A Brief History of “Religion”: Defining “Religion”, Part 2

(Part one of this series can be found here)

A Sticky Distinction

“Religion”, seems to be tied to culture. In fact, the word “culture” seems to share a level of semantic overlap with the word “religion”:

“the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization

A recent study that I shared, and a later analysis of the study, demonstrated that there is essentially no way to distinguish between a particular culture and its religious beliefs as they seem to be united. 

This can be seen clearly in the writings of the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero, when he ties the maintenance of good societal order to religious observance, writing,

“When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (The Nature of the Gods, Book I)

Religious observances in the ancient world, where there was a general realization among the ancient people that their existence was tied to divine activity, as the Apostle Paul articulated to his Athenian hearers what they already accepted as a given,

“The God who made the world and everything in it,…determined [the] allotted periods and the boundaries of [the]…dwelling place [of men],…(Acts 17:24-26, ESV)

As such, religious activities were expressions of loyalty to the governing authorities for the residents and gratitude to the divine. 

This is expressed in the fact that cultures tend to promote certain values that cannot be expressed in any other means than so-called “religious” language, since religious ideas are what tell us what should be valued. So, religion—with its vocabulary of shoulds and shouldn’ts, in regard as considered as what is pious or impious—lends to the culture-at-large certain basic assumptions. Religion and the accompanying beliefs seem to be able to convey such content in a faster, more reliable, and more relatable method.(1)

The problem, as I see it, is that we have a desire to separate what is “religious” from what is “other” or “secular” in experience as if one is somehow separate and distinct from one another. 

Slicing and Dicing as a False Dichotomy

As discussed in the previous section, there was no really way for the ancient world, because of the inherent worldveiw, to properly distinguish between what we call “religious” and what we call “secular”.  If there was no way for them to do such, how in the world can we assume that such a dichotomy can honestly be made without presupposing certain facts that, at best, can only rightly be called “religious”?

It’s not to say that there are certain facts of life which seem to be distinguished from what we would like to call “religious”; however, there is and assumption that I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, that one acts exactly like the other. As I wrote there,

“Politics, like religion, binds through repetition. All nations are political animals, and those animals are healthy and productive when there are common values that unite the different parties that exist within it. Politics is its own religion. It has its own values and beliefs. The problem comes when the political values and beliefs develop the mistaken assumption that they exist on their own, independent of any presuppositions, that they are merely “brute facts”.

This straightforward observation can be found in work by sociologists like Christian Smith who, continuing in his First Things post, writes,

“Everything we know is grounded on presupposed beliefs that cannot be verified with more fundamental proof or certainty that provides us assurance that they are true. That is just as true for atheists as for religious adherents. The quest for foundationalist certainty, with which we are all familiar, is a distinctly modern project, one launched as a response to the instabilities and uncertainties of early-modern Europe. But that modern project has failed. There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing. That is the human condition. 

The question becomes, how then do we ground our beliefs in order to make such distinctions? 

Let me just take an aside for a moment and look at the law code as found in the Pentateuch, or Torah, better known as the first five books of the Bible. In that part, especially beginning in the book of Exodus, we begin to see law codes being unpacked that can be specifically categorized into three distinct categories: ceremonial (or religious), moral (defining behavior) and civil (laws that were culturally specific). However, in making even such a basic category distinction, laws which we consider specifically ceremonial or religious were in fact moral  and civil laws; all the while adhering to moral laws had a ceremonial and civil correspondence; and the civil laws depended on a moral correspondence that was essentially ceremonial. This tripartite distinction that we make simply doesn’t exist historically, even though the laws only applied to specific groups under the law. More than that, Christians as a group pushed to blur such a distinction very early, for example, James, the brother of the Lord, writes,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27, ESV)

The word that is translated “religion” in that instance is used only 4 times in the the entire New Testament. It refers to something that people do in worship of their god as a ceremonial observance. That means that taking care of widows and orphans (the verb translated “visit” has the sense of ongoing care) assumes a moral responsibility that can only be accounted for with presuppositions that are inherently religious. 

Stay tuned for part 3.


  1. Pascal Boyer and Brian Bergstrom. “Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion”. The Annual Review of Anthropolgy. 2008. p.116-7



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