Religion is everywhere.

People assume religion has something to do with having a deity. Not all religions have that. In teaching a world religions class, every so often I would start a class by asking what a religion is. At the beginning of the course there were a lot of opinions. By the end, after we had studied just 4-5 world religions, students were fairly flummoxed about finding an answer that would encompass every approach. There are even wide distinctions within a given religion about belief in deity or supernatural.

Mostly religion has to do with a conception of meaning and purpose for people. Religion is generally more anthropology than anything else.

What gives us identity? What fulfills us in our self? As a community? There are historic answers that are oriented in light of deep tradition. There are more contemporary answers that have more free-form, buffet quality. But how we answer that is still our “religion,” if we are to have anything other than a narrow, insular perspective on global religious life.

The various religions are, in fact, suggesting very different modes of being within the world, how to understand how we are being our true self and how reality is formed, and forming, around us.  Again, even within specific religions, answers can vary widely about what it means to be a real human, what values and priorities we should have, how we should understand and respond to those around us.  religions

This is a big reason why in each of the religions we studied, there’s always someone who says, “X isn’t a religion.” Those who are participating fully in a religion see their participation as encompassing their whole being.  Indeed, it’s a very narrow subset of Enlightenment assumptions that thought that religion only encompasses a small sphere of life, that it can be privatized at all.  In reality the only religion that can be truly privatized is that of a person in solitary confinement.

Everyone is oriented by some system of priorities and values and assumptions in which they can navigate their sense of self and progress in this sense of self.

This isn’t to say that religion is only anthropology, that there’s nothing of importance to the rest of the topics.  Indeed, Christianity grounds its anthropology in its understanding of a particular God who worked and works in particular ways within history–past, present, and future.

It is to say that coming up with an orienting philosophy doesn’t require a deity. We’re all oriented by some assumption of how the world is and how we fit in it.  Atheism isn’t a religion itself, but neither are atheists somehow absent a religion.  They just don’t have a god they believe in that is part of their orienting beliefs.  Neither do a good many Buddhists.

That’s the difficulty with many contemporary political and social discussions. There are distinctions made about religion that are themselves religious statements, often assuming a set definition about what gives a person meaning, how we should define ourselves and others, what part of our self is most important and what parts can be put into a box, private and hidden from view.

What does it mean to be truly ourselves? What should we pursue? What should we discipline or diminish? These are questions that frame religion in each person’s life, oriented by something or someone, though not always in coherent way.

Everyone has a religion.  Everyone has faith in some assumption, or idea, or goal, that that is what will bring satisfaction, giving them hope and purpose in their pursuit.

The question I ask isn’t whether someone is religious or not, but what their religion is. If it matches up with an established world religion, that sometimes makes understanding them a little bit easier but not always.  A fair amount of people speak one religion and live another.   And they don’t necessarily want this pointed out. A good many people have a vague amalgamation of goals, driven by separate systems in their life, many not at all cohesive.

Which is why prophets tend to have a difficult road. They are resisted by those who begin with different assumptions about humanity and the world. They are resisted by those who claim those assumptions but don’t particular want these to be their real orientation.

We’re all–well maybe almost all–most committed to justifying our own hypocrisies and pointing the finger elsewhere.  Avoiding blame has been a driving religious ideal throughout human history.

Where will our hope come from?

That’s the key religious question.  We. We’re in this together. Hope. Have a driving conception that things aren’t limited by our current experiences.

We hope. These are what makes us human, despite ourselves.


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