What is Religion?

2005-11-09 00:16 - Religion

One of the few things I really learned from the World Religions course I had in college to fill requirements is that "religion" is extremely difficult to define. For a starting point, let's start with religion in the dictionary.

religion, noun
  1. the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
  2. a particular system of faith and worship.
  3. a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.
— ORIGIN originally in the sense life under monastic vows: from Latin religio 'obligation, reverence'.

The definition quoted above comes from The Oxford English Dictionary, a rather authoritative source for the meaning of words. There's also Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of 1913, both respectible sources. Additionally, there are less canonical but still valuable definitions from Wordnet and Dictionary.com (which does include some very playful definitions alongside more serious ones).

I've provided such a range of definitions to try to emphasize that I have not "stacked the deck" by choosing a definition that suits my ends. Nevertheless, religion in each of its many forms seems to be primarily theism or deism alongside some set of faith or beliefs usually expressed through dogmatic rituals. The obvious exception is Zen Buddhism which has none of those traits overtly.

So that brings us to the essential conflict, what is religion? For my purposes, I will combine definitions one and two above, to reach the conclusion that religion is "a particular system of faith and worship of a superhuman God or gods." Or in other words, religion is belief in a god or gods, along with the related structures and strictures associated with that/those deities. There are generally fragments and splinters of all established religions, making most gods shared among groups with separate supporting systems, but this does not change the central pillar; the structure exists to support the worship of those gods.

The structures created vary widely, but nearly all organized religions include philosophy into their structures. Especially definition 3 there, "a theory or attitude that guides one's behaviour." But, though religion implies a supporting philosophy, a philosophy does neither imply a supporting religion nor a supported religion. Philosophy can and does stand as a device on its own. From my perspective, Buddhism is clearly a philosophy, an attitude that guides behavior; similarly Pantheism and other lesser known, and dubiously monikered, religions.

Two things remain to complete a comprehensive understanding of religion. First is exploration of the faith structures involved. Also we have the philosophies (without gods) that include faith structures similar to religions, that I yet have not deigned include within my definition of religions. These are both complex topics that deserve their own discussions.


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