One of the arguments I make in my book Rethinking Religion is that religion is not about adopting supernatural belief systems. Instead, religion is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.
I realize western monotheists may struggle with that definition, but I think if you look beyond the specifics of doctrine and understand religion’s effects, I say that’s what it is. Those effects are achieved in many different ways, and in many religions belief in an actual God is essential to those ways. But in many other religions gods often are more like learning aids; just believing in them or praying to them isn’t the point.
In trying to come up with a definition of religion that is inclusive of the whole world’s religious traditions and not just the Big Three of monotheism, the great underlying commonality I could see was was this: Religions are about engaging in many kinds of practices that help us experience and connect to something beyond the confines of the limited self. That something may be God, but not necessarily.
It’s important to understand that this connection is not primarily intellectual or conceptual, and again, I think this is common to all religious traditions, and it also sets religion apart from philosophy, as westerners usually use the word. Both religion and philosophy address questions of how we humans relate to life and death, time and being, but they address these questions in entirely different ways. Philosophy gives us conceptual and theoretical answers that engage the intellect. Religion primarily engages what Buddhists call citta — the mind of subjective experience, sometimes described as an awareness that is more emotive than intellectual, or something like what westerners call “heart.”
And, personally, I think the reason large parts of the Abrahamic religions are going through an identity crisis now is that they have no concept of citta. The parts of monotheism that are not fundamentalist seem especially unsure about what it is they actually are doing, or why. They may still believe in God and have high regard for the Bible, but then what? If religion is not just about believing things, then what is it?
Many practices can engage citta, from praying to meditating to yoga and martial arts. But right now I just want to say something about ritual.
In many religious traditions there was a time that laypeople weren’t expected to know much about doctrine. Instead, religion was all about ritual. Through ritual, people reenacted and actualized the myths and symbols of their traditions and thereby came to “know” them on an intuitive level. This in turn made the myths and symbols feel relevant and the mysteries they represented seem immanent. They may not have been able to explain original sin in any coherent way, but religion still had an impact on their experiences and perceptions.
Possibly because it has no concept of citta, much of Christianity has downplayed ritual in modern times. If one does not believe literally in evoking spirits or whatever the ritual claims to be doing, then what is the point? Rituals are not rational. They seem to be about performing some kind of magic — we light a candle and say the magic words and everything will be better. People today often are uncomfortable with ritual.
But I found a great quote by Carl Jung —
Offerings are made to the invisible powers, formidable blessings are pronounced, and all kinds of solemn rites are performed. Everywhere and at all times there have been rites d’entrée et de sortie whose magical efficacy is denied and which are impugned as magic and superstition by rationalists incapable of psychological insight. But magic has above all a psychological effect whose importance should not be underestimated. [Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957]
Put another way: The myths and rituals of religion are meant to transform citta. They are not (necessarily) meant to evoke magic powers. They are not intended to supplant reason and intellect. Mindfully done, however, a ritual can affect citta and thereby have a real impact on how a person experiences himself and everything else. And that’s no small thing.