What is religion? I would find it difficult to believe that anyone can give an all encompassing definition to a word that holds so many different meanings and implications to the many diverse groups of people around the globe.
You often hear people discuss religion and even engage in heated arguments over what religion is best or the most “correct”. Most of the wars and conflicts in the history of our world have been fought in the name of a religious institution or for religious freedom, yet I doubt few could provide a concise view and description of what religion really means to them.
When I hear the word religion I think it can best be defined as a group of common beliefs or ideas based upon a supernatural or divine power which includes the morals, traditions, and rituals associated with that belief system (Robinson). Even though variations among religions exist, there remain many more similarities in religion and those common themes are what make religion a universal system for everyone.
One of the important elements or benefits of religion is that it provides a sense of belonging and understanding. While it may not be the primary factor for having a religion, I believe that it is the reason that some religions may have formed.
For others, it may be the factor that causes many to join a religious group. The founder of Liberal Protestant Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, argued that religion is actually based on an “immediate self-consciousness” where the self feels totally dependent on something other than itself (Lyden 18-19).
Religion is in a way like any other social group. It provides a setting where you can share similar beliefs, ideas, and concerns with others in a supportive and loving environment. For others, religion can provide a sense of control. The world in which we live can sometimes be very tumultuous and thus religion provides a haven where one can find peace and understanding.
The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach theorized that when people face challenges they seek to overcome them by an idealized being of goodness or power that can help them (Hopfe 9). I think that religion’s primary driving force is the human’s basic need to have a sense of safety and belonging in a world that can otherwise be harsh and cold.
Central to the origin of religion is the belief in some sort of supernatural
or divine power. According to Sir Edward Tylor, the development of religion is based on the understanding that the world is alive with souls and spirits.
The belief that spirits have feelings and are able to be communicated with is the most common human religious experience (Hopfe 19). For the majority of religions, but not all, beliefs and practices are focused around the idea that some sort of supreme power exists and controls the fate and destiny of our lives. Many religions have a common thread in that they are monotheistic and believe in only one true god. For Christians it is simply God. For others it may be Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, Yahweh, Jah, Ik Onkar, Ahura Mazda, the Divine One, or the Supreme (Facts).
Although the many different names may be confusing, the idea that there is only one true God is the common thread that ties most of the world’s major religions together. Yet for others such as Epicureanism, Falun Gong, Asatru, Greek, and Jainism they believe that there exist several gods and/or goddesses (Facts). Polytheism, while very different from monotheism, still holds the idea that divine powers or spirits exist and control different aspects in our lives.
Another common theme of most religions is that they all are passed from generation to generation through a written or oral history. Most have some sort of religious or sacred text. The writings located in these texts give direction, rules, and the history of how the religion was formed. Without the sacred text as a foundation, there would be no way for the religion to progress and continue. Each person views the text from which their religion is based differently. For example, Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the actual words of God that were received by Muhammad.
The Qur’an is extremely revered and certain rules must be upheld during its reading and handling (Holm 86). For Judaism, the Bible is the framework for belief and is a compilation of different works by several authors. It contains laws, fables, prophecies, and records of the history of Christianity (Holm 87). Although these are only two examples of religious text, many others exist and have been translated and held sacred by many as the key to knowledge and salvation.
The next common component of religion is a system of morals or a moral code. Each religion usually outlines within their doctrine what they believe to be right and wrong and these beliefs are based upon the writings located within each respective religious text. In addition, each individual within that religion may have their own moral views separate from those basic to their religion.
For Christians, the rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the basic guideline that should direct one’s path in life. Different religious groups have opposing viewpoints on topics such as abortion, homosexuality, suicide, divorce, and a host of other topics (Robinson). These viewpoints are formulated based upon the morals or code which each religion believes to be the most correct and ethical way to live.
Next, traditions or customs play a vital role in religion. Though several interpretations of the word tradition exist, I think of it as an inherited way of acting or doing something based upon generational teaching. Traditions may include religious holidays, traditional dress, eating certain foods, festivals, or a host of other activities or ways of life. Religious holidays vary per religion but often celebrate a religious figure or god. During these celebrations food, dress, and activities all play an important part. We often participate in traditions without actively knowing that we are taking part.
Lastly, rituals are perhaps the largest component of any religion. All religions have their own specific rituals and they may be simple or complex and may be practiced daily or rarely (Hopfe 25). Rituals are a way to express certain beliefs or practices deemed necessary. Although too numerous to list here, rituals can include such things as prayer, meditation, worship, baptism, and sacrifice.
Certain rituals known as the rites of passage include key points in life and usually recognize practices around birth, puberty, marriage, and death (Holm 15). These events are usually significant for not only the individual but for the surrounding family and community involved. Although only a few rituals are listed here, there importance should not be overlooked. For most religions, rituals are a vital way to express important beliefs that are necessary for spiritual growth.
While the topics covered in this paper by no means cover the definition of religion in its entirety, it is an attempt to explain what I believe to be the most important aspects. Religion is a group of common beliefs based on a supernatural or divine power. The common themes of religious systems include morals, traditions, and rituals. Even though all religions vary greatly it is apparent that all have these themes and they are based and originated from the same basic ideas. These similarities are what make religion a universal component of all life.
Facts, Religion. The Big Religion Chart. 2008. 13 September 2008. Holm, Jean. The Study of Religions. New York: The Seabury Press, 1977.
Lyden, John. Enduring Issues in Religion. San Diego: Greenhaven Pres, 1995. Robinson, B.A. Religious Tolerance.org. 15 December 2007. 11
September 2008 .