Saturday, March 31, 2012

Whaddaya Mean?

Trey Smith

On a blog that deals with the questions of philosophy and the like, it is crucial that we understand what each other are saying. This is one of the blessings AND curses of words. While words generally have agreed upon meanings -- which help to facilitate better understanding -- these agreed upon meanings are not always consistent and seem to vary from person-to-person.

Take, for example, one word that gets tossed around on this blog from time to time: religion. What does it mean? It might surprise you to learn that most of the major online dictionaries for the English language define it slightly different.
Cambridge Dictionary
the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship
1. 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.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.

The Free Dictionary
a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

Oxford Dictionary
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
Only three of the five definitions indicate that worship is involved. Two definitions include a god or gods, two others talk of supernatural or superhuman entities and one makes no reference at all to an entity beyond humans. Only two definitions indicate that ritual or practice is involved. All five include the word, belief, but I think we can agree that not all beliefs are religious, in nature.

Since religion is one of those words that does not really have a definitive agreed upon meaning, we each can mean something different when we use it. This ambiguity could cause a problem, particularly if two or more individuals were debating whether or not there is a bona fide distinction between philosophical and religious Taoism!

The answer to such a question comes down to how each participant defines religion.


  1. Hm-m-m "cult" is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions religion. I was raised in an organized religion. The great and all powerful Catholic church. I learned guilt early, years of Catholic guilt made me who I am. Ha, ha. It still creeps up now and then.

  2. It also comes down to how you define dictionaries. Dictionaries are just compendiums of word usage, not generally regarded as any kind of scholarly bottom line for a discussion. When I see people, usually sophomores, who start a paper with, "Webster's defines X as.." it's because they haven't done any serious research or scholarly study.

    There are different types of dictionaries: prescriptive (like Webster's New American, which the AP might use as a definitive source for meaning and spelling and usage, not that any of their reporters and copy editors pay much attention any more) and descriptive (like the OED, which is more etymological). Further, most people are not aware that the meanings of 1,2, 3, 4 etc. have no priority.

    I think the only way to make a bona fide distinction in the philosophic/religious Taoism debate would be to consult a Chinese dictionary. I will offer though that recently, a highly educated Chinese man from Singapore who lives in New Zealand just told me that "Chinese traditionally don't make a conceptual distinction between religion and philosophy," as we do in the west.

  3. The religion/philosophy 'separation' has been described as "more revealing of the Western frame of reference" & as such is something Taoists "are not preoccupied with [as they are] more concerned with the nature of reality, increasing longevity, ordering life morally, practicing rulership & regulating consciousness & diet." R Littlejohn, Belmont University (


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