29-Minute Essay on Religion


As the discussion during last week’s seminar suggested, there is hardly one definition for religion, nor, I expect, could there be. Religion, like many of the most common words in our language, is a term we use assuming that our listeners already know what we mean. Dr. Bobbitt was right to insist on religion’s irreducibility; the moment we come up with a set of components that we think religion must have to be religion, someone else brings up a counterexample that, while clearly a religion, fails to meet the exacting specifications of our definition. As a feminist, I’ve had similar trouble in thinking about definitions of categories as seemingly simple as “woman.” What defines a woman – social roles, sexual roles, biological roles, anatomical reality? What about those persons who, though having been born in male bodies, claim a female gender identity and are accepted as women in society? As with women, there is no one quality that every religion has.


Given all that, however, I feel that the most satisfying way to define religion is to examine its area of applicability. Religion seems to me to be primarily concerned with meaning, particularly in areas where we have questions but no answers. Questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What happens when we die?” cannot be satisfyingly answered by science; indeed, when “science” is called in to address the kinds of unfalsifiable statements that religion is inclined to make, it often drifts out of its proper sphere of observation, description, and prediction and metamorphoses into its bastard child, pseudoscience. Thus, religion’s function is to address questions that cannot be examined empirically, and to guide the practitioner in shaping a spiritually satisfying life narrative.


Thus it is not surprising that an important component of most religions is cosmology. Religion helps us to examine our proper place in the universe, and shapes our attitudes about proper behavior: out of religion springs ethics. However, I don’t see this as being the sole use of a religious cosmology. Cosmologies also describe and help to make concrete our relationship with the divine, giving us a context for our experiences of awe, joy, transcendence, immanence, ego-loss – a long list of altered states of consciousness. More importantly, this context allows us to hold on to these experiences after they’ve passed. It is well-known to psychology that experiences for which a person lacks context are often lost, disconnected from the network of memory and therefore difficult to retrieve. Thus religion serves the very practical purposes of helping to preserve those experiences that lift us out of the everyday – experiences which for many are a wellspring of ideas for art, music, and literature. More importantly, however, the essence of the religious experience – the staggering sense of meaning and significance – can be carried back into our daily lives to motivate social reform or self-improvement. Religion is the human creation that actively seeks to tap into the source of power that every artist, mystic, activist, and fully alive human being knows, and (with any luck) to open a pathway to that source for those whose lives are oppressed by emptiness.


Clearly what I’ve described here is religion idealized. Pragmatically speaking, all the great religions of the world have been twisted for selfish political ends, and even some of our newest attempts at vital religion (the new age movement, neopaganism) have already been plagued with faddishness and commercialism. Nevertheless religions continue, and probably always will, because humanity’s thirst for meaning is bottomless.





Copyright (c) 2002 by Christine Hoff Kraemer