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A "Definition" of Religion

A "Definition" of Religion


This lesson identifies some common elements that appear across religions that allow the student to see more clearly what religion is, while underlining the severe difficulties inherent in attempting to provide a firm, universal definition.

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Video Transcription

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What is religion? It can be hard to define. We know it when we see it but, what is it exactly? Does it mean wearing special costumes, like a bishops robe? Does it mean burning candles and incense? Does it mean building temples, churches, and mosques? Does it mean having people with whom you share your beliefs? Does it mean I believe in a higher power, or God, or gods? Does it mean prayer? The study of scripture? Well, it should become apparent slowly that coming up with the definition of religion is going to get a little bit difficult. So I'm calling this lesson defining religion. Might have sold you a bill of goods. It seems though, maybe we can come up with a definition as long as we take it with a big giant grain of salt. Maybe we can isolate a few key features, and maybe we should just start over from scratch. The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein said in a book that was published in 1953, after his death, that we can speak of family resemblances, when we're trying to give a definition of something. This was in the book Philosophical Investigation, so, perhaps we could use this to define religion. We can't say what religion is for sure, because religions are so different from each other. But, maybe we can find some common features, or take our list from before and maybe, sort of, summarize it. We could say, a sort of concern with ultimate questions, or an account of human origins. To focus on the transcendent, we have to be careful about God and gods, because not all religions have them. Maybe reconciling the human, with the non-human. So we can come up with a list of family resemblance. Now we should still take this with a grain of salt, we should still recognize that any definition is probably going to fall short. But, if a definition is just something that helps us to guide inquiry, then it doesn't seem like a bad one, and you will want to come up with your own definition any time you begin writing and thinking about religion. Because if you don't bother to create your own definition, you'll end up having one by default, which could be just as bad, or even worse. So, it's always better to think about the use of terms, and try to be critical in how you use them. The term from this lesson is family resemblance a theory discussed in Wittgensteins' Philosophical Investigations, whereby seemingly unrelated concepts maybe connected to each other, via intermediate concepts.

Notes on "A 'Definition' of Religion"

Source: Intro. music and images by David Dillard-Wright

Terms to Know
Family Resemblance

A theory discussed in Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" whereby seemingly unrelated concepts may be connected to each other via intermediate concepts.