Defining the Undefinable?: Defining Religion, Part 4

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 of this series.)

The Best Way to Engage the Question

Now, this is not so much to pick on atheists, they get picked on enough, but rather to ask are we truly engaging in a fool’s errand. Is there something that is definably religious or is there not. Atheists argue that there is, but then they want to argue that they are not part of it at the same time, while still wanting to embrace “superficial” markers when it benefits them in organizing. It’s this implicit special pleading that atheists get into in making their assertions, at least from the position of social science in sociology,

“Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions. [It’s] subject matter is diverse, ranging from crime to religion, from the family to the state, from divisions of race and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture…

Sociology looks beyond normal, taken-for-granted views of reality, to provide deeper, more illuminating and challenging understandings of social life.

If we take the statement by AAI seriously, that “…atheists have no beliefs in common…no shared values, and no dogma” then why are they concerned about, “[educating] members and the public about atheism”? The very fact that there’s an organization dedicated to such an action assumes certain shared values and dogmatic beliefs. In fact, to claim that one has no dogma is itself dogmatic. 

Maybe the problem is that we’re trying to define things wrongly to begin with. Researcher of religion Roderick Ninian Smart created a tiered test for matters that could be considered as “religious”, however to broaden the horizon, he picked up and applied a term “worldview analysis”.(2)

It is in this place of “worldview” that Smart found himself a place to interact with beliefs and actions in the most general sense. Some would argue that Smart did so entirely too generally. However, Smart himself noted that while there were shared characteristics between certain domains, they were not themselves religion-proper, even though what made them possible were beliefs that could only properly be designated as “religious”.(3) That is, in order for something to truly be defined as a “religion” it needed something else.

The Problem of the Definition

The underlying difficulty is found in the fact that there seems to be a valid, general distinction can be made between what is ideologically secular and religious.(4) I would insist, on philosophical grounds, that such a distinction is essentially arbitrary and ultimately irrelevant on the basis that such a distinction presumes a neutral place to make such a distinction not only possible, but true, and this is simply not the case.(5) Smart seems to recognize this, which is why he can make the case for critical analysis of what one might recognize as distinctly “non-religious” or even “anti-religious” as a “religion”.(6)

As such, Smart’s work gave us a number of key insights into the question of, what is a religion? The insights essential come down to eight factors or features (7):

  1. Doctrine/Philosophy
  2. Ritual
  3. Mythic/Narrative
  4. Experiential/Emotional
  5. Ethical/Legal
  6. Social (or Institutional)
  7. Material (symbolic)
  8. Political 

Making the approach to defining exactly what a religion is in sociological terms help us understand exactly what we’re talking about, because it necessarily assumes that we’re breathing the same air. That’s why when groups like Atheist Alliance International say, “You don’t have to believe anything to be an atheist…,” in one sentence, then turn right around just a few words later and contradict themselves by insisting that there is one belief that is required, can have the rest of us looking at them like they have two heads. That is why demonstrating the truth of the claim that atheism is a religion, depends heavily upon making the case sociologically.When we come to the question sociologically, we find that “religion” is the key to understanding how groups ultimately relate to one another.

Stay tuned for Part 5


2. Bryan S. Rennie. “The View of the Invisible World: Ninian Smart’s Analysis of the Dimensions of Religion and of Religious Experience.” Bullletin/CSSR. Volume 28, Number 1999 p.66

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Greg Bahnsen. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. Covenant Media Press. Nacogdoches, TX. 2011. p.3 

6. Rennie. p.66

7. Ashok Malhotra. “Ninian Smart, Dimentions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs”. Comparative Civilizations Review, Volume 41, Number 41. 1999. p.83


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