Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  1. OVERVIEW

Section 4 . What is Religion? 

1.    What is Religion?

There are many definitions of religion.  It is not that easy to pin down exactly what religion is and then to insure that the definition distinguishes religion from magic and from cults and sects.  Many people offer definitions without much knowledge of the wide range of religious phenomena and the many different cultural manifestations of religion.  It is a rather common misconception to think that religion has to do with god, or gods and supernatural beings or a supernatural or spiritual dimension or greater reality.  None of that is absolutely necessary because there are religions that are without those elements. 

 In this millennium there are over 6.2 billion people on the planet earth.  Most of them would declare that they are religious in some way.  Rough estimates are made that place people in the various traditions.

Here is a tabulation from and available at:

(Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.)  Last modified 13 June 2001.

  1. Christianity: 2 billion
  2. Islam: 1.3 billion
  3. Hinduism: 900 million
  4. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 850 million
  5. Buddhism: 360 million
  6. Chinese traditional religion: 225 million
  7. primal-indigenous: 190 million
  8. Sikhism: 23 million
  9. Yoruba religion: 20 million
  10. Juche: 19 million
  11. Spiritism: 14 million
  12. Judaism: 14 million
  13. Baha'i: 6 million
  14. Jainism: 4 million
  15. Shinto: 4 million
  16. Cao Dai: 3 million
  17. Tenrikyo: 2.4 million
  18. Neo-Paganism: 1 million
  19. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
  20. Scientology: 750 thousand
  21. Rastafarianism: 700 thousand
  22. Zoroastrianism: 150 thousand

 The three religions that are proselytizing religions, seeking more members actively are: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.  Islam is the fastest growing of the traditions and will most likely have the most adherents in the world by 2020.

Some of these religions have no belief in a god.  Some have no belief in the survival of a soul.  Some believe in more than one god.  What do they have that makes them religion? 

Here is a definition that captures the common core and yet distinguishes religion from other institutions and phenomena.  It is from Federick Ferre in his work Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion.

Religion is the most comprehensive and intensive manner of valuing known to human beings.  We shall put this definition or understanding aside until the final chapter and after we have examined a number of important issues related to religion.  For now it would be less abstract and more useful if the initial idea of religion would be phrased in terms of its characteristics which most people who have any experiences with religion can most likely identify.

2.    Characteristics of Religion

These are the common characteristics or family traits of those members of the category or “family” of religion.  Just as with family members not every member must have every trait but most have most of the traits.  The more any human phenomena demonstrates these traits the more likely it is that it will be included into this category of social institutions known as religion.

Common Characteristics: (family traits)

  • notion of a deity or absolute, that which is of ultimate concern and importance

  • ideas on the nature of human beings

  • the idea of divine providence, destiny, fate

  • the idea and meaning of human history

  • problem of evil explained

  • description of the central problem of human life and suffering idea of an afterlife-life after death

  • a concept of the world

  • ideas of human community and ethics-a moral code 

The more any phenomena displays the characteristics above, it is likely to be accepted as a religion. The fewer the features demonstrated, the less likely it will be termed a religion.  It might be termed magic, or sorcery, cult or some other description but not as a full fledged religion.

3.    Religions of the West – the one GOD

Religions of the West- Judaism-Christianity and Islam share in some common traits or characteristics that distinguish them from other religions in this world.

a.      belief in one god

b.     belief in linear history

c.      belief in a sacred scripture- the book

These common features bind the three traditions of the West together.  They share many similar ideas.  Among those shared are:   One god made the universe and along with it the beginning of time and that one god will end the universe.  Each human has a soul and at the death of the body the soul shall separate from the body and go on into another dimension.  There is a judgment to be made concerning the moral worthiness of the soul at death for an eternal reward or lack thereof.  Time is linear and there is but one period of existence for individuals and the entire universe. There may be variations from these basic tenets of the faith or religious beliefs, however, these are ideas fairly typical for most of the religions of the West.

Other religions hold for multiple deities or no deities at all , cyclic time and the reincarnation of souls, even multiple reincarnations.  Some religions have no idea of a deity and some have no belief in the survival of a soul. As the Living Religions of the World are examined in all their variety in this work it is with the understanding that they display enough of the characteristics listed above to be well placed in the grouping or category labeled as "Religions."   

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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