What is religion?

After seeing an article repeatedly describe Satanism as a “fake religion”, I was having a discussion with an acquaintance about the use of the word “fake” in this context, and what constitutes a “real” religion. I feel that the topic could be expanded upon, and so here is this blog post.

Most people would probably presume that a religion requires a god, or a defined pantheon of gods. Perhaps an afterlife too. There are usually prescribed and proscribed behaviours intended to please those gods and ensure a positive outcome after death.

However in recent decades this rather simplistic view of religion has been increasingly rejected by scholars. Look at Buddhism, for example; it is a religion, but the Buddha is not a god and Buddhists do not worship him. Buddhists do not strive to reach a heaven-equivalent, instead seeking something more internal and personal.

Hinduism is also less simple to define as a religion than many people realise. Hinduism is a convenient term used to describe a huge variety of different beliefs and practices; two Hindus from different areas will have vastly differing ideas of what Hinduism is. The word “Hindu” is actually just the Persian word for “Indian”, intended originally to describe a nationality rather than a religion. Hinduism lacks most features usual for religions: it has no single moral code, no specific scripture, it has no founder, it is not prophetic.

The spiritual lives and practices of peoples such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines were not recognised as valid religions when first observed by Europeans; such peoples were thought to be godless savages. However further study revealed that these “savages” had complex belief systems which played important roles in their lives. They are now recognised as religions just as valid as any other.

Satanism, as codified by Anton LaVey, involves the worship of no gods. Satanists are Atheists with rules. The rules lay out a moral code, requirements of behaviour, and reasons for them. The centralised structure, existence of officials, and single moral code make Satanism, in some ways, more closely resemble the mainstream religions such as Christianity than the others listed here.

It turns out that our understanding of religion, and what constitutes one, is much more complex than one might initially think. So I think a “real” religion is one which has real people who accept it and follow its tenets, whatever they may be; an additional favourable condition is legal status and state recognition of an organisation as a religion.

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