What Is Religion, Parts 1-2: A Postmodern Approach

                             What Is Religion? Part 2

(This essay, as well as Part 1, is available as Youtube video talks here [https://youtu.be/VCy7VErZ0FA] and here [https://youtu.be/yNXmV0YjEK0])

Often when people talk about religion, they don’t specify what they mean by the term. They tend to assume that everyone has the same idea about what religion is, but that is often not the case. The results of inattention to the question, “What is religion” are misunderstandings, fruitless debates, toxic conversations, and culture wars, Philosophers and scholars who understand the importance of religion see the need for a clear, unitary definition, but they have not achieved agreement on what that might be. Indeed, some think the task is impossible….there are just too many radically different faith systems to allow for concise definition.

I think that’s needlessly pessimistic. Possessed of wide knowledge these days of the world’s peoples, we see organizations, cultures, and activities all over the world that look like something we call religion, so it is reasonable to think they must have something in common. If so, that common element, if we can identify it, would give us a powerful tool for distinguishing religious from non-religious phenomena and for better understanding of the similarities and differences among the world’s religious traditions.

In Part 1 of this series (included below), I examined some traditional, modern, and postmodern definitions and found all of them unsatisfactory to some degree. Let’s make a fresh start by recognizing that religion is primarily a subjective phenomenon. It consists of attitudes, beliefs, understandings, and emotions that belong to the private, inner world of an individual human being. When a person organizes his or her life with sincerity and commitment around those interior apprehensions, they can be said to be living an authentic religious life. It follows that authentic religion cannot be found in an organization or sacred books or even in the outward behavior of worshippers. It lives primarily in the minds of individual adherents; it belongs to their interior life.

I wish to be clear about the approach I am taking here. I am neutral as to the truth or value of any religious faith. My aim is to try to understand religion on its own terms, not to dismiss it as somehow archaic or irrelevant to life in the modern world. I contend that the best way to do that is to study religious consciousness ’from within,’ from the adherent’s own subjective standpoint rather than from an outside perspective that may be biased or even hostile.

This ’view from within’ was the perspective taken by a group of scholars, led by Dr. Frederick J. Streng, who came to some prominence in the late 1970’s and 80’s with a series of books under the general title, The Religious Life of Man. The system that emerged from their studies I will refer to as Streng Theory—no pun intended— after its founder. Streng Theory identifies three universal characteristics among people living what they consider to be religious lives:

  1. Religion is a way of life organized around a person’s ultimate concerns. …profound questions like what is this world? meaning of life? who am I? how should I live? how behave toward others? how to face suffering and death? what happens after death?—existential questions that every human being must confront.
  2. Religion challenges individuals to change, to transform their lives toward a resolution of those concerns….from sinfulness to blessedness….from ignorance to understanding,….from chaos to order and purpose….from fear to joy and fullness.
  3. Every religion offers specific means for achieving an ultimate transformation. Examples include prayer, rituals, meditation practices, and spiritual experiences of various kinds.

Putting these together, we get a unique definition: Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.

Now definitions in philosophy, science, and all other fields are not meant to languish in the pages of textbooks or dictionaries. They are created to help us make sense of things, to do work for us, to direct our inquiries.

I often tell people, “Definitions are neither true nor false; Instead, we should say they are more or less useful. For example, an old definition of ‘man’ as “a featherless biped” is useful for distinguishing humans from birds but not so useful for a course on cultural anthropology.Let’s see how our definition “Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation” might be put to work to help us acquire a general, systematic, and comprehensive theory of religious life.

Streng Theory demonstrates one way to do this. It says in order to understand any person’s religion, we must first ask 3 basic questions and then see if the answers reveal any common patterns:

  1. What is the fundamental problem of life as you see it? What are your ultimate concerns?
  2. What is the ultimate solution as you understand it?
  3. What means are available to you for achieving an ultimate transformation?

Based on extensive study of the world’s religious literature, Streng Theory identifies “8 ways of being religious”: 4 traditional and 4 non-traditional or secular types of religious life. Figure 1 shows the four traditional ways. These are means of achieving an ultimate transformation based on a distinction between a sacred, transcendent realm and the profane or secular realm of our day-to-day lives. Listed in no special order we have……

⦁ Personal experience of the Holy: as in supernatural visions or voices or a
born-again experience
⦁ Participation in communal myth and ritual —active membership in a Church,
for example.
⦁ Daily conformity with cosmic law—as revealed, usually, in a sacred scripture
⦁ Freedom through spiritual discipline, e.g. yoga and meditation practices
aimed at achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Important points to note: 1) all traditional ways are characterized by a transcendent conception of ultimate reality, a distinction between a sacred realm and the domain of everyday life; 2) there can be some overlap among them, but usually just one is considered to be the primary means toward an ultimate transformation. 3) The revolutionary discovery here is that versions of these are found in all major traditions. Thus, there are 4 different ways of being a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, etc.— not merely denominational or surface differences but radically different means of achieving an ultimate transformation within the given tradition.

Figure 1

Streng Theory also identifies four non-traditional or secular religious types, as shown in Figure 2.

⦁ Achieving an integrated self through creative interaction, e.g. in
psychotherapy and self-help or recovery groups such as Alcoholics
⦁ Working towards social and economic justice— e.g. feminist activism, civil
rights movements
⦁ Working for progress through science and technology
⦁ Living a full life through sensuous experiences, enlightened hedonism

Points to note: 1) all reject the traditional notion of a transcendent domain; ultimate reality, if we can speak of it at all, is to be found in this world. 2) Streng Theory makes the startling claim that secular ways of life can be understood as authentically religious, 3) The system leaves room for new religions that might emerge in the future. 4) Like the 4 traditional ways, the 4 secular types are not mutually exclusive; they can be combined in various ways.

Figure 2

Streng Theory has a lot going for it. It takes religion seriously as foundational to the identity of a culture. It acknowledges that people hold different ideas about ultimate reality and what life concerns are ultimate. Adopting a pluralistic approach, it avoids the narrow sectarianism of traditional definitions and the dismissive critiques of modern philosophy. It embraces the tolerant attitude of postmodern approaches—none of the “ways” is privileged or deemed better than the others. It correctly implies that religion is not merely a set of beliefs, as many contemporary discussions seem to assume. Finally, it offers the startling thesis that there are secular commitments that should be recognized as religious in nature. Finally, it unifies the “seven dimensions” of religion—creed, ritual, morals, etc - (those are all means of transformation), thus providing, on the one hand, a more powerful criterion for distinguishing religious from non-religious ways of life.

On the other hand, Streng Theory exposes the clumsiness of the traditional labels “Hinduism,” “Christianity” “Islam,” and so on, by creating a typology of religious types that cuts across cultural boundaries, giving us a much clearer picture of the similarities and differences among people in different faith traditions. A Muslim mystic, for example, practicing “Freedom Through Spiritual Discipline,” may have more in common with his Buddhist counterpart than with orthodox worshippers of Allah practicing “Conformity With Divine Law.”

To summarize the argument so far: All humans must confront ultimate questions about life and death in some manner. Religion challenges people to take action to change their unsatisfactory lives and offers ways of reorienting them towards an ultimate resolution of their ultimate concerns. In light of these ideas, I contend that the best working definition—the best I know of, at any rate—best for the study of the world’s faith systems is the one proposed by Streng Theory: Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.

Applying its definition to a study of traditional and secular life orientations, Streng Theory has produced an impressive system of religious categories. Like any other grand scheme, however, the theory is open to critical questions of various kinds. For example, one may wonder if the list of 8 ways is complete or whether one or more of them is not really religious in any sense of the word. Those and other questions would make for interesting conversations, but I want to focus on two more significant problems.

One is a failure to distinguish between spiritual states of consciousness and structures or permanent patterns of religious living. A second is the absence in religious pluralism of the important contributions of developmental psychology to our understanding of spirituality.

The second of these problems I will take up in Part 3 of this series, To the first one—that the theory does not recognize a critical difference between states of spiritual consciousness and structures or stable patterns of religious activity— the problem arises with the first of the 4 traditional “ways.” It is not clear that the first type charted in Figure 1 is really a way of living a religious life. Notice the striking difference between “Personal Experience of the Holy” and the other three traditional types. Each of those three can easily be understood as a genuine way of life, that is, a program of activities that can be enacted over and over - every day even - throughout a person’s life. For example, regular reading of Scripture and daily prayer practiced with the aim of attaining, in this life or the next, an ultimate transformation of the self.

By contrast, “Personal Experience of the Holy” refers to dramatic, unpredictable, short-lived, unrepeatable, and rare eruptions of spiritual energy, illumination, or emotion that cannot be harnessed into an ongoing spiritual practice in the same way as daily prayer or meditation. A personal encounter with the Divine may occur just once in a person’s lifetime, never to be repeated.

Now, it is true, as Streng Theory stresses, that an experience of the Divine mysterium tremendum often results in a dramatic change in a person’s life going forward: from selfish pride to humility; from sensuous indulgence to moderation; from selfishness to generous service, etc., but the means employed in daily living after the transforming experience are independent of the experience itself, which, after a time, becomes a distant memory. The new life, say, of the ’born again’ person becomes a way of being religious that may not include regular visions of Jesus or revelations from Allah. Often the personal encounter with the Holy inspires a person to become a preacher or a missionary. For example, the vision of the Christ experienced by St. Paul on the road to Damascus led him to become “apostle to the gentiles” and the founder of the Christian Church. Activities like those are properly classified in the Streng system under “Creation of Community Through Myth and Ritual.”

Similarly, after his revelation experiences, Mohammed founded Islam, which promotes “Daily Living That Expresses Cosmic Law.” If these examples are typical, then it appears the lives that are transformed by one or more “Personal Experiences of the Holy” usually morph into the “Community Through Myth and Ritual” type or the “Daily Conformity with Cosmic Law,” or some other type of regular spiritual practice.

It seems, then, that while a personal encounter with the Holy may well be a supreme transformation for the person who experiences it, its transitory, unrepeatable nature puts such experiences in a different category from the other seven religious types identified in the system. Those are phenomena I call structures or stable patterns of religious expression. What then is the relationship between spiritual states and religious structures? That’s a question I will take up later.

The second problem I flagged earlier is that religious pluralism, of which Streng Theory is an example, suffers from the absence of any recognition of stages of religious development in humans. Wait!….Stages? Religious development? It’s not as strange an idea as it might appear at first. We are all familiar with the observable development of children through stages - from infancy to early childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but not until recently has anyone thought to expand inquiry into further stage development in adults and across cultural boundaries. In Part 3 of this series, I will explore the idea of spiritual development and how it might enhance our understanding of religion as a means toward ultimate transformation.

                                **What is Religion? An Integral Approach**
                                                       Part 1 

“The future of religion is extinction.” - anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace, 1966.

After over 50 years of religious non-extinction, Wallace’s forecast is beginning to look shaky —rather like the end-times predictions of the Apocalypse. Wallace was undoubtedly thinking of religion in terms of what he was familiar with, namely the supernaturalistic belief systems found in nearly all traditional cultures. Today, a more sophisticated definition of ‘religion’ would probably warn him away from any such forecast.
What has been extinguished is the complete domination of cultures by pre-modern faith systems associated with the familiar names Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Modern science and philosophy have given rise to a strong secular movement in all the world’s advanced societies, along with a backlash against it in the form of ‘culture wars,’ while violent sectarian wars continue to repeat history. There is no reason to believe religion is going down for the count anytime soon—actually, I would argue, not ever, for religion properly understood is the human response to our ultimate concerns, and those are inseparable from human life itself.
As the academic study of world religions progressed into the late 20th century, it became increasingly clear that the original names western scholars had used for distinguishing religions from one another - Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, etc., were no longer adequate for understanding the rich complexity of religious expressions in the various cultures of the world. Hinduism, for example, is no longer thought to be a single religion but rather a family of religious types that differ from one another in certain important ways. In Hinduism today, we find magical religion, polytheistic and monotheistic faith systems, and esoteric mystical spirituality, co-existing in the sprawling Hindu religious landscape.
The same is true of Christianity, Buddhism, and all the other major traditions. Clearly a different way of thinking about religious phenomena was called for. This series of talks is an inquiry into whether there is a ‘best way’ to think about the world’s religions or whether we must settle for a variety of approaches that cannot be reconciled with one another. Key to the discussion is a search for a definition of ‘religion’ that will serve us better than those in past and current use.
So what is religion anyway? It is useful in this inquiry to distinguish traditional, modern, and postmodern approaches to investigations of religious systems. Traditionalists tend to reflect a bias in favor of their own religious perspective, and so they look for features of their own religion - Christianity, for example - that might be present in other traditions. The extreme view is that religion just is ‘my religion.’ All other faiths are false. Similar sectarian biases can found in the other major traditions.
Modernist scholars, by contrast, take an objective point of view with the aim of making the study of religion scientific. While vastly increasing our knowledge of the world’s religions, the scientific approach too often tends to reduce religion to psychological, historical, cultural, or even physical factors as revealed by neuroscience. Examples of modernist views are Freud’s ‘Religion is a psychological illusion,’ and Karl Marx’s “Religion is the opiate of the people.”
Less visible but gaining in influence over the last few decades is a postmodern reaction to the narrowness and intolerance of traditionalist and modernist interpretations of the world’s religions. A postmodern perspective is grounded in an empathic and sensitive response to the lives of others despite their profound differences from one’s own. As Professor Frederick Streng writes:
In a quite different kind of response to religious pluralism, a person recognizes that other human beings are as moral, devout, intelligent and religiously sensitive as oneself. Despite different religious views, other people are equally able to find happiness and peace and to perceive profound meaning in life. …… Why not participate in the joys and freedom witnessed to by a different religious option?
Religion and Postmodernism
Postmodern scholars of religion, dissatisfied with traditional and modernist definitions, have searched for a more inclusive, value-neutral approach. In his course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Prof. Mark Berkson considers three different types of definitions used today by scholars of religion. First, a substantive definition identifies a single feature as the essence of religion and uses that to distinguish religious phenomena from non-religious. One such substantive definition is supernaturalism: religion is belief in supernatural beings and ritual practices aimed at connecting people with those beings. Another type of definition is functional. This approach sees religions as cultural and social systems providing answers and meanings to communities of people who are bound together by a common set of beliefs and practices.
All such definitions seem too narrow to postmodernist scholars. Berkson prefers what he calls a “family resemblance” type of definition in which a list or cluster of characteristics commonly associated with religion are used to compare the various traditions. Prof. Ninian Smart’s widely cited “Seven Dimensions of Religion” is an example of this type:

                           **The Seven Dimensions of Religion**

Ritual dimension: private or public forms of prayer and sacred ceremonies.
Narrative and Mythic: creation stories and stories about gods and goddesses. Sometimes mythic narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.
Experiential and emotional: private, individual experiences of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, and bliss.
Social and Institutional: rules for identifying community membership and participation, usually administered by a priestly class or a charismatic leader.
Ethical and legal: rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from a supernatural realm)
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.
Material: ordinary objects, places, and buildings that symbolize or manifest the sacred realm.

The “family resemblance” approach looks promising. Rather than defining religion in terms of a single, narrow common feature or function, we are invited to consult a checklist of characteristics that the best known traditions exhibit and say that any phenomenon that has those characteristics is a religion. The checklist approach includes substantive and functional aspects, and its flexibility prevents it from being either too narrow or too broad. However, there is a problem if the claim is made that all seven dimensions are necessary conditions for some activity to be called religious. Zen Buddhism, for example, has no system of “religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.” A solitary yogin meditating in a cave may have no use for ritual, doctrine, organization, or symbolic objects. Confucianism does not offer much in the way of narrative or myth. And yet these are all commonly recognized as religions.
It appears that some important religions will have some but not all of the characteristics in the list. How many are required? Which of the seven are the most important? What if the list is inaccurate? - another system posits twelve defining characteristics. The ‘family resemblance’ approach has a lot of appeal but is ultimately unsatisfying. It lacks the simplicity and elegance we would like to have for a proper theory of religion. My philosophical instinct is to look for a higher level definition that will unify the various lists into a single, concise conception of the fundamental nature of religious life.
Sometimes in cases like this it helps to reformulate the question. Taking a hint from functionalism, suppose we ask a person of faith, “What is your religion for?” Religion is not something that happens to people; it is something that they do. It’s a purposeful activity. If so, we can ask whether there is there a common purpose that religious people share, while the specific forms of their pursuit of that purpose may be many and varied. Many years ago I stumbled upon an answer to this question that has served me well ever since, although it seems to have been dropped from academic discussions about religion in the ensuing years. The definition was proposed by a widely admired professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, Dr. Frederick J. Streng. In his book Understanding Religious Life, Streng proposed the following definition: “Religion is a Means Toward Ultimate Transformation.” In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss this idea in detail.strong text

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Hi Charles,
When I read in your last paragraph your supposition that we ask a person of faith, “What is your religion for?” I thought of passages from “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (William James). A main one: “…there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: (1) An uneasiness, and (2) Its solution. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers. In those more developed minds which we alone are studying, the wrongness takes a moral character, and the salvation takes a mystical tinge.” So development of moral character and mystical experience are common purposes that religious people share, per James.

My guess is that you are familiar with James’ work, but I will add a few other things he says that I think are significant. He speaks to feelings and conduct as being the more constant elements of the essence of religion, with theory and thought being secondary. The feelings and conduct are of a positive psychological nature, that is, they “…freshen our vital powers, impart endurance to the Subject, or a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment or glory to the common objects of life.” There may be a minimum of intellectual content in such “faith-states” and when there is positive intellectual content associated with these states, it becomes belief/creed, with creed and faith-states together becoming the widely differing and regional religions, based on purely subjective experience, "without regard to the question of their ‘truth’…

James’ point is that religion does not primarily seek to solve the intellectual mystery of the world, and states that if God “…proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that…Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.”

Looking forward to your Part 2 on this topic; wondering how these 120+ year-old perspectives might (or might not) intertwine with your definition of religion as a “means toward ultimate transformation.” Thanks for sharing!

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Hi. Thanks for your response to my post, Part 1 on What is Religion? I hope to post Parts 2 and 3 soon, but in the meantime you can view my video talks on the subject on Youtube here, Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCy7VErZ0FA and here, Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNXmV0YjEK0.

Your quotations from William James are right on point, and I will try to show the relationship between his ideas and mine in the next day or two.

Hi. At last I have a chance to respond to your feedback on Part 1 of my religion series. I think my approach lines up pretty well with W. James’s. First, he made a major contribution by stressing the interior/subjective aspect of religion, and within that domain the secondary importance of belief systems. Like Streng Theory - explained in my Part 2, James rightly says that the religious impulse starts with a feeling that our lives are not quite right somehow; we suffer from a sense of “uneasiness,” what ST calls The Problem. He is right again when he writes that “the solution” for religious people is to connect with “higher powers,” what ST calls “ultimate reality.”

Integral Theory sees value in a number of WJ’s ideas but finds the overall approach somewhat too romantic. IT has added much depth and clarity by introducing the key element of evolution/development and by distinguishing the domain of feelings (Upper Left quadrant) from conduct (Upper Right) and the religious/spiritual line of development from the moral and the emotional.

I look forward to your comments on Part 2. Part 3 will be coming soon.

Best regards.

Yes, I have heard KW speak numerous times about the fact that while James was writing about “waking up” subject matter in “Varieties…,” an underappreciated psychologist, James Mark Baldwin if I remember correctly, was studying and writing about development, or “growing up.” How synchronistic.

Re: Part 2–While I greatly appreciate the “4 non-traditional ways of being religious” as necessary and noble and admirable “answers and means,” they really speak to me of the epitome and apex of humanism, a humanism with perhaps a spiritual impetus, conscious or unconscious, and perhaps for some, a ‘religious fervor.’ They seem to align more with James’ “development of moral character” than they do with the mystical aspect of things (although I would allow that should one work sincerely to, for instance, “live life as a work of art” or “free oneself from convention,” mystical experience might be an outcome.) But there is no mention of anything “mystical” (related to mystery) here. There is no sense of even wonder about any essence-of-being besides material embodiment as a human, a self. I don’t know how one can “enjoy higher pleasures” or “refine the senses” or “cultivate one’s creative potentials” or live a “life of creativity through art” without a sense of wonder.

The word ‘religion’ has a number of etymological roots; one used by both the ancients and modern writers is “to bind again” (from re for return or again, and ligare or to bind). So for people who ascribe to these non-traditional ways of religion, what are they binding to? Their best self? Perhaps in the sense of, rather than it being a line in itself, “spiritual” meaning the top or highest level of any line of development or multiple intelligence? But then, one would have to ascribe to hierarchy and transcendence–just not transcendence beyond humanness, I suppose. Back to humanism; I feel like I’m talking in circles, so better end this :slightly_smiling_face:.