In this article I will not argue for or against religion or argue about specific features of different religions. Instead, my aim is to show how the key features of all religions can be derived from a single central definition, with differences between religions arising from certain decision points that arise as one works out the logical consequences of that definition. In this way, we form a kind of map of religious thinking, an analysis of the logical structure of religion in general.
The definition I will start from is this: a religion is a worldview that locates the ultimate solutions to the problems of human life outside the physical world. A religious person is one who believes that one cannot give any real solution to the problems of human life within the sphere of physical alone. Other views, like humanism, seek solutions in the physical world. Yet others, like existentialism or nihilism, deny that these problems have any final solutions at all. But religion is defined by faith in a solution that lies beyond the world we see and touch.
In what follows I work out the consequences of this definition, simultaneously demonstrating its fruitfulness and exploring the structure of religious thought as it must develop from this starting point. I don’t mean this is an articulation of how religions or religious thinkers actually think, but rather of the underlying logic behind their belief systems.
To start with, since the religious view begins with the idea of solving a problem, it needs to posit a problem. This problem cannot be a merely physical one, since that kind of problem would be solved by physical means. So one finds in every religion the idea that humanity is in a kind of spiritually fallen state. In Christianity, the fall occurs with Eve in Eden. In Buddhism, humanity finds itself caught up in selfish desire. The goal of the religion is to return to how things were before this fall, however that is construed.
But since we can’t reattain that state simply by moving the physical parts of the world into new arrangements, we will need a system of belief that allows human beings to influence the non-physical. This means positing some kind of non-physical power behind the natural world. At this point we hit a key decision point where religions distinguish themselves from one another.
There are three key options with regard to how we think of this spiritual power. It could be (a) purely impersonal, a set of laws that govern the non-physical world. An example of this would be the laws of karma, which are not modified by petitions or prayers, but simply govern one’s life and reincarnation just as the laws of physics govern the motion of objects. A second option, familiar from Abrahamic religions, is (b): making the power behind the physical into a single personal diety. In these religions this entity has ultimate power over one’s attainment of original perfection (this is sometimes called ‘grace’). One can, of course, work hard to earn that being’s favor through good acts or prayer, but ultimately the decision is theirs. Last, there is a third option, which is less popular today. This is (c): that in the place of single personified (and usually absolute) power, there are instead a number of lesser powers. This is the perspective of polytheism, where one’s problems are solved by spiritual entities, but none of these is the sole arbiter of one’s spiritual success.
Now, once the issue of the laws behind the physical is decided, the religion is ready to lay out the path to salvation. If one takes the forces of the spiritual to be impersonal, this path cannot require supplication of another being. Instead, it will be a matter of personal practice, as in many versions of Buddhism. In other cases, it will involve gaining the favor of the deity, where this could take any number of forms. Since the deity is personified, one typically conceives of pleasing them in the same way one would please another person – by obedience or gifts.
How will we know that this is the true path? Again, the issue is decided by one’s understanding of the spiritual forces governing the natural world. If one takes these forces to be impersonal, then the discovery of a path to salvation must be essentially a scientific, observational enterprise. Thus Buddhism emphasizes personal experience and self-observation in its teachings. Hinduism may seem an exception to this rule, as it has the impersonal laws of karma, but often these laws are revealed by gods. These gods are not themselves above the law, however, and the laws are in principle open to being tested. There is not the emphasis on blind faith that one finds in the religions with more personal deities.
Indeed, if one personifies the powers behind the world, then the path to salvation must be revealed directly by this omnipotence. This can happen in monotheistic religions through such things as prophecy or divinely inspired texts. In polytheistic religions the gods demonstrate their wishes through their actions, which are witnessed by humans and passed on to others as lessons. In these religions, while one can use observation to understand salvation, this observation is observation of another person, and is framed much more in terms of pleasing others and obedience, rather than in terms of natural law.
Any number of other features of religion could also be drawn out of this central definition. For example, the rules governing salvation need not be merely related to the physical, since, after all, salvation is itself a non-physical matter. Thus the common emphasis on thought, belief, and intention in religion, as opposed to actual works. Buddhism can be understood as making control of one’s thought the central key to ending all suffering, and Jesus is famous for saying that one need only repent on one’s deathbed to attain salvation. The political actions of religions can also be understood as springing from this central definition. Religions rarely promote physical sciences, since they do not see them as providing any real solutions to human problems. They often aim to spread aggressively – if you knew the path to salvation, wouldn’t you want to tell others? Telling them might even be part of that path.
Of course, religions are wonderfully varied and multi-faceted, and it’s likely I’ve failed to do justice to one or another. Nonetheless, it can be worthwhile to think through the structural similarities in their different belief systems. In so doing, we can lay bare the core tenant that defines religious thought – the belief that the ultimate solution to the problems of the human condition exist outside the physical world.