The Religion

The Religion

A religion is a set of beliefs and practices often organized around supernatural and moral claims, and often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction.

In the frame of European religious thought, [1] religions present a common quality, the "hallmark of patriarchal religious thought": the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane.[2] Religion is often described as a communal system for the coherence of belief focusing on a system of thought, unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or of the highest truth. Moral codes, practices, values, institutions, tradition, rituals, and scriptures are often traditionally associated with the core belief, and these may have some overlap with concepts in secular philosophy. Religion is also often described as a "way of life".

The development of religion has taken many forms in various cultures. "Organized religion" generally refers to an organization of people supporting the exercise of some religion with a prescribed set of beliefs, often taking the form of a legal entity (see religion-supporting organization). Other religions believe in personal revelation. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system, " [3] but is more socially defined than that of personal convictions.


The English word religion is in use since the 13th century, loaned from Anglo-French religiun (11th century), ultimately from the Latin religio, "reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety, the res divinae".[4]

The ultimate origins of Latin religio are obscure. It is usually accepted to derive from ligare "bind, connect"; likely from a prefixed religare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or "to reconnect." This interpretation is favoured by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell, but was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius. Another possibility is derivation from a reduplicated *le-ligare. A historical interpretation due to Cicero on the other hand connects lego "read", i.e. re (again) + lego in the sense of "choose", "go over again" or "consider carefully". [5]

Definitions of religion

Religion has been defined in a wide variety of ways. Most definitions attempt to find a balance somewhere between overly sharp definition and meaningless generalities. Some sources have tried to use formalistic, doctrinal definitions while others have emphasized experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors. Definitions mostly include:

  1. a notion of the transcendent or numinous, often, but not always, in the form of theism
  2. a cultural or behavioural aspect of ritual, liturgy and organized worship, often involving a priesthood, and societal norms of morality (ethos) and virtue (arete)
  3. a set of myths or sacred truths held in reverence or believed by adherents

Sociologists and anthropologists tend to see religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. For example, in Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine, religion does not refer to belief in "God" or a transcendent Absolute. Instead, Lindbeck defines religion as, "a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought… it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.” [6] According to this definition, religion refers to one's primary worldview and how this dictates one's thoughts and actions.

Other religious scholars have put forward a definition of religion that avoids the reductionism of the various sociological and psychological disciplines that reduce religion to its component factors. Religion may be defined as the presence of a belief in the sacred or the holy. For example Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy, " formulated in 1917, defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late 18th century defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence."

The Encyclopedia of Religion defines religion this way:[7]

"In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience — varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture."

Other encyclopedic definitions include: "A general term used... to designate all concepts concerning the belief in god(s) and goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns" [8] and "human beings' relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine." [9]

Religion and Superstition

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, some atheists, agnostics, deists, and skeptics regard religious belief as superstition.

Religious practices are most likely to be labeled "superstitious" by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications.

Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). Early Christianity was outlawed as a superstitio Iudaica, a "Jewish superstition", by Domitianin the 80s AD, and by AD 425, Theodosius II outlawed pagan traditions as superstitious.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion" (para. #2110).

The Catechism clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. Matthew 23:16-22 (para. #2111)


Development of religion

There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories:

  1. Models which see religions as social constructions;
  2. Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  3. Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true.

The models are not mutually exclusive. Multiple models may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying to different religions.

In pre-modern (pre-urban) societies, religion is one defining factor of ethnicity, along with language, regional customs, national costume, etc. As Xenophanes famously comments:

Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair.

Ethnic religions may include officially sanctioned and organized civil religions with an organized clergy, but they are characterized in that adherents generally are defined by their ethnicity, and conversion essentially equates to cultural assimilation to the people in question. The notion of gentiles ("nations") in Judaism reflect this state of affairs, the implicit assumption that each nation will have its own religion. Historical examples include Germanic polytheism, Celtic polytheism, Slavic polytheism and pre-Hellenistic Greek religion.

The "Axial Age"

Karl Jaspers, in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), identified a number of key Axial Age thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophy and religion, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found very little recorded proof of extensive inter-communication between the ancient Near East, Greece, India and China. Jaspers held up this age as unique, and one which to compare the rest of the history of human thought to. Jaspers' approach to the culture of the middle of the first millennium BCE has been adopted by other scholars and academics, and has become a point of discussion in the history of religion.

In its later part, the "Axial Age" culminated in the development of monism and monotheism, notably of Platonic realism and Neoplatonism in Hellenistic philosophy, the notion of atman in Vedanta Hindu philosophy, and the notion of Tao in Taoism.

Middle Ages

The present-day world religions established themselves throughout Eurasia during the Middle Ages by: Christianization of the Western world; Buddhist missions to East Asia; the decline of Buddhism and rise of Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent; and the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and India.

During the Middle Ages, Christians were in conflict with Muslims and Jews during the Byzantine-Arab Wars, Crusades, Reconquista and Ottoman wars in Europe; Shamans were in conflict with Muslims and Buddhists during the Mongol invasions; and Muslims were in conflict with Hindus and Sikhs during Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent.

Many medieval religious movements emphasized mysticism, such as the Cathars and related movements in the West, the Bhakti movement in India and Sufism in Islam. Monotheism reached definite forms in Christian Christology and in Islamic Tawhid. Hindu monotheist notions of Brahman likewise reached their classical form with the teaching of Adi Shankara.

Modern period

European colonisation during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Philippines. The 18th century saw the beginning of secularisation in Europe, rising to notability in the wake of the French Revolution.

In the 20th century, the regimes of Communist Eastern Europe and Communist China were explicitly anti-religious. A great variety of new religious movements originated in the 20th century, many proposing syncretism of elements of established religions. Adherence to such new movements is limited, however, remaining below 2% worldwide in the 2000s. Adherents of the classical world religions account for more than 75% of the world's population, while adherence to indigenous tribal religions has fallen to 4%. As of 2005, an estimated 14% of the world's population identifies as nonreligious.

Religion and Science

Religious knowledge, according to religious practitioners, may be gained from religious leaders, sacred texts (scriptures), and/or personal revelation. Some religions view such knowledge as unlimited in scope and suitable to answer any question; others see religious knowledge as playing a more restricted role, often as a complement to knowledge gained through physical observation. Some religious people maintain that religious knowledge obtained in this way is absolute and infallible (religious cosmology).

The scientific method gains knowledge by testing hypotheses to develop theories through elucidation of facts or evaluation by experiments and thus only answers cosmological questions about the physical universe. It develops theories of the world which best fit physically observed evidence. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and subject to later improvement or revision in the face of better evidence. Scientific theories that have an overwhelming preponderance of favorable evidence are often treated as facts (such as the theories of gravity or evolution).

Many scientists held strong religious beliefs (see List of Christian thinkers in science) and worked to harmonize science and religion. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that gravity caused the planets to revolve about the Sun, and credited God with the design. In the concluding General Scholium to the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he wrote: "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being." Nevertheless, conflict arose between religious organizations and individuals who propagated scientific theories which were deemed unacceptable by the organizations. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has in the past[12] reserved to itself the right to decide which scientific theories were acceptable and which were unacceptable. In the 17th century, Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric theory based on the medieval church's stance that the Greek Hellenistic system of astronomy was the correct one.[13][14]

Many theories exist as to why religions sometimes seem to conflict with scientific knowledge. In the case of Christianity, a relevant factor may be that it was among Christians that science in the modern sense was developed. Unlike other religious groups, as early as the 17th century the Christian churches had to deal directly with this new way to investigate nature and seek truth.

The perceived conflict between science and Christianity may also be partially explained by a literal interpretation of the Bible adhered to by many Christians, both currently and historically. The Catholic Church has always held with Augustine of Hippo who explicitly opposed a literal interpretation of the Bible whenever the Bible conflicted with Science. The literal way to read the sacred texts became especially prevalent after the rise of the Protestant reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible as the only authoritative source concerning the ultimate reality.[15] This view is often shunned by both religious leaders (who regard literally believing it as petty and look for greater meaning instead) and scientists who regard it as an impossibility.

Some Christians have disagreed or are still disagreeing with scientists in areas such as the validity of Keplerian astronomy, the theory of evolution, the method of creation of the universe and the Earth, and the origins of life. On the other hand, scholars such as Stanley Jaki have suggested that Christianity and its particular worldview was a crucial factor for the emergence of modern science. In fact, most of today's historians are moving away from the view of the relationship between Christianity and science as one of "conflict" - a perspective commonly called the conflict thesis.[16][17] Gary Ferngren in his historical volume about Science & Religion states:

While some historians had always regarded the [conflict] thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.[18]

In the Bahá'í Faith, the harmony of science and religion is a central tenet.[19] The principle states that that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict.[19] `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, asserted that science and religion cannot be opposed because they are aspects of the same truth; he also affirmed that reasoning powers are required to understand the truths of religion and that religious teachings which are at variance with science should not be accepted; he explained that religion has to be reasonable since God endowed humankind with reason so that they can discover truth.[20] Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, described science and religion as "the two most potent forces in human life." [21]

Proponents of Hinduism claim that Hinduism is not afraid of scientific explorations, nor of the technological progress of mankind. According to them, there is a comprehensive scope and opportunity for Hinduism to mold itself according to the demands and aspirations of the modern world; it has the ability to align itself with both science and spiritualism. This religion uses some modern examples to explain its ancient theories and reinforce its own beliefs. For example, some Hindu thinkers have used the terminology of quantum physics to explain some basic concepts of Hinduism such as Maya or the illusory and impermanent nature of our existence.

The philosophical approach known as pragmatism, as propounded by the American philosopher William James, has been used to reconcile scientific with religious knowledge. Pragmatism, simplistically, holds that the truth of a set of beliefs can be indicated by its usefulness in helping people cope with a particular context of life. Thus, the fact that scientific beliefs are useful in predicting observations in the physical world can indicate a certain truth for scientific theories; the fact that religious beliefs can be useful in helping people cope with difficult emotions or moral decisions can indicate a certain truth for those beliefs. (For a similar postmodern view, see grand narrative).

Religion, metaphysics, and cosmology

Religion and philosophy meet in several areas, notably in the study of metaphysics and cosmology. In particular, a distinct set of religious beliefs will often entail a specific metaphysics and cosmology. That is, a religion will generally have answers to metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of being, of the universe, humanity, and the divine.

Mysticism and esotericism

Mysticism, in contrast with philosophy, denies that logic is the most important method of gaining enlightenment. Rather, meditative practices such as Vipassanā and yoga, physical disciplines such as stringent fasting and whirling (in the case of the Sufi dervishes), or the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD, lead to altered states of consciousness that logic can never hope to grasp.

Mysticism (to initiate) is the pursuit of communion with, or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational thought. Mystics speak of the existence of realities behind external perception or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible through personal experience. They say that such experience is a genuine and important source of knowledge.

Esotericism claims to be more sophisticated than religion, to rely on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and to improve on philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation (esoteric cosmology). Esotericism refers to "hidden" knowledge available only to the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It applies especially to spiritual practices. The mystery religions of ancient Greece are examples of Esotericism.


Members of an organized religion may not see any significant difference between religion and spirituality. Or they may see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and its spiritual dimension.

Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion (see Major religious groups), and a movement towards a more "modern" — more tolerant, and more intuitive — form of religion. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Christian Crusades and Islamic Jihad, the marginalisation and persecution of various minorities or the Spanish Inquisition. The basic precept of the ancient spiritual tradition of India, the Vedas, is the inner reality of existence, which is essentially a spiritual approach to being.


The word myth has several meanings.

1. A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence; or
3. A metaphor for the spiritual potentiality in the human being. [22]

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are usually categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called "myths" in the anthropology of religion. The term "myth" can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. By defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one's own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell remarked, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." [23]

In sociology, however, the term myth has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as a story that is important for the group whether or not it is objectively or provably true. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin and is also ostensibly a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not the event actually occurred is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of the death of an old "life" and the start of a new "life" is what is most significant.
Urarina shaman, 1988


Humans have many different methods which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it (cosmology). Religion is only one of the methods for trying to answer one or more of these questions. Other methods include science, philosophy, metaphysics, astrology, esotericism, mysticism, and forms of shamanism, such as the sacred consumption of ayahuasca among Peruvian Amazonia's Urarina. The Urarina have an elaborate animistic cosmological system[24], which informs their mythology, religious orientation and daily existence.

Given the generalized discontents with modernity, consumerism, over-consumption, violence and anomie, many people in the so-called industrial or post-industrial West rely on a number of distinctive religious worldviews. This in turn has given rise to increased religious pluralism, as well as to what are commonly known in the academic literature as new religious movements, which are gaining ground across the globe.


Most western criticism of religion focuses on the Abrahamic religions—particularly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — with titles such as Why I am not a Christian, The God Delusion and The End of Faith representing some popular published books. Not all the criticisms would apply to all religions: criticism regarding the existence of god(s), for example, has very little relevance to some forms of Buddhism.

There are some critics who consider all religious faith essentially irrational.[25][26][27]

Many critics claim dogmatic religions are typically morally deficient, elevating to moral status ancient, arbitrary, and ill-informed rules that may have been designed for reasons of hygiene, politics, or other reasons in a bygone era. These include the taboo on eating pork, dress codes and sexual practices.[28]


[1] Jack Goody as cited in "Sacred and Profane - Durkheim's Critics".
[2] Durkheim 1976, p.36
[3] The words "belief system" may not necessarily refer to a religion, though a religion may be referred to as "belief system."
[4] Lewis & Short, A Latin Dictionary
[5] qui omnia, quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent, diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex elegendo, tamquam a diligendo diligentes, ex intellegendo intellegentes: his enim in verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem, quae in religioso, Cic. N. D. 2, 28, 72
[6] George A. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984), 33.
[7] Religion [First Edition]. Winston King. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 11. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p7692-7701.
[8] Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997) as quoted on "ReligionFacts".
[9] Encyclopædia Britannica (2006) as quoted on "ReligionFacts".
[10] Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer, Basic Books (2001)
[11] Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Little Rock; quoted epigraph in Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin, 2001
[12] Quotation: "The Second Vatican Council affirmed academic freedom for natural science and other secular disciplines". From the essay of Ted Peters about Science and Religion at "Lindsay Jones (editor in chief). Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition. Thomson Gale. 2005. p.8185"
[13] By Dr Paul Murdin, Lesley Murdin Photographs by Paul New. Supernovae Astronomy Murdin Published 1985, Cambridge UniversityPress Science, 256 pages, ISBN 052130038X page 18.
[14] Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2003. Theory and reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science. Science and its conceptual foundations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 14.
[15] Stanley Jaki. Bible and Science, Christendom Press, 1996 (pages 110-111)
[16] Spitz, Lewis (1987). (The Rise of modern Europe) The protestant # Reformation 1517-1559.. Harper Torchbooks. pp. pp 383. ISBN 0-06-132069-2 The historian of early modern Europe Lewis Spitz says "To set up a 'warfare of science and theology' is an exercise in futility and a reflection of a nineteenth century materialism now happily transcended".
[17] Quotation: "The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensible and realistic historiography of Western science." (p. 7), from the essay by Colin A. Russell "The Conflict Thesis" on "Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0".
[18] Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8018-7038-0. (Introduction, p. ix)
[19] a b Esslemont, J.E. (1980). Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era (5th ed. ed.). Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-160-4.
[20] `Abdu'l-Bahá (1982) [1912]. The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Hardcover ed.). Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-172-8.
[21] Effendi, Shoghi (1938). The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-231-7.
[22] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 22 ISBN 0-385-24774-5
[23] Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Ed. Eugene Kennedy. New World Library ISBN 1-57731-202-3.
[24] Bartholomew Dean 1994 "The Poetics of Creation: Urarina Cosmology and Historical Consciousness." Latin American Indian Literatures Journal (10):22-45
[25] Bryan Caplan. "Why Religious Beliefs Are Irrational, and Why Economists Should Care". The article about religion and irrationality.
[26] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.
[27] Harris, Sam. THE END of FAITH.
[28] Nobel Peace Laureate, Muslim and human rights activist Dr Shirin Ebadi has spoken out against undemocratic Islamic countries justifying "oppressive acts" in the name of Islam. Speaking at the Earth Dialogues 2006 conference in Brisbane, Dr Ebadi said her native Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen "among others" were guilty of human rights violations. "In these countries, Islamic rulers want to solve 21st century issues with laws belonging to 14 centuries ago, " she said. "Their views of human rights are exactly the same as it was 1400 years ago."

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