On Expanding the Definition of Religion

I have long been an advocate for expanding the definition of religion beyond mere supernatural belief. I find Robert Bellah’s definition of religion particularly helpful: religion is “a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.”

The reasons for this expansion are many, not least because when we really put religious practice under the microscope, the obvious boundaries which seem to define it break down. Supernaturalism is not universal in religious practice, nor is belief in god or gods, nor is mystical experience (just ask a stone-cold presbyterian).

I find it helpful to break down these unexamined boundaries hedging religion, because I think it allows the deeply religious, like myself, to evolve in a more enlightened, rational direction while maintaining our beloved religious symbol.

Religious scholar Ruben van Luijk offers another helpful reason for breaking down these arbitrary definitions of religion in his book Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Satanism. At the end of his sprawling tome he writes,

“With the majority of people still holding on to more traditional notions of religion, or even considering the term as an epithet of opprobrium, such a wider appliance of the word seems far off from broad acceptance. Yet such an extension might certainly be a worthwhile endeavor. It might provide a potent and delightfully provocative tool to locate attempts to formulate meaning, value, and myth in secularized society that are yet more masked than modern religious Satanism. In addition, it may restore a vital human link between “us,” inhabitants of a secular world, and religionists of past and present. When seen as the ever-present and eminently human form in which we manifest our attempt to create forms of “macromeaning,” religion ceases to appear as a mere relict from a past that most educated Westerners, in their heart of hearts, can only consider obsolete and alien. Instead, it can be seen as a logical consequence of our extended consciousness and the ability this human attribute brings about to ask questions about the “why” and “whereto” of existence that we are in no position to answer empirically.”

These words strike me as deeply compassionate and empathetic. In an age where tribal identification is running rampant, and we too often see the “other” as alien and stupid, expanding the definition of religion beyond mere supernaturalism to include guiding symbol and myth is an act of inclusion. Instead of villainizing those who hold beliefs that seem superstitious or idiotic, we can understand that we are all meaning making machines, and that religion is a deeply human enterprise.

This has, ironically, been my observation in corners of the Satanic community. Most people come to Satanism by way of radical rationalism and rebellion towards traditional religion. However, I’ve observed some Satanists soften towards other religions, now that they, themselves, have a religious identity. Rather than being enemies of modernity, other religious people are suddenly just … people.

None of this is to say we must forgive the atrocities of religious belief or become tolerant of religious abuse. It is, rather, to say that we can understand that there is room within religion for health, enlightenment, and rationalism, and we can encourage all religions to grow towards that expansiveness. Religious identity is not the problem.

If this strikes you as too broad and open, that’s fine. Perhaps you are a theist/supernaturalist, and fail to understand how those who lack faith can still be religious. Maybe you are an atheist, and are more comfortable with religion being the province of backward supernaturalists. Obviously, I think both of you are wrong, but that is too large a topic for this small blog post.

All I can say is that what I see in the modern Satanic movement excites me, and makes me hopeful for the future of religion. And, perhaps most fundamentally, it works for me. I can have my symbol and my skepticism. This, to me, is religion, and I believe that makes it so.

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