Mezquita interior: Cordoba, Spain

Mezquita interior: Cordoba, Spain

Begin this unit of inquiry by revisiting the main conclusions of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2014 TED talk entitled “Is Religion Good or Bad?” Appiah stated that, strictly speaking, the Dalai Lama is an athiest. He also mentioned a Rabbi who said the great thing about being Jewish is that you do not have to believe in God.

Next revisit the succinct definition for religion offered at the interactive BBC site in the same unit:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Jared Diamond offers more detailed distillation. He offers a constellation of five sets of attributes, which vary in strength amongst the world’s religions (including traditional religions):

    1. Religion is the belief in a postulated supernatural agent for whose existence our senses can’t give us evidence, but which is invoked to explain things of which our senses do give us evidence.
    2. They are social movements of people who identify themselves as sharing deeply held beliefs.
    3. Their adherents make costly or painful sacrifices that convincingly display to others the adherents’ commitment to the group.
    4. Belief has practical consequences for how people should behave.
    5. Many religions teach that supernatural agents not only reward virtuous rule-obeying people and punish evil-doers and rule-breakers, but also can be induced by prayers, donations and sacrifices to intervene on behalf of mortal petitioners.

Diamond, Jared (2012: 329-331) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?Penguin, New York.


Karen Armstrong declares that “belief is only a recent religious enthusiasm.” For Armstrong being religious is more about adopting certain behaviors, than accepting dogmatic propositions. She refers to leaping in, committing to the behaviors of a chosen religion conscientiously, trusting that understanding will emerge soon enough through the process itself. Armstrong agrees with the Koranic idea that any attempt to pin down metaphysical questions precisely is “self-indulgent guesswork!”

Armstrong tends to treat as anomalous or marginal the blood-soaked history of many of the world’s major religions. She also downplays specific religious dogmata, most fundamentalism and even belief in God itself. In your view, this too narrow a view of religion? According to Armstrong what remains?

Is Armstrong's perspective compatable with the following “working definition” of religion by philospher, Daniel Dennett:

Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent whose approval is to be sought.

Dennett, D. (2006: 9) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking, New York.