Definitions of the word "religion," and
why none are totally satisfactory

 

 

From: http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_defn.htm


 

Problems with definitions:

 

The English word "religion" is derived from the Middle English "religioun" which came from the Old French "religion." It may have been originally derived from the Latin word "religo" which means "good faith," "ritual," and other similar meanings. Or it may have come from the Latin "religăre" which means "to tie fast."

 

Defining the word "religion" is fraught with difficulty. Many attempts have been made. Most seem to focus on too narrowly only a few aspects of religion; they tend to exclude those religions that do not fit well. As Kile Jones wrote in his essay on defining religion:

 

"It is apparent that religion can be seen as a theological, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of human kind. To limit religion to only one of these categories is to miss its multifaceted nature and lose out on the complete definition."1

 

All of the definitions that we have encountered contain at least one deficiency:

 

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Some exclude beliefs and practices that many people passionately defend as religious. For example, their definition might include belief in a God or Goddess or combination of Gods and Goddesses who are responsible for the creation of the universe and for its continuing operation. This excludes such non-theistic religions as Buddhism and many forms of religious Satanism which have no such belief.

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Some definitions equate "religion" with "Christianity," and thus define two out of every three humans in the world as non-religious.

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Some definitions are so broadly written that they include beliefs and areas of study that most people do not regard as religious. For example, David Edward's definition would seem to include cosmology and ecology within his definition of religion -- fields of investigation that most people regard to be a scientific studies and non-religious in nature.

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Some define "religion" in terms of "the sacred" and/or "the spiritual," and thus require the creation of two more definitions.

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Sometimes, definitions of "religion" contain more than one deficiency.

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Dictionary definitions:

 

Dictionaries have made many attempts to define the word religion:

  1. Barns & Noble (Cambridge) Encyclopedia (1990):

"...no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions."

  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990):

"Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience"

 

This definition would not consider some Buddhist sects as religions. Many Unitarian Universalists are excluded by this description. Strictly interpreted, it would also reject polytheistic religions, since it refers to "a" personal God."

  1. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

"a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith."

 

This is a curious definition because it does not require elements often associated with religion, such as deity, morality, worldview, etc. Also it requires that a person pursue their religion with enthusiasm. Many people identify themselves with a specific religion, but are not intensely engaged with their faith.

  1. Webster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition):

"any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."

 

This definition would exclude religions that do not engage in worship. It implies that there are two important components to religion:

 

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one's belief and worship in a deity or deities

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one's ethical behavior towards other persons

 

This dual nature of religion is expressed clearly in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in Matthew 22:36-39:

 

"Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

  1. Qumran Bet, "A Community Striving to Come to the Pure Essence of the Worship of YHWH," cites definitions from an unknown dictionary: "religion (ri-lij'[uh]n) n.
  2.  

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The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc., constituting man's relationship with the powers and principles of the universe, especially with a deity or deities; also, any particular system of such beliefs, attitudes, etc.

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An essential part or a practical test of the spiritual life.

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An object of conscientious devotion or scrupulous care: e.g. His work is a religion to him.

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Obs. Religious practice or belief."15
 

  1. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM):

"An organized system of belief that generally seeks to understand purpose, meaning, goals, and methods of spiritual things. These spiritual things can be God, people in relation to God, salvation, after life, purpose of life, order of the cosmos, etc."

 

 

Definitions by academics and others:

 

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Dr. Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, has assembled a list of definitions of religion from various authors and theologians. A few are:

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William James: "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

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Alfred North Whitehead: "what the individual does with his own solitariness."

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George Hegel: "the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind."7

 

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Wikipedia defines religion as: "... a system of social coherence based on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person, unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, traditions, and rituals associated with such belief or system of thought."

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In 1995, subscribers to the newsgroup "alt.memetics" attempted to define religion.

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Scott Hatfield: Religion is "a behaviour, process or structure whose orientation is at least partially supernatural."

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One subscriber quoted H.L. Menken3: Religions' "...single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him."

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Jerry Moyer: "Religion is a system of beliefs by which a people reduce anxiety over natural phenomena through some means of explication." He also cited a quotation from the writings of Paul Tillich: "Religious is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern"2

 

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Clifford Geertz defined religion as a cultural system:

"A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

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Joel Elliott, has published a slide set on "Defining Religion,"5 which cites:

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B. Malinowski: "relieves anxiety and enhances social integration."

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Robert Bellah: "a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence."

 

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David Carpenter has collected and published a list of definitions of religion, including:

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Anthony Wallace: "a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature."

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Hall, Pilgrim, and Cavanagh: "Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them."

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Karl Marx: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."6

 

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Don Swenson defines religion in terms of the sacred:

 

"Religion is the individual and social experience of the sacred that is manifested in mythologies, ritual, ethos, and integrated into a collective or organization."8

 

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Paul Connelly also defines religion in terms of the sacred and the spiritual:

 

"Religion originates in an attempt to represent and order beliefs, feelings, imaginings and actions that arise in response to direct experience of the sacred and the spiritual. As this attempt expands in its formulation and elaboration, it becomes a process that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses."4

 

He defines the sacred as:

 

"The sacred is a mysterious manifestation of power and presence that is experienced as both primordial and transformative, inspiring awe and rapt attention. This is usually an event that represents a break or discontinuity from the ordinary, forcing a re-establishment or recalibration of perspective on the part of the experiencer, but it may also be something seemingly ordinary, repeated exposure to which gradually produces a perception of mysteriously cumulative significance out of proportion to the significance originally invested in it."

 

He further defines the spiritual as:

 

"The spiritual is a perception of the commonality of mindfulness in the world that shifts the boundaries between self and other, producing a sense of the union of purposes of self and other in confronting the existential questions of life, and providing a mediation of the challenge-response interaction between self and other, one and many, that underlies existential questions."

 

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Michael York of Bath Spa University College, Bath, UK defines religion as:

 

"A shared positing of the identity of and relationship between the world, humanity and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment, value allocation and validation enactment. A religion need not accept or believe in the supernatural, but it takes a position on. Likewise, some religions deny the reality or at least value of the world, but they still take a position."

 

We feel that this is one of the most inclusive of any definition found to date.

 

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David Edwards, author of Free to be Human defines religion as:

 

"The sum total of answers we give to the problem of our relationship with the universe, we call religion."

 

However, this definition contains an element of controversy, because it implies that religions, and thus perhaps deity/deities, are created by humanity and not the reverse. A less contentious meaning might be:

 

"The sum total of answers to the problem of our relationship with the universe, we call religion."

 

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"Dhruvtara" posted the following definition on a worldwide weblog for people from India:

 

"A fundamental way of thinking and approaching things. Those who don't do things in the way they are told by their religion will be punish by some supernatural power. " (Slightly edited).

 

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Paul Connelly suggests the following definition:

 

"Religion originates in an attempt to represent and order beliefs, feelings, imaginings and actions that arise in response to direct experience of the sacred and the spiritual. As this attempt expands in its formulation and elaboration, it becomes a process that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses."10

 

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The Agnosticism/Atheism section on About.com uses an approach found in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Rather than attempting to define religion, they describe some of the factors that are typically found in religion. The About author came up with the following list:

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Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).

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A distinction between sacred and profane objects.

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Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.

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A moral code believed to have a sacred or supernatural basis.

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Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual.

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Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.

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A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.

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A more or less total organization of one's life based on the world view.

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A social group bound together by the above. 11,12

 

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Other definitions picked up through random surfing of the Internet:

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"The processes by which mankind tries to find meaning in a chaotic universe."

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"That which is of ultimate concern."

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"That which gives meaning to our life."

 

 

 

Some people do not consider their personal spiritual path to be a religion:

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Many conservative Christians refer to Christianity not as a religion but as an intensely personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

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Many Native Americans believe that their spiritual beliefs and practices are not a religion in the normal sense of the term. They form a integral and seamless part of their very being, totally integrated into their life experience.

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Agnostics and Atheists often do not regard their beliefs to be a religion. To most, Atheism and Agnosticism simply represent a single belief about the existence or non-existence of a supreme being. They do not necessarily include ethical matters.

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The New Age is sometimes referred to as a religion. However, it is in reality a collection of diverse beliefs and practices from which a practitioner may select those that appeal to her/him. The individual often grafts these beliefs and practices onto an established religion.

 


Our compromise definition:

This website's essays use a very broad definition of religion:

 

"Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview."

 

(A worldview is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.) Thus we would consider Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Native American Spirituality, Wicca, and other Neopagan traditions to be religions. We also include Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism, Ethical Culture etc. as religions, because they also contain a "belief about deity." Their belief is that they do not know whether a deity exists, or they have no knowledge of God, or they sincerely believe that God does not exist. 



References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

1.      Kile Jones is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. See: http://www.kilejones.com 

2.      A summary of postings on alt.memetics is at: http://virus.lucifer.com/

3.      H.L. Mencken, "Treatise on the Gods," Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, (1930, revised 1946)

4.      Paul Connelly, "Definition of Religion and Related Terms" at: http://www.darc.org/

5.      Joel Elliott, slide set on "Defining Religion," at: http://www.unc.edu/

6.      David Carpenter of Saint Joseph's University has a list of definitions at: http://www.sju.edu/

7.      Irving Hexham, "By Religion I  Mean...," at: http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/

8.      Don Swenson, "Society, Spirituality, and the Sacred: A Social Scientific Introduction," Broadview Press, (1999-JAN).

9.      Dhruvtara, "There should be no religion now!!!," Sukekh Weblogs, 2003-JUN-26, at: http://www.sulekha.com/

10. Paul Connelly, "Definition of Religion and Related Terms," at: http://www.darc.org/

11. "Agnosticism / Atheism: What is Religion? The Problem of Definition. The Difficulty with Defining Religion," About.com, at: http://atheism.about.com/

12. There are at least two different books titled "Encyclopedia of Philosophy:" one by Paul Edwards Paul Edwards and the other by Donald Borchert.

13. "Pantheism - Rosary," Dictionary of Theology, The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM), at: http://www.carm.net/

14. Bruce Lincoln, "Holy Terrors: Thinking about religion after September 11." University of Chicago Press, (2003), Page 1.

15. Qumran Bet is "A Community Striving to Come to the Pure Essence of the Worship of YHWH." See: http://qumran.com/religion.htm

 

 

 

 

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