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Thu Nov 15, 2012, 10:21 AM

The dictionary is wrong science can be a religion too [View all]

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2012/nov/15/dictionary-wrong-religion

Contrary to the popular definition, too many modes of belief and behaviour can function as 'religious' for it to be a simple category

Andrew Brown
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 November 2012 07.30 EST


Would a hypothetical future alien race view the Great Pyramids of Giza in the same way as the Large Hadron Collider? Photograph: Paul Brown/Rex Features


John Sulston is one of the smartest men I know well, he ought to be, as a Nobel prize winner and last week I got him talking about religion in front of an audience for the Westminster faith interviews.

One of the things that came up in this, as so often before, was the definition of "religion". Sulston was brought up as a low church Anglican, and still feels that religion must involve God and a belief in the supernatural, and that ritual is secondary to theology.

I came up with my usual counter to this that there are atheistic religions; that there was ritual long before there could be theology and that we ought to take scientists even social scientists more seriously than dictionaries. This last point because Sulston had gone to the trouble of looking up and printing out one of the OED definitions of religion, which he felt proved his point.

"Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement."


I can see that it must be frustrating, if you have such a definition in front of you to get some slippery Durkheimian answer about religion being actually the way that society understands and defines itself. You might, if pressed, agree that Americans treat their constitution as a sacred scripture, of universal application to the world. But it doesn't seem properly supernatural.

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