Racked With Indecision Over Defining Religion

It’s been a few weeks reading quite a number of theorist and trying to listen to their definition of religion. Among the theories we read “naturalism” is one that keeps ringing in my mind. When I looked for its definition online, it is defined as, “the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted”. On the other hand, Durkheim in his The Elementary of Forms of the Religious Life  explains how the concepts of gods are constructed from natural elements. For example, Agni, the god of fire. With the evolution of these concepts in greater ways, Durkheim seems to think that these ideas which we call it religion binds societies together and forms collective effervescence.

On the other hand, mysticism, a distinguished American psychologist William James says is a personal religious experience. He said, “One may say, truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.” For James, mystical state of consciousness is a precise state of mind which must be experienced directly to be fully understood. It can be similar to states of feelings but also be states of knowledge, which cannot be sustained for long and is a form of self-transcendence.

Sitting in a class, trying to get trained among some of the aspiring religious studies scholars, I find myself choosing definitions. It then makes me wonder, do we have to choose definitions and theories of our choices to understand the choice of our field of study in the way we want to understand? Or do we just choose just the concepts that interprets our own field of study well? Is there even a definition of religion that can define all the religion in the world?

While I look at the annual rituals that happen in Bhutanese Buddhist societies and it’s texts, there are many natural characters in the practice that can be easily argued according to naturalistic religion. The gathering of community members and the harmony that one can see in these ritual gatherings surely creates what Durkheim called the collective effervescence. However, if we delve in deeper, there are also other things that are beyond the spectrum of naturalism and enters the boundary of mysticism. For example, oracles, Shindray (possessing with the soul of someone who passed away) and many others. These experiences that I have seen first-hand are from my thought beyond the spectrum of naturalism. Therefore,  do religious studies scholars keep on adding onto the definition of religion whenever we find newer ideas? If that is the case, when will there be a definite definition? Can there even be a definite definition?    

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