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.

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[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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