Hamblin & Peterson: Of families, games and religion — but perhaps not as you were expecting

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

If the broad category of “religion” is intended to contain such diverse phenomena as Zen, Pentecostalism, Shinto, Confucianism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Buddhist atheism, it must almost certainly be understood in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances,” because there’s little if anything internally that all religions share.

Outwardly, of course, they typically serve similar functions. They address matters of what the late Protestant theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern.” They’re “life orientational,” prescribing moral conduct and behavior. They generally involve traditions, symbols and rituals. They often venerate saints of some kind, whether or not they use the actual word. Most are somehow involved with the “supernatural,” however conceived.

But the categories blur. American patriotism also has rituals, symbols and traditions. And Nazism certainly did. By displaying Lenin’s undecayed body in a mausoleum-shrine on Red Square, Soviet communism mimicked Eastern Orthodox saint veneration, and Marxism defined right and wrong for hundreds of millions. Some varieties of environmentalism, too, seem deeply “religious.”

It’s unnerving, for historians of religion, to admit that we can’t quite define our topic. But there you have it.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin, also at BYU, has written several books and articles on pre-modern history. They speak only for themselves.

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