What is Religious Belief?
by Roy Clouser
We need a clear understanding of the question, what is a religious belief?
My answer will be short but tightly packed, so be prepared to read it twice.
The answer to this question is what is lacking in 99.9% of discussions of religion. And the failure to answer it is what plunges all discussions into vagueness and confusion before they even get off the ground.
Religious belief has a primary meaning and two secondary meanings. The primary sense is the one that picks out the only characteristic that is central to all known religions:
they all center upon belief in something as divine, where the divine
is taken to be the self-existent reality that produces everything that
is not divine.
Another way to put the same point is to say that the divine is the ultimate reality; it’s whatever doesn’t depend on anything at all, while everything that is not divine depends on the divine reality – no matter how that reality is further described.
I added “no matter how it is further described” because people disagree sharply concerning who or what the divine reality is. For example, the divine is believed to be God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But it is believed to be Brahman-Atman in Hinduism, while in Buddhism it is the Dharmakaya, Suchness, or Nirvana (and other terms). And these are not the only ideas of divinity. There are traditions in which it is (or was) said to be: T’ai Chi, Manna, Numen, Wakan, Gaia, or Okeanos, or a host of other conceptions. Be assured: these are not all different names for the same reality. Rather they are very different ideas as to the sort of reality that is ultimate – is the reality on which the existence of all else depends.
Put more formally, our definition is
A belief is a religious belief if (and only if):
- It is a belief in something as the self-existent (divine) reality on which all that is not self-existent depends, or
(The two secondary senses are satellites around that core meaning)
- A belief is also religious belief if it is about how the non-divine depends on the divine, or if it is
- A belief about how humans can stand in proper relation to the divine.
It’s number 3. that we usually think of when speaking about religion; that is, we think of the creeds, the worship, the holy days and prayers, etc., that accompany many (but not all) divinity beliefs.
The names of the competing ideas of the divine reality mentioned above are but a few of the candidates for divinity that have been put forward by religious traditions. But right away we need to notice that not all divinity beliefs are embedded in religious traditions. The fact is, a great many theories also regard a specific sort of reality as the self-existent reality all else depends on. This can be seen from the way they propose that say, matter/energy, or mathematical principles, or logical laws and classes, have utterly independent existence.
Here’s another example. One very prominent theory in astrophysics of the past century proposed that space is self-existent, infinite, eternal, and spontaneously generates matter (protons). After that, it explained everything as a materialist would, except that it denied that the “purely physical” is what causes everything else. That status was reserved by this theory for the purely spatial.
These are every bit as much divinity beliefs as is belief in God, or Brahman-Atman, or the Tao. If you feel like objecting that religious traditions include worship, rites, and other ritual trappings while theories don’t, you’re right. But that won’t make such divinity beliefs non-religious because the trappings of worship are not essential to religion: there are religious traditions that lack all such accompaniments: Brahman Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, for example. So the fact that no worship or other ceremonial trappings accompany the divinity beliefs that arise in theories, will not make those beliefs non-religious.
Nor can this point be escaped by claiming that when divinity beliefs occur in theories they are parts of a rational explanation, while in religions they are matters of blind faith. As they occur in religions, divinity beliefs are also parts of a rational explanation (called theology), and as they occur in theories they also have no proof (see our first Blog).
The truth is, that it doesn’t matter where or in what form a divinity belief arises. It could occur in a poem, a scientific theory, a novel, a myth, or a contract. Its location doesn’t matter to its religious significance. For no matter what is considered divine, or the context in which such a belief arises, it always carries important implications for how human nature is to be conceived and thus sets limits to the ways society, ethics, and human destiny are to be conceived as well.
In short, what a person believes to be the divine reality is the belief that carries the most implications for all the rest of his or her life, no matter how or in what context such a belief is expressed.
Read Belief in God Though Religious Experience to go deeper in understanding the self-evidence of God.
Christian Leadership Institute