What makes a religion?

Opinion by Gülin Ustabas
Nov. 28, 2017, 3:00 a.m.

In the past few weeks, there have been many discussions on campus surrounding free speech, student funding and hate towards certain religious beliefs, catalyzed by a controversial speaker event. Reading many opposing views, Internet trolls and explanations that did not change anyone’s opinion or behavior reminded me of a trend surrounding controversial topics in discussions: We delve right into the middle of a heated debate before any of us defines what we are talking about. Yes, everyone has an idea of what religion is supposed to be. The bad news is, everyone has a different picture in mind, and as we proceed with different starting points in mind, we miss the chance to truly reach a shared conclusion.

What is religion? Before we start talking about individual religions, we shall first consider what religion consists of. Although a definition may seem unnecessary, the current connotation of the word “religion” causes our society to taboo the subject and to treat it differently from any other ideology. Out of “ideas,” “spirituality,” “philosophy” and “belief,” how does this narrow idea of “religion” emerge? Humanity lacks a solid line – and frankly a reason to draw one – between religion and other ideology.

Many think of religion as the several “big religions” present in the world, and draw the line there. However, that line is manmade, a social construct, derived from very intimate feelings of spirituality into communal norms of religion. Everyone’s relationship with the kind of divine power they believe in is their own and should not be something that belongs to a community by default. This social definition can result in pressure like accusations, harassment and even violence from a country’s majority religion because of someone’s personal preferences (which can be as simple as their clothes) that the governing religion might deem “unacceptable.” Instead, consider the conglomeration of culture, scripture and institutions and people that we call religion.

First, religion is mostly muddled with culture. In many countries, people adopt their ancestors’ religion because that is how they grow up, how they’re guided through the world and how they relate to other people. It is their cultural heritage and daily practice, but not all of them truly believe or actively decide to follow that particular religion; it is more of a continuation, seen as heritage. Their religion is a core part of their culture.

Others prioritize religion’s scripture. Logically, having written instructions and guidance can serve as a legitimate distinction of religion from other spiritual beliefs. Some scripture, as in Islam, is accepted as the direct word of God, which gives it even more power. Many people, including last week’s speaker, criticize Islam based on scripture and direct passages from the Quran. A religion’s sacred texts can outline it in some cases, but to what extent is scripture the full manifestation of a religion? For some Christians, certain messages in the scripture matter more than others, and “religion” to them is wholehearted but exclusive belief in those messages. Likewise, in Muslim communities, many view Islam not as something dictated by a book, but as core values to which they feel connected. Some choose to incorporate values into their lives but not practices, while others practice strictly through daily prayer and fasting.

We can therefore conclude that although a supposed “outline” exists, people themselves define religion by choosing from sacred books and culture. The parts that they do not agree with become exceptions to the religion and its practices, apart from a scripture that some believers follow as a whole. These exceptions may exist because they seem controversial to some communities within the society, or perhaps because they include violence or practices like child marriage considered immoral. Believers who do consider exceptions may come up with explanations for these controversial passages, claiming they are “not essential to the religion.” But this way of isolating some parts of a religion and accepting others opens up the question of whether we should truly have a scale of belief within a religion, and the questions of “believing too much” or “believing too little.”

Another heavily criticized aspect of religions is their institutions and leaders: fathers, imams, prophets. These figures, because they provide a concrete and tangible target to criticize and discredit, are often the center of attention. Some figures, such Jesus and Mohammad, are looked at as the embodiment of what their religions teach to their believers. Their lives are examined meticulously, any of their flaws attributable to their religions’ “false” teachings.

Apart from these core elements, another factor influences these debates: Many of us recklessly deem ourselves knowledgeable enough to talk about other religions. Reckless in the sense of ignorance rather than disrespect, since when it comes to religion, it is suddenly more threatening and unacceptable to appear intolerant than it is to appear ignorant. Whichever side we’re on in these arguments – as nowadays there are always two sides in virtually every topic, having a non-binary opinion or not wanting to identify with any faction seems impossible  to some of us – we comment on whether a religion is peaceful or not, helpful or not, dangerous or not, without experiencing it ourselves through living in a society with that religion, spending our lives immersed in the lifestyle of the people of that faith and being influenced by it.

Coming from a country whose most prevalent religion has long been Islam and that has become more Islamized in recent years – a very rough and substantial change – I was, and still am, shocked to see people so fiercely and faithfully defending opinions they have copied from others. Some things cannot be learned from a Wikipedia page; we should not pick up arguments when we are talking in the abstract – in a way that is far from what we ourselves have experienced – about another person’s reality.

No fruitful debate can happen until we establish religion as a specific concept. We need to decide whether we genuinely believe faith is a social construct or a personal practice within the boundaries of human rights. As of now, everyone either defends or attacks religion through how they see it, on whether they see it as heavily scriptural or purely cultural. Who counts as a “real” believer? Who practices religion correctly? If religion cannot be known, how can masses of people be expected to follow it? What happens when the holy book itself dictates that a believer has to believe and practice everything in the book to be a true believer, like in the case of Islam?

In such circumstances, when we – rightfully – remember that everyone can believe anything they want, we will see that spiritual freedom resides within human rights. However, we will also conclude that if beliefs within any ideology – including religion – are inherently violent, immoral or in any other way against human rights, such beliefs cannot be exempted from criticism under the umbrella of spirituality or religion. Religion is an arbitrarily evolved social construct. It is left to us to decide whether it should remain that way. Until we genuinely focus on its innate distinctions from other ideologies, it is pointless to discuss it.

It may currently seem impossible to define religion, given the big complex concept that it is, but that is exactly why we need to define it: When we do not have boundaries for how we define religion, it becomes impossible to discuss it critically and reach conclusions about how we treat it. For the sake of discussion, we need to have a clear idea of what exactly this widespread concept is. As soon as we actually have firsthand experience with religion more than merely reading online articles about it, we should be able to discuss it like any philosophy and treat it critically. Because criticizing ideas does not equal criticizing the humanity of other people.


Contact Gülin Ustabas at gulinu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Gülin Ustabas is a freshman from Istanbul, Turkey, studying Philosophy. Here on campus, Gülin works as an Associate Editor for SURJ and as a SARA Ambassador, and is a member of SWIP and SIG. When she is not writing for excessive amounts of time, she enjoys learning new languages, traveling, drawing and listening to any kind of music. She is passionate about political philosophy and human rights.

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