What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience


Any formal study of religion or world religions must begin with a clear understanding of what religion is.  And yet this task is not as easy as it seems.  In any society, the meaning of words is not complete, absolute or fixed; they are as fluid as their interpretations.  The word religion is a good example of this rule.

At least two thirds of the population of the world in about 80 % of all the countries of the world follow or have very close connections to some religions.  Therefore, we should not be surprised that the majority of the population have their own definition of what religion means to them,[1] no matter how informal, simple or anecdotal these definitions might be.

However, over the years religious scholars have struggled with the definition of the term religion, or even with the essential, common traits that would lead them to classify individuals or groups under that label.

In trying to achieve this goal, we are confronted by a series of difficulties.  For example, our English word religion, was originally taken from the Latin term religio (a noun that originally meant and could be translated as a “reconnection” or “bond”), and is a created, Western word.  The problem is that in many cultures around the world there are no linguistic equivalents to this term or its usual meanings in our cultures.  In the Western world, religion is separate from what is secular or non-religious; in fact, they are even irreconcilable opposites.  And that is why there are words that have been created to communicate this separation (sacred vs profane, holy vs unholy, transcendence vs immanence, this world vs the other world, etc.).   Not so in Eastern societies and among more pristine, traditional, minority religions, where the cosmos is an integrated whole, a reality that may be specified but never compartmentalized.  What we define as religious, in many cases, would be alien to these communities’ understanding or even inappropriate.  In the Amazon, the cosmos is a well-connected reality for the natives.  Religion impregnates all aspects of their lives.  This type of worldview is what explains why for many Muslims the best state is the Islamic State.  Something very similar occurs in present day India and the influence of Hinduism.

Another reason is that any effort to define what religion is will largely determined by several variables, not always coinciding:  social location, perspective, experience, areas of knowledge or discipline, what themes one wants to zoom in, and methodology, just to name some of the most important ones.  For all these reasons, religion may be defined ethically, legally, ritualistically, psychologically, institutionally, doctrinally, politically, supernaturally, personally or in manners similar to all these.

  • Viewed negatively, for instance, religion has been seen as an effort to escape present-day responsibility, as a an illusion of some kind that isolate humans from the real issues of life. A virus or a drug of some kind that, instead of revealing the divine unknown, for example, they end up hiding his face.
  • As a subconscious reaction to lives that are oppressed by a careless, soulless society, some see religion as a revolutionary impulse or feeling to create a new humanity.
  • In addition to a cultural experience, many people regard religion as a universal phenomenon, a social institution, and even as a field of expertise that defined the work of capable, equipped individuals.
  • Because all humans are relational beings and have the need to feel useful, religion might be seen as the feeling of absolute dependence outside of themselves, which emerges as a response to real tragedies of life, not from reason or reflection. In part, is what people sub-consciously do with loneliness, guilt, fear, etc. The need of bring to mind people who have died is part of this (ancestor worship).
  • Taking for granted that there is a reality higher than humanity (and named as the holy, the transcendent, the supernatural, the absolute, higher powers, mystery, etc.), some individuals characterize understand religion as a disposition to apprehend the infinite or the absolute in concrete ways.
  • With this in mind and with an ethical twist, religion may be also be regarded as the acknowledgment that all duties are divine commands, as a means to ultimate transformation. Seeking the wellbeing of other people, it is a form of emotional morality.
  • Thinking of society as a whole and the corresponding interconnections therein, and solve daily problems, religion may be considered as an unified system of beliefs and practices. The operational conscience of society’s highest values.
  • In more esoteric terms, religion may be an appreciation for the invisible world and the effort to go back to it, either because of this innate instinct of living lives that matter or in response to that the absolute’s initiative of planting that instinct in humans hoping that they would response. In this sense, in its purest, spiritual form, religion is something created by God and acknowledged and made viable by humans.
  • By-passing the complexities and perspectives that normally scholars spend too time on, some see religions as a simple way of life for individuals that seek to meaningful lives.

Because of all this rich variety and the complexities that go with it, scholars of religions 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 or group 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 unavoidable and desirable.  After all, based on the experiences of more than two-thirds of the world and the experiences of millions of people who are non-religious, we know what a religion looks like when we see one, even when we might not find the right words to summarize what religion fully means.

Recognizing that there is no such a thing as value-free, absolute definitions of anything, how could we, then, define religion?

For us the word religion refers to a series of attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors of individuals and groups of people, which, being a larger system, describe, symbolize, and seek to meet the needs of the soul, the mind, the emotions, and the body of individuals and communities.  The term refers to a human effort to create a bond or union of some sort with a mysterious, metaphysical reality higher than ourselves (of which a supreme, controlling power, spirit or divine being or beings is central) that would result in a meaningful relationship closely associated with a spiritual-moral system that must translate into actions.  Simply put, and in response to the mystery and power of life, religion refers to a limited, cultural attempt to try to meet the deity, a natural or super natural being who is thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, or its equivalent. It is a human effort to have an encounter with the divine with the corresponding ethical implications.

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.  It is something we cannot fully grasp but whose glimpses, as a form of revelation wired up in every human, 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 invisible mystery 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 and 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.[2]

Something else needs to be said about the word religion and the type of universal experience it names.  The imperfect attempt to find the Invisible Unknown 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, focusing on what is ultimately life-giving through the implementation of unique worldviews.  From this vantage point, the term is used to define 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.  The word, then, applies to world religions.   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.[3]

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.  For our consideration and with a long history behind, there educated some contemporary speculations about the origin of religion, and the roles that 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] Or its semantic equivalents; namely, Nirvana, Brahman, Paradise, etc.

[3] 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 have been 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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