"A place to focus on a specific concept, tradition, practice, or person."
Before we can begin any study of religion, we have to develop some understanding of "religion" itself. Open any dictionary and you'll find a variety of definitions. Ask any theologian or religious adherent, they'll be sure to have their own take on the subject. Wait, you're saying, what's so hard about defining the word "religion"?
Not everyone, not every culture, shares the same understanding of what constitutes a "religion." Some religions have only one God while others have many; other religions don't have any personal gods. Some religions require adherents to pray; still others might ask, Pray to what? The first step in studying the world's religions is to begin with some idea of what we're actually studying. In this sense it's imperative to establish a "working definition" that is both broad enough as well as specific enough to differentiate it from other arenas of study.
The "working definition" we use is supplied by scholar William A. Young in his book, The World's Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues. Young insightfully defines religion as "Human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy" (pg3). In short, Young says religion is the process of transforming in the face of whatever a person deems to be ultimate. Let's try this on: A person perceives the Christian God to be the ultimate - nothing is greater, nothing eclipses it, it is at the center of that person's life with compelling force. This force is so strong that the person transforms in response to its call, it push, its pull. They shape their life and transform themselves in accordance with that perceived ultimacy. OK, that fits.
But . . . what if we took "God" out of it? This works, too: a Buddhist would still transform in response to Dharma, a Taoist would still transform in response to the Tao, etc. But, in using this working definition, mightn't we also be able to expand it out to secular worldviews? Absolutely, says Young! An ideology such as Marxism - with its focus on transformation of an alienated society into a utopian community in response to Marxian "laws" - would be an excellent example. But we could go further: a person might, for instance, perceive capitalism as ultimacy. They might place the pursuit of wealth and commerce at the center of their life - not family, or friends, or a deity, but rather something like the almighty dollar - allowing it to drive their every move, and in response, transforming from what they believe to be a lesser state to what they believe to be a better state. Know anyone like this? We can recognize Young's definition even in someone who lives their life transforming in response to the ideal of "being a good person." And the list goes on.
But, wait a minute - doesn't that mean that we can trace the religious impulse to the root of much of human activity?? Yes, true, too! Reportedly even top Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson (in his book On Human Nature) has referred to the predisposition towards religious belief as the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature (summary by Michael McGoodwin). As might Young, Wilson folds scientific materialism into the broad category of "religion," because its adherents consider the material basis of the universe to be ultimate, placing that meta-story at the center of their understanding and actions, and seeking its depths through the practice of scientific analysis (ibid).
But, let's retrace our steps to the value of a scholarly working definition of religion as "human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy": it is not devised as a way to justify the world as "religious," but rather to provide us with a common denominator when attempting to understand the varieties of religious and secular worldviews driving humankind. As Young reminds us, "There is no one right working definition of religion" (pg3). Rather, in agreeing on a starting point we can then examine the foci of our study through a common scholarly lens. Utilizing Young's definition, however, has proved to be an invaluable aspect in not only the study of the world's religions and worldviews, but also a powerful tool for opening our minds to the full potential of the religious impulse within humankind.
With Credit To (and highly recommended):
The World's Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues (3rd Edition) Young, William A. Prentice Hall 2009; paperback ISBN-10: 0205675115