A novel definition of religion, utilizing Hitchen’s Razor, which allows us to study various religions and groups of religions in a more analytic fashion.
I come from a background in mathematics and computer science, and so I will use that background to systematically define a reasonable working definition of religion for this discussion. This definition may additionally be useful in the general study of religion from an anthropological perspective. It should not be considered the only definition since the topic of religion is a complex one and there will probably always be differences in opinion as to what is considered religious and what is not considered religious.
In order to define a religion, we must start by defining a belief. A belief can be defined as an assertion regarding the truth value of a statement, whose truth value is not known. However, not all beliefs in that which is unknown can be considered a religious belief. If we have a method which would give us insight into the truth value of the statement, then such a belief is not religious. How can we gain insight into that which is unknown? The answer is scientific investigation. If we can devise an experiment which could help us find an answer then the statement, and thus the belief, is within the realm of science. If we cannot, then the statement and belief is outside the realm of scientific investigation.
We can then easily establish a rigorous definition of a religion: a religion is a (non empty) collection of religious beliefs along with a (possibly empty) collection of patterns of behavior that are a result of such beliefs. These patterns of behavior would include holding secular beliefs as a byproduct of religious beliefs. A person who is religious would then be someone who has at least one religious belief, and their personal religion would be the largest collection of religious beliefs that they hold, along with all patterns of behavior that are derived from those beliefs.
A question which arises is how we list each item in the collections. Is a compound belief a single belief or multiple beliefs? We will assume that the collections are comprised of “atoms”. Whether or not it is truly possible to break a belief or a practice into atomic beliefs and practices need not be known.
We will simply work with the simplest forms that we can and agree on those forms, thus creating pseudo-atomic elements. These pseudo atoms would have to be produced by extensive analysis of available data sets on religions. Of course, even this is no trivial matter. Identifying a religious belief would be difficult enough, but determining whether or not a pattern of behavior is associated with a religious belief would be somewhat of a guessing game. Of course, the unfortunate reality is that much of the social sciences has to rely on our best guesses.
One might question the need for a new definition of religion and why we should view the aforementioned concept of religious beliefs as such. The answer is the application of Hitchen’s Razor. Since religious beliefs are those beliefs that cannot be tested, they violate Hitchen’s Razor. In addition, this system allows us to more easily classify religions and view their evolution in an analytic fashion.