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 "religāre"
which means "to tie fast," or "bind together."
Defining the word "religion" is fraught with difficulty.
Many attempts have been made. Many people focus on a very narrow definition that
matches their own religion, but few if any others.
A humorous case appears in
Henry Fielding's novel "Tom Jones." where he has one character say:
"By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by
Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law."
Many definitions focus too narrowly on only a few aspects of religion; they tend to exclude those religions that do not fit well.
As Kile Jones 1 wrote in his essay on defining religion that was once included in our section containing visitors' essays section:
"It is apparent that religion can be seen as a theological,
philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon
of human kind. To limit religion to only one of these categories is to miss
its multifaceted nature and lose out on the complete definition."
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 requite a belief in
a God or Goddess or combination of Gods and Goddesses who are responsible
for the creation of the universe and for its continuing operation. This excludes such
non-theistic religions as Buddhism and
many forms of religious Satanism which have no such belief. Also, Unitarians, who are called Unitarian Universalists in the U.S., do not require their members to believe in a deity, and many members don't.
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. These are 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 require two
additional terms to be defined.
Sometimes, definitions of "religion" contain more than one deficiency.
Some attempts to define the word religion inclusively:
Barns & Noble (Cambridge) Encyclopedia (1990):
"...no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied
sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990):
"Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal
God entitled to obedience."
Polytheistic religions like Hinduism, since the above definition refers to "a" personal God,
and these religions believe in a pantheon, usually consisting of both Gods and Goddesses.
Dictionary.com at Ask.com:
"A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the
universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or
agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often
containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon
by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist
Something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of
ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:
"A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and
This is a curious definition -- we would have said nonsensical, except that
that would be rather judgmental -- because it does not require elements often
associated with religion, such as deity, morality, world view, etc. Capitalism,
homophobia, transphobia, President Obama's place of birth, and other beliefs
might fit this definition. Also it
requires that a person pursue their religion with enthusiasm. Many people
identify themselves with a specific religion, but are not intensely engaged with
Webster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition):
"any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a
It implies that there are usually two important components to religion:
one's belief in and worship of a deity or deities, and
one's ethical behavior towards other persons.
This dual nature of religion is expressed clearly in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) in Matthew 22:36-39:
"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
"religion (ri-lij'[uh]n) n.
The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc., constituting man's relationship with
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
Obs. Religious practice or belief." 3
The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM)'s definition is more flexible and may involve a deity, multiple deities, or no deities:
"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 cosmos, etc."
Wikipedia defines religion as:
"... a system of social coherence based
on a common group of beliefs or attitudes concerning an object, person,
unseen being, or system of thought considered to be supernatural, sacred,
divine or highest truth, and the moral codes, practices, values,
institutions, traditions, and rituals associated with such belief or system
This definition is extremely flexible. Although it is partly built around belief in a God or Goddess, it would also accept a belief system involving ones beliefs in "highest truth." It appears to include: