Religion 101

Examining the Definition of
Religion and Religious Beliefs


By
Austin Cline, About.com

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutreligion/p/religion101.htm

 

                       

 

                         CONTENTS

 

What is Religion? The Problem of Definition

 

Religion as Faith and Ultimate Concern

 

Functional vs. Substantive Definitions of Religion

 

Substantive and Essentialist Definitions of Religion: Examining the Content and Essence of Religions

 

Functional Definitions of Religion: Examining How Religion Operates and What Religion Does

 

Dictionaries on the Definition of Religion

 

Religious References on the Definition of Religion

 

Differentiating Between Religions and Other Belief Systems

       Religion vs. Spirituality

       Problematic Distinctions Between Religion and Spirituality

       Valid Distinctions Between Religion and Spirituality

 

 

 

 

 

What is Religion? The Problem of Definition


http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/definition.htm

 

Academic literature is filled with attempts to describe what religion is and many of those attempts are very unhelpful. Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one of two problems: they are either too narrow and exclude many of the belief systems which most people will agree are religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous, leading one to conclude that just about any and everything is actually a religion.

 

Many say the etymology of religion lies with the Latin word religare, which means “to tie, to bind.” This seems to be favored on the assumption that it helps explain the power religion has. The Oxford English Dictionary points out, though, that the etymology of the word is doubtful. Earlier writers like Cicero connected the term with relegere, which means “to read over again” (perhaps to emphasize the ritualistic nature of religions?).

Some argue that religion doesn’t really exist — there is only culture. Jonathan Z. Smith writes in Imagining Religion:

“...while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.”

It is true that many societies do not draw a clear line between their culture and what scholars would call “religion.” This does not mean that religion doesn’t exist, but it is worth keeping in mind that even when we think we have a handle on what religion is, we might be fooling ourselves.

Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one of two problems: they are either too narrow and exclude many belief systems which most agree are religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous, suggesting that just about any and everything is a religion.

A good example of a narrow definition is the common attempt to define “religion” as “belief in God,” effectively excluding polytheistic religions and atheistic religions while including theists who have no religious belief system. A good example of a vague definition is the tendency to define religion as “worldview” — but how can every worldview qualify as a religion?

Some have argued that religion isn’t hard to define and the plethora of conflicting definitions is evidence of how easy it really is. The problem lies in finding a definition that is empirically useful and empirically testable. So far, the best definition of religion I have seen is in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It lists traits of religions rather than declaring religion to be one thing or another, arguing that the more markers present in a belief system, the more ”religious like” it is:

·        Belief in supernatural beings (gods).

·        A distinction between sacred and profane objects.

·        Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.

·        A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.

·        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, and which are connected in idea with the gods.

·        Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.

·        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.

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

·        A social group bound together by the above.

This definition captures much of what religion is across diverse cultures. It includes sociological, psychological, and historical factors and allows for broader gray areas in the concept of religion. It’s not without flaws, though. The first marker, for example, is about “supernatural beings” and gives “gods” as an example, but thereafter only gods are mentioned. Even the concept of “supernatural beings” is a bit too specific; Mircea Eliade defined religion in reference to a focus on “the sacred” and that is a good replacement for “supernatural beings” because not every religion revolves around the supernatural.

A better definition is:

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

·        A distinction between sacred and profane objects.

·        Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.

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

·        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.

·        Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.

·        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.

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

·        A social group bound together by the above.

This is the definition of religion used here. It describes religious systems but not non-religious systems. It encompasses the features common in belief systems generally acknowledged as religions without focusing on specific characteristics unique to just a few.

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Religion as Faith and Ultimate Concern

http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutreligion/a/UltimateConcern.htm

There is a common perception that religion is defined not so much by particular doctrines (like the existence of a god) or in particular functions (like providing a structure for morals) but instead by attitude. One of the most famous ways this has been expressed in theologian Paul Tillich's idea that religion and even theism is the focus of our "ultimate concern."

There seems to be a certain validity to this position because so much about religion appears to revolve around a person's attitude towards life, the universe, and what is most important to them. Does this allow us to conclude, then, that some great faith or concern qualifies not simply as an object of worship and veneration, but also of divinity and religion?

There is, of course, the obvious problem with the vagueness inherent in such a definition of religion. It seems to include so much under the umbrella of religion that little is left over - and if everything qualifies as a religion, then the term itself stops being very useful anymore. We already have other words we can use to describe the objects of our devotion and "ultimate concern," so why co-opt religion into this duty? Moreover, those of us with various forms of faith or ultimate concerns aren't likely to appreciate such conversion by redefinition.

Another problem lies in the fact that this broad definition appears designed to make religion seem appealing and pleasant. That in itself is not necessarily bad, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that not everyone has faith in good things and not everyone's "ultimate concern" is in that which is moral, kind, and just.

A good example can be found in some of the political systems which have caused so much death and destruction over the past hundred years. The best instance of that would probably be various forms of fascism, and Nazism in particular. All of them represented objects of great passion which people devoted themselves to, mind and body.

That's one of the fundamental problems with faith: there is no good way to restrict its object to the things which you approve of. Once "faith," whether focused upon an "ultimate concern" or not, is held up as a valid or even valued means for acquiring "knowledge" and a basis for living one's life, it just isn't possible to assert that the Christian faith is good, but the Muslim or Nazi faith is wrong.

Moreover, a person who accepts faith as the basis for their beliefs effectively gives up the means for critiquing the beliefs of others. A belief based upon faith is not a belief based upon reason, logic, and evidence. If a person is not going to use reason, logic, and evidence as standards by which they judge their own beliefs, then it would be hypocritical to try and use them as standards for judging or critiquing the beliefs of others.

Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much to use. If a person can't criticize the belief of another because it isn't consistent with logic or the available evidence, or because it is simply unreasonable, what else is there? How can a Christian who relies on faith criticize a Nazi who also relies on faith - by insisting that the Nazi faith is wrong simply because the Christian faith says so?

Granted, many people do good things because they have a strong faith in what is good and right, and this in turn provides a powerful set of motivations for them. At the same time, there are people who have a strong faith in what others would call evil - and that, too, provides a powerful motivation. In the end, it may actually be better in the long run if people have little faith in the good so long as they don't have great faith in the evil.

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Functional vs. Substantive Definitions of Religion

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Many scholarly and academic attempts to define or describe religion can be classified into one of two types: functional or substantive. Each represents a very distinct perspective on the nature of function of religion. Although it is possible for a person to accept both types as valid, in reality most people will tend to focus on one type to the exclusion of the other.

Which type a person focuses on can tell a lot about what they think of religion and how they perceive religion in human life. For those who focus upon substantive or essentialist definitions, religion is all about content: if you believe certain types of things you have a religion while if you don’t believe them, you don’t have a religion. Examples include belief in gods, belief in spirits, or belief in something known as “the sacred.”

Accepting a substantive definition of religion means looking at religion as simply a type of philosophy, a system of bizarre beliefs, or perhaps just a primitive understanding of nature and reality. From the substantive or essentialist perspective, religion originated and survives as a speculative enterprise which is all about trying to understand ourselves or our world and really has nothing to do with our social or psychological lives.

For those who focus on functionalist definitions, religion is all about what it does: if your belief system plays some particular role either in your social life, in your society, or in your psychological life, then it is a religion; otherwise, it’s something else (like a philosophy). Examples of functionalist definitions include describing religion as something which binds together a community or which alleviates a person’s fear of mortality.

Accepting such functionalist descriptions results in a radically different understanding of the origin and nature of religion when compared to substantive definitions. From the functionalist perspective, religion doesn’t exist to explain our world but rather to help us survive in the world, whether by binding us together socially or by supporting us psychologically and emotionally. Rituals, for example, exist to bring us all together as a unit or to preserve our sanity in a chaotic world.

The definition of religion used on this site doesn’t focus on either functionalist or essentialist perspectives of religion; instead, it attempts to incorporate both the types of beliefs and the types of functions which religion often has. So why spend so much time explaining and discussing these types of definitions?

Even if we don’t use a specifically functionalist or essentialist definition here, it remains true that such definitions can offer interesting ways to look at religion, causing us to focus on some aspect which we might have otherwise ignored. It is necessary to understand why each is valid in order to better understand why neither is superior to the other. Finally, because so many books on religion tend to actually prefer one type of definition over another, understanding what they are can provide a clearer view of authors’ biases and assumptions.

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Substantive and Essentialist Definitions of Religion

Examining the Content and Essence of Religions

http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/essentialist.htm

 

The basic problem with substantive definitions of religion is that when they are general enough to perhaps apply to all religions, they are too vague to be very useful and end up being applicable to belief systems or beliefs which just shouldn’t be labeled religions. Once they are no longer too vague, however, they describe as 'essential' to religion something which not all religions actually have and which is not alone in structuring religious beliefs.

Many people involved with the study of religion try to define it based upon its conceptual content. According to substantive and essentialist definitions, religion is characterized by some basic essence which is common to all religious systems, but not to any non-religious systems.

One of the most popular essentialist definitions today is based upon the notion of the “sacred” — an idea introduced largely by the work of theologian Rudolf Otto with what he called the numinous. This was extended by the research of Mircea Eliade, who emphasized that the nature of religion could not be reduced beyond the difficult-to-define idea of the “sacred.” Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, defines the matter in his book Sacred Choices:

“Religion is the response to the sacred. So what is the sacred? The sacred is the superlative of precious. It is the word we use for that which is utterly and mysteriously precious in our experience. Since there is no one who finds nothing sacred, religion is all over the place.”

There are a number of problems with substantive definitions such as this. Aside from the fact that the above ignores many of the critical aspects of religion which are addressed by functional definitions, it doesn’t do much to really explain what the “sacred” is supposed to be. If all it amounts to is that which we value most highly, it doesn’t distinguish religion from other beliefs and belief systems very well. Is a Yankees fan really “religious” in the same way that a Dominican monk is? That hardly seems fair to religion and doesn’t seem to provide a good basis for learning about or understanding religions.

Other essentialist definitions are not quite so vague. An early definition comes from one of the first scholars of religion, E.B. Tylor. According to Tylor, religion can be defined simply as the “belief in spiritual beings.” Although the nature of what qualifies as “spiritual” may be a bit uncertain, this is still clearer than the notion of “the sacred.” Now, however, we have two new problems: not all systems which we might call religions necessarily include spiritual beings, and not everyone who believes in spiritual beings necessarily does so in the context of a religious system.

Finally, when we reduce religion to any one or even two features, we end up overlooking other attributes which are common to religious systems. If religion is reduced to “the sacred” or “belief in spiritual beings,” what about things like rituals or moral codes? Are they really so irrelevant? That doesn’t sound very likely, but we can be misled into thinking it is true if convinced that there is a single “essence” which defines religious belief systems. Religion is more multi-dimensional than substantive definitions give it credit for.

Thus the basic problem with substantive definitions of religion is that when they are general enough to perhaps apply to all religions, they are too vague to be very useful and end up being applicable to belief systems or beliefs which just shouldn’t be labeled religions. Once they are no longer too vague, however, they describe as “essential” to religion something which not all religions actually have and which is not alone in structuring religious beliefs.

If we accept a substantive definition of religion, we end up looking at religion as simply a type of philosophy, a system of bizarre beliefs, or perhaps just a primitive understanding of nature and reality. From the substantive or essentialist perspective, religion originated and survives as a speculative enterprise which is all about trying to understand ourselves or our world and really has nothing to do with our social or psychological lives.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the concepts of the “sacred” or even of “spiritual beings” are not important to questions of religion — substantive definitions may not be enough by themselves, but they do seem to have something relevant to tell us. Whether too vague or too specific, essentialist definitions still end up focusing on something very relevant to religious belief systems. A solid understanding of religion cannot be restricted to such a definition, but it should at least incorporate its insights and ideas.

Many people involved with the study of religion try to define it based upon its conceptual content. According to substantive and essentialist definitions, religion is characterized by some basic essence which is common to all religious systems, but not to any non-religious systems.

Below are various short quotes from philosophers and scholars of religion which attempt to capture the nature of religion from a substantive or essentialist perspective:

To be religious is to effect in some way and in some measure a vital adjustment (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern.
- Vergilius Ferm.

By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.
- J.G. Frazer.

[Religion is] the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind.
- G.W.F. Hegel

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

I want to make clear that by the term ‘religion’ I do not mean a creed. It is, however, true that on the one hand every confession is originally based upon the experience of the numinous and on the other hand upon the loyalty, trust, and confidence toward a definitely experienced numinous effect and the subsequent alteration of consciousness: the conversion of Paul is a striking example of this. ‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinous.
- C.G. Jung

Religion (subjectively regarded) is the recognition of all duties as divine commands.
- Immanuel Kant

Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.
- James C. Livingston

Religion is a system of language and practice that organizes the world in terms of what is deemed sacred.
- William Paden

To take everything individual as a part of the whole, everything limited as a representation of the infinite, that is religion.... The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.
- Friedrich Schleiermacher

Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge.
- Herbert Spencer

The religious is any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.
- John Dewey

Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.
- Paul Tillich

Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.
- T. William Hall

I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.
- Erich Fromm

It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings. ...[S]o far as I can judge from the immense mass of accessible evidence, we have to admit that the belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races with whom we have attained to thoroughly intimate acquaintance.
- E.B. Tylor

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and the hopeless quest.
- A.N. Whitehead

Religion may best be understood as systematic anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to non human things or events.
- Stewart Guthrie

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Functional Definitions of Religion

 

Examining How Religion Operates
and What Religion Does

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/functional.htm



Functional definitions are so common that most academic definitions of religion can be categorized as either psychological or sociological in nature. Psychological definitions focus upon the ways in which religion plays a role in the mental, emotional, and psychological lives of believers. Sociological definitions define religion by the ways in which it either has an impact upon society or the ways in which it is expressed socially by believers.

One common way to define religion is to focus on what are known as functional definitions: these are definitions which emphasize the way religion operates in human lives. When constructing a functional definition is to ask what a religion does — usually psychologically or socially.

Functional definitions are so common that most academic definitions of religion can be categorized as either psychological or sociological in nature. Psychological definitions focus upon the ways in which religion plays a role in the mental, emotional, and psychological lives of believers. Sometimes this is described in a positive way (for example as a means of preserving mental health in a chaotic world) and sometimes in a negative way (for example as with Freud’s explanation of religion as a type of neurosis).

Sociological definitions are also very common, made popular by the work of sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. According to these scholars, religion is best defined by the ways in which it either has an impact upon society or the ways in which it is expressed socially by believers. In this manner, religion is not simply a private experience and cannot exist with a solitary individual; rather, it only exists in social contexts where there are multiple believers acting in concert.

From the functionalist perspective, religion doesn’t exist to explain our world but rather to help us survive in the world, whether by binding us together socially or by supporting us psychologically and emotionally. Rituals, for example, may exist to influence our world, to bring us all together as a unit, or to preserve our sanity in a chaotic existence.

One of the problems with both psychological and sociological definitions is that it can be possible to apply them to almost any system of belief, including those which don’t look much like religions to us. Is everything that helps us preserve our mental health really a religion? Surely not. Is everything that involves social rituals and which structures social morality a religion? Again, that hardly seems likely — by that definition, the Boy Scouts would qualify.

Another common complaint is that functional definitions are reductionist in nature because they reduce religion to certain behaviors or feelings which aren’t inherently religious themselves. This bothers many scholars who object to reductionism on general principle, but is also troubling for other reasons. After all, if religion can be reduced to a couple of entirely non-religious features which exist in many other non-religious systems, does that mean that there isn’t anything unique about religion? Should we conclude that the distinction between religious and non-religious belief systems is artificial?

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the psychological and sociological functions of religion are not important — functional definitions may not be enough by themselves, but they do seem to have something relevant to tell us. Whether too vague or too specific, functional definitions still end up focusing on something very relevant to religious belief systems. A solid understanding of religion cannot be restricted to such a definition, but it should at least incorporate its insights and ideas.

One common way to define religion is to focus on what are known as functional definitions: these are definitions which emphasize the way religion operates in human lives. When constructing a functional definition is to ask what a religion does — usually psychologically or socially.

Below are various short quotes from philosophers and scholars of religion which attempt to capture the nature of religion from a functionalist perspective:

Religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate condition of his existence.
- Robert Bellah

Religion is...the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being.
- F.H. Bradley

When I refer to religion, I will have in mind a tradition of group worship (as against individual metaphysic) that presupposes the existence of a sentience beyond the human and capable of acting outside of the observed principles and limits of natural science, and further, a tradition that makes demands of some kind on its adherents.
- Stephen L. Carter

Religion is a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
- Emile Durkheim

All religion...is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.
- Friedrich Engels

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities.... If one attempts to assign religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems...a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.
- Sigmund Freud

A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
- Clifford Geertz

For an anthropologist, the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual or for a group, as a source of general, yet distinctive conceptions of the world, the self and the relations between them on the one hand ... its model of aspect ... and of rooted, no less distinctive “mental” dispositions ... its model for aspect ... on the other.
- Clifford Geertz

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.
- Karl Marx

A religion we will define as a set of beliefs, practices and institutions which men have evolved in various societies, so far as they can be understood, as responses to those aspects of their life and situation which are believed not in the empirical-instrumental sense to be rationally understandable and/or controllable, and to which they attach a significance which includes some kind of reference ...of a supernatural order.
- Talcott Parsons

Religion is the serious and social attitude of individuals or communities toward the power or powers which they conceive as having ultimate control over their interests and destinies.
- J.B. Pratt

Religion is an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.
- Melford E. Spiro

[Religion is] 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.
- Anthony Wallace

Religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.
- J. Milton Yinger

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Dictionaries on the Definition of Religion

http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/dictionary_old.htm


Every dictionary has a definition of religion, but not every definition is equally good. Some are decent, but others are horrible. Sometimes older dictionaries have better definitions than newer ones, but more recent comprehensive dictionaries tend to have the better overall definitions of all. It's easier to understand what religion is if you understand the advantages and disadvantages of some of the more commonly cited definitions found in dictionaries.


Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913:

Religion: The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love, fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power, whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and worship; a manifestation of piety.

This definition, like many of the older ones cited here, focuses on belief in the existence of deities. More than that, it specifies deities which have power over our lives and to whom we owe some level of obedience and service. This excludes from religion many forms of Buddhism, religious humanism, and even deistic belief systems. Because of that, this definition is too narrow and exclusive to be very useful — but it is the sort of definition you will find many people using.

On the positive side, though, this definition acknowledges the important role played by rites and ceremonies in religious belief. Many definitions of religion fail to point them out as being relevant.


The New Century Dictionary, 1927:

Religion: Recognition on the part of man of a controlling superhuman power entitled to obedience, reverence and worship; the feeling or the spiritual attitude of those recognizing such a controlling power; also, a manifestation of such feeling in conduct or life; the practice of sacred rites or observances.

This definition is like the previous one in that it focuses on a particular sort of theism as the defining characteristic of religion while also recognizing the relevancy of rituals to the religious life of believers.

 

The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1966:

Religion:

1. 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.

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

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

This definition is noteworthy for making explicit the fact that belief in gods — and, in particular, gods which control our destiny — is not necessary for religion. Although it acknowledges that belief in a god or gods is common, it is clear that religion has to do with wider issues regarding the nature of the universe and reality.

This definition also points out how religion encompasses different aspects of human existence, including attitudes and behavior. It fails to note the important social aspects of religious system, though.


Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1971:

Religion: 1. the personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion, conduct in accord with divine commands esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or declared by authoritative teachers, a way of life recognized as incumbent on true believers and typically the relating of oneself to an organized body of believers,

2. the state of a religious,

3a. one of the systems of religious faith and worship, 3b. the body of institutionalized expressions of sacred beliefs, observances and social practices found within a given cultural context,

4. the profession or practice of religious beliefs,

5. archaic, scrupulous conformity,

6a. a personal awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being or of supernatural powers or influences controlling one’s own, humanity’s, or all nature’s destiny,

7a. a cause, principle, system of tenets held with ardor, devotion, conscientiousness and faith, a value held to be of supreme importance, 7b. a quality, condition, custom, or thing inspiring zealous devotion, conscientious maintenance, and cherishing.

One noteworthy aspect of this definition is #7, which refers to causes and principles which people pursue with zeal. This is often the origin of misunderstandings about religion because people fail to realize that, when the word religion is used in this sense, it is being used in a metaphorical way. Thus, baseball isn’t really a religion for some people — when used in that context, calling it a religion simply means that they follow it in a way which is more akin to the devotion normally reserved for religion.


The
Oxford English Dictionary, 1971:

Religion:

Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observances implying this.

A particular system of faith and worship.

Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.

Devotion to some principle; a strict fidelity or faithfulness; conscientiousness; pious affection or attachment.

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of most respected sources for how words in the English language are and have been used, so its entry on religion merits careful consideration. The first definition focuses upon belief in divine powers, which is how people in the West typically conceive of religion. The second and third, though, delve more deeply into the subject by describing psychological and sociological aspects of religious belief systems.


The World Book Dictionary, 1976:

Religion:

1. Belief in God or gods,

2. worship of God or gods,

3. a particular system of religious belief and worship,

4. anything done or followed with reverence or devotion.

This is the worst of the lot — the definitions here are refer to belief in gods, a circular “system of religious belief,” and the metaphorical sense of religion. That is misleading to anyone trying to get a better grasp of what it means for a belief system to qualify as a religion.


YourDictionary.com

Religion:

1a. 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.

2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.

3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.


M-W.com

Religion:

1a. the state of a religious b(1). the service and worship of God or the supernatural b(2). commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2a. personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

3. archaic: scrupulous conformity

4a. cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Both of these online definitions are problematic because the present the central defining characteristic of religion as belief in God specifically or, in the more generous example from YourDictionary, whatever powers created the universe.

There is nothing substantive about the psychological or social aspects of religion, all of which play an important role in distinguishing religion from other belief system. There are references to “practices,” but they are presented in a circular fashion — stating that “religion” is a set of “religious practices” really doesn’t tell us anything.

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Religious References on the Definition of Religion
 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religiondefinition/a/referencebooks.htm

 

Although people usually go to dictionaries first when they need a definition, specialized reference works can have more comprehensive and complete definitions - if for no other reason, than because of the greater space. These definitions can reflect greater bias, too, depending upon the author and the audience that it is written for.

 

Global Philosophy of Religion, by Joseph Runzo

Genuine religion is fundamentally a search for meaning beyond materialism. ...A World Religious tradition is a set of symbols and rituals, myths and stories, concepts and truth-claims, which a historical community believes gives ultimate meaning to life, via its connection to a Transcendent beyond the natural order.

This definition starts off as “essentialist,” asserting that the essential characteristic of a religious belief system is the “search for meaning beyond materialism” — if true, however, it would include a multitude of personal beliefs which would never normally be classified as religious. A person who simply helps out in a soup kitchen would be described as practicing their religion, and it isn’t helpful to classify that as being the same sort of activity as a Catholic Mass. Nevertheless, the rest of the definition which describes “world religious traditions” is helpful because it describes the variety of things which make up a religion: myths, stories, truth-claims, rituals, and more.


The Handy Religion Answer Book, by John Renard

In its broadest sense, the term “religion” means adherence to a set of beliefs or teachings about the deepest and most elusive of life’s mysteries.

This is a very short definition — and, in many ways, it isn’t very helpful. What is meant by the “most elusive of life’s mysteries?” If we accept the assumptions of many existing religious traditions, the answer may be obvious — but that is a circular path to take. If we make no assumptions and are trying to start from scratch, then the answer is unclear. Are astrophysicists practicing a “religion” because they are investigating the “elusive mysteries” of the nature of the universe? Are neurobiologists practicing a “religion” because they are investigating the very nature of human memories, human thought, and our human nature?


Religion for Dummies, by Rabbi Marc Gellman & Monsignor Thomas Hartman

A religion is a belief in divine (superhuman or spiritual) being(s) and the practices (rituals) and the moral code (ethics) that result from that belief. Beliefs give religion its mind, rituals give religion its shape, and ethics give religion its heart.

This definition does a decent job of using few words to encompass many aspects of religious belief systems without unnecessarily narrowing the scope of religion. For example, while belief in the “divine” is given a prominent position, that concept is broadened to include superhuman and spiritual beings rather than simply gods. It is still a bit narrow because this would exclude many Buddhists, but it is still better than what you will find in many sources. This definition also make a point of listing features typical with religions, like rituals and moral codes. Many belief systems may have one or the other, but few non-religions will have both.


Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions

A definition that has received reasonable acceptance among scholars is as follows: religion is a system of communal beliefs and practices relative to superhuman beings.

[The problem with t]his definition is that it doesn’t focus on the narrow characteristic of believing in God. The “superhuman beings” can refer to a single god, many gods, spirits, ancestors, or many other powerful beings which rise above mundane humans. It also isn’t so vague as to refer simply to a worldview, but it describes communal and collective nature which characterizes many religious systems.

This is a good definition because it includes Christianity and Hinduism while excluding Marxism and Baseball, but it is lacking any reference to the psychological aspects of religious beliefs and the possibility non-supernaturalistic religion.


An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm

A religion is a set of meanings and behaviors having reference to individuals who are or were or could be religious. ...To be religious is to effect in (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern.

This is an “essentialist” definition of religion because it defines religion based upon some “essential” characteristic: some “serious and ulterior concern.” Unfortunately, it is vague and unhelpful because it either refers to nothing much at all or just about everything. In either case, religion would become a useless classification.


The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, by Allan G. Johnson

In general, religion is a social arrangement designed to provide a shared, collective say of dealing with the unknown and unknowable aspects of human life, death and existence, and the difficult dilemmas that arise in the process of making moral decisions. As such, religion not only provides responses to enduring human problems and questions but also forms a basis for social cohesion and solidarity.

Because this is a sociology reference work, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the definition of religion emphasizes the social aspects of religions. Psychological and experiential aspects are ignored completely, which is why this definition is of only limited use. The fact that this is an appropriate definition in sociology reveals that the common assumption of religion being primarily or solely a “belief in God” is superficial.


A Dictionary of the Social Sciences, edited by Julius Gould & William L. Kolb

Religions are systems of belief, practice and organization which shape and ethic manifest in the behavior of their adherents. Religious beliefs are interpretations of immediate experience by reference to the ultimate structure of the universe, its centres of power and destiny; these are invariably conceived in supernatural terms. ...behavior is in the first instance ritual behavior: standardized practices by which the believers enact in symbolic form their relationship to the supernatural.

This definition focuses the social and psychological aspects of religion — not surprising, in reference work for the social sciences. Despite the assertion that the religious interpretations of the universe are “invariably” supernatural, such beliefs are regarded as only one aspect of what constitutes region rather than the sole defining characteristic.

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Differentiating Between Religions and Other Belief Systems

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/Religious_vs_
NonReligious_Belief_Systems_Whats_the_Difference.htm


Religion is a type of belief system, but not all belief systems are religion. Differentiating religious from non-religious belief systems can be difficult. Understanding how and why theism, philosophy, spirituality, and other beliefs are similar and different from what we normally think of when we think 'religion' can help us in understanding just what religion is. Some point to where the outer boundaries of religion lie, while others help us understand what religion necessarily includes.


 

Religion vs. Superstition: Is Religion Just Organized
Superstition? Is Superstition Always Religious?
 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/superstition.htm

 

Is there a real connection between religion and superstition? Some, particular adherents of various religious faiths, will often argue that the two are fundamentally different types of beliefs. Those who stand outside of religion, however, will notice some very important and fundamental similarities which bear closer consideration.

Obviously, not everyone who is religious is also superstitious and not everyone who is superstitious is also religious. A person can faithfully attend church services all their life without giving a second thought to a black cat walking in front of them. On the other hand, a person who completely rejects any religion whatsoever may consciously or unconsciously avoid walking under a ladder — even if there is no one on the ladder who might drop something.

If neither necessarily leads to the other, it might be easy to conclude that they are different types of beliefs. Moreover, because the very label “superstition” seems to include a negative judgment of irrationality, childishness, or primitiveness, it is understandable of religious believers wouldn’t want their own faiths to be categorized with superstitions.

We must, nevertheless, acknowledge that the similarities are not superficial. For one thing, both superstition and traditional religions are non-materialistic in nature. They do not conceive of the world as a place controlled by sequences of cause and effect between matter and energy. Instead, they presume the added presence of immaterial forces which influence or control the course of our lives.

Furthermore, there is also the appearance of a desire to provide meaning and coherence to otherwise random and chaotic events. If we get hurt in an accident, it is might be attributed to a black cat, to spilling salt, to failing to pay sufficient honor to our ancestors, to performing the appropriate sacrifices to the sprits, etc. There seems to be a genuine continuum between what we tend to call “superstition” and the ideas in animistic religions.

In both cases, people are expected to avoid certain actions and perform other actions in order to ensure that they do not fall victim to the unseen forces at work in our world. In both cases, the very idea that such unseen forces are at work seems to stem (at least in part) both from a desire to explain otherwise random events and from a desire to have some means of affecting those events.

These are all important psychological benefits often used to explain the reason why religion exists and why religion persists. They are also reasons for the existence and persistence of superstition. It seems reasonable to argue, then, that while superstition may not be a form of religion, it does spring from some of the same basic human needs and desires as religion does. Thus, a greater understanding of how and why superstition develops can be useful in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of religion.

 

Religion vs. the Paranormal: Are Paranormal
Beliefs Similar to Religious Beliefs?


http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/paranormal.htm

Is there a real connection between religion and belief in the paranormal? Some, particularly adherents of various religious faiths, will often argue that the two very different types of beliefs. Those who stand outside of religion, however, will notice some very important similarities which bear closer consideration.

Certainly there is no exact correspondence between religious and paranormal beliefs — there are people who are very religious but who don’t believe in things like Bigfoot or UFOs and there are people who believe in many paranormal events but who are not part of any religious tradition. One might be inclined to argue, then, that one does not have anything to do with the other.

Those who are adherents of religious traditions may often be particularly eager to disavow any similarity because paranormal beliefs are often portrayed as less rational and credible than religious beliefs. Even worse, conservative and fundamentalist believers often regard paranormal claims as having quite a lot to do with the actions of evil forces in the universe — not the sort of thing they would want to be associated with, quite understandably.

Nevertheless, religious beliefs and paranormal beliefs do share a number of important things in common. For one thing, both the paranormal and traditional religions are non-materialistic in nature. They do not conceive of the world as a place controlled by sequences of cause and effect between matter and energy. Instead, they presume the added presence of immaterial forces which influence or control the course of our lives.

Furthermore, there is also the appearance of a desire to provide meaning and coherence to otherwise random and chaotic events. If we are suddenly aware of a distant event we shouldn’t know about, it might be attributed to clairvoyance, psychic powers, spirits, angels, or God. There seems to be a genuine continuum between what we tend to call “paranormal” and the ideas in many religious faiths.

The relationship between paranormal beliefs and religion may be even closer than that between superstitions and religious beliefs. Whereas superstitions are often isolated ideas, paranormal beliefs are commonly part of an integrated beliefs system about the very nature and substance of the universe. These belief systems are very similar to religion — they can provide meaning to our lives as well as the events in our lives, they can provide social structure, and they can provide comfort in difficult times.

Paranormal belief systems do, however, lack some of the critical characteristics of religions. They don’t typically involve ritual acts, it’s unusual for them to differentiate between the sacred and the profane, and it is rare for people to base a moral code upon those beliefs. Although this means that paranormal beliefs are not the same as religion, the strong similarities do suggest that they stem from some of the same needs and desires as religious beliefs.

 

Religion vs. Theism: Is Religion Defined by Belief in God?
Can Theism Exist Outside Religion?

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/theism.htm

Are religion and theism effectively the same thing, such that every religion is theistic and every theist is also religious? Because of some common misconceptions, many people are inclined answer that question positively. It isn’t uncommon even among atheists to simply assume that religion and theism are equivalent.

In reality, however, the two are very different — it is readily possible to be a theist without a religion and it is just as possible to be religious without also being a theist. To understand how and why, it will help to examine a comprehensive definition of religion found in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In the article on religion, it lists some characteristics of religions rather than simply declaring religion to be one thing or another. The more markers that are present in a belief system, the more “religious-like” it is; below is a slightly modified version of it:

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

·        A distinction between sacred and profane objects.

·        Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.

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

·        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.

·        Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.

·        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.

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

·        A social group bound together by the above.

One thing that should be clear from the above is that mere theism alone cannot qualify as a religion. Certainly theism is a common characteristic of religions, but it isn’t a necessary characteristic. When theism does appear, there still needs to be other features in order to have a religion. This means that a person who believes in the existence of a god but whose behavior and beliefs cannot be described by any of the other characteristics is, quite simply, not religious.

An important and practical consequence of this is that if you know that a person is a theist, you cannot automatically assume that they are also necessarily religious. Having a belief in the existence of at least one god does not require a person to also have, somewhere, several of the above characteristics of a religion. They certainly might and religion probably accompanies theism more often than it doesn’t, but that doesn’t entitle you to conclude that a religion is definitely present.

A particularly interesting possibility revealed by the above definition is that while gods can play an important role, they are not indispensable to a religion. This means that a religion without theism should be possible. Many types of Buddhism, for example, are effectively or explicitly a-theistic, either rejecting gods or simply not bothering with them in any fashion. Although Buddhism is perhaps the best known atheistic religion, there are others, such as Jainism and some mystical forms of Hinduism. Chun Fang Yu has said of Chinese religions:

Unlike most other religions, Chinese religion does not have a creator God. There is no God transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge.

If gods are not necessary for a religion, it is worth wondering what else might qualify as a religion but which is not normally placed in that category. Some modern philosophical systems which either reject or do not bother with gods might be able to count as religions even though they also lack other supernatural content which older atheistic religions like Buddhism retain. Except for the issue of gods, Communism, for example, has most of the characteristics listed above. Thus Communism — at least in some of its incarnations — might be one of a small group of modern non-supernatural religions.

What is important to understand is that while there is a high correlation between theism and religion and an even higher correlation between supernatural beliefs and religion, it is not legitimate to conclude that this correlation always and necessarily exists. Religion involves a lot more than a simple belief in the existence of a god or even more complex beliefs regarding supernatural beings and realms.

Instead, religion is an interconnected web of beliefs which involve moral values, one’s position in society, one’s position in the cosmos, the meaning of life, rituals, a focus on that which is sacred, and more. It is very possible for a person’s belief system to encompass a couple of these features, but only a belief system which includes most of them really qualifies as a “religion” in the sense we normally imagine.

 

Religion vs. Religious: If Something is Religious, is it a Religion?

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/religious.htm

The terms religion and religious obviously come from the same root, which would normally lead us to conclude that they also refer to basically the same thing: one as a noun and the other as an adjective. But perhaps that isn’t always true — perhaps the adjective religious has a broader usage than the noun religion.

A primary definition of religious which we see in standard dictionaries reads something like “of, concerned with, or teaching religion,” and this is what people normally mean when they say things like “Christianity is a religious belief system” or “St. Peter’s is a religious school.” Certainly, then, a primary sense of “religious” does have the same object as the noun “religion.”

That is not, however, the only sense in which the adjective “religious” is used. There is also a much broader, even metaphorical sense which occurs quite regularly and is reflected in dictionaries by wording like “extremely scrupulous or conscientious; zealous.” This is what we mean when we refer to someone’s “religious devotion to their baseball team” or “a religious zeal in the pursuit of duty.”

Clearly when the term religious is used in those phrases, we don’t really mean that a person’s religion is comprised of their baseball team or their sense of duty. No, in cases such as this, we are using the word religious in a metaphorical sense where it would be completely inappropriate to introduce the traditional and primary concept behind the noun “religion.”

This may appear to be a relatively simple observation — hardly worth spending any time on, in fact — but the different ways in which the adjective can be used and the fact that it can be used where the noun should not still causes confusion for some people. As a consequence, they are led to think that any belief or ideology to which a person shows an intense, personal commitment might qualify as a “religion” simply because that commitment can be described as “religious.”

Indeed, it is precisely when it comes to belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies where this confusion becomes most prominent. For example, if a person is a vegetarian, is firmly committed to the principle that eating meat is wrong, works to educate others about the dangers and ethics involved with eating meat, and hopes for a future in which meat is no longer eaten, then it might not be unreasonable to describe this person as having a religious commitment to the principles and ethics of vegetarianism.

It would, however, probably be unreasonable to describe this person as having a religion of vegetarianism. The vegetarianism described here does not categorize anything as sacred or transcendent, does not include ritual acts, does not incorporate characteristically religious feelings like awe or mystery, and does not involve a social group bound together by such things.

Granted, someone’s vegetarianism could incorporate all of the above and hence perhaps qualify as a religion. But that theoretical possibility is not the point. The point is that the mere fact that a person has a “religious” commitment to the principles and ethics of vegetarianism does not allow us to conclude that they also have the above beliefs and feelings.

In other words, we must be clear in the distinction between the metaphorical usage of adjective “religious” and the more concrete usage of the noun “religion.” If we don’t, our thinking will be sloppy — and sloppy thinking leads to sloppy conclusions, like the idea that vegetarianism must be a religion. The same sloppy conclusion can be and has been made on account of people’s intense “religious” commitments to political parties and ideologies, to their favorite sports teams, and to secular philosophies like humanism.

None of these are religions in the proper, concrete sense of the term. All of them can involve what can justifiably be called a religious commitment, devotion, or zeal on the part of many of those who adhere to them; none of them, however, incorporate rituals, mysteries, religious feelings, piety, worship, or any of the other things which constitute important characteristics of religions.

The next time someone tries to argue that the description of a person’s commitment to an idea as “religious” means that they also therefore have a “religion,” you can explain to them the difference between the two. If they already understand the difference between the metaphorical sense of “religious” and the concrete sense of “religion,” then you should be aware that they are trying to trap you into a kind of “bait and switch” through a fallacy of equivocation.

 

Religion vs. Philosophy: Are Religion and Philosophy
Two Ways of Doing the Same Thing?

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/philosophy.htm

Is religion just a type of philosophy? Is philosophy a religious activity? There seems to be some confusion at times over just whether and how religion and philosophy should be distinguished from each other — this confusion is not unjustified because there are some very strong similarities between the two.

The questions discussed in both religion and philosophy tend to be very much alike. Both religion and philosophy wrestle with problems like: What is good? What does it mean to live a good life? What is the nature of reality? Why are we here and what should we be doing? How should we treat each other? What is really most important in life?

Clearly, then, there are enough similarities that religions can be philosophical (but need not be) and philosophies can be religious (but again need not be). Does this mean that we simply have two different words for the same fundamental concept? No; there are some real differences between religion and philosophy which warrant considering them to be two different types of systems even though they overlap in places.

To begin with, of the two only religions have rituals. In religions, there are ceremonies for important life events (birth, death, marriage, etc.) and for important times of the year (days commemorating spring, harvest, etc.). Philosophies, however, do not have their adherents engage in ritualistic actions. Students do not have to ritually wash their hands before studying Hegel and professors do not celebrate a “Utilitarian Day” every year.

Another difference is the fact that philosophy tends to emphasize just the use of reason and critical thinking whereas religions may make use of reason, but at the very least they also rely on faith, or even use faith to the exclusion of reason. Granted, there are any number of philosophers who have argued that reason alone cannot discover truth or who have tried to describe the limitations of reason in some manner — but that isn’t the quite the same thing.

You won’t find Hegel, Kant or Russell saying that their philosophies are revelations from a god or that their work should be taken on faith. Instead, they base their philosophies on rational arguments — those arguments may not also prove valid or successful, but it is the effort which differentiates their work from religion. In religion, and even in religious philosophy, reasoned arguments are ultimately traced back to some basic faith in God, gods, or religious principles which have been discovered in some revelation.

A separation between the sacred and the profane is something else lacking in philosophy. Certainly philosophers discuss the phenomena of religious awe, feelings of mystery, and the importance of sacred objects, but that is very different from having feelings of awe and mystery around such objects within philosophy. Many religions teach adherents to revere sacred scriptures, but no one teaches students to revere the collected notes of William James.

Finally, most religions tend to include some sort of belief in what can only be described as the “miraculous” — events which either defy normal explanation or which are, in principal, outside the boundaries of what should occur in our universe. Miracles may not play a very large role in every religion, but they are a common feature which you don’t find in philosophy. Nietzsche wasn’t born of a virgin, no angels appeared to announce the conception of Sartre, and Hume didn’t make the lame walk again.

The fact that religion and philosophy are distinct does not mean that they are entirely separate. Because they both address many of the same issues, it isn’t uncommon for a person to be engaged in both religion and philosophy simultaneously. They may refer to their activity with only one term and their choice of which term to use may reveal quite a lot about their individual perspective on life; nevertheless, it is important to keep their distinctness in mind when considering them.

 

Religion and Spirituality: Is Religion Organized Spirituality?
Is Spirituality Personalized Religion?

 

http://atheism.about.com/od/religionnonreligion/a/spirituality.htm

One popular idea is that there exists a distinction between two different modes of relating with the divine or the sacred: religion and spirituality. Religion describes the social, the public, and the organized means by which people relate the the sacred and the divine while spirituality describes such relations when they occur in private, personally, and even in eclectic ways.

Is such a distinction valid? In answering such a question, it is important to keep in mind that it presumes to describe two fundamentally different types of things. Even though I describe them as different ways of “relating to the divine or the sacred,” that is already introducing my own prejudices into the discussion. Many (if not most) of those who attempt to draw such a distinction do not describe them as two aspects of the same thing; instead, they are supposed to be two completely different animals.

Religion vs. Spirituality

One clue that there may be something problematic in this distinction comes when we look at the radically different ways in which people actually try to define and describe that distinction. Consider these three definitions drawn from the internet:

Religion is an institution established by man for various reasons. Exert control, instill morality, stroke egos, or whatever it does. Organized, structured religions all but remove god from the equation. You confess your sins to a clergy member, go to elaborate churches to worship, told what to pray and when to pray it. All those factors remove you from god. Spirituality is born in a person and develops in the person. It may be kick started by a religion, or it may be kick started by a revelation. Spirituality extends to all facets of a person’s life. Spirituality is chosen while religion is often times forced. Being spiritual to me is more important and better than being religious.

Religion can be anything that the person practicing it desires. Spirituality, on the other hand, is defined by God. Since religion is man defined, Religion is a manifestation of the flesh. But Spirituality, as defined by God, is a manifestation of His nature.

True spirituality is something that is found deep within oneself. It is your way of loving, accepting and relating to the world and people around you. It cannot be found in a church or by believing in a certain way.

These definitions aren’t just different, they are incompatible! Two define spirituality in a way which makes it dependent upon the individual — it is something that “develops in the person” or is “found deep within oneself.” The other, however, defines spirituality as something which comes from God and is defined by God while religion is “anything that the person desires.” Is spirituality from God and religion from Man, or is it the other way around? Why such divergent views?

We can better understand why such incompatible definitions (each representative of how many, many others define the terms) appear by observing what unites them: the denigration of religion. Religion is bad. Religion is all about people controlling other people. Religion distances you from God and from the sacred. Spirituality, whatever it really is, is good. Spirituality is the “true” way to reach God and the sacred. Spirituality is the right thing to center your life on.

It’s popular, especially in America, to distinguish between spirituality and religion. It’s true that there are valid distinctions between the two, but there are also a number of problematic distinctions which people try to make. In particular, supporters of spirituality tend to try to argue that everything bad lies with religion while everything good can be found in spirituality. This is a self-serving distinction which only masks the nature of religion and spirituality.

Problematic Distinctions Between Religion and Spirituality

One principal problem with attempts to separate religion from spirituality is that the former is saddled with everything negative while the latter is exalted with everything positive. This is a totally self-serving way of approaching the issue and something you only hear from those who describe themselves as “spiritual.” You never hear a self-professed religious person offer such definitions and it's disrespectful to religious people to suggest that they would remain in a system with no positive characteristics whatsoever.

Another problem with attempts to separate religion from spirituality is the curious fact that we don’t see it outside America. Why are people in Europe either religious or irreligious but Americans have this third category called “spiritual”? Are Americans special? Or is it rather that “distinction” is really just a product of American culture?

In fact, that is exactly the case. The term itself came to be used frequently only after the 1960s when there were widespread revolts against every form of organized authority, including “organized religion.” Every establishment and every system of authority was thought to be corrupt and evil, including those which were religious — but of course, Americans weren’t prepared to abandon religion entirely. So, they created a new category which was still religious, but which no longer included the same traditional authority figures.

They called it Spirituality. Indeed, the creation of the category “spiritual” can be seen as just one more step in the long American process of privatizing and personalizing religion, something which has occurred constantly throughout American history.

It's no wonder that courts in the America have refused to acknowledge any substantive difference between “religion” and “spirituality,” concluding that “spiritual” programs are so much like religions that it would violate the separation of church and state to force people to attend them (as with Alcoholics Anonymous, for example). The religious beliefs of these “spiritual” groups do not necessarily lead people to the same conclusions as organized religions, but that doesn’t make them less religious.

Valid Distinctions Between Religion and Spirituality

This is not to say that there is nothing at all valid in the concept of spirituality — just that the distinction between spirituality and religion in general is not valid. Spirituality is a form of religion, but a private and personal form of religion. Thus, the valid distinction is between spirituality and organized religion.

We can see this in how there is little (if anything) that people describe as characterizing spirituality but which has not also characterized aspects of traditional religion. Personal quests for God? Organized religions have made a great deal of room for such quests. Personal understandings of God? Organized religions have relied heavily upon the insights of mystics, although they have also sought to circumscribe their influence so as not to “rock the boat” too much and too quickly.

Moreover, some of the negative features commonly attributed to religion can also be found in so-called “spiritual” systems. Is religion dependent upon a book of rules? Alcoholic’s Anonymous describes itself as spiritual rather than religious and has such a book. Is religion dependent upon a set of written revelations from God rather than a personal communication? A Course in Miracles is a book of such revelations which people are expected to study and learn from.

It is important to note the fact that many of the negative things which people attribute to religions are, at best, features of some forms of some religions (usually Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), but not of other religions (like Taoism or Buddhism). This is perhaps why so much of spirituality remains attached to traditional religions, like attempts to soften their harder edges. Thus, we have Jewish spirituality, Christian spirituality, and Muslim spirituality.

Religion is spiritual and spirituality is religious. One tends to be more personal and private while the other tends to incorporate public rituals and organized doctrines. The lines between one and the other are not clear and distinct — they are all points on the spectrum of belief systems known as religion. Neither religion nor spirituality is better or worse than the other; people who try to pretend that such a difference does exist are only fooling themselves.

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