is everyone religious?

In the perennial debate about the place of religion in politics and public life, one available stance is: “Everyone is religious.” This position has weaknesses, which I will mention below, but here are three points in its favor:

  1. Ethical people hold beliefs that are hard, if not impossible, to justify with empirical evidence. For example, I believe that all human beings are equal. That is not a scientifically demonstrable claim. Science finds all kinds of inequalities of capacity, potential, and importance among actual human beings, who include speechless infants and late-stage Alzheimer’s patients. Equality is instead a moral premise. I don’t happen to take it directly from an overtly religious source, but it could be viewed as similar to a religious statement, such as “God loves the world.”
  2. Everyone should recognize that the universe exceeds our capacity to understand it, even by means of cumulative empirical research. I know things that our dog just can’t. I know, for example, that he and I live in the United States, which is a republic. Perhaps he knows some things that I can’t. With appropriate tools, I could collect the same information that he takes in with his remarkable nose, but I wouldn’t know what it feels like to sense that a cat crossed “his” yard five hours ago. A creature with a much different brain from either my dog’s or mine could know things that neither of us can. One needn’t believe in God, then, to acknowledge the likelihood that the universe is permanently unknowable by us and a place of mystery.
  3. Religions do not have foundational articles of faith from which all their other beliefs flow. Sometimes they present themselves that way. Some Jews say that the whole Law follows logically from the revelation on Sinai; some Christians, that everything is implied by God’s sacrifice of His Son on the cross; some Muslims, that everything results inevitably from believing in God and His last prophet. But I don’t think these claims do justice to their respective traditions. Religions are actually large webs of metaphysical beliefs, stories, characters, rules, examples, traditions, rituals, and hopes. Everyone has such a web, whether we see ourselves as religious or not. In fact, many items in the idea-network of a religious person are also present in my network.

In the end, it’s probably a mistake to lose the category of religion or to view religious worldviews as completely parallel to secular ones. The main reason is sociological. Since (I think) the Babylonian Captivity, the Abrahamic religions have organized themselves in a certain way within larger societies. They treat membership in the religious community as an identity: something you are, not just a set of ideas you endorse. They view certain texts as canonical. They emphasize beliefs that are matters of faith (“things hoped for, evidence of things not seen”) over memories or observations. And they gather their believers in groups that form larger networks or structures. The original meaning of the words “congregation,” “synagogue,” and ecclesia (Greek for “church”) is coming-together, a tangible social act. I think the great Asian traditions have been influenced by these sociological forms and have begun to look somewhat like Abrahamic faiths, as a result of isomorphism.

Such religions operate as identity groups and convene in organized structures. They can thus be oppressed and persecuted but can also dictate to others when they control power. That means that a liberal state is wise to identify religions for protection but also to make the government and law neutral among religions. The reason is not metaphysical or epistemological–it’s not that religious people fundamentally believe in different kinds of truths or think in different ways from secular people–but sociological. Religions function differently from other clusters of beliefs and practices.

However, if we adopt this position, then we should at least inquire into whether certain secular belief-communities have also taken forms parallel to those of the Abrahamic faiths, again perhaps due to isomorphism. Doesn’t, for instance, medical science offer its own bounded identities, canonical texts, hierarchies, moral premises, rituals, heroes, and exemplary cases? If it does, then possibly it should be viewed as similar to a religion–which is an idea as old as Durkheim.

I would be reluctant to draw radical implications for US constitutional law. Our traditional ways of defining and protecting religions reflect some pragmatic experience and help to constitute our political culture. I wouldn’t necessarily rock that boat. But if the question is not “How should the Supreme Court interpret the Establishment Clause?” but rather, “What distinguishes religious thinking?” then I am inclined to suspect that everyone is religious and that religion is everywhere.

See also a typology of denominationsare religions comprehensive doctrines? and is all truth scientific truth?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.