Defining “Religion”

[Note: This is the first in a series of posts that will eventually form a complete essay on this question.]


Way back at the beginning of this blog I asked a  question. I was just starting out, and I was trying to feel my way along, unsure of exactly where I was going, or what I wanted to discuss or share. 

Back then, I made a statement that still seems relevant to such discussions because the assumption is that the word seems easy enough to define. Webster gives us one definition,

“the service and worship of God or the supernatural

And that is where we seem to want to stop. 

A more generalized definition also exists,

“a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

Notice that this definition encompasses both the personal and the institutional. That means that it’s general enough to take in the individual as well as an organization. More than that, it brings in matters of attitude, beliefs, and various practices that people might have. This is important because there are those who want disconnect themselves from the question of religion and assume that what their attitudes, beliefs, and practices are not religious. 

Of Hobbies and Hobby Horses

Spend any time interacting with atheists and their religious beliefs and faith commitments start popping out all over the place. 

As I demonstrated in my response to Aron Ra about his misunderstanding of the word “faith,” it’s proper understanding and application, as well as his own dependence upon certain facts in spite of his protestations, most atheists—especially of the internet variety—do not recognize that they have religious beliefs that require…well…faith. Confront them with the reality of their position, and you will get any number of predictable, canned responses, like:

  • “Bald is a hair color.”
  • “Not collecting stamps is a hobby.”
  • Etc

You might even get the first definition of religion thrown back at you in opposition to the assertion. In a recent thread on Twitter, in which I was accused of lying because the person I was interacting with was not self-reflective enough to realize what he was saying, it was confirmed that atheists have defined religious beliefs. 

Psychological studies on religious people have found that people who self-identify as “religious” often have greater tolerance for unpleasant situations or difficult tasks than those who do not. Another study indicated that there is a natural human disposition to possess certain religious beliefs, such as mind/body dualism. 

Writing over at First Things, researcher Christian Smith notes that religion is a natural act for human beings, even though there may not be a necessary component to it. He uses four facts derived from various sources to come to this conclusion:

  1. [Many] people in the world are not religious, and some entire cultures appear to be quite secular, without apparent damage to their happiness and functionality.  
  2. [Religion] generally is not fading away in the modern world as a whole.
  3. [Even] when traditionally religious forms of human life seem to fade in some contexts, new and alternative forms of life often appear in their place that engage the sacred, spiritual, transcendent, and liturgical needs of human beings.
  4. [Religion] isn’t an essential part of who we are.

On that last point, Smith writes,

“The role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies depends greatly upon personal and historical experiences and developments. They are, as sociologists say, “path dependent.” Different people and groups can and do head in quite different directions when it comes to religion. No one narrative or trajectory tells the whole story, and in fact there simply may not be a dominant story.

I think that it is true when it comes to matters of the relationship between what religion is and what religion does, as Smith says, there’s no one, singular narrative that can explain why human beings are religious creatures. Religion isn’t necessarily tied to happiness, but research draw a correlation between overall happiness and general religious behavior. Maybe it’s that happy people tend to find one another and they create communities that are religious. It’s an interesting question to look into, but not one that we can answer in any one post. 

Stay tuned for part 2.


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