Can ‘religion’ be defined? Or is it a case of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance?

Responding to the request of participants, today’s session will be about religion. I will use the opportunity to illustrate the idea of ‘family resemblance’ as put forward by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations.

In the analytical tradition, thinkers often engage in conceptual analysis. They attempt to find clear definitions of concepts that are important to human existence, like ‘truth’, ‘justice’ or ‘art’. A clear definition is one that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for that concept. It describes which criteria must apply to that concept, and only that concept. In other words, a clear definition of a concept takes the following form:

Something is [concept] if and only if conditions 1, 2, 3…..n apply.

for example: something is a triangle if and only if it has three sides and the sum of its corners equals 180 degrees.

Someone found a triangle with four sides? Then it’s not a triangle. Someone found a triangle with corners the sum of which is 179 degrees? Sorry, not a triangle. Someone found an object with three sides and corners adding up to 180 degrees, but claims it is not a triangle? Again, incorrect, because it must be a triangle. There’s no way around it. Everything that meets the definition is a triangle, and every triangle meets the definition. There are no exceptions. That is the deal with a clear definition.

Analytical philosophers would very much like that every concept we use has a clear definition. They see it as their task to find these definitions, however difficult it may be. Wittgenstein, however, famously argued that for some concepts, this is a hopeless endeavour. Some concepts just don’t have clear definitions, he argued. Does that mean such concepts are meaningless? Or that we are confused about the use of these concepts? Or that we can give them just any meaning we want? No, none of these things is the case. According to Wittgenstein, some concepts point out a class of phenomena that have no set of fixed criteria in common, but that share a family resemblance.

Imagine a family gathering. All family members are related, all share some features with each of the others, but there is not a single feature that is shared by everyone. In my family, for instance, some family members have the distinctive ginger hair, others have the big nose, some have the funny head shape, some have the inward-turned knees, some are very tall, some have big front teeth. Each family member has a couple of these features, no one has them all, and none of these features occur in all family members. There is not a single feature that we all have in common. Still, it is these features that make it easy to tell who is related to me and who is not. The limits of who belongs to my family and who doesn’t is blurry (everyone is family of everyone in some degree, of course) and not clear at all, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to tell at all that I’m related to my uncle, my brother, my aunt et cetera. Wittgenstein used this example to illustrate that some concepts are very meaningful and used with great competence by language speakers, even if they haven’t got a clear definition.

I will argue that this is the same for the concept ‘religion’.

Religion. What is it?

This question is very difficult if not impossible to answer. Hent de Vries, in his substantial introduction to the voluminous collection of essays Religion: Beyond a Concept, makes this quite clear. Religion, he laments, is a “semantic black hole”
and has “resisted all enlightenment” in spite of numerous attempts to pin down its distinctiveness.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides a definition of religion: “a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of facticity that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1966 p.90). This is an elegant definition, because it uses the cognitive aspects of religion to explain other aspects, like why religious moods and motivations are in some sense more significant (“powerful, pervasive, long-lasting”) than other, more mundane, moods and motivations. This, in turn, can explain the intuition that a person’s religious beliefs play a different kind of role than a person’s mere opinion about this or that.
But there are problems with this definition. Geertz’ definition is both too broad and too narrow. Veganism, for instance, is a framework of beliefs that meets all five of Geertz’ criteria, but is generally not considered a religion. At the same time, religions that traditionally place more emphasis on the spiritual or ritual dimension than on beliefs, like Sufism or Zen Buddhism, fail to meet Geertz’ definition whilst they are without a doubt religions.
How about defining religion in terms of spirituality? Theistic philosopher John Cottingham takes such a direction in his essay Human Nature and the Transcendent (2012). He points out that experiences most central to human existence are precisely those that cannot be explained away in terms of science and naturalism. The sort of experiences that induce a sense of awe in us, and make us feel connected to a greater whole. The “restlessness of the human spirit” and our “transcendent urges”. He invites us to acknowledge that “one is struck by the extent to which religious belief offers a home for our aspirations. Theism, in its traditional form found in the three great Abrahamic faiths, involves the idea of a match between our aspirations and our ultimate destiny” (Cottingham 2012, p.253).

But the problem with such a definition is that it is too broad. It seems to suggest that a non-religious person is in conflict with her feelings of awe and her spiritual restlessness if she maintains her non-religion. But it is not exactly clear why religion should have the monopoly over spiritual restlessness and awe. Constructing non-religious people as homogenously uninterested in such things or even disingenuous (unwilling to acknowledge that awe in the face of the larger-than-life is fundamental to human existence) is an act of ‘othering’: defining one’s own group in terms of a desirable characteristic and constructing others as a group in virtue of lacking that characteristic, regardless of whether that actually corresponds to the facts. Simone de Beauvoir demonstrated in The Second Sex that such a tactic constructed woman as ‘the second sex’.

There is, for religious as well as non-religious persons, a strong tendency to define religion in a way that suits oneself. Non-religious people might be tempted to point to dogmatism, authoritarianism or uncritical devotion as the defining characteristics of religion. Religious people on the other hand, might be tempted – as Cottingham does – to define religion along the lines of spirituality, hope, moral anchoring or transcending self-interest. The temptation lies in the fact that one’s religion or lack of it is identity-constituting. We use our religion to describe our stance, or we explicitly think of ourselves as distancing from religion. This creates the urge to account for that with good reasons. We want to be able to say that distancing ourselves from religion is the right thing to do, or that confirming our religion is the right thing to do. The only way to do that is by constructing the other group as, in some respect or other, the lesser choice. But however tempting that may be, the risk is that actual opponent don’t conform to the construction. Construct religion as ‘dogmatic’ and what are you going to do when you meet a religious person who rigorously questions and revises their own belief? Call non-religion a lack of hope or spirituality and you’re faced with the task to explain the hordes of hopeful and spiritual non-religious people. It takes a lot of bending reality to fit your favoured definition to make this work.

I think no single characteristic reliably distinguishes religion from non-religion. Does this mean that ‘religion’ is a meaningless concept, or that we can’t use it reliably? Not at all. Perhaps it just works like a family resemblance.



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