What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience

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Any formal study of religion or religions must begin with a clear understanding of the  subject matter, namely, what religion is.  And and yet this task is not as easy as it seems because, in any society, the meaning of words is not absolute or fixed; it is as fluid as its interpretations and applications.

Although the majority of the population of the world continues to identify themselves with a religion, on the basis of some implicit and unmeasured understandings of religion, especially when it comes to answering polls,[1] over the years religious scholars have struggled with the meaning of the term religion, or even with the essential, common traits that would lead them to classify individuals or groups under that label.

Adopting different points of view and using methodologies of analysis that embody different human experiences, many scholars have concluded that a single, definitive definition of religion is neither possible nor advisable.  Since it is a social construct that reflects diversity of perceptions and thoughts, it is up to any person to decide what it means and for others to try to understand these definitions in their corresponding contexts.  And yet a work-in-progress definition of religion is possible, necessary, and desirable, at least to name the subject matter and start a conversation that would elicit a wide range of qualifications, exceptions to the rule, and even critiques.  After all, all of us know what a religion looks like when we see one although we might not find the right words to summarize what it means.

Recognizing that there is no such a thing as value-free, absolute definition and that, at the same time, religion is something that average people primarily experience or live and hardly ever stop to formally define it, much less to take into account the ideas of others to see where they all coincide, how could we, then, define religion?

Taken from the Latin term religio (a noun that originally meant and could be translated as a “reconnection” or “bond”), religion is a created, Western word that, for the most part, refers to a series of attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors of groups of people, which describe, symbolize, and seek to meet the needs of “the soul,” which translate into efforts to create a bond or union of some sort with a metaphysical realm (of which a supreme, controlling power, spirit or divine being or beings is central), and to equally derive a moral system relevant to human needs and challenges.  Simply put, and in response to the mystery and power of life,  religion is a limited attempt to meet the deity or its equivalent, an encounter with the divine with the corresponding ethical implications.[2]

Called by different names and understood in a variety of ways, this Higher Reality (in its personal and impersonal versions) is portrayed as transcendent, holy, and sacred, a mystery that cannot be fully grasped but whose glimpses, as a form of revelation, can still be experienced in this life in preparation for another life somewhere in the universe after our physical death.  Ideally, the goal of this finite effort is, through the eyes of faith, to develop a meaningful, immanent relationship with that God through symbolic acts, primarily in the context of worship, and/or through good deeds.  Explained in a different way, one could say that religion refers to a socially-constructed attempt to connect with God, either to go back to mend what had been broken or to create a relational bond that is both redemptive and transformative.  Although it may be seen as a system or networks of complex, changing relationships, metaphorically speaking, religion may also be seen as an earthly path to heaven or a journey back home.[3]

Something else needs to be said about the word religion and the type of universal experience it names.  The imperfect attempt to find God in order to create a connection of some sort is not univocal or materializes the same way everywhere.  Like anything else in society, it is interpreted, mediated, and lived out differently by different faith communities in any place, time or generation.  Thus, the word religion may also be applied to particular cultural traditions that, as by-products and reflections of concrete settings, histories, and circumstances, focus on what is ultimately life-giving through the implementation of unique worldviews.  From this vantage point, the term is used to define, not just the universal drive and practice to find God, but also the followers of particular ways of contextualizing the faith in and commitment to a supreme power or being, in order to improve our lives in the here and now. Taking this type of context into account,  the following groups are seen as religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, just to mention the ones with the largest following.[4]

With this rudimentary and perhaps a more structured understanding of religion that might reflect the views of so many people, as well as its diverse, cultural, interpretative expressions in the globe, we could now move to an in-depth conversation that would give room for additional insights that, in light of concrete experiences and knowledge, would reaffirm, fine-tune, diversify, or even challenge the present relative “truths.”  After this, we could then talk about themes such as how religions make a relationship with God concrete, viable, and achievable in any culture, educated speculations about the origin of religion, and the roles religion plays in society.

___________

[1] As demonstrated by a 2012 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, which estimates that 84 % of the world’s population (or eight-in-ten people) are affiliated to a religion or see themselves as part of one or several of them. This represents about 5.8 billion of the world’s population (believed to be about 6.9 billion). http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/

[2] For more nuanced definitions, please read Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World, 12th ed. (Boston: Pearson: 2012), 3-4;  and Nancy C. Ring, Kathleen S. Nash, Mary N. MacDonald, Fred Glennon, and Jennifer A. Glancy, Introduction to the Study of Religion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001), 61-63.

[3] Or its semantic equivalents; namely, Nirvana, Brahman, Paradise, etc.

[4] With the above background in mind and moving the concept of God to a more secular context, the word religion is also used to talk about what is of most importance for individuals, groups and/or institutions, to a point in which an idea, value or action could well  “worshiped.”   Due to the flexibility of the term and the different views of its interpreters, it is no wonder that materialism, patriotism, secularism, and climate change may also be characterized as “religions.”

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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52 Responses to What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience

  1. Rosa says:

    I think that over time our generation have been introduced into a particular religion because it is one that our parents imposed on us at a young age. I think it is because of this that much of the youth today say that we are part of a religion but don’t exactly know what that means.

    • Ivey Gangi says:

      After reading the article, “What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience”, I established a general understanding that although one may be instructed to follow a particular belief system it can be interpreted and practiced wrongly or even enhanced to a self belief system. For Example, I was raised in a Catholic church however, I am currently away at college with non-denominational beliefs. Though the word religion has been altered through passing generations, to me it still defines as the study of a higher power with the outcome of a comfortable satisfaction of the known after life.

      • amartinez says:

        Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  2. Kelly Bryan says:

    I tend to agree with your definition of the word, “religion.” Putting beside all of the different types of religions, the common factor in it all, is people worshipping their “god.” That looks different for each one, but I believe it is a desire for a relationship and a desire for love. I do think, there is absolutely no way to have a intelligent conversation with anyone, whether the same religion or not, if we do not have an understanding of the basic definition.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  3. Tripp Wickard says:

    I believe faith in our generation is declining, because of lack of proper teaching. Christianity was wide spread before the separation of church and state. Our exposure to religion has been somewhat limited. We are no longer aloud to pray in public schools and teachers are forbidden to share their faiths. Now we countinuosly learn about scientific explanations of things leaving out any room for faith. We have answers at our fingertips and yet we can’t even see the power in having a strong faith.

    • amartinez says:

      Let’s thing more about the causes of that decline, shall we?
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  4. olivia lewis says:

    I believe that each person is impressionable starting as a young child. And depending on what your family’s beliefs were than that is what you are. I also agree that the term religion can mean a thousand different things to different people depending on their background. That is what makes religion so special.

  5. Isabella Gonzalez says:

    In my opinion the reason religion is so difficult to define is because of how differently it is seen throughout the world. With there being so many different religions in the world, many of them being practiced way different than the other, It makes giving religion only one definition very challenging. A word relating to such a broad topic can only be justified with multiple definitions.

    • amartinez says:

      Yes, it is all about diversity and yet we still need to kind a core of some sort.
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  6. Kiersten Mccoy says:

    I think that religion can be hard to define but yet not hard to define. I think that a group of people can gather together with one common interest and form rituals and this can be considered a religion. I view religion as the belief in a higher power. One such higher power that influences our lives the way we act and the way we interact with others. The way we view other peoples beliefs. I fell that the news media and other social media accounts as well as our society have made it very difficult to define the true definition of religion.

    • amartinez says:

      In addition to what u r saying, in the time we are living it is also find simplicity. Everything is so complicated today.
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  7. William Wilson says:

    This article helps readers both understand why there is no one set definition for religion that covers everything we associate it, but the article also helps to explain the origin of the word religion and what it entailed. This helped me see how many unique and different practices can truly be classified as religious.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you 4 your summary of what you got out of the reading of this simple post
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  8. Madison Borders says:

    Overall, I found this very informative because I don’t truly think about religion like this. When I think about religion I simply think about my beliefs and my values. It was good to learn that what I was thinking about it’s all there is, that there is so much more to religion. Also I enjoyed learning that the word religio means reconnection or bond.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  9. Madelyn says:

    Through reading this, I realized how similar humans are. I wasn’t aware of how many people had some form of faith and this shows the mutual need to believe in something bigger than yourself no matter who you are or where you’re from.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  10. Brynn Jones says:

    As stated above, putting a definition to religion is immensely difficult due to the different meanings it has to different people. While religion to some can mean the act of going to church every Sunday, to others it can be as simple as going for a walk and experiencing nature. I can understand the need to put a definition to religion, but I believe the beauty of it is that we cannot easily do so, nor do we technically need to in order to know it when we see it.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

    • amartinez says:

      I agree religion is an experience and hands-on thing as well.
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  11. Dodge Palmisano says:

    After reading this article, it is very understandable that there is no true definition of religion. With people having different beliefs and believing in different deities, conflict will arise due to these differences. These differences have created conflict before and until there is a day where christians, muslims, jews, and all other peoples of their respective religions come to understand one another, there will not be a true definition for the word religion.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

    • amartinez says:

      Well said Dodge.
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  12. Alex says:

    I feel like over time religious views alter to the shape of the world around them, people want to be comforted, to have their views reinforced. the ones that do real, good, change however should be the ones that are upheld through time.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  13. Trevor Owenby says:

    I think the reason that religion has no specific definition is because people in general take specific traits from different types of religions and throw them together to suit their personal interest. Because of this everyone is going to view the world differently and have various interpretations of what a religion means.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

    • amartinez says:

      True…. personal interest is one of the variables. We need to focus on commonalities.
      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  14. Valerie Bartlett says:

    I agree that it is hard to define the word “religion”. It can mean so many different things to different people. Besides the famous religions (i.e.. Chrisitanity, Islam, Judaism, etc.), religion can also mean one’s individual belief’s on life and death. Religion is one of those words that can not fit everyone’s idea, but it is recognized when one sees it.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  15. Cristian Deleon says:

    It is interesting how scholars cannot conclude on how to define religion. If we were to Google the definition of the word religion, we would get the basic definition, “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” None of us have probably had to look up the definition of religion because we think we have a clear understanding of what religion is or means; however, after reading this article, I have come to realize that religion is way more complex and intricate than we believe. What religion can symbolize to one cultural group can be completely different than what another group across the world believes it to symbolize. Even if the leaders of all the major religious groups on Earth sat down together and discussed what religion is, there still might not be one clear definition of religion.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  16. Laura says:

    I think this is a very accurate representation of what religion is. We are all taught from, a young age, different beliefs and faiths by our parents/guardians/elders. From there, it our choice whether we follow those beliefs and faiths or not. In some religions, we have the option to interpret those however we wish to. I find it interesting that people are able to pick their own religion based on what principles they think are most important to them and will help guide their lives.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  17. Slade Searcy says:

    In my opinion, religion is a practice of rituals and beliefs to strengthen one (and the community as a whole)’s relationship with a higher power. This may be done through personal choices, or with other members of a community. Although there have been many different religions throughout the ages, only the most influential/believable ones survived, and thrive in the modern day.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  18. Cristina Orsini says:

    I find it interesting that I know what religion is in my life without a clear definition, and that the subconscious definition that I have lines up with religions completely different from my own. If I had different parents, who followed a different religion, I could be living a relatively similar life.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  19. Brian Tillery says:

    To me, in the world that we live in today, religion is a label that many of us follow to either be accepted or to carry out the will of the higher power one believes in. The power of faith comes from ones dedication to the will of that of what you believe. To me living this physical life is a testimony to a Faith-Driven experience we endure daily. Truly believing what you can not see.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  20. Micah Anderson says:

    I have personally had a traditional thought that religion was any practice or ritual that you subscribed to, my conceptual picture was too broad as I know see that there is a “required” (or highly stressed) component of a relationship or bond is a higher deity. I like that the simplicity of religion, in that the basis of the word is about contact with a higher or supernatural force, intertwines with a more complex belief system that is influenced by cultural, societal, and family traditions and beliefs. An example would be the current diversity of the christian faith, it is generally accepted that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation belief system, but many denominations come from differing interpretations, views, and opinions of the same scripture.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Good thoughts. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  21. Kayla Eckels says:

    Religion is a very difficult thing to define or become one with for their are various interpretations and practices being taught. I believe it comes down to your own studies and morals to find your own source of religion. From this article I’ve learned that religion is not as concrete as society tries to make it.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  22. Claire says:

    I think that individuals use religion as a way to make sense of the unknown such as what happens to us after death. They also use religion as a way to find self-worth and meaning within.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  23. Hajer says:

    Our generation generally had to follow the religion that our parents followed. We went to Sunday school and to church/mosque with them, but as we got older we either drifted from religion or got closer to it.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

  24. Gianna says:

    I’ve never thought about what the word religion’s dictionary definition was, but I think that “reconnection” and “bond” are a good way to describe it because people use religion to reconnect with something like a higher being. For example christians are reconnecting with God.

    • amartinez says:

      Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

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