“Religion”: a syndrome definition
A) Religion must offer ALL FIVE of these:
- Highly valued source(s) Of Knowledge & Authority
- Living People: Shamans, Priests, Mystics, Ministers, Rabbis …
- Recorded Texts: ancient and/or modern
- Tradition: oral, behavioral, institutional
- In- Group 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
- Promises of a Better Afterlife
- a better hereafter: either in Heaven (or at least not hell), a better reincarnation, Nirvana, a good life in the Spirit-world etc.
- Suggest or promise benefits in this life
- 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…
- Psychological comfort
B) Religion must also have at least two of the below:
- Spirits: Discuss a supernatural cosmology of spirits, angels, demons, gods etc.
- Taboos: Defines taboo and pollution issues
- Explanations of the Unknown: Offers explanations for what is felt to be otherwise unknowable information: creation myths, origin histories
- 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”
Attempts to give a simple, universal definition of religion are doomed because the word is used in a great many ways. So here I am offering a more complex definition of religion. And this just a definition that is meant to capture the use of religion when we talk about most of the religions you have heard of and even the ones anthropologists talk about. My approach is to define religion in much the same way as medicine defines syndromes.
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 in terms of syndromes. Let me show your an example of Psychiatry’s syndrome definition of “Panic Attack” as list in the DSM-IV:
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 it may or may not have 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.