Doubts About Definitions

Do we need to define religion, and can we?



A friend just authored an important paper on why religious freedom is a human right. I agree that it is, and I applaud the range and rigor of his analysis.

He’ll catch a lot of flak, though. Not everyone thinks that religion is for the good, much less that it should impede our political adventures. And, we know, some dismiss it as an opiate. So, it’s no surprise that many people, and more of late, don’t think that religious freedom is a right. And many people, not just academics, don’t “get” what religion is in the first place.

Still, there’s no shortage of rights, real or imagined. There’s a right to assembly. Golly! If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have the chance to pay inflated prices for concussive NFL games. So people can also assemble, if they choose, in “houses of worship.”

There’s also a widening right to hallucinogens. Along with peyote, marijuana has become a quasi-sacrament. But there’s a huge difference—isn’t there?—between Abrahamic religions and the visions of the Indigenous shaman and the urban wannabe. Still, isn’t religion pretty much in the eye of the faithful? So why not just get over special appeals to “religion”-based rights, especially if the religion is organized.

My friend, in light of such objections, thinks that we need to define religion. Once defined, we can argue that it promotes a distinctive human good. Hence, his argument goes, religion is a proper foundation for a human right. It’s a promising line of argument. But there’s a hitch.

The hitch is that definitions are often dicey. Sometimes they even become intellectual impediments. Such doubts about definitions might cause Socrates to roll over in his grave. But even Homer nods, so maybe Socrates can fall into a fallacy.

Socrates’ modus operandi is familiar. He demands that his interlocutors define their terms. What is, say, piety? Or what is justice? Their proffered definitions, often facile, miss the mark. Then he scores points by admitting that he at least is aware of his ignorance. This admission absolves him from constructing his own foolproof definition.

Socrates’ strategy, increasingly persistent, does not win friends; it does, however, irritate the powers that be. Suspicion grows. Isn’t he just another skeptic? Doesn’t such skepticism corrupt the youth? Socrates comes to a bad end. Hemlock, yes; hosanna, no.

Whatever justice is, Socrates was wronged. But if, anticipating Aristotle, he’d said that justice is giving each his due, he could have beaten what was a very bad rap. Still, definitions can be dicey for at least the following three reasons.

First, the demand for a strict definition can easily lead to fresh demands for a definition of one or more terms used in the definition. Is knowledge justified true belief? It may be, but what counts as “justified”? What counts as “true”? (Don’t ask Pontius Pilate!)

Second, sometimes there are no strict definitions to be had. Wittgenstein, using “game” as an example, contended that in some cases we’d do better looking for what he called “family resemblances.” And some terms are “open textured.” Try “dawn” and “twilight.”

Third, what a term means often comes down to how we in fact use it. And who is this “we”? Not all of us, to be sure. But rather those who are central in the carrying on of a practice. Like what? Philosophy is a practice; so is politics; so is law. So is religion!

Central to the practice of religion is worship and the object of worship needs to be worthy of worship. Central to the practice of religion is the going beyond what is limited and merely human. The Abrahamic religions are paradigm cases of religion. So are the Indic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Such religions advance a basic human good. There is a human right to practice them. Doubtless there are other religions as well. But I suspect that no single definition will capture all of them and exclude the many counterfeits.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you have a definition that you’d like to suggest. My ears are open, and my hearing aids are in place! Philosophy, whatever else it is, is an ongoing tradition that demands ongoing discussion.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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