As we have seen, religion may bind people together because of the hopes
and/or fears it brings forth and it may bind people together because of the
appeal its symbolism holds. Yet, this is what it has in common with other
denominational ideology, if not
ideology in general.
Religion may furthermore incorporate a cosmology, but every
comprehensive ideology does, and also
philosophical weltanschauungs do.
A religious cosmology may indeed present 'the world to man as a theater in
which purposes are unfolded larger than his own' —masculine words
which were uttered elsewehere— but this obscure formulation somehow
hints at religion's normative nature or imperative function which, again,
is not typically religious either.
Even dogmatism is not typically religious, since political
disciplinary thought, for instance, may be equally
To say that political ideologies, unlike religions, are not comprehensive
will not do, for especially dogmatic political ideology tends to become
'complete' and 'integral' — as has been shown.
(It starts, then, to affect practically
all aspects of people's lives, such as the naming of children, their
initiation and marriage, introducing its own rites, public holidays and
idols to be worshiped.) Such political ideology has also been called
"religion" or "secular religion", but if so, it is not its dogmatism,
exclusivist content in itself
which justifies labeling it "a (secular) religion".
One part of the definitions of religion furnished in traditional
dictionaries and encyclopedias has always been belief in
a god (or God, whoever's given name that may be) or
something to the same effect like worship of or service and
worship of a god or attitude of awe towards a god (if not
God). Another part of the definitions usually relates to the belief
in, or service and worship of, or attitude of awe towards the
supernatural. Many people (supposedly monotheists) prefer to conceive
of religion in the first place as 'belief in God', thereby relegating
polytheism to 'belief in the supernatural'.
But neither the belief in one god nor the belief in two or more gods, or,
for that matter, demons, turns a comprehensive ideology into a religion,
because there are also religions (or pure variants thereof) which are not
theistic, nor demonistic.
Adherents of those religions do somehow have supernatural beliefs
So the characteristic feature of religion is not its theism or demonism
(if it does acknowledge one or more gods or demons), but its
supernaturalism. It does not follow that
religion is a synonym of supernaturalism, since
supernaturalist feelings, thoughts or actions need not be part of a
comprehensive ideology, that is, a denominational doctrine. Magic,
for instance, is the use of means believed to have supernatural power over
natural forces. But also if magic involved ideological principles,
they would even in combination have a
specialist character and not the
completeness a religion has or purports to have. This difference between
magic and religion is not that significant, however: both try to keep house
by sweeping make-believe rooms with make-believe brooms.
The question which obviously arises in this context is What belief is
supernaturalistic? To say that the supernatural relates to 'an order of
existence beyond the observable universe' may be correct but it will not do
as a definition, for there are enough things which cannot be observed and
which may be taken to exist nevertheless without falling into
supernaturalism. Everyone's ontology has to incorporate entities which are
not observable; if not attributes and relations, for instance, then at
least sets or functions.
What is typical of supernaturalism is that it demands the belief in (many)
more nonobservable entities or kinds of entity, or a (much)
more unusual nonobservable entity, than necessary for any adequate
ontology, and than needed to explain how the world actually was, is or will
be, can be or should be.
(The foremost problem with supernaturalist thought is that the existence of
the nonobservable entity postulated, or its powers, does not explain
On the contrary, it forestalls or delays every explanation.)
The next issues are, of course, What is an adequate ontology? and
What is explanation?
Problems relating to the former issue we have dealt with in
the first and
second chapters of this book, and the question of
explanation is very much related to questions of
relevancy, and of what should and should not be
held true or relevant.
These problems have been dealt with in the previous two chapters, and altho
the final answers have certainly not been provided there, it should have
become sufficiently clear what sorts of beliefs are definitely on this side
of the fuzzy border and what sorts of beliefs are definitely on the other
side of the fuzzy border between non-supernatural realism or agnosticism
Characteristic of religious ideology as a supernatural phenomenon
is the lack of intellectual humility, the arrogance to claim the absolute
truth of beliefs and the literal inerrancy of scriptures without proper
observation or valid argumentation. This does not apply to those systems
of disciplinary thought in which a supernaturalist belief is presented
as a form of symbolism.
In such systems it is done as if a particular entity (or its powers) or a
particular relationship between entities exists, while the truth of the
belief in such an existence is not claimed.
The belief is hypothetical, so to say. However, where religion or the
interpretation of a religion is not explicitly symbolical, its
supernaturalism is an institutional violation of the principle of truth.
It violates truth regardless of whether only a few or most of the members
of a community share the nonsymbolic supernaturalist belief. For
collectivity may make superstition into a religion, it does not make it
into a true belief.
The supernatural essence of religious thought need not lie in
the belief in nonobservable entities like gods and demons, or in
entities with supernatural powers; it may also lie in more
abstract contentions. The most notorious examples of such
contentions, besides those which concern the creation of the
whole world, come from religious eschatology and soteriology.
Eschatology is the supernaturalist belief in and about the
end (the last moment) of the present kind of world. It builds on a
thorough separation in human history between its imperfect present
and an everlasting final stage of completion (a 'kingdom-come'
In this final stage a
prophet is said to return, a last judgment is said to be passed
or a new age is said to commence. Admittedly, the notion of an
imperfect, or possibly imperfect, present is inherent in every
ideology as a normative doctrine. What is supernaturalistic
about eschatology is the absolute assertion that the 'perfect
times' not only should but will and must come, and this
preferably inflated with the most gaudy of expectations.
(Or should we say "hopes"?)
Soteriology does not just show the believer the way to
salvation, as every ideology takes pains to save people from
what it regards as evil; it guarantees a way to salvation,
a promise only a supernaturalist ideology is willing to make. In
combination with eschatology soteriology teaches how to become
part of the chosen, eternally happy ones who will survive the
horrors of history. Like dogmatism, eschatological and soteriological
beliefs are not typically religious either. (The end of
eschatology need therefore not coincide with the end of religion.)
Also a political specialist ideology may pass very
explicit eschatological and/or soteriological judgments. But
when such an ideology grows more and more into a 'total' system,
it takes the form of a religion precisely because of the
supernaturalist content of its eschatology or soteriology.
If a denominational doctrine is religious because of its supernaturalist
content and because of the literal interpretation of its scriptures
(or part thereof), it follows that a nonreligious denomination may have
either no supernaturalist content at all or have a consistently symbolic
interpretation of its supernaturalist content.
Hence, not only a religious ideology may be either theistic and/or
demonistic or not, this analysis demonstrates that also a nonreligious
ideology may be either theistic and/or demonistic or not.
Perhaps, this does not tally entirely with traditional usage according to
which also the liberal forms of denominationalism in which
(mono)theist, sacred scriptures are
interpreted in a symbolist fashion are considered manifestations of
Yet, the reason for using this terminology is that a symbolist
supernaturalist form of denominationalism does not violate the
principle of truth in the way nonsymbolist supernaturalism, or
'religion' in our sense, does. The fact that a book is religious
does not automatically make every reader of that book a religious believer,
that is, someone who takes it seriously and literally. However, someone who
does not take it seriously or literally lies if
'e does not make this clear. The result
(the violation of the principle of truth) is the same then.
Religion as supernaturalist denominational thought sacrifices truthfulness
or the courage to admit that one does not (yet) know. Now, there is a way
in which it may also sacrifice these values, but which is not directly and
necessarily related to its content. It concerns certain attempts to take
possession of persons and small children as purported believers.
This is the case, for example, when religionists profess that people could
and would have a faith by birth.
They are, then, not interested in what human
beings actually believe to be true and relevant but in what they say or
acquiesce in and, worst of all, in what their parents say or acquiesce in,
or used to say or acquiesce in. Taking birth (or in a wider sense,
ethnicity, nationality or race) as the criterion of religious belief, these
religionists treat people or people-to-be as mere bodies which ought to
assume a certain role and utter certain statements because of their
biological relationship with other bodies.
For them it does not count what is really in people's minds.
Such a materialist conception of a 'faith by birth' is
the institutionalization of a collective lie which must have been prompted
by the desire to save mortal religions from dying out. How unfortunate are
those who had, or still have, such a faith forced upon them by birth.