Some thoughts…

I’ve often heard Americans and Europeans (i.e., people from culturally Christian societies) argue that Buddhism isn’t a religion, but a philosophy — even though most Asian Buddhists would tell them that of course it’s a religion. I think this gets into a larger cultural (mis)understanding of what a religion is and what it means to be religious. 

In the West, we have an idea (largely stemming from Christianity) that religion = obligation. To be religious must mean to make sacrifices, to follow certain rules, to serve certain gods. This is how Christian religion functions (and, from what I understand, other Abrahamic religions, but I could be wrong as I’m less experienced with Judaism and Islam), but it is by no means universal.

As previously mentioned, Buddhism, while not free of obligations or rules, is structured in a way that is very different from Christianity, which leads to the misunderstanding that it’s more of a philosophy/lifestyle than a religion. 

To use an example from my own religious practice, Norse Heathenry has virtually no rules or taboos, which may seem strange to folks coming from a Christian background. In my experience, being Heathen is much more about personal relationship with the Powers That Be, such as gods, land spirits, and ancestors. And although individual people or groups may choose to impose certain strictures on those relationships, those strictures are opt-in and do not apply to anyone else. Reclaiming, which is a tradition I’ve only recently begun to get involved in, functions in a similar way.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing for religions to have rules. Some religions have more structure than others, and that structure is not inherently good or bad. For example, my partner practices Religio Romana, the religion of Ancient Rome; although the exact meaning of “religio” is debated, the word does convey obligation, specifically obligation to the Powers one chooses to be in relationship with. 

As you might expect, Religio Romana has a lot of formal structure, including rules and taboos. And for people like my partner, that works really well. Some people really benefit from working within a formal structure. On the flip side are people like me who feel stifled by structure and work much better in a more personalized, intuitive framework. Neither way is wrong.

So, my point here is not that no religion has rules and obligations or that religion shouldn’t have rules — I just want to point out that not every religion is about rules and that rules/structure are not what make a religion. 

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