On Thursdays, while I am teaching my course on The Thought of Marx in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University, Susie is taking a course next door on The Separation of Church and State. In the first session, the Instructor handed out a number of summaries of Supreme Court cases dealing with claims of conscientious objection, one importantr element of which is the determination of what will count as religion. This is, in the United States, a rather delicate question, of course, what with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Scientologists, and the Lord knows what else all hawking their wares. Susie showed me the materials, and they put me in mind of the greatest definition of religion I have ever encountered. It is hardly obscure, since it occurs in Thomas Hobbes' immortal work LEVIATHAN. When modern conservatives hark back to Hobbes, I sometimes wonder whether they have actually read the book.
Here is the definition, from the great fourth chapter of Part 1, entitled "Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; and the Speeches by Which They are Expressed." It is contained in an extraordinary long paragraph, which begins: "For appetite, with an opinion of attaining, is called HOPE. The same, without such opinion, DESPAIR..." and, after giving definitions of fear, courage, benevolence, covetousness, ambition, liberality, natural lust, and many more terms, comes finally to this:
"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION. And when the power imagined, is truly such as we imagine, TRUE RELIGION."
Reflect on that a bit. Tales publicly allowed, Religion; not allowed, Superstition. There is not a more mordant, laconic, unillusioned, a-religious sentence in all of English literature.