revised Feb 2005 Welcome - Charles - Thoughts - What Religion?

(The Oxford English Dictionary, c.1960, gives this as part of its definition of religion: system of faith and worship; human recognition of superhuman controlling power entitled to obedience; effect of this on conduct etc.)

Some people will claim to be religious, some will claim not to be, and others will not have bothered with the idea. Whatever they think, all are religious. We can look at what people do and how they behave, and possibly identify their religion... No, I'm not talking about Christianity, Islam or the other "Religions of the World". I'm talking about their real religion. The one that they believe in, not just intellectually; not the one they culturally agree with, the one they really live.

Now the definition given earlier suggests that a religion is usually associated with a god, or a "controlling power" that guides the activities and faith. Let us look at an example. For most of the people in the "Western world", a good candidate for a god is money. This does not mean that they want to be rich, to acquire money. It means that money is their life's reference point. Which job should they accept? (How much does it pay?) What brand of soap should they buy? (Which gives them more in the bottle?) Where do they live? (How "nice" a house can they afford?)

We would expect a religion to be significant in guiding our lives, both generally and, at times, specifically. So a consideration of what guides us may reveal something of what we believe in. Suppose we want to buy something - let's say it's something basic, like bread - and suppose that we can easily afford it. What decides where and what we buy? Convenience, cost, and quality are the usual things considered. Just looking at these would give us a clue. But the other factors not so obvious should be thought of as well. Just who is making the bread? Who is selling it? Should we support either in preference to another maker or supplier? Do we need to buy the bread at all? There may be some left from yesterday that would be OK, even if not perfectly fresh. Which, if any, of these questions we consider important to our everyday decisions is indicative of what guides our lives, and hence what might be considered our religion.

Let's go back and look at something a little more significant. Choosing a new job. Here the selection process will include factors like being able to do the job, future prospects and ease of getting to work. All assuming for the moment that we will be able to get the job. However, most people will admit that the single most important factor is how much it pays (or will in the near future). The touchstone used to assess value is money. Whether a job is intellectually or morally defensible is usually of much less concern. After all, we have to make a living, don't we?

OK, so a lot of people will argue that money isn't their god. There are others waiting to be worshipped, though. Take sport for example, and include the whole sport industry rather than just someone maybe running a race. Some people will organise their lives around it, think and talk about it often. They will defend their ideas about it. They will be emotionally involved by it. They will forego many other things to be involved in it. Collectively a vast amount of effort is put into supporting it (as opposed to actually playing). Significant social decisions are based upon sport, ranging from time tabling village events around a cricket match, to hosting the Olympic Games. Vast temples of worship - sorry, stadiums - are built where the faithful gather.

Sport not your thing? Get a buzz from something else? Freedom and getting away from it all? The Good Life (and also getting away from it all)? Partying and generally living for the moment? How about the motor car? Most of these are gods only in that they might serve as the focus of our lives, be something we might worship, and which could define our religion. Not many of them are active in any sense without the help of people, though people have built systems that are way beyond the power of even large groups to control and hence seem to have a life of their own. Imagine abolishing the motor car, for example, and you will soon see how big a system that is. But perhaps there is a god behind the god. Perhaps the cult of the car is supported by belief in freedom?

How do we differentiate between an interest and a religion? Well, first accept that people have both. They may even be really interested in their religion although this is not always the case. People whose god is sport are usually interested in it. Those whose god is money are often not particularly interested in it as such, at least not intellectually. So it probably comes down to making decisions. What god holds the casting vote? Which god has the veto? When complicated choices have to be made, who or what do we look to for approval or guidance? Now quite often we fool ourselves here. We might decide to go to a football match, or perhaps to church. But what if it is only church when it doesn't mean missing the game? What if it is either but only because we want to impress the neighbours or our work mates? It can be very hard for someone else to know what the religion really is. When the decision has to go past several possible gods, the one that can finally allow or deny the choice is probably the real one in that case.

Still not convinced that everyone is religious?. How about those silly superstitions that people hold to? Some could make sense: "it is unlucky to walk under ladders" carries a sensible warning, but even so, many people don't see it as a reasonable guide but a rule to follow blindly to avoid bad luck some time later. How about "touching wood"? Worrying about the number 13? These all indicate acceptance of a supernatural force that can intervene in our lives if we disobey the whimsical rules. That the rule is based on good advice, or perhaps some old religion is not of concern. It is the current belief that this will somehow cause something to affect our lives (usually maliciously) that is actually the religion.

Considerations like this lead us to an interesting question. What happens when we finally reach an end of ourselves and really need the sort of help or answers traditionally looked for from God? (Note the big "G") Facing imminent death, for example, isn't usually helped much by knowing your football team is having a great season, or that your car really was a great bargain. Which god will prove to have been worthy of devotion?