“Religion”: a syndrome definition
A) Religion must offer ALL of these:
- Source(s) Of Knowledge & Authority
- Living People: Shamans, Priests, Mystics, Ministers, Rabbis …
- Recorded Texts: ancient and/or modern
- Tradition: oral, behavioral, institutional
- Social bonds
- Encourages in-group cooperation
- Offers friends, potential mates, business partners, helpful neighbors
- Behavioral Norms: ways to teach or reinforce morals, social roles/rituals, gender roles…
- Threatens penalties for those not obeying rules
- Sets how to associate with nonbelievers or apostates
- Promise of a Better Life: Promise a better life while alive, and/or a better hereafter — Heaven/Hell, Reincarnation, Nirvana, Spirit-world
B) Religion must also have at least three (3) of the below:
- Comfort: Offer explanations to ease suffering (meaning and comfort):
- of life after death
- of sickness, misfortunes and disasters
- Spirits: Discuss a supernatural cosmology of spirits, angels, demons, gods etc.
- Taboo: Defines taboo and pollution issues
- Explains Unknown: Offers explanations for what is felt to be otherwise unknowable information: creation myths, origin histories
- Blessings: Offers adherents benefits (in this life or next):
- Improved health or total healing
- Status, security, money, jobs, prosperous family, abilities
- Improved personality: ability to overcome hardship, to help others, happiness
- Improved relationships
- Special experiences: happiness, bliss, unity, peace, love, forgiveness…
- Apocalyptic Visions: Doomsday scenarios and/or drastic changes coming in the future
- Narratives: Offer story telling as a means of offering meaning and bonds. Myths.
- Rituals: Offer rituals to satisfy the side of humans seeking safety in order and repetition. Ritual are used to reinforce the other aspects of the religion.
How to Define “Religion”
The word “religion” is vague and used in many different ways. It is so vague as to essentially be meaningless when examined carefully. Attempts to offer a straightforward definition of religion are doomed because the word is used in a great many ways. I suggest that one useful approach would be to think of religion as a syndrome. This syndrome definition ironically dispels the notion of “religion” as a clear category and so, instead religion as a whole, it points us back to the fact that it is probably most useful to discuss particular elements of the syndrome that composes religion rather than religion itself (what ever that may be). In this way, we may better understand the structure of the mind that creates such a social tool.
In medicine, the notion of a “syndrome” is used to capture human disorders which we don’t yet fully understand. Psychiatry, an area of medicine wrought with incomplete knowledge, has most of its diagnoses by syndrome. Let’s take “Panic Attack” a list the DSM-IV definition in syndrome typology:
Must have all of these:
- Intense fear or discomfort
- Developing Abruptly
- Peaking within 10 minutes
Must have at least 4 of these:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Chills or hot flushes
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Feeling of choking
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Palpitations or tachycardia
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Sense of impending doom
- Trembling or shaking
So you see, for some internal state to qualify as a panic attack it has a few conditions it must meet and then a certain number of other traits. Thus, two people’s panic attacks could be qualitatively incredibly different experiences and still called “panic attacks”.
Likewise, I think we should be able to build a syndrome for religion which allows for a wide variety of religious experiences but still is not so nebulous as to be meaningless. The definition I put together above is just my fumbling at what a syndrome definition of “religion” would look like. What should I add, or subtract — please help me build this. Also, perhaps others have done this already — please let me know. The fun exercise is determining, what is a “must” and how many secondary traits are required. You can see that if the definition is broad enough, belief in gods does not have to enter.
- Picture: HT: “DirtBrothers“: An Archeology web site
- One of my favorite books on “What is Religion?” is: “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” by Pascal Boyer.
- See other “Word!” posts, here.