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What is Religion?

Defining Religion: The Problem of Definition

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Hawaiian God
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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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