materialist who regards physical matter as self-existent may not be induced by that belief to pray to subatomic particles or sing hymns to force fields. Nor will a modern rationalist who regards, say, mathematical laws as self-existent be inclined to develop a liturgy of Quantitative Adoration for their worship—although the Pythagoreans did just that, as we have seen. Nevertheless, these beliefs ascribe to matter or mathematical laws, respectively, the same non-dependent status that a Jew, Christian, or Muslim ascribes to God, or a Hindu attributes to Brahman-Atman. Rather than having no religion at all, such people simply have a very different idea of what is divine, an idea that makes worship seem inappropriate.

Since this last point has such far-reaching significance for the relation of religious belief to theories, and thus to the main thesis of this book, I have only introduced it here and will return to deal with objections to it in a separate section at the end of this chapter.

Another reservation that has been raised about this definition is the worry that taking primary religious beliefs to be the right focus of attention may amount to reducing religion to something mental. It could thus devalue worship and other practices which are as real a part of religion as belief is. And some objectors go so far as to suggest that starting with belief as the key issue is mistaken because it rules out the possibility that religion may be studied by, say, a historian or sociologist.

First, I must say that this is not really an objection to my definition. The definition could be right even if it’s correct that focusing on it could run the risk of devaluing other sides of religious life and practice. Nevertheless, the definition is, as I see it, innocent of this charge. It does not reduce religion to something mental, if “reduce” means that religion is restricted to the mental. I do contend that it is only humans that are religious in an unqualified sense, and that it is their per se divinity beliefs which comprise the primary manifestation of that qualification. All other things which can be called religious are so in a sense derivative from the religious condition of human nature as expressed in per se divinity beliefs. But this does not mean there are no non-mental things that acquire genuinely religious significance in relation to those beliefs and the people who hold them. For this same reason, it is also not true that my definition rules out historical, sociological, or other types of studies of religion. What the definition does show, however, is that for these studies to succeed, we need to be able to recognize which beliefs are religious, and how historical events or social groups relate to them. For unless we are able to distinguish a religious from a non-religious belief, and unless we can then discover the content of the religious belief held by the people participating in the practices or institutions we want to study, we can never be sure of whether a particular practice or institution is religious or of precisely the sense in which it is (think again of the large number of practices cited earlier that can be religious or not).

The fact that we are sometimes able to infer that certain practices or institutions are religious even when we can’t discover the beliefs that underlie them, does not count against this last point. At times we can indeed infer that certain actions are worship even though we are observing people whose customs are strange and whose language we do not speak. But we can do this only because of the likeness between their actions and the actions of others which we already know to be worship. Thus it is still true that we can recognize practices or institutions as religious only by knowing their relation to primary or secondary religious beliefs, whether we know of them directly or infer them by analogy.

For these reasons, I find not only that my definition doesn’t impede sociological or historical studies of religion, but that it alone makes it possible for us to know when a practice or institution qualifies as a specifically religious one. To see how it does this, however, it is important to keep in mind we are still speaking here of whether or not a practice or organization is religious because it is qualified by a type (3) secondary belief (as mentioned already, only people and their type (1) divinity beliefs are religious in the primary sense).

In this sense, an institution or practice is religious if its central purpose is to aid people to stand in the right relation to the divine. Thus a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple would be specifically religious institutions. So would a campground run for the religious improvement of those who attend. Likewise, prayer, fasting, sacrifice, or the celebration of a holy day would all count as religious practices if done for the same reason. By contrast, a family, school, business, or government, even if run differently owing to the influence of a religious belief, is not a religious institution.25 A school which includes the study—even advocacy—of a particular religious belief is certainly under religious influence, as is a government which outlaws polygamy or a corporation which gives employees a certain holy day off. Such influences would not be sufficient to make those organizations count as specifically religious ones, however, since in each case the central purpose of those institutions remains to educate, to govern, or to make a living, rather than to aid people to stand in right relation to the divine. It is in this way my definition is able to supply an important interpretive key for historical and sociological studies of religion.

With these replies to criticisms, can we now say that the definitions offered for primary and secondary religious belief, and for divinity per se, have been proven beyond a doubt? That, I think, would be claiming too much. Very few definitions can be conclusively proven. So the question should be: have the definitions defended here been established as having an overwhelming preponderance of evidence in their favor, to be better than any other, and very likely correct? I must confess to thinking this is so. I know of no religious tradition to which they do not apply, and neither did any of the other thinkers who have held this view. Nor can I think of any clearly non-religious belief or teaching which the definitions would improperly class as religious (which is the point I promised to defend in more detail at the end of this chapter). Therefore, I maintain that the definition of religious belief defended here is the best way to understand religious belief, and will take it to be correct in all that follows until and unless it can be shown to be faulty.

  Read the rest of Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality by purchasing the book at


1. Some scholars doubt whether Buddhism is a religion since Theravada Buddhism teaches there are no gods. But since most Buddhists do believe in gods, I will – for now – include only the non-Theravada versions of Buddhism as religions.

2. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), vol. 1, 11-55. Also see his The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957), 1-40.

3. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 10, 76-77, 96. But compare also his Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 211.

4. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 13.

5. Ibid., 13, 14. Also Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 237. It should be mentioned that the latter passage first denies that God is infinite but then speaks of his infinity. I don’t know what to make of that, but it does seem that most of what follows continues to view the divine as whatever is infinite in the senses of being both unconditioned and all-inclusive.

6. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 12. Stripped of its insistence that ultimate concern must be for that which is infinite in his sense, Tillich’s definition is so close to the one I defend that I later list him as supporting it. It embodies the same basic insight and, as he admitted to me, is derived from the same comment of Luther that put me on to it – the comment cited below in note 22.

7. T. W. Hall, ed., Introduction to the Study of Religion (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 16.

8. For example, the Dakota evil Great Spirit. See James Fraser, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 308. Plato’s view is also an example since he insisted on an evil world soul as well as a good one (Laws 10, 896).

9. Here are a few more. Friedrich Schleiermacher defined religion as “the sum of all higher feelings,” especially feelings of dependency (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], 45). But surely religion can’t avoid belief, and all beliefs have a conceptual component as well as a feeling component. On the other hand, Schleiermacher also spoke of dependency on “the absolute” as the core of religion, which fits perfectly with the definition I will defend (but without agreeing with his identification of the Absolute with the universe). William Tremmel, in order to avoid the difficulties of an essential definition, offers instead what he calls a “functional” definition: a definition of “what religion does” and of the experience that lies behind it (Religion, What Is It? [New York: Rhinehart & Winston, 1984], 7). Unfortunately, his description of religious experience fails to distinguish it since he describes it only as an experience of “great worth and satisfaction – even ecstasy.” That, however, could just as well apply to winning a sports event, being cheered for a performance, or a sexual orgasm. Moreover, the actions he specifies as motivated by religious belief equally fail to distinguish them, since they are described as what people do to deal with what is “horrendous,” “non-manipulable,” and “life negating,” and as actions by which they try to overcome their “sense of finitude.” This sounds wrong in every respect. People at times deal with what is horrendous by psychotic withdrawal, drugs, and suicide; and they at times deal with what is life-negating by wild living or crime. And while Hinduism and Buddhism teach that by achieving Nirvana our finitude is absorbed by the Divine infinity, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam deny that people will ever be anything but finite creatures, distinct from God. Still other thinkers get the right definition but make additions to it that render it partly false. Joachim Wach, for example, says religion is “a response to what is experienced as ultimate reality that which conditions all which impresses and challenges us” (The Comparative Study of Religions [New York: Columbia University Press, 1961], 30). The first part sounds right but the definition falls away at the end: horse races and puzzles can challenge and impress us. Likewise, the “paraphrase” offered by Hans Kung is also partly right but partly not. It’s off when he says religion is “a social and individual relationship… . With something that transcends or encompasses man and his world” (Christianity and the World Religions [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986], xvi). This is too narrow a definition because many pagan religions do not regard the divine as either transcendent or all-encompassing, as will be explained in the next chapter. Kung goes on to say, however, that the reality which is the object of religious belief is “always to be understood as the utter final, true reality… .” That, I shall argue, is exactly right.

10. For example, W. C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), esp. xiv, 11-14, 141-46.

11. G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 10-18, 24-31; W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 10.

12. G. F. Moore, History of Religions (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), vol. 1, 209-10.

13. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 10-21.

14. E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion (London: SCM Press, 1973), 135. See also Geoffrey Parrinder’s “The Nature of God in African Belief,” in The Ways of Religion, ed. Roger Eastman (San Francisco: Canfield Press), 493-99; H. Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955), vol. 2, 316; and B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1948), 19, 20, 76-79. Also A. C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion (London: Penguin, 1962), 45; and M. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967).

15. Jaeger, Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers.

16. T Dantzig, Number, The Language of Science (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1954), 42.

17. Aristotle not only held to the divinity of forms, but also regarded matter as having independent existence. Thus he was a religious and metaphysical dualist (Meta. 1042a). In addition to the thinkers already cited, Thales held the divine to be “that which has neither beginning nor end” (Jaeger, Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers, 29); while Anaximander said it is whatever is “unborn, imperishable and all-governing.” (See Aristotle’s Physics, 3.4.203b14.)

18. W. E. Albright has pointed out that the holy, proper name of God which he revealed to Moses (YHWH) in Exodus 3:14 means “the one who causes to be.” See From the Stone Age to Christianity (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), 15-16. The prophet Isaiah makes the same point another way. He quotes God as saying “I will not yield my glory to another” (Isa. 48:11 NIV). Earlier Isaiah had already specified what the glory is that God won’t abide having attributed to anything else (Isa. 6:3): “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Although this is a familiar passage that has long been part of the Christian liturgy, some scholars (J. A. Alexander, e.g.) have pointed out that the last clause would be more accurately translated as “the fullness of the whole earth is your glory.” In other words, as Creator, the one on whom all else depends, God’s glory is to fill the earth with creatures. Thus to believe anything else to be what everything in earth depends upon is to have a God surrogate that robs God of his glory. The New Testament makes the same point. Romans 1 speaks of all humans as either believing in God as Creator or as turning “the truth about God into a lie” by substituting “something God created” as creator. And Gal. 4:3 and Col. 1:17 and 2:8 contrast the famous four elements of ancient Greek metaphysics (earth, air, fire, and water) to God and insist that the cosmos depends on God in Christ, not on the elements.

19. For example, Rev. 4:11: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God to receive glory, and honor and power, because you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” And 1 John 4:19 puts our love of God on the basis of our having received his love: “We love him because he first loved us.”

20. This is the real import of the biblical remark: “The fool has said in his heart `there is no god'” (Ps. 14:1). Contrary to the way Anselm took it, this does not mean that an atheist contradicts himself but that anyone who thinks he has no god (divinity) is self-deceived.

21. Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, xiv, 3.

22. “As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God” (from the “Larger Catechism” in the Book of Concord [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959], 365). See also the Lectures on Romans in the Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), vol. 15, p. 23.

23. See Bouquet, Comparative Religion, 37; Dooyeweerd, New Critique, vol. 1, 57; N. K. Smith, The Credibility of Divine Existence (New York: St. Martin’s, 1967), 396; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1929), 31-34; Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 23-25; C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: MacMillan, 1948), 15-22; Will Herberg, “The Fundamental Outlook of Hebraic Religion,” in The Ways of Religion, ed. R. Eastman (New York: Canfield, 1975), 283; Robert Neville, The Tao and the Daimon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 117. Tillich, Kung, and Wach also endorsed the essential point of this definition despite conjoining questionable additions to it. (See notes 6 and 9.)

24. M. Nilsson, History of Greek Religion, 72.

25. Saying that a social organization has a central purpose assumes the development of differentiated organizations. Where the only social group is a tribe, for example, then it may have no one central purpose but may encompass the purposes now served by state, religious institution, school, extended family, etc. Moreover, even where organizations are differentiated, it is possible that one and the same person or group of people can act as, say, both a religious and a political authority. That doesn’t show, however, that the same institution can be both religious and political simultaneously. Rather, it shows that the same person or group can be the ruling authority in both institutions, acting sometimes in one capacity, sometimes in the other. Thus the fact that there can be a monarch who also heads the religious institution or the schools of a society, will not make the state the same as a religious institution or a school. Each organization will still retain its distinctive purpose.