There are quite a number of definitions of
religion that have been presented over time.
The English word "religion" is derived
from the Middle English "religioun" which came from the Old French
"religion." It may have been originally derived from the Latin word "religo"
which means "good faith," "ritual," and other similar meanings. Or it
may have come from the Latin "religăre" which means "to tie fast."
Defining the word "religion" is
fraught with difficulty. All of the definitions that we have encountered
contain at least one deficiency:
- Some exclude beliefs and practices
that many people passionately defend as religious. For example, their
definition might include belief in a personal deity or some
supernatural entities. This excludes such non-theistic religions as
Satanism which have no such belief.
- Some definitions equate "religion"
with "Christianity," and thus define two out of every three humans in
the world as non-religious.
- Some definitions are so broadly
written that they include beliefs and areas of study that most people
do not regard as religious. For example, David Edward's
definition would seem to include cosmology and ecology within his
definition of religion -- fields of investigation that most people
regard to be a scientific studies and non-religious in nature.
- Some define "religion" in terms of
"the sacred" and/or "the spiritual," and thus necessitate the creation
of two more definitions.
- Sometimes, definitions of
"religion" contain more than one deficiency.
Dictionaries have made many attempts
to define the word religion:
- Barns & Noble (Cambridge)
"...no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of
traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different
- The Concise Oxford Dictionary
"Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a
personal God entitled to obedience" That definition would not consider
sects as religions. Many
Universalists are excluded by this description. Strictly
interpreted, it would also reject polytheistic religions, since it
refers to "a" personal God."
- Webster's New World Dictionary
(Third College Edition):
"any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of
ethics and a philosophy." This definition would exclude religions that
do not engage in worship. It implies that there are two important
components to religion:
- one's belief and worship in a
deity or deities
- one's ethical behavior towards
This dual nature of religion is
expressed clearly in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in
"Teacher, what is the great
commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all
thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is
like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
- Qumran Bet, "A Community Striving
to Come to the Pure Essence of the Worship of YHWH," cites definitions
from an unknown dictionary: "religion (ri-lij'[uh]n) n.
- The beliefs, attitudes, emotions,
behavior, etc., constituting man's relationship with the powers and
principles of the universe, especially with a deity or deities;
also, any particular system of such beliefs, attitudes, etc.
- An essential part or a practical
test of the spiritual life.
- An object of conscientious
devotion or scrupulous care: e.g. His work is a religion to him.
- Obs. Religious practice or
- An organized system of belief that
generally seeks to understand purpose, meaning, goals, and methods of
spiritual things. These spiritual things can be God, people in
relation to God, salvation, after life, purpose of life, order of the
Given all the problems with definitions for
religion Philosophers have attempted to deal with them in a careful
manner. What follows is based upon the work of
Frederick Ferre in his Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion.
He provides one of the best, if not the best, definitions of religion that
satisfies all the conditions for a good definition and provides a deep
insight into the origins and nature of religion.
Any definition of religion must satisfy not only the general criteria
that all definitions must meet, but a few additional concerns specific to
religious phenomena as well. Definitions must:
- use ordinary language
- avoid ambiguity
- avoid contradictions
- include all that needs to be included
- exclude all that needs to be excluded
- avoid circularity
Ordinary language usage of the term "religion" is inadequate
to the task of definition because it is among other things, ambiguous and
oftentimes contradictory as well. Ordinary language usage is blind and can
not deal with new phenomena and can not resolve confusions.
Consider some of these examples of common definitions offered by
- belief in god
- conviction in supernatural realities relevant to human well being
- all of life
- whatever gives meaning to life
These offerings make religion into something that is irrational, too
superficial or they are too inclusive or too exclusive as definitions for
they fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of religious phenomena.
Whatever religion is it must be relevant to:
- all kinds of people
- all aspects of life
- relate to social and public practices
- relate to private experiences and practices
Furthermore, any definition of religion must satisfy these
Unspecialized- relevant to all types of people and all aspects of
hospitable- to the diversity of the phenomena
permissive- as to personal and social role
open- as to the truth or falsity of claims
unprejudiced- as to possible harm or benefit of the phenomena
So, considering all of the above requirements what would the definition
need to notice about religion?
- involves the whole of life
- is open to all kinds of people
- issues naturally in widely various activities
- issues in widely various ideas and beliefs
- exists and is exhibited in private and social settings
- is open to different opinions as to the truth or falsity of its
- has consequences considered to be either harmful or beneficial to
individuals and groups