Definition of Religion

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            By Chris Odinaka Nwedo

The origin of the word “religion” has been a highly controversial subject from early times. Not even today is it a closed question. Collaborating the facts of this complexity, St. Augustine noted that most of us know perfectly well what religion is – until someone asks us to define it. Of course, this difficulty has not stopped people from attempting to define religion. The definitions are quite wide-ranging some emphasize the personal, others the social; some the beliefs, others the uses; some the structures, others the functions; some the private, others the public; some the mundane, others the transcendent; some the truth, others the illusion.1  And while no one definition of religion can completely sum up what religion is, they all tell us something about religion and perhaps bring us closer to an understanding of what we mean when we talk about ‘religion.’ The groups, practices and systems that we identify as ‘religions’ are so diverse. Not all religions refer to God or gods, not all religions are concerned with morals, not all religions have beliefs about the afterlife. This is why it is no easy task to bring them all under one simple definition.2

Lactantius traced the idea of religion from the term religare, to bind. “We are tied to God and bound to Him [religati] by the bond of piety. It is generally acknowledged that it is from this that religion received its name.3 Collaboratively John Ayto in Dictionary of Word Origins said “Latin religio originally meant ‘obligation, bond.’ It was probably derived from the verb religare ‘tie back, tie tight’. It developed the specialized sense, ‘bond between human beings and the gods,’ and from the 5th century it came to be used for ‘monastic life’. Religious practices’ emerged from this…4 Thus for C.S. Lewis ‘to be religious is to have one’s attention fixed on God and on one’s neighbour in relation to God.5

Emile Durkheim, defined religion as “a unified system 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.6 For Peter Berger “religion is the human attitude towards a sacred order that includes within it all being—human or otherwise—i.e., belief in a cosmos, the meaning of which both includes and transcends man.7 Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that “religion is a belief system that consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul.8 On the hand James G. Frazer believed religion to be “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.9 Harriet Martineau and Paul Tillich respectively saw religion as the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with mankind, and that it 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 life.10 Finally, Emerson summarized all about religion as doing right. “It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble. William Penn asserted that religion itself is “nothing else but Love of God and Man. He that lives in Love lives in God. 11

Ambrose Bierce defined “religion as the daughter of Hope and Fear,  an explanation to the ignorance the nature of the unknowable.12 Bertrand Russell claimed religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; he insisted it will fade away as humanity adopts reason and science as guidelines. Goldie Hawn sees religion as something we go into in order to feel warmer in our hearts, more connected to others, more connected to something greater and to have a sense of peace. In the opinion of Sigmund Freud, religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires. Mark Twain understood religion as consisting of a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of. Ludwig Feuerbach not only described religion as a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, but disowns the notion of God in totality.

In his detest of everything, anything supernatural, sacred, spiritual or divine, Karl Marx contended that religion was the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. Marx said religion is the opiate of the people. Friedrich Schleiermacher claimed that the only essence of religion is the feeling of absolute dependence. In addition to this is Clifford Geertz’s  idea that “religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [people] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.13  For J. Milton Yinger and Livingston, ‘religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problem of human life. It is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.

The more secular conception of religion is this that describes it as “a fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a group of people. These set of beliefs concern the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and involve devotional and ritual observances. They also often contain a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.14

It is also important to note that the word ‘religion’ is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or belief system but religion differs from private belief in that it has a social aspect. Many religions have organized behaviour, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural), and/or  scriptures.15 The practice of a religion may also include sermons commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, music art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. However, there are examples of religions for which some or many of these aspects, structure, belief, or practices are absent.16

‘Religion binds us to the one Almighty God. Religion in its simplest form implies the notion of being bound to God; in its most specific sense, religion is applied to the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to which individual voluntarily bind themselves to God by solemn vows. Hence those who are thus bound to God in this sense are known as the religious.17   Many scholars roughly see religion, as the voluntary subjection of oneself to God. This voluntary subjection exists in its highest perfection in heaven, where the  angels and saints love, praise, and adore God, and live in absolute conformity to His holy will. It does not exist at all in hell.  On earth religion is practically coextensive with the  human race, though, where it has not been elevated to the supernatural plane through Divine relation, it labours under serious defects.18  St. Thomas Aquinas defines religion as the virtue which prompts man to render to God the worship and reverence that is His, by right. The end of religion is filial communion with God, in which we  honour and revere Him as our supreme Lord, love Him as our Father, and find in that reverent services of filial love our true perfection and happiness.19  On the other hand, Blaise Pascal noted that there is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the creator, made known through Jesus.20 Religion, therefore, is seen as the voluntary subjection of oneself to God, that is to the free,  supernatural Being (or beings) on whom man is conscious of being dependent, of whose powerful help he feels he needs, and in whom he recognizes the source of his perfection and happiness. It is a voluntary turning to God. In the last analysis it is an act of the will. In other words it is a virtue, since it is an act of the will inclining man to observe the right order, springing from his dependence on God.21   Religion is equally seen as ‘the service and worship of God or the supernatural, a commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance, a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Many people turn to religion for comfort in a time of crisis.22

 Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have  narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.23

According to American Heritage Dictionary religion is “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe; a particular integrated system of this expression; the spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of a superhuman power or powers.24   And for Bradley religion usually has to do with man’s relationship to the unseen world, to the world of spirits, demons and gods. A second element common to all religions is the term ‘salvation’. All religions seek to help man find meaning in a universe which all too often appears to be hostile to his interests. The word salvation means, basically health. It means one is saved from disaster, fear, hunger, and a meaningless life. It means one is saved for hope, love, security, and the fulfillment of purpose. John Dewey added that religious is any activity pursued on behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.

Evidently, the further we go in the search for more opinions on religion the further we advance progressively into interminable discord. And for the sake of avoiding the hair splitting polemics and physical bruises about the meaning of religion, let us accept as more proper definitions those definitions with the following characters as religion: ‘belief in supernatural beings (gods), distinction between sacred and profane objects; ritual acts focused on sacred objects; 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.25  According to Cline ‘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 is not without flaws, though.26

The perplexity that goes with the definition of religion grew from the speculations and uncertainties about the incomprehensible origin. Accounts vary from culture to culture and more manifestly from schools to schools. It is said that ever since the world began, man has demonstrated a natural inclination towards faith and worship of anything he considered superior/difficult to understand. His religion consisted of trying to appease and get favours from the Supreme Being he feared. This resulted in performing rituals, some of which are barbaric, and keeping traditions or laws to earn goodness and/or everlasting life.27   By this account then, religion has its foundation from elementary fears and feeling of helplessness in the presence of thunderous forces of nature, the rudimentary understanding that Divine Being over sees and controls the universe with the power to reward or cause harm to subjects for obedience or disobedience.  The dependence on deity then was necessarily a reaction to the cloud of fear and helplessness. The feeling helplessness and need of Divine assistance is made palpable by sickness, loss, and defeat. Man recognized that in friendly communion with the Deity he can find aid, peace, and happiness, he is led voluntarily to perform certain acts of homage meant to bring about this desired result. What man aims at in religion is communion with the Deity, through whom he hopes to attain his happiness and perfection.28 

This perfection is but crudely conceived in lower religions. And conformity to the recognized moral standard, which is generally low, is not wholly neglected, but it is less an object of consideration than material welfare. The happiness looked for is prosperity in the present life and a continuation of the same bodily comforts in the life to come.29   For some scholars religion has objective and subject angles. Subjective side is the disposition to acknowledge our dependence on God, and the objective side, the voluntary acknowledgement of that dependence through acts of homage. It calls into play not simply the will, but the intellect, the imagination, and the emotions. Without the conception of personal deity, religion would not exist. The recognition of the unseen world stirs the imagination. The emotions, too, are called into exercise.30 The need of Divine help gives rise to the longing for communion with God. The recognized possibility of attaining this end engenders hope. The consciousness of acquired friendship with a protector so good and powerful excites joy. The obtaining of benefits in answer to prayer prompts to thankfulness. The immensity of God’s power and wisdom calls up feelings of awe. The consciousness of having offended and estranged Him, and of thus deserving punishment, leads to fear and sorrow and the desire for reconciliation.31  This lies at the basis of religion. There thus arises in the natural order a sense of dependence on the Deity. Coupled with the sense of need is the persuasion on the part of man that he can bring himself into friendly, beneficent communion with the Deity or deities on whom he feels he depends. He is a creature of hope.32

According to Boyer, religious beliefs and practices are found in all human groups and these are dated back to the very beginnings of human culture. In the search for reasons behind religion, a common temptation is to search the origin of religion in general human urges, for instance in people’s wish to escape misfortune or mortality or their desire to understand the universe. However, these accounts are often based on incorrect views about religion and the psychological urges are often merely postulated.33   Boyer observed that religious thoughts are typically activated when people deal with concrete situations such death, life, birth etc. It is about a variety of agents: ghosts, spirits, ancestors, gods, etc., in direct interaction with people and most religious explanations of natural phenomena actually explain little but produce salient mysteries.34  For Mushafiq Sultan, ‘Islam holds that Allah created man and provided a religion, a way of life, for him. Since everything that sustains us physically has been provided by Allah, so is the case with our spiritual nourishment. It comes from Allah. We cannot invent it.  This is the concept of revelation, that is, Almighty Allah reveals His messages in word form to His Chosen Prophets, who in turn communicate the same to their people. Thus, Islam does not hold its prophet to be the only prophet and the Quran to be the only book of God, but the last prophet and the last book respectively.35 .Mushafiq noted that the concepts of prophets and revelations are very essential to Islam. Quran explains that prophet Muhammad did not come with any new doctrine but to confirm the same eternal truths as taught by prophets before him, which had, however, become distorted.36 Mushafiq said Islam is the same religion God revealed to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and which Allah enjoined us to remain steadfast in it. For him, Allah chooses to Himself those whom He pleases, and guides to Himself those who turn to Him.37

Reference definition of religion

  1. John Bowker,(2000) Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (2000) in What is Religion? Definitions and Quotes
  2. What is Religion? Definitions and Quotes in religionfacts.com/religion/quotes.htm
  3. New advent catholic encyclopedia religion)
  4. Citation missing
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid,
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14.  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia meaning of religion
  15. ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. St Augustine treatise “On the True Religion” cited in New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia of Religion
  18. St. Augustine op. cit.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Blaise Pascal in meaning of religion
  21. New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia Religion
  22. Quotation missing
  23. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia
  24. Citation missing
  25. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy cited in Austin Cline in ‘What is Religion? Defining Religion: The Problem of Definition in atheism about.com/bio/ Austine-Cline
  26. Ibid.
  27. Meaning of Religion op,cit.
  28. New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia Religion
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 403.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Prophet Muhammad in the Quran cited by Mushafiq Sultan ( 2010) in The Intellectual Online 28,July 2012
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.

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