The definition of religion is a controversial subject in religious studies. Some scholars define “religion” as a cultural system of behaviors and practices, others as a “comprehensive worldview” or a “moral community called a church”. Some scholars, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, have tried to correct a perceived Judeo-Christian and Western bias in the definition and study of religion.
Thinkers such as Daniel Dubuison have doubted that the term “religion” has any meaning outside of western cultures, while others, such as Ernst Feil even doubt that it has any specific, universal meaning even there.
Types of religion
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the academic practice of comparative religion divided religious belief into philosophically defined categories called “world religions.” Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories:
- world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths;
- indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and
- new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths.
Some recent scholarship has argued that not all types of religion are necessarily separated by mutually exclusive philosophies, and furthermore that the utility of ascribing a practice to a certain philosophy, or even calling a given practice religious, rather than cultural, political, or social in nature, is limited. The current state of psychological study about the nature of religiousness suggests that it is better to refer to religion as a largely invariant phenomenon that should be distinguished from cultural norms (i.e. “religions”).
Some scholars classify religions as either universal religions that seek worldwide acceptance and actively look for new converts, or ethnic religions that are identified with a particular ethnic group and do not seek converts. Others reject the distinction, pointing out that all religious practices, whatever their philosophical origin, are ethnic because they come from a particular culture.
Concept Of Religion
Religion (from O.Fr. religion “religious community”, from L. religionem (nom. religio) “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods”, “obligation, the bond between man and the gods”) is derived from the Latin religiō, the ultimate origins of which are obscure. One possible interpretation traced to Cicero, connects lego “read”, i.e. re (again) with lego in the sense of “choose”, “go over again” or “consider carefully”. Modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell favor the derivation from ligare “bind, connect”, probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or “to reconnect”, which was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius. The medieval usage alternates with order in designating bonded communities like those of monastic orders: “we hear of the ‘religion’ of the Golden Fleece, of a knight ‘of the religion of Avys‘”.
In the ancient and medieval world, the etymological Latin root religio was understood as an individual virtue of worship, never as doctrine, practice, or actual source of knowledge. The modern concept of “religion” as an abstraction which entails distinct sets of beliefs or doctrines is a recent invention in the English language since such usage began with texts from the 17th century due to the splitting of Christendom during the Protestant Reformation and more prevalent colonization or globalization in the age of exploration which involved contact with numerous foreign and indigenous cultures with non-European languages. It was in the 17th century that the concept of “religion” received its modern shape despite the fact that ancient texts like the Bible, the Quran, and other ancient sacred texts did not have a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written. For example, the Greek word threskeia, which was used by Greek writers such as Herodotus and Josephus and is found in texts like the New Testament, is sometimes translated as “religion” today, however, the term was understood as “worship” well into the medieval period. In the Quran, the Arabic word din is often translated as “religion” in modern translations, but up to the mid-1600s translators expressed din as “law”. Even in the 1st century AD, Josephus had used the Greek term ioudaismos, which some translate as “Judaism” today, even though he used it as an ethnic term, not one linked to modern abstract concepts of religion as a set of beliefs. It was in the 19th century that the terms “Buddhism”, “Hinduism”, “Taoism”, and “Confucianism” first emerged. Throughout its long history, Japan had no concept of “religion” since there was no corresponding Japanese word, nor anything close to its meaning, but when American warships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853 and forced the Japanese government to sign treaties demanding, among other things, freedom of religion, the country had to contend with this Western idea.
According to the philologist Max Müller in the 19th century, the root of the English word “religion”, the Latin religio, was originally used to mean only “reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety” (which Cicero further derived to mean “diligence”). Max Müller characterized many other cultures around the world, including Egypt, Persia, and India, as having a similar power structure at this point in history. What is called ancient religion today, they would have only called “law”.
Some languages have words that can be translated as “religion”, but they may use them in a very different way, and some have no word for religion at all. For example, the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes translated as “religion”, also means law. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial as well as practical traditions. Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between “imperial law” and universal or “Buddha law”, but these later became independent sources of power.
There is no precise equivalent of “religion” in Hebrew, and Judaism does not distinguish clearly between religious, national, racial, or ethnic identities. One of its central concepts is “halakha”, meaning the “walk” or “path” sometimes translated as “law”, which guides religious practice and belief and many aspects of daily life.
The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith or set of duties; however, in the words of Émile Durkheim, religion differs from private belief in that it is “something eminently social
Many religions have value frameworks regarding personal behavior meant to guide adherents in determining between right and wrong. These include the Triple Jems of Jainism, Judaism’s Halacha, Islam’s Sharia, Catholicism’s Canon Law, Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, and Zoroastrianism’s “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” concept, among others. Religion and morality are not synonymous. Morality does not necessarily depend upon religion although this is “an almost automatic assumption.” According to The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, religion and morality “are to be defined differently and have no definitional connections with each other. Conceptually and in principle, morality and a religious value system are two distinct kinds of value systems or action guides.”
- Michael Bergunder. “What is Religion? The Unexplained Subject Matter of Religious Studies”, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26(3) (2014): 246–286.
- André Droogers, “Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach”, in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. Peter B. Clarke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 263–279.
- Arthur L. Greil & David G. Bromley, eds. Defining Religion: Investigating the Boundaries between the Sacred and Secular. Amsterdam: JAI, 2003.
- Malcolm Hamilton. The Sociology of Religion: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives, 2nd edn. London–NY: Routledge, 2001 (1st edn. 1995), pp. 12–21.
- Thomas A. Idinopulos & Brian C. Wilson, eds. What Is Religion?: Origins, Definitions, and Explanations. Leiden–Boston–Cologne: Brill, 1998.
- Brian C. Wilson. “From the Lexical to the Polythetic: A Brief History of the Definition of Religion”, pp. 141–162.
- Seth Daniel Kunin. Religion: The Modern Theories. The John Hopkins UP, 2003.
- Craig Martin. “Delimiting Religion”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 21 (2009): 157–176.