Often people take it for granted that we should allow people to believe whatever they believe and not critisise that they choose to be religious.

What I am wondering is what makes a belief acceptable as a religion? A person not brought up in the modern world might see Santa Claus (here meaning the idea of a fat bearded man bringing every child in the world presents on the same day) and things like Adam living 900 years as equally ridiculous (or any other story integral to some religion). It would however never be acceptable to talk about Jesus in the same way as Santa Claus.

So I am asking what separates a belief from a religion and allows it to be seen as true for some people. I'm hoping for a little more than "A lot of adults believe it so it's OK". Perhaps I can start you off with some thoughts I have had:

  • Why are some ancient religions that explain the origin of the earth (Viking, Roman for example) not acceptable as religions anymore?
  • Could I come up with my own creation story (and make sure that it adheres completely to modern science), and have it accepted as a religion? I would like to emphasise that it is possible to make my own religion which agrees much more closely with scientific observations than (any) other religion.

Note: I hope this is the right place to ask this question, please refer me to another SE if it is not.

EDIT: I want to point out that I can see the difference between a belief and a religion, but I cannot see a why other than many people think so.

EDIT: I know I said I would like to hear more than "A lot of adults believe it so it's OK", this does not mean I do not think it is a valid answer

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    Possible duplicate of Is there a demarcation problem for religions? Nov 17 '15 at 8:09
  • Welcome to philosophy SE. This question has already been asked, you might want to check the answers to that one. Nov 17 '15 at 8:09
  • @AlexanderSKing I think my question is slightly more specific in asking what separates a belief from a religion (as opposed to a cult or ideology), and additionally that question does not have an accepted answer and I think the way I asked mine will make it more possible to be answered.
    – fishlein
    Nov 17 '15 at 8:16
  • I agree, the question should stay open. Nov 17 '15 at 8:44
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    "this does not mean I do not think it is a valid answer" -> I admit that's what I was hoping to hear ;) Nov 17 '15 at 14:39

I'm looking for a little more than "A lot of adults believe it so it's OK".

In other words, you are not willing to accept the premise that it is nothing but because "a lot of adults believe it so". But what if that is the correct answer, and anything else would just be a contrivance? My conclusion is in fact a little more nuanced but this is a good starting point.

I notice currently in the wikipedia article on religion, the first sentence is annotated and I'll reproduce it here:

While religion is difficult to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who simply called it a "cultural system" (Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System, 1973).

(Emphasis mine.) I've never read Geertz, and I presume that if you actually take religious studies at a university "What is religion?" may be a controversy worthy of entire courses, graduate theses, etc. However, I'm also going to presume that this definition, a "cultural system" is good enough, noting this does not mean that all cultural systems are religions.

One perspective on what a "cultural system" might be is indeed something "a lot of adults believe so it's OK". That is at least a necessary property of one. It might seem cynical to then say it is a sufficient property, but there might be a worse kind of cynicism involved in extending it further (the kind that regards culture as a means to an end).

When we talk about the value of tradition it is exactly this kind of thing we are talking about (something "a lot of adults believe so it is OK") with the qualification that "the adults" here are people we know and trust, such as our parents, their parents, etc. I.e., we are putting our faith in something, perhaps in cases where we are uncertain of our own capacity to reason (or because it is reasonable enough to trust the trustworthy sometimes).

It is important to observe that for religious people, the significance of their religion does not seem to come from it being validated categorically as a culture. It comes from it being the truth. For example, what validates Christianity for a Christian is not, I think, that it satisfies a definition of religion, or that it is a coherent "cultural system", but because it is the word of God.

However, to the extent that religious people have tolerance and respect for the religion of other people it is very much about their evaluation of those religions as cultural systems.

Scientology and the controversies that surround it in the United States may be an interesting case in point. Is Scientology a religion? Why or why not? I would say religious people who want to deny Scientology such status do so because they either

  1. Are the "worse kind of cynics" I mentioned earlier, wherein culture is ultimately a means to an end (of their own particular religious vision); they probably show a varying level of intolerance toward other religions as well.

  2. Do not want their own religiosity associated with or compared to Scientology. These people are sort of #1 in disguise (and will tend to invoke a similar-but-softer cynical/political form of reasoning).

But what makes a religion genuine or acceptable from a secular perspective?

Simply that some group of adults profess to regard it as their own, as such (i.e., they explicitly say, "This is our religion"). As a philosopher, I'd go one step further and say it must also involve metaphysics ("What is metaphysics?" being another question).1 That's two straightforward defining characteristics. So this would be a very open definition of religion, pretty close to the one answer you've perhaps said is not good enough.

"Group" there is part of the definition. The esoteric beliefs of an individual, metaphysical or otherwise, cannot constitute a religion until they convince others to hold them -- which is how a lot of religions explicitly got their start.

Of course, it may often be important for pragmatic purposes, under the law, to define religion in a more strict way. For example, simply on the basis of the size of the group, or, as I think is often the case, on the basis of a decision made by a government appointed board that presumably includes experts in the field of religious studies and prominent members of prominent religions (Bishops, Rabbis, etc).

However, those pragmatic purposes are not philosophical. They are to account for people who may abuse an existing legal situation, e.g., to form a religion for tax purposes, to get more days off from work, etc.

There's also pragmatic considerations such as, "Does the religion preach violence toward others?". But I don't think this is what you meant by (un)acceptable in your question, i.e., you could have something which is acceptable by a given definition of religion that is still not an acceptable institution socially. I do not think we can define religion politely and say, e.g., that the Spanish Inquisition doesn't count as part of the history of the Catholic Church because "those people weren't really religious". See #2 WRT Scientology.

1. Ruling out essentially figurative uses such as, "Guns and tequila are my religion!", although someone might come up with a coherent metaphysical order to justify that (in which case all they'd need would be adherents and presto, religion). There might also be people who'd claim there are some non-metaphysical Eastern religions but I'll hedge that as very dubious.

  • Completely agree on your last point, it is a too convenient excuse. Unfortunately nowadays many people do not want to come to grips with some of the negative aspects of their doctrine
    – fishlein
    Nov 17 '15 at 14:43
  • There is a savage irony in that the accepted answer for the question of what makes a religion genuine comes from someone whose handle is "selfIdentifiedAsEvil."
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 20 '15 at 15:42
  • @CortAmmon It's actually a nutshell philosophy I'm proud of. Q: Where does evil come from? A: People. The impetus for this was the liar paradox, although the implicit connection may be circuitous. I don't think religion invented evil, but is certainly a topic on which it tends to fixate. Nov 20 '15 at 15:55
  • Interesting you should mention Scientology, as the Church of Scientology has published an entire website about freedom of religion, including a booklet (and online PDF) intended to "inform the public regarding the detailed and complex nature of the right to freedom of religion for believers and religious organizations of every faith."
    – Wildcard
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:09
  • Vow Top-class answer. Particularly the Geertz definition of religion. Jul 20 '19 at 14:35

Let me propose as a working definition of religion, that it is a set of rituals, practices and beliefs organized around a "legitimate" attempt to understand the assumed deeper metaphysical realities of the world. NOTE: This definition does not require you to accept that there ARE deeper metaphysical realities, only that there exist legitimate attempts to understand them.

So what would constitute "legitimate" under this understanding? "Santa Claus" would not count, because he is understood to be a fairy tale told to children. He is not generally understood by any adult to be representing any deeper reality. The Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn't count, it is a parody of religion with the distinctive trait that it is not believed by any of its adherents. Norse religion is not currently accepted as a legitimate belief system by any significant number of adherents, so while it might have been a legitimate religion at one time, it cannot be considered one now. Scientology is an edge case, because it is widely believed to have been deliberately invented, without any true belief by its founder, yet is arguably legitimately believed by its adherents.

In contrast to the above, religions like Christianity, Islam, Taoism and Hinduism may hold incompatible beliefs, but they can all be considered "legitimate" attempts to understand God and the universe, whether or not you endorse one and reject the others, or even whether you personally believe God exists.

  • So in the end, the 'legimacy' boils down to many people agreeing with you, if I understand you correctly?
    – fishlein
    Nov 17 '15 at 21:25
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    From my point of view, it also needs to be a "good faith" (honest) attempt to understand the universe. It doesn't mean anything if a million people agree with you if no one really believes it. Nov 17 '15 at 21:48
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    #Fishlein With this answer, I examined how I, a believer, view religions, and then secularized it so it would also work for a non-believer. I agree it would be tough to make a legal standard out if it. But I think that's a separate question. // @AlexanderSKing I think for something to be a real religion, it must have true believers. If there are "fellow travelers" who follow the religion for purely cultural reasons, that doesn't count against it, but it also doesn't count for it as a religion qua religion. However, it's also worth noting that not all religions are theistic. Nov 18 '15 at 0:13
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    Unless you define "legitmate" as adherents simply claiming sincerity, all you have is a flimsy, highly predjudicial definition, because it will refer to adherents only you and your friends say are sincere -- a definition made even worse by the fact you and your friends could be fools. For example, I think that many or most practitioners of all major religions do not really believe in a God; they simply profess sincerity and participate for sociopolitical reasons. It doesn't matter -- they are really practicing religion as long as they say they are. That you or some... Nov 18 '15 at 12:53
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    ...group you trust say L. Ron Hubbard was a liar is as meaningless as someone else saying Joseph Smith was a liar; now Mormonism is an "edge case", and in fact it is easy to call any religion an edge case using the same definition (Moses was a liar, etc). Why bother? All you've done is inject a prejudicial, superfluous modifier into to get "A lot of adults honestly believe so its ok"; now you can arbitrary reject _____ by saying, "Well, those people are liars...". Anyone can be a liar just as anyone can claim to be honest. No one can prove their religion is real. Nov 18 '15 at 12:53

Although I already have a well-received answer to this question, the discussion in the comments has convinced me to propose an alternate one:

Religions can only be genuine just in the case that there does exist some deeper metaphysical reality, and that they map, in some way, to that reality. If you categorically reject the concept that there are "deeper truths" (or if you are sure that, if those exist, they would not be in any way accessible or knowable) then from your point of view there would be no difference between a "true" and "false" religion.

If you accept the concept that the kind of truths expressed through religion can not be wholly and fully realized in ordinary language or modes of thought, then then that would explain how two religions with some incompatible beliefs could both be considered genuine religions, and also how religions that make claims that don't --when interpreted literally --align with scientific knowledge could be genuine.

If you start with the premise that it's all trickery and nonsense, then you can reach only the conclusion that it's all trickery and nonsense. If, however, you are willing to approach it from a position of epistemic humility, then you might accept at least the possibility that there may be some actual value or validity, present in differential amounts and/or different forms in different religions and religious beliefs, such that widely accepted categorizations of religious validity might actually reflect some actual state of affairs (certified by consensus, but not wholly reducible to consensus).


There seem to be a few different ways of answering whether a religion is genuine or acceptable:

  1. Many atheists say no religions are acceptable. Religions are wrong, and to believe something that is wrong is unacceptable.

  2. Many say that religions are acceptable as long as there is no imposition on others. A religion therefore that is practiced privately that features no (or little) proselytizing and imposes little in the way of duties (or duties that are mostly unobjectionable) are acceptable. This was a common way of thinking about religions during the Enlightenment.

  3. Within religious traditions, there seem to be three different ways of looking at it. Most either claim (1) our religion is right, and everything else is uniformly wrong, (2) our religion is right, and other religions are also right because they are just a different expression of the same sentiments, or (3) our religion is right, and other religions are right to the degree that they agree with us.


What I am wondering is what makes a belief acceptable as a religion?

Religion is more of a system of beliefs, not just a single belief. Clearly belief that "Justin Bieber sucks" doesn't constitute religious belief, but belief that "the Buddha is a good example to follow" or "That God was the cause of the Big Bang" does. Although there can be no formal rule for what constitutes religious belief and what doesn't, Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance can help us. We have set of prototypes and examples of what a member of that category looks like, and based on that we can determine whether a new instance belongs into that category or not. Obviously, this leads to fuzzy boundaries, and it becomes questionable whether some things fall in the category of religion or not (e.g. Confucianism), but the central prototypes do remain clear. For example, anything with a cosmology and a set of dos and don's based on that cosmology is undisputedly a religion.

Why are some ancient religions that explain the origin of the earth (Viking, Roman for example) not acceptable as religions anymore?

  • One answer is sheer demographics. The examples you mentioned simply disappeared the same way Amerindians disappeared from North America, or Europeans switched from drinking mead to drinking beer and wine.
  • There is a second point of view (I need to go back and search for the sources): There is an evolution from polytheism to monotheism, since monotheism represents a more "advanced" belief system than polytheism. Advocates of this world view point to Plato dismissing the Greek gods and moving towards his concept of the one, the evolution of Hinduism from being polytheistic in the Vedas to clearly monotheistic in the Bhagavad Gita, and the evolution of semitic religions from the various Canaanite and Babylonian gods to Abrahamic monotheism. In this context, it was inevitable that people would move away from Roman and Nordic gods, since those represent primitive beliefs compared to the current ones Europe holds.
  • One variation on this point of view (again I need to look for the source), is that after polytheism and then monotheism, the next stage is belief in science and in abstract principles, which leads to your next question:

Could I come up with my own creation story [...], and have it accepted as a religion?

You could. L. Ron Hubbard supposedly decided that the best way to get rich was to invent a new religion, and that's why he came up with Scientology. He seems to have been successful, as the Church of Scientology is considered officially a religion by the US government (by the organization's tax status).

So yes it can be done. Your challenge would be to convince people to follow you and have people with money build places of worship for you.

(and make sure that it adheres completely to modern science), and have it accepted as a religion? I would like to emphasise that it is possible to make my own religion which agrees much more closely with scientific observations than (any) other religion.

You already have a worldview or cosmology based on science. The major challenges you are facing here:

  • Can you construct a system of values and ethics (dos and don'ts, commandments, etc...) based on science? This is not obvious at all.
  • If there is one common thread to all religions, it is a set of rituals. You will need to come up with a meaningful set of rituals to attract and keep your followers.

See the following question: Can belief in science be considered a form of theism?

  • In addition to the objections in the linked Q&A, the simple way to differentiate a belief in science from religion is to qualify the nature of the cosmology -- religious cosmologies are to a letter (we might say, "by definition") metaphysical, whereas cosmology qua science explicitly does not rest on or fundamentally even involve metaphysical speculation. Nov 20 '15 at 15:27

At the core of every religion is a nugget of concepts that is declared to be axiomatically true by members of that religion. I'm more than willing to have someone provide me a counter example, but I am unaware of any religion which does not follow this pattern (though some may have strange or even paradoxical truths such as "no truth can ever be truly known").

From this perspective, one can look at how a religion is accepted in the same way any other axiomatic declaration of truth is treated, such as declarations of independence or North Korea's ill fated attempt to declare that the Six Party Talks never occurred. Such an idea will generally be "accepted" if it does not interfere with anyone else's axiomatic ideas. Realistically, this is a high bar, so we tend to have a grey region of acceptance; not everyone accepts a religion at the same level. As a very broad stroke, one generally finds that members of a more tolerant religion are more willing to "accept" another's beliefs as valid. Members of a very intolerant religion may not "accept" any religion besides their own.

The issue with ancient religions such as those of the Vikings is simply that they put too much strain on society, so it does not accept them. Or do they? By this theory, it suggests that a worshiper of Odin who does not generate conflict with their belief may get away with worshiping as they see fit. And, of you look hard, you will find such individuals even today.

There are a few other interesting examples. Scientology is "accepted" as a religion because, for the most part, they keep to themselves, so much of their secretive religion is accepted. They run into trouble when these secret parts escape into the world and generate conflict, conflict which haunts Scientology to this day.

Satanism is another interesting one. If I may dare handwave greatly, Satanists tend not to cause all that much trouble (there are dark sides to their group, of course). They may demand we view them as extremists, potentially leveraging body modifications to do so, but we don't hear all that much of them acting to cause conflict directly in the news. That being said, their entire ideology conflicts so greatly with the prevailing religion in America that it is nearly impossible for their religion to avoid conflict, even if it was quiet as a mouse. Accordingly, you will hear mixed opinions as to whether satanism qualifies as a real religion or not.

Can you come up with your own religion? Well, by these rules you can. You could even point to the Pastafarians as an example. They have concocted a religion intentionally built around absurdity, but well in line with scientific thinking. They generally cause very little conflict with this... mostly just poking fun at people's beliefs, so they are generally "accepted," at least enough to by... though the recent colander incident at the DMV has raised some questions as to their authenticity.

  • Ramen to that.... Nov 17 '15 at 20:24
  • This characterization of Scientologists as "secretive" is as bizarre as it is nonfactual. I've seen you around on the SE network a lot—please do me a favor and inform yourself, at least through a blog post: "I'm 'Secretive' about my Religion?"
    – Wildcard
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:16
  • (Regarding "keeping to themselves," these video interviews may be of interest....)
    – Wildcard
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:16
  • @Wildcard I will have to do some more research on the religion. In the mean time, you may wish to look at correcting Wikipedia as well. It has a much higher visibility than my answer and contains quotes like...
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:52
  • Wikipedia "The Church of Scientology holds that at the higher levels of initiation ("OT levels"), mystical teachings are imparted that may be harmful to unprepared readers. These teachings are kept secret from members who have not reached these levels. The church says that the secrecy is warranted to keep its materials' use in context and to protect its members from being exposed to materials they are not yet prepared for."
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:52

Sam Harris offers the view that,

[Religion] allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.

In this, I see the idea that the numbers determine how we categorize things: 1 person is considered insane; a few are a cult; many make a religion.

In regards to not criticising people's beliefs, I think this is a terrible idea. Attacking people is bad, but criticizing bad ideas is almost a duty.

The reason this answer seems a little over simplistic is because it seems very difficult to define. There always seem to be exceptions.

Religions don't need to be organized - these are just the more visable ones.

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    I agree with not critisising people's beliefs is a bad idea. I also very much want to critisise people's beliefs, what I meant was critisise that they believe (even then I still think this should be open to criticism but unfortunately often these conversations do not end happily). I've changed that part
    – fishlein
    Nov 17 '15 at 14:33
  • I'm not really sure what happened in the comments here. Since comments are fleeting, I'm deleting them all. More importantly for me, I'm not sure how this is a philosophical answer to the question we've been asked. It's an assertion that sociologically we call things religions based on the number and power of their adherents. (I've also edited the language of the answer a bit to make it less ad hom in its own right).
    – virmaior
    Nov 18 '15 at 9:11
  • @virmaior: It can also be seen as the phenomenological truth that belief is not called religion in ordinary language as long as it has no social and institutional framework around it. Like: 'The belief of a single person differs from the norm and is called pathological, the belief of a institutionally organized group is called religion, instating a norm by itself. And that's their only difference.'
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 18 '15 at 9:23
  • Merely "many people believe" is too loose of a definition for religion -- Philip's comment points to some of the other features that need to be present.
    – Dave
    Nov 18 '15 at 14:21
  • Thanks for tidying up the formatting. Virmaoir - I don't think there was anything in the original post attacking anyone. You basically only reformatted it. I have added more to the answer to explain why I don't think it's anything more than a lot of people believe something.
    – David
    Nov 19 '15 at 3:38

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