Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many to be the premier philosopher of the 20th century, believed that the proper task of philosophy was to make the nature of our thought and talk clear. Wittgenstein believed that the problems of philosophy were illusory and arose as a misunderstanding about language. While I think he greatly overstates the case, I agree that many problems not only in philosophy but in other areas result from the imprecise use of language.
I must confess that my own muddled use of language often contributes to this problem. When communicating with those who do not share my basic presuppositions, I often forget that we may not be using language in quite the same way. In order to help make the nature of our thought and talk clear, I want to examine a question that is essential to the analysis and comparison of worldviews: What is a religious belief?
In order to define the term in such a way that it is neither too broad nor too narrow, we must list all of the features that are true of all religious beliefs and true only of religious beliefs.* While this may appear to be an obvious point, we are often surprised to find what has been pruned when a definition is stripped to its essential components. Imagine, for instance, trying to define the concept of tree in a way that is limited to what is true for all trees but only true of trees. Paring the explanation down in such a manner would not only be difficult but leave us with a curious, and likely unsatisfying, definition.
What is true of trees will be equally so for religious beliefs. After we cut away the foliage and underbrush that are features of specific religious beliefs we are likely to be unimpressed by the bare, slender reed that remains. We should also expect to find that a minimally precise definition will have exposed the fact that some beliefs that we might have considered to be religious really are not, while finding that others are actually more religious than we might have imagined. Nevertheless, while we might be surprised, unsatisfied, or unimpressed, the important point is that we have defined the term correctly.
Let us begin by examining to features that are commonly (though mistakenly) believed to be essential to religious beliefs:
Religious beliefs require a belief in God or gods — One of the most common misconceptions about religious belief is that it requires a belief in God or a supreme being. But such a feature would be too narrow because it would exclude polytheistic religions that do not recognize a supreme being. In fact, we cannot include the concept of god or gods at all since some religions (e.g., Brahmin Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism) are literally atheistic.
Religious beliefs are beliefs that induce worship or worship-related activities — This feature is also defeated by the counterexamples of Brahmin Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, neither of which practices worship. The same is true for the religious beliefs of some ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and later the Epicureans who thought the gods neither knew about nor cared about humans. They certainly felt no obligation to worship such apathetic beings.
Having excluded gods and worship from our definition, we are left with very few features that all religious beliefs could possibly share in common. As Roy Clouser asks, ‘