I am currently working on my thesis that the popular understanding of religion needs to be expanded because the current definition is too narrow to be able to include what we have learned about ourselves and our cosmos. The current understanding of religion being only about behavior and concepts dealing with the supernatural prohibits more sophisticated understanding of the subject. I am publishing my working draft here as a sketch of a work in progress, in the hope that it may be of interest to others and provide for a better understanding of what I am about theologically. It also serves to document the originality of my work.
While there is very little scholarly agreement on a definition of religion, for the purpose of discussion and mutual understanding, I define it as a universal human social behavior, through which people gather and work together to sacralize the values and symbols they hold in common. Religion is the principal means by which human communities and cultures make sense of their lives and through which they inculcate, build and share meaning.
Religion is a socially shared spirituality. I define spirituality as an individual's socially constructed cognitive and emotional response to the existential question, "Why do I exist?" This question is a phenomenon of being self-conscious. We all respond to the question in our own unique way as informed by genetics, familial and cultural environment, personal experience, education, and a multitude of other factors. In essence, our spirituality is a description of how each of us makes sense of the ongoing experience of being alive in the world as we perceive it.
Religious activity began at the very start of the emergence of our self-consciousness, in close association with the development of language and human culture. As it still does, religion reflected the way we humans sought to understand the world around us and our relationship to it. In the beginning, our understanding was very limited. We had only simple language, no writing to record what we learned, and little in the way of collective information to help us understand our experience. Our reactions to what we experienced were more emotional than cognitive. At that point, it was natural for us to perceive almost everything that happened as magical because the nature of almost everything was unknown to us and we had only a nascent understanding of causality.
A primary characteristic of religion is its ability to provide human life with some form of benefit. This is particularly clear in the case of our early human ancestors who found themselves living in an unpredictable and often dangerous environment. They sought control over the mysterious forces to which they were subject everywhere and at all times of their lives. Perhaps instinctively, they recognized the importance of maintaining close social bonds with their immediate and extended family because it was much easier to deal with life as a group than to try and do it on one's own.
It is understandable that when these early people tried to comprehend what was going on around them they attributed the cause for their experience to powerful magical others like themselves that they could not see. They sought communication with these others in the hope of influencing them and mitigating their actions. These attempts to communicate through sounds and gestures became ritual. The use of ritual produced a sense of the sacred. Some members of the clan became recognized for their skill in dealing with these powerful others and they too gained a sacred aura. Each clan developed their own religious beliefs, the rituals that expressed them, and the shamans who interpreted them through ritual, visions and the telling of sacred stories.
For our earliest ancestors, the world of things seen and things unseen was one world. The visible and the invisible were intertwined with, and inseparable from each other. The dual worlds of the physical and the spiritual, of the natural and the supernatural, did not yet exist in the human mind.
A marvelous and powerful synthesis began to develop and evolve. Religious behavior provided these early people with meaning. Meaning created a welcome environment for the development of language. The development of language encouraged cultural growth. Cultural growth led to the uniting of clans and the integrating of religion, the deepening of meaning and more advanced use of language and the sharing of ideas.
In evolutionary terms, cultures suddenly and rapidly produced civilizations that in turn produced ever more sophisticated religions, technology, wealth, intellectual accomplishments, arts, etc. While there were great differences between cultures in terms of language, religion, art and other expressions, they were subject to the same evolutionary process and held supernatural cosmologies based upon their religions.
This basic structure held solid until the 6th Century BCE when thinkers in Greece caused a tiny crack to appear in the foundation of reality. Represented by Thales of Miletus, these thinkers questioned the accepted fact that all truth is revealed to us from the divine gods. They dared to use the human power of investigative rationality to test the truths of and about the gods. This little crack grew slowly and steadily as rational thinking and methods evolved in various cultures.
About 1000 CE, the great Islamic thinker Ibn Al-Haytham developed what is possibly the earliest form of the modern scientific method. Some 500 years later, during the period we call the Enlightenment, the irrationality and lack of empirical evidence for supernatural cosmology became too clear for many scholars to ignore, and they began to assemble a new and increasingly rational understanding of the cosmos.
Over the centuries these two methods of understanding have separated into incompatible and separate cosmologies, although it is still common for people to unconsciously and irrationally mingle them. Historically, to be religious is to be one who has bound h/herself to a belief through vows of commitment. A belief can be supernatural for some people and completely natural for others. Today, the idea of truth sourced in powers and stories from beyond nature is dissonant with the scientific cosmological understandings that human reasoning and scientific investigation have discovered. Although many people still find much comfort in believing in supernatural powers and the ancient stories and traditions, those who embrace the cosmology of modern science find it increasingly difficult to make sense and meaning from them.
We theologians have a large body of knowledge and experience concerning meaning. Theology deals with how human beings inculcate, share and maintain the meaning of human life, community and culture that is essential for our survival. Unfortunately, because we have been reluctant to deal with the difference between meaning itself and the symbols and myths that contain and convey it, we have remained theologically trapped in the prescientific cosmology of the supernatural. The result is that we theologians are finding ourselves excluded from much of the scholarly, intellectual and scientific discourse that is rationally working to understand who and what we are, and the nature of the cosmos in which we find ourselves.
It is my thesis that theology has a valid and vital contribution to make to the on-going search for the truth about ourselves, our understanding of our cosmos, and the meaning we draw from them. But to be a part of that conversation, I contend we theologians need to extend the definition of religion so as to be understood as a culturally universal behavior that is not confined to the realm of supernatural beliefs. We need to understand religion as being about meaning rather than gods. Meaning can be supernatural for some people and completely natural for others. Theologians must acknowledge that theos is a human ideation produced by our vital search for essential and transcendent meaning, and subject to critical thought and evaluation. We must rise to a perspective transcendent to the gods we have chosen and served. We must free ourselves from irrational supernatural thinking and reconceptualize ourselves as grounded in the nature of evolving contemporary cosmology. We must take on the daunting task of re-mythologizing our knowledge and get to work developing rich new symbols, narratives and liturgies in order to be able to facilitate making durable meaning in systematic harmony with the contemporary scientific worldview. I call this enlarged and more systematic activity of meaning-making, "nous-religion".