When asked this question, most people think of traditional faith systems like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shinto.
The answer is more complicated.
Traditional faith systems have less in common than one would think. Some are atheistic or indifferent to the possibility of God’s existence. Some are unconcerned with personal immortality. What they do have in common is concern with ultimate values, connection with a system of ritual, and the power to command reverence, admiration, and personal commitment. These characteristics set them apart as “sacred.”
Defining “religion” is complicated by the fact that newer faith systems with no direct relationship to traditional faith systems have the same “sacred” characteristics. Secular humanism, free-market capitalism, Marxism, nationalism,1 and ethnic “tribalism” are just as religious in their practical effects as traditional faith systems. Millions of people look to nationalism, political ideology, or tribal loyalty for their spiritual values, and a large percentage are willing to die for them.
This is why it is unrealistic to apply the term “religion” only to traditional faith systems. Any institution or belief system that has “sacred” characteristics should be considered a religion.
- Scholars have shown how all of the “secular” institutions and belief systems in this list function as religions, but this quotation on nationalism provides a good example: “Scholars have long noted the way that nationalism has supplanted Christianity as the predominant public religion of the West. Hayes’s 1926 essay, ‘Nationalism as a Religion,’ puts forth this idea, which in 1960 he developed into a book entitled Nationalism: A Religion. For Hayes, humans are naturally endowed with a ‘religious sense,’ a faith in a power higher than humanity that requires a sense of reverence, usually expressed in external ceremony. Hayes argues that the decline in public Christianity with the advent of the modern state left a vacuum for the religious sense that was filled by the sacralization of the nation, the ‘enthronement of the national state—la Patrie—as the central object of worship.’ According to Hayes, political religion enjoyed the double advantage of being more tangible than supernatural religion and having the physical means of violence necessary to enforce mandatory worship. Benedict Anderson similarly argues that the nation has replaced the church in its role as the primary cultural institution that deals with death. According to Anderson, Christianity’s decline in the West necessitated another way of dealing with the arbitrariness of death. Nations provide a new kind of salvation; my death is not in vain if it is for the nation, which lives on into a limitless future” (William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence [Oxford Press, 2009], 114) Back To Article