What defines religion?

Reza Aslan: The most powerful force that defines religion is society. It’s very important to understand that religion is an ever-malleable thing. There is no such thing as Christianity. It doesn’t exist. There are Christianities and the way that one defines the gospel. The way that one understands Jesus as either the Son of God, or the Messiah, or as, you know, a great teacher to emulate. The way that one places sort of the Christology, or even the creedal formula of Catholicism, has everything to do with where one lives. If you are a Catholic living in suburban Denver with your two and a half kids, and your car, and your house, your Jesus is probably a white, blond haired, blue-eyed, peacenik who turns the other cheek. If you’re a Catholic living in the hills of Guatemala, your Jesus, besides being Mexican, is a fighter. A liberator. One who stands up to the oppressor and indeed who takes up arms against oppression. It’s the same Jesus. It’s the same Catholicism, but the understanding is radically different depending upon where you live. The same of course is true of Islam. If you’re a Muslim living in Detroit, then your idea of Islam is a religion of peace and submission and pluralism. If you’re a Muslim living in a garbage heap on Gaza, then you’re version of Islam is as a religion of social justice. So everywhere that you go you will see different expressions. Different manifestations of what can be called the same religion, the same faith. And I think that we need to understand that; because in a way, too often, we look at the differences between religious communities as being defined as differences in religion. And frankly its more often differences of community than it is of religion. Religion is an ever-evolving process. If a religion stops evolving it dies. And there are thousands and thousands of examples of dead religions in the world that we can talk about that simply went away because they were not able to adapt to the constant changes of human civilization and human societies. The reason we talk about the great religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism – these five massive world religions that have been around for thousands of years and that have billions of worldwide followers . . . what makes them great is because they are constantly adapting. They are constantly evolving. That’s why they continue to exist. The moment you stop adapting, the moment you stop evolving to whatever social, political, economic or cultural landscape that the religion finds itself in, that’s the moment in which it goes away.

 

Recorded on: 7/5/2007

Religion is, first and foremost, a social phenomenon.

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