The Meaning of Religion
A strange thing about religion is that we all know what it is until someone asks us to tell them. As Augustine said of time: ‘What, then, is time? If no one asks me I know; but if I have to say what it is to one who asks, I know not.’ That has not stopped people trying to define religion, but their definitions are clearly different:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opiate of the people
Religion is a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable
A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them
It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings
Psychoanalytic investigation of the unconscious mental life reveals that religious beliefs correspond closely with the phantasies of infantile life, mainly unconscious ones, concerning the sexual life of one's parents and the conﬂicts this gives rise to
Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness
A brief, handy definition of religion is considerably more difficult than a definition of evolution, so, for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence
(R. N. Bellah)
Viewed systemically, religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue only of its reference to superhuman beings. All institutions consist of belief systems, i.e., an enduring organisation of cognitions about one or more aspects of the universe; action systems, an enduring organisation of behaviour patterns designed to attain ends for the satisfaction of needs; and value systems, an enduring organisation of principles by which behaviour can be judged on some scale of merit. Religion differs from other institutions in that its three component systems have reference to superhuman beings
Without further ado, then, a religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic
Religion is the human attitude towards a sacred order that includes within it all being—human or otherwise—i.e., belief in a cosmos, the meaning of which both includes and transcends man
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world
(Letter of James).
These and the many other definitions of religion (J. H. Leuba began his book A Psychological Study of Religion … (1912), with nearly fifty of them, sorted into three different types) tell us much about religion, but because of their diversity, none of them on its own can tell us what religion is. Some emphasize the personal, others the social; some the beliefs, others the uses; some the structures, others the functions; some the private, others the public; some the mundane, others the transcendent; some the truth, others the illusion. We might, perhaps, attempt to put them all together, but that would produce a juggernaut (jagganatha) even more unwieldy than the lumbering giant of Orissa.
Would the origins of the word itself take us any further? The Latin religio refers to the fear of God or the gods, and (much later) to the ceremonies and rites addressed to the gods. But it does so through its reference also to the scrupulous and often over-anxious way in which rituals are conducted. The Latin poet Lucretius addressed strong words against religion:
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum… Religio peperit scelerosa atque impia facta.
(De rerum natura, 1.101, 183)
(How many evils has religion caused! … Religion has brought forth criminal and impious deeds.)
But Lucretius had in mind the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis as a demonstration of the disastrous consequences of an over-scrupulous insistence on the exact detail of ritual. So the Latin word supports the modern sense of ‘doing something religiously’, i.e. with an obsessive attention to detail (when it was reported in 1995 that Honda UK was supplying air conditioning kits containing the highly pollutant R12 refrigerant, despite the Montreal Protocol which looked for its elimination, Honda UK issued a statement saying: ‘The Montreal Protocol is being religiously adhered to by Honda UK. … The only R12 kits being sold are from existing stocks held’, Daily Telegraph, 12 Aug. 1995, p. C3). But this sense of the word is far too restricted. When people do things religiously, they not only do them scrupulously: they do them devotedly, generously, ecstatically, prayerfully, sacrificially, superstitiously, puritanically, ritualistically, and in many other ways as well.
So does the underlying etymology of the word help us further? A problem is that the etymology of religio is not certain. Cicero took it from relegere, to gather things together, or to pass over the same ground repeatedly. But most have taken it from religare, to bind things together. And if that is so, it certainly draws attention to one of the most obvious and important features of religion: it binds people together in common practices and beliefs: it draws them together in a common enterprise of life—so much so that Durkheim regarded religion as being the social in symbolic form (hence his definition above): religion is the social fact (and the experience of it by individuals as being real and greater than themselves) being made objective outside the lives of individuals. As a result, the social has a legitimate and emotional demand on them:
Society is a reality sui generis; it has its own peculiar characteristics, which are not found elsewhere and which are not met with again in the same form in all the rest of the universe. The representations which express it have a wholly different content from purely individual ones and we may rest assured in advance that the first add something to the second. … Religion ceases to be an inexplicable hallucination and takes a foothold in reality. In fact we can say that the believer is not deceived when he believes in the existence of a moral power upon which he depends and from which he receives all that is best in himself: this power exists, it is society. … It is society which classifies beings into superiors and inferiors, into commanding masters and obeying servants; it is society which confers upon the former the singular property which makes the command efficacious and which makes power. So everything tends to prove that the first powers of which the human mind had any idea were those which societies have established in organising themselves; it is in their image that the powers of the physical world have been conceived.
(The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), tr. J. W. Swain (New York: Collier, 1961), 28, 257, 409)
Durkheim may have concentrated too much on the entirely speculative origin of religion. He hoped that by examining the acorn he would be able to understand the oak. He may also, as Weber thought, have paid too little attention to the creation of religious meaning, innovation, and change. But his grasp of the importance of the social in understanding religion was a breakthrough. Religions are organized systems which hold people together.
Religions as Systems: Natural Selection and Survival
The question then becomes obvious: why are these systems necessary? The basic answer to that lies in the most fundamental condition of human life and survival, as we now understand it. Natural selection through the sifting process of evolution sets an impartial rule against the experiments of life. Those which are best adapted to the environmental conditions survive long enough to replicate more of their genes into another generation; those which are ill adapted may not survive at all. It is from this perspective that bodies have been regarded (admittedly in too casual and inaccurate a way) as gene-survival machines: a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg (Samuel Butler). So the skin is the first defensive boundary of the gene-replication process. But humans have then built a second defensive system outside the boundary of the body, in their shared cultural achievements; so that culture is the second defensive skin in which the gene-replication process sits.
Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for the protection of gene-replication and the nurture of children. Obviously, our early ancestors knew nothing of how gene-replication works. But that is irrelevant to the evolutionary point. It is not understanding, but successful practice which is measured by survival. That is why religions have always been preoccupied with sex and food, creating food laws and systematic agriculture, and taking control of sexual behaviour, marriage, and the status of women. Sometimes the close relation between sexual and religious emotion has been promoted, on occasion exploited. This necessary connection between religion, sex, and food is the reason also why the family is the basic unit of religious organization, even in religions where celibacy is seen as a higher vocation. On this basis, sociobiology (the study of the interaction of genes and culture which claims that culture can be best understood as a consequence of choices which have proved beneficial in protecting gene-replication) has claimed that religions have had value, not because their beliefs might happen to have been true (though sociobiologists generally assume that they are not), but because they have served the purposes of survival and selection.
There is much about sociobiology that is clearly wrong (for a critical survey, see J. W. Bowker, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Religion (London: SPCK, 1995), but it is at least correct in observing that religions are highly organized protective systems. And they have worked. For millennia religions have been the social context in which individuals have lived their lives successfully, success being measured in terms of survival and replication. Even now, more than three-quarters of the population of the world regard themselves as being attached to some religion, however much or little they do about it.
Gene-Protein Process and Preparation for Religion
But still the question has to be asked, why religious systems? After all, animals, birds, and fish live in many different kinds of social organization without saying their prayers (so far as we know, though some religions have thought otherwise). But that is simply to say that the emergence of the human brain carries with it immensely greater possibilities, not least in the development of consciousness and language. It is here that we can locate the emergence and development of religion. These possibilities are latent in the brain, in the sense that they are a consequence of the particular structures and substances which the gene-protein process builds in the brain—and builds, therefore, not in a random way, but with great stability and consistency from generation to generation. This means that although there are differences in human populations which are derived from the gene-protein process (for example, skin pigmentation, colour of eyes, average height), there is much more that is held in common. That is why biogenetic structuralism can claim that humans are prepared from the gene-protein process for many of their characteristic behaviours: they are prepared, for example, for sexual development and behaviours, for sleeping and waking, for eating and drinking, for linguistic competence. The gene-protein process does not determine what individuals will do with their preparedness, but it does give stable opportunities to create in culture both the expression and the control of what that process has prepared in the human brain. Biogenetic structuralism makes the point that humans are also prepared, in this gene-protein sense, for those characteristic behaviours which have been called religious. This at once explains why there is much that is universal and common in religious behaviour, but why, nevertheless, there are many different religions and why there are radical differences among them: that happens because what people in societies and cultures do with their preparedness is not determined. But the basic universality, at the level of brain/ body competence and opportunity, means that whereas the sign held up in the crowd used to read, ‘Prepare to meet thy God’, it should now be amended to read, ‘Prepared to meet thy God’. It means also that religion, or what is sometimes called ‘religiosity’, is inevitable in the human case unless there are major alterations in the human DNA.
Somatic Exploration and Discovery
So the basic argument of sociobiology is correct, that religions are early and, for millennia, successful protective systems tied to the potentialities of the brain and body, and to the necessity for survival. The point then becomes obvious, that once successful protective systems are established, people are given the conﬁdence and security to do many other things as well. They are set free to explore their own nature and society, as well as the world around them. These explorations of human possibility, and of the environments in which it is set, opened the way to the speciﬁcally religious. Where human possibility is concerned, the exploration is primarily of the human body. It is therefore known, from Greek soma = ‘body’, as ‘somatic exploration’. What is this body capable of experiencing? What is it capable of being and of becoming? In some religions, the emphasis has been on exploration inwards: they have sought and found truth within the body, in terms of enlightenment, peace, emptiness (see e.g. śunyata), the Buddha-nature, and are therefore known as ‘inversive systems’. The exploration of what Thoreau called ‘the private sea’, the streams and oceans of our inner nature, has led to such religions as Jainism and Buddhism. In other religions, the emphasis has been on exploring the meaning and value of what has been discovered outside the body, and of the relationships into which people enter. It was this which culminated in communion, or even union, with God. This exploration of the value in relationship has produced religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These systems, in which value and meaning are found in relationship, are known as ‘extraversive systems’. In both cases, it is a matter of emphasis: an inversive system is never unattentive to that which concerns extraversive systems, and vice versa. In both cases, also, the realities of evil and wickedness are recognized and mapped as well.
The consequences of somatic exploration are vast. They are indeed the subject matter of this book. The system, or more often subsystem, of a religion provides the context within which sanctions and rewards, approval and disapproval, inspiration and ideation are held in common. As a result, the context becomes one of security, a security within which people are set free from a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. As they internalize the constraints of the system, they are able, if they wish, to move on into further exploration and discovery of their own . What might give rise to these discoveries, or what, in other words, might exist waiting to be discovered, is described in faltering languages, and it is approached through imperfect practices. However, both words and practices are winnowed, corrected, and reinforced through time. No language, whether verbal or non-verbal, can encompass God or the Buddha, heaven or enlightenment, but language opens up the way to these and other possibilities. The languages are corrected and reinforced precisely because that to which they point interacts so consistently with those who seek, that frequently, though not invariably, they ﬁnd a truth or a reality far beyond their languages and independent of them. To ﬁnd God or the Buddha is more like being found by them.
As the consequences of somatic exploration in the past are realized in the present, so the characteristic practices of religions become apparent, in worship, meditation, prayer, yoga, zazen, and much else. All of these are appropriations of past and tested achievements and experience, realized and extended in the present. The consequent power and peace are, for many, so real and unequivocal that all else in human life fades in comparison. The Buddha-nature is intelligible to anyone as a proposition; but the Buddha-nature as the universe and one's own appearance within it is true in a transforming sense only to those who have realized it by the ways so carefully preserved and transmitted. God may be the subject of philosophical debate; but God as source and goal of life is known only to those who receive him as gift, demand, and invitation—so much so that Rudolph Otto could offer the distinct experience of the Holy, of mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the wholly other who both terriﬁes and yet attracts, who ‘appears and overthrows, but who is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I’, Martin Buber) as a Kantian a priori category of human judgement (see esp. The Idea of the Holy, chs. xiv and xvii):
We conclude, then, that not only the rational but also the non-rational elements of the complex category of ‘holiness’ are a priori elements and each in the same degree. Religion is not in vassalage either to morality or to teleology, ‘ethos’ or ‘telos’, and does not draw its life from postulates; and its non-rational content has, no less than its rational, its own independent roots in the hidden depths of the spirit itself. (p. 140)
Paradoxically, therefore, somatic explorations require human initiatives, but all of them, whether inversive or extraversive, have ended up with the realization that human initiatives cannot achieve the furthest goals without profound help which is not of their own making: guides, gurus, and grace take us further than even the furthest exploration can imagine.
Even so, somatic exploration has made supreme discoveries about human possibility. It has led people into assurance, union, trance, and ecstasy, and it has enabled them to understand and reverence the cosmos as the bearer of meaning and value. So religions open people up to possibility in this life, and now beyond death as well. Initially, the latter point did not obtain: the belief that there will be a worthwhile life after death is late in religious history. This means that the great religious traditions of both East and West did not in origin have any strong belief that the purpose of life and religion is to obtain rewards or avoid punishments after death. It follows that the enduring religious traditions of the world were not, as so many assume, established on the basis of an offer of ‘pie-in-the-sky’. They were established on the basis of this-life experience and exploration, not on the promise of a reward after death (for the detail of this, see J. W. Bowker, The Meanings of Death (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)).
Yet eventually the belief that there will be enduring consequence through and beyond death became ﬁrmly established. This was mainly a matter of inference from the nature and quality of what had been discovered in the process of somatic exploration. Since those discoveries were so many and so diverse, it is not surprising that the subsequent beliefs differ greatly in their descriptions of what may be the case through and after death. This is reinforced by the fact that the different somatic explorations, which have led to different religions, have produced radically different accounts of human nature, that is, different religious anthropologies. Here already we can begin to see that the different religions really are different: religious differences do make a difference. But all of them protect and transmit important discoveries about the possibilities of human life.
The consequences of somatic exploration are not simply a matter of practice: there is also somatic exegesis, the interpretation of what has been discovered which produces elaborate belief systems and world pictures, as also it produces texts to sustain them. Somatic exegesis points to worlds vivid with gods and spirits, full of power and presence. To enquire further (for example, into their ontology or existence) leads into those human reﬂections, so important in the history of religions, of philosophy and theology.
The importance of all this begins to explain why religions are protective systems: they protect much that is indispensable for human life and ﬂourishing of a kind, and in ways, which necessarily evoke a distinctive word (‘religion’). Religions in fact have even more to protect and transmit than all that has so far been described, but that alone, ranging from sex to salvation, is far too important to be left to chance. It is information which has to be organized if it is going to be saved and shared. Religions are systems for the monitoring, coding, protecting, and transmitting of information which has proved to be of the highest possible value, from person to person and (even more important) from generation to generation.
The Organization of Religions
The ways in which religions do this are again extremely varied. So far as organization is concerned, religions may be large-scale and coherently organized and hierarchical: an example is Roman Catholicism, which has a strong centre of authority and control, the Vatican, and a clear hierarchy of Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, male religious orders, female religious orders, laity, running in parallel with a spiritual hierarchy of apostles, saints, martyrs, confessors, doctors. But equally, they may be large-scale and loosely organized, with virtually no overall structure at all: an example is Hinduism; but among Hindus there are extremely strong subsystems, based, for example, on gurus or temples or holy places. Or again, they may be small-scale and local, extending perhaps only to the borders of a village. Between the extremes, there are many variations on the theme of protecting information and transmitting information, of allowing or denying access to the religious system (a powerful means for controlling aberrant beliefs or practices, see e.g. excommunication, heresy), and of sharing or restricting knowledge with the wider outside world. For that last reason, religions vary between mystery religions and missionary religions: the former set and maintain conditions before access is allowed; the latter feel impelled to share what has been entrusted to them. Organization also evokes many different kinds of religious specialist—priests, witches, shamans, gurus, imams, rabbis, monks, nuns, bhiksus—an almost endless list.
The organization of religions is so important for some that the preservation and efficiency of the system become for them an end in itself. The risk involved in this is that they may become curators of a museum, or persecutors of those who do not conform. The system as an end is reinforced by the fact that religion is extremely big business. The numbers alone of those who secure all or part of their livelihood from religion make religion one of the largest global industries. When the Pope made his six-day visit to Britain, a company, Papal Visits Ltd., was set up to raise the costs estimated at £1 million per day. When it appointed Mark McCormack of the International Management Group, better known for managing the investments of sporting millionaires, he commented in an interview: ‘They said that when the Pope had visited the Church in Ireland a couple of years ago, it cost the Church several million pounds and that everyone and his brother had made money except the Church.’ On this occasion, it was estimated that the Church would make money and that McCormack would make, from his 20 per cent share of the proﬁts, £1 million. With money inevitably goes power. It is an observation at least as old as Polybius (c.125 BCE) that ‘since the masses of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate and reckless of consequence, they must be ﬁlled with fears to keep them in order; the ancients did well therefore to invent the gods and the belief in punishment after death’. The ﬁnancial exploitation of this is a familiar theme in religious history. Money is the root of much religion. A history of religion might well be written as a history of authority, control, and power, since the sanctions and rewards of religious systems are pervasive, and often subtle, in the extreme.
Life as Project: Ethics and the Nature of Time
It is easy, therefore, for religious organizations to become an end in themselves. But the creative health of religions lies in the recognition that the system is not an end, but a means to ends which transcend the organization—indeed, a means to the End (eschatology), the ﬁnal destiny of all that is. All human life is lived as project. That is so because humans are conscious that there is a future, but they know extremely little about it. Life as project (towards acknowledged but largely unknown futures) means that evaluation is built into the formation of human actions: is this wise or is it foolish? is it rash or is it prudential? is it harmful or is it beneﬁcial? is it good or is it bad? This is clearly the foundation of ethics and of evaluating behaviours and people as moral or immoral, and religions have done much to create stable ethical evaluations which obtain throughout a particular system and culture.
It is a reason also why acceptance and rejection, approval and disapproval, are so central to religious life: the terms on which these obtain are fundamental, for good and for ill, in the forming of human lives, groups, and societies. They include the ways in which self-approval and self-acceptance become possible. Religions, each in different ways, map the conditions and terms of approval and disapproval, and of acceptance and rejection. This may, of course, create major difficulties, social as well as psychological, for those who cannot accept or meet the terms. But on the other hand, it has had the huge advantage of making life as project less unpredictable.
Religions have done even more to make the future less unknown: they have produced, despite Augustine's perplexity, descriptions of the nature of time which allow the process of time to tell a signiﬁcant story: the experience of moving from past to present to future is no longer ‘one damn thing after another’, but a vehicle of destiny in which people and societies are characterized in particular ways. The ways vary greatly, because the understandings of time vary greatly. Thus in the broadest division (for examples, see time), time in some religions is regarded as cyclical (but with lives being lived linearly, with as many as 84 million rebirths or reappearances), while in others time is linear, moving from creation to end (but with lives lived cyclically, going round repeated years of commemorative festivals). In many religions, both the past and the future can be visited: the past in order that it may continue to live in the present, and so that wrongdoing may be repaired and forgiven (retrogressive rituals, which ‘visit’ past events and enable people to relive or deal with them, are common), the future so that it is not wholly unknown. Religions have produced a multitude of different ways in which the future can be foretold, and they have also portrayed what the ultimate future will be like—and by what ways that future state can be reached. They have even attempted to create proleptic societies which anticipate the ﬁnal state.
In these ways, religions make life as project a little easier. They protect and transmit the means to attain the most important goals imaginable. Some of these goals are proximate: they are goals which can be attained within this life (a wiser, more fruitful, more charitable, more successful, way of living) or within the process of rebirth. But others are ultimate, and have to do with the ﬁnal condition of this or any other human person, and of the cosmos itself. These ultimate goals may be at the extremes of joy or pain, of reward or punishment; which means that death, for most religions, is the threshold of judgement, or the place of judgement itself. The picture is complicated by the fact that for religions with a belief in rebirth or reappearance, such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, the possibility of punishment after death, in the equivalent of hell, is only a proximate goal: it is not an ultimate destiny; and even in religions like Christianity or Islam, where the judgement after death is ultimate, it has always been a matter of debate whether punishment is eternal (universalism). But even with the many qualiﬁcations which the immense diversity of religions always makes necessary, the general point remains that religious systems protect and transmit the means through which the proximate and ultimate goals of life, as they are designated within the systems themselves, can be attained. Furthermore, they give accounts of the state of the dead of such a kind that the living can either remain in some form of communication or communion with them, or can have assurance about them and can continue to care for them. Religions extend the family beyond the grave (or funeral pyre: see ancestors).
Text, Tradition, and Story
How is all this information to be secured and conveyed? The family is of paramount importance, but so too is the social gathering, in forms which emerge eventually in ekklesia and its equivalent in other religions. The Greek word ekklesia, which means a summoning out of individuals into a group, refers often to political organizations; but it came to be the word used for the Christian Church—as in the English ‘ecclesiastical’ or ecclesiology. But there is an ecclesial necessity in all religions, whether in village assembly, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, or temple. Religion binds people together in a common enterprise; and it is in the forms and modes of religious assembly that much of the transmission of religious information takes place. Much is transmitted orally, and much, again, is entirely non-verbal: that is why so much of religion is expressed in gestures, symbols, art, and silences; even that most fundamental of human necessities, breathing, becomes a vehicle of religious exploration and discovery.
But the precious nature of religious information, whether verbal or non-verbal, means that writing became of paramount importance: in the beginning was the Word, or Sound, Logos, or Śabda. The Word extends its powers when it is written down, and Sound becomes more repeatedly accessible when it is translated into text. Text always runs in parallel to oral transmission, and by no means all religions became text-based. But text as authority and revelation builds into religious life one of its most powerful constraints. The Bible says …; but so also does Tanach (Jewish Scripture), the Qur’an, Śruti, the Angas, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Book of Mormon. The fact that they do not all say the same thing, and may indeed contradict each other, reinforces the radical divide between religions; but it also means, more simply, that revelation is always contingent—that is, no matter how strong the claims may be that a particular text or collection of texts comes from heaven or from God, it is always related to the particular historical circumstances in which it ﬁrst appeared. And that means, in turn, that it is related to the transmission of a particular system.
The importance of texts extends beyond revelation. The work of exegesis is continuous in all religions, which means, in other words, that the working out of the meaning of any particular tradition is a continuing task. Again, much of this is practical, a working out in life of what the tradition requires, enables, and expects. But much is committed to writing, so that the scribe (especially before the invention of printing), although sometimes feared, is almost invariably honoured as a midwife of meaning. Text as the protector of information immediately creates the problems of exegesis and hermeneutics (whose meaning is the true meaning of the text? and who decides which it is?), but it also creates opportunity: it becomes a transforming constraint on individual lives, and it releases the possibility of a brilliant kaleidoscope of different kinds of writing, in philosophy, poetry, story and drama, all of which owe much to the religious contexts in which they came into being.
In these ways religions have protected and transmitted the information which has been tested and winnowed through time, and they have thus created worlds of conﬁdence: they have created worlds in which people can recognize who they are, why they are, where they are, and where they are going. They can know how they should live and behave. Religions establish codes of recognition, so that in potentially hostile environments, people can recognize whether those approaching them are friends or foes, whether their intentions are hostile or friendly. Religions create extended families—extending them, in some cases, far beyond even the kinship group and tribe, to make into one community ‘all the nations of the earth’ (see, for example, ’umma). Religions are usually tribal, but the tribe may be extremely large and metaphorical. The codes of recognition and of expected behaviour, even beyond the scope of ethics, bring order into society, often organizing hierarchies. Even more importantly, from a religious point of view, they give to all members, including the poorest and least privileged, the opportunity of religious success, however that is described. The codes of recognition and behaviour need to be secure and well established for that to be possible. In all these many ways, religions make life a little more predictable. They enable people to recognize the many different kinds of limitation which lie before the project of their lives, and how to accept or deal with them.
So important is the role of religions in creating meaning that the great pioneer of the modern study of religion, Max Weber, regarded it as their primary function. In his view, religions create theodicies. ‘Theodicy’ usually has a more restricted meaning, that of justifying claims made about the love and power of God in the face of suffering and evil. In Weber's usage, theodicies are explanations which will account for the inequalities and injustices of life: you live long, I die young; you are rich, I am poor; you are male, I am female; you are well, I am sick. Religions pour meaning and explanation into the gaps of inequality, and organize societies so as to be a living expression of a particular theodicy.
But although Weber extended the sense of the word, he did not really extend it enough. The meanings and values which religions create and sustain extend far beyond the range of even his understanding of theodicy, important though that is. Religions create entire worlds of order and entertainment, in which the place of each part can be recognized and identiﬁed. The biography of any individual is set within a far larger narrative, the components of which are constantly translated into that biography, thereby completely transforming its nature and outcomes. Much of this translation into life will be entirely unconscious, but much also will be a deliberate appropriation of the ways in which a religion makes the story, or components of the story, available—for example, in scripture-reading, preaching, liturgy, or pilgrimage. ‘Religion as story’ (to quote the title of the book edited by J. Wiggins, University Press of America, 1985) may be applied literally through story-telling, with the story-teller highly valued in all religions (see e.g., K. Narayan, Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992)), but it may also lead to imaginations of time and space on such a large scale that they provide the conceptual context of life in a particular religion. Thus, for example, religions create cosmogonies and cosmologies. Often these have been evaluated as quasi-scientiﬁc accounts, and have then been measured for worth against current cosmological theories in the natural sciences. In fact, a religion may have many cosmogonies, often contradictory of each other, each of which serves a different purpose. There are at least ﬁve creation stories in Jewish Scripture, and many more than that among Hindus. The point is that religions devise and elaborate cosmogonies and cosmologies, not in order to anticipate the brief episode of twentieth-century science, but in order to display the universe as an arena of opportunity, the opportunity to live in the ways and for the purposes which a religion suggests or demands. By providing maps of time and space, religions enable people to deal with (or to accept) the many limitations which stand across the project of their lives.
The cosmos as the bearer of meaning demands particular ways of acting and living. Religions, therefore, regard people as being both responsible and accountable: their lives move to some reckoning, whether it is spoken of as Judgement or as Karma (or in other ways), and whether the dialectic is described as sin and salvation, or as ignorance (avidya) and enlightenment; and all religions have an imagination of hell. Religions may stress the inadequacy of human actions without help (grace and redemption, or their equivalents, in other religions, of rescue and repair). But the belief that humans should do nothing and leave it all to God, guru, or grace, the extreme versions of which end up in antinomianism, is rare.
Religious Creativity: Myth, Ritual, and Symbols
So religions (as Weber insisted) pour into the gaps not only meaning but also actions; and that is why religions are a constant force for change, despite the fact that they are also, as systems, necessarily conservative. But as in biology, so here: constraints are the condition of freedom, and once the constraints of a religion are internalized, people are set free to act and think in creative ways (on the meaning and importance of constraint in biology and religion, see J. W. Bowker, A Year to Live, Introduction (London: SPCK, 1991); Is God a Virus … ?, 96 ff.)
The supreme intellectual instruments of this religious creativity are myth, ritual, and symbol. The word ‘myth’ has been debased in recent years so that it is now, in popular usage, another word for something false or invented. Yet myth is in fact one of the greatest of human achievements. Myths are narrations, usually stories, which point to truths of a kind that cannot be told in other ways—for example, in the categories of natural science. That is why myth was seized upon in the nineteenth century by those like Wagner who accepted that science has a true story to tell, but a limited one: it cannot, for example, tell us anything about the experienced truths of human love and suffering. Myth places individual biographies and local events into a much larger context and story, thereby giving them meaning and signiﬁcance. Myth may provide explanations of ritual, but rituals may also be independent of myth. Rituals are actions repeated in regular and predictable ways which create order in the otherwise random process of time. They may therefore be entirely secular (as, for example, on New Year's Eve or at the opening of an Olympic Games), but they are extensive in religions. Some are rites of passage (marking the movement of individuals or groups through signiﬁcant moments of life and death), others mediate protection into dangerous worlds; some initiate, others terminate membership of a religious group; some seek to effect change, others to express meaning. Ritual is the enacted language through which human hopes and fears are articulated and dealt with, and life is constantly renewed. So much is expressed through ritual that it is impossible to summarize all that it means and does.
So too with symbols: language is important (to say the least) in expressing religious beliefs and ideas, but symbols are at least as much so. Symbols are compressed expressions of religious beliefs and ideas in visible form, some of which are enacted, but many of which are transcribed. Symbols rarely attempt to portray what they purport to be about, because they are economies of statement, feeling, and belief, usually achieved and established in religions and simply appropriated by particular individuals. Rather than reproducing something, they act as entrances to religious worlds and imaginations, much as the Looking Glass admitted Alice to wonder and delight—and to terror. Symbols are possessed of power and may encompass a universe in a space not much larger than a small room—or God in a host the size of a coin.
From all this ﬂows religious art and architecture, and much more besides. Religions are the resource and inspiration of virtually all the most enduring and timelessly moving of human creations—not just in art and architecture, but in agriculture, music, dance, drama, poetry, and in the explorations of the cosmos which issued eventually as the natural sciences (it is only in very recent centuries that science has become decoupled from religion as a way of exploration). In practice and presentation, religions in human experience have been fun and they have been entertainment. Long before Hollywood began to dream in dollars, religions were mounting spectacles, heightened, often, by terror, and enhanced by high degrees of audience participation.
Boundaries and Border Incidents: Religions and Conﬂict
The protection and transmission of all of this requires organized systems, which religions necessarily are, and systems require boundaries. The boundaries may be literal, being established in relation to particular geographies, or they may be metaphorical. In either case, boundaries will be required; and where there are boundaries, there will be border incidents. Whenever boundaries come under threat, religions are likely to become either offensive or defensive. The threat may be one of literal invasion and displacement, or it may be metaphorical, as, for example, when it seems that secular values and interests are displacing those of the inherited religion. In either case, at least some religious people will seek to hold, or even to extend, their ground. For this reason, religious wars are common, either between subsystems within the same religion, or between religions, or between religions and the non-religious world. The seriousness of the issues affords a powerful reinforcement of fundamentalism, that is, the determination to identify and maintain certain fundamental and non-negotiable markers of true or legitimate religious identity. Maintaining that identity and defending boundaries against invasion or erosion leads repeatedly to religious wars, or wars in which religions are involved. All religions defend the legitimacy of war in some circumstances (see Just War), even those religions which insist on non-violence or on ahimsa. The circumstances are restricted, and careful rules of limitation are usually speciﬁed. But war, particularly in defence, is recognized.
That is one reason why virtually all the long-running and apparently insoluble problems in the world, in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Cyprus, the Middle East, Kashmir, Khalistan, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, East Timor, the Philippines, have deep religious roots. If you wish to see where future conﬂicts will occur, draw on a map of the world the lines where religions, or subsystems of religions, meet. It is true that religions are capable of coexisting with each other, and often have done so for long periods of time: that has been the case, for example, until very recently, with Jewish communities in Muslim lands. But they do so only so long as the continuity of each of the religions in question does not seem to be threatened.
The reason why religions are so intransigent is because they protect and transmit all that information which is of such high and tested value, at least to those who see things that way. People would rather die than abandon such inherited treasure, especially when they have often tested it and proved it to be of worth in their own case. This is the paradox of religious urgency: religions are such bad news (when they are) only because they are such good news: they protect so much that is so important and so well tested through time that people would die rather than lose it. There is no doubt that one can point to many kinds of damage which religions have done, in terms, for example, of spiritual terrorization or of the subordination of women, in most aspects of their lives, to the decisions and determinations of men. But religions also remain now as they have been in the past, the major resource for the transformation of life and the transﬁguration of art. There will always, therefore, be many who will resist a threat to their religion and the ruin of all that goes with it.
The Future of Religion
War and fundamentalism, however, are not the only responses to novelty. Religions are open to change, and have indeed changed much through the centuries. Change is invariably resisted by some, as being the kind of threat summarized in the previous paragraphs. Sometimes it is so strongly resisted that new sects, new cults, even new religions split off and begin a history of their own. But because religions protect and transmit information of such high value and proven worth in the transformation of life, the appropriation of that information into life often demands transformation and change in the institution. The procedures of change are different in each religion, but the fact of change is a part of religious history, even though change has often, perhaps usually, been resisted. Religions are the custodians of collective memory: they carry the constraints from the past which control human life into distinct, but within the boundaries shareable, outcomes, so that a Buddhist, for example, is recognizable in any country or any generation, even though no Buddhist is identical with any other. But collective memory may demand change in order that the values and goals of a system can be appropriated and lived in new circumstances. The importance of collective memory is that it enables religions to maintain identity while at the same time being open to change.
What of the future of religion? Human religiosity will not diminish except by way of atrophy (by non-use, if that happens), because the preparation for it is so deeply embedded in the brain—and, many would say, because it then develops and ﬂourishes in relation to what is truly discovered, however approximately and corrigibly this is described. Thus the extraordinary discoveries of somatic exploration and exegesis will not become unattainable, even if, for the sake of argument, the neurophysiology of the underlying brain events is better understood. But the forms of expression will certainly change. Partly that is a matter of language, and partly one of organization. All our languages about anything, even about something as relatively obvious as the universe, are approximate, provisional, corrigible, and frequently wrong, at least from the point of view of later generations; and yet, as in the case of the natural sciences, they can be extremely reliable. If that is true of the universe, it will certainly be true also of God, Brahman, and the Buddha-nature: what we say will always be approximate and incomplete, but it will continue to achieve great reliability. It is the corrigibility and approximate nature of all languages which opens up the necessity of faith. But faith, as trust in the tradition and the teacher, then sets out on journeys which for many (not inevitably, and certainly not for all) reveal the truth of that for which it yearns. ‘Eternity in time’, to quote the phrase of Henry Vaughan, is no longer a paradox but a persuasion. Meditation enters into meaning far beyond common senses, and rests in that supreme condition which leaves behind it even such treasures as beauty, excitement, and delight. Prayer is presence, before One who elicits praise, thanksgiving, and joy, as well as penitence and sorrow. Because prayer is the greatest of the human languages of love, it connects others to God as well.
The truth of all this is so well known and practised that it will endure, even in the midst of great changes. So far as organization is concerned, we are on the edge of unimaginable transformations in the methods and speed of communication. The ecclesia of the internet does not require physical presence. And yet humanity does. The ecclesial necessity which helped to bring religions into being may yet serve purposes of humanity which could scarcely be envisaged until the last decade.
What, ﬁnally, of the deﬁnition of religion? Has it come any closer into our sights? Clearly not. We have simply shown that Wittgenstein was right when he observed of games that it is easier to recognize a game than to deﬁne it—or at least, than it is to deﬁne the word ‘game’ in such a way that all the characteristics of all games are embraced within it (see e.g. Philosophical Investigations, nos. 66 f., on ‘family resemblances’). We can recognize a religion when we see one because we know what the many characteristics of religion are; but we would not expect to ﬁnd any religion which exhibited all the characteristics without exception. That process of discerning the characteristics is the ﬁrst level of phenomenology, and it is the reason why Ninian Smart (The World's Religions … (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 12–21) has proposed that we can gain a more balanced and comprehensive view of ‘the luxurious vegetation of the world's religions’ by observing what is the case in seven different dimensions: the practical and ritual; the experiential and emotional; the narrative or mythical; the doctrinal and philosophical; the ethical and legal; the social and institutional; and the material (art, architecture, and sacred places). It will still remain the case that the second level of phenomenology remains to be done, the testing and examination of what has brought the brilliant and majestic creation of religion into being in the ﬁrst place, and has sustained it to the present. Religion is a risk of intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, social oppression, and self-opinionated nastiness. Within that ‘luxurious vegetation’ are ruthless predators of power and ambition. But religion also remains, as that ﬁrst deﬁnition of Marx recognized, the heart and soul of what might otherwise be (and in the twentieth century all too often has been) a heartless world.