“What is a religion?”

“What is a religion?”

Dennis Bradford

389 Posts



There is no single definition of “religion” that everyone uses.  Since it is important to distinguish the religious from the spiritual, it’s important to clarify what a religion is.  After all, this is the spiritual well-being category—not the religious well-being category.

The English word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin ‘religio,’ which means ‘obligation, bond, reverence.’  Etymologically, then, what is central to religion is rebinding, overcoming separation, atonement (at-one-ment).  Still, today the word ‘religion’ is usually used to refer to a belief or creed, which is a set of beliefs, about the supernatural or worshipping some putative god or gods.

Sometimes the notion of the supernatural is deliberately divorced from the concept of religion such as when one calls a political creed such as Marxism a religion.  This is done to highlight to intensity of belief in the creed, the fanaticism of true believers.  Usually, though, the notion of the supernatural is included.

My suggestion is to follow what Huston Smith used in his excellent book The World’s Religions.  In his view, a religion has six features.

(1)   One is authority.  In addition to supposed divine authority, there are humans considered to be authorities in the sense that their decisions carry weight.

(2)  Another feature is ritual.  There were probably religious dances that arose from collective expressions of both celebration and bereavement even before there were religious creeds.  Rituals may have come from those dances.

(3)  A critical feature is speculative answers to important questions.  Not liking to admit ignorance, we humans like to embrace answers to such questions as:  ‘Where did we come from?’, ‘Why are we here?’, and ‘What will happen to us?’

(4)  Another constant is that religions always pass down traditions from one generation to the next.

(5)  Religions promise grace, which is the idea that, ultimately at least, the world is a good place to live.  It’s on our side rather than against us or indifferent to us.

(6)  There is always mystery or the idea of the infinite that is beyond the reach of our finite intellects.

One could go on to distinguish primal from developed religions, such as Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The important point for me is that there is nothing necessarily spiritual about a religion. Spirituality is not essential to religion. So, in practice, there may or may not be something spiritual about a religion.

When I use the word ‘spiritual’ (or, of course, its cognates) in these posts, please do not think “religious.”  That would be confused thinking.  (In fact, I have a lot of important material about spirituality, but I have almost nothing of value to say about religion.)

If being spiritual is not being religious, what is it?

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