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Definitions of the word "religion"

Problems. Some dictionary definitions

Problems with definitions of "Religion:"

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:

bullet 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.
bullet Some definitions equate "religion" with "Christianity," and thus define two out of every three humans in the world as non-religious.
bullet 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.
bullet Some define "religion" in terms of "the sacred" and/or "the spiritual," and thus require two additional terms to be defined.
bullet Sometimes, definitions of "religion" contain more than one deficiency.

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Dictionary definitions:

Some attempts to define the word religion inclusively:  

  • Barns & Noble (Cambridge) Encyclopedia (1990):
    • " single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions."

  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990):

    "Human recognition of superhuman controlling power and especially of a personal God entitled to obedience."

This definition would not consider Buddhism as religions. Many Unitarian Universalists and progressive Christians are excluded by this description. It would also reject all religions that are not monotheistic, including:

  • Duotheistic religions like Wicca and Zoroastrianism, because they believe in a dual deity.

  • 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.
  • at
    • "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 religion.

    • Something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice. 2

  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

    "A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith."

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 their faith.

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  • Webster's New World Dictionary (Third College Edition):

    "any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy."

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 unknown dictionary:

    "religion (ri-lij'[uh]n) n.

    • The beliefs, attitudes, emotions, behavior, etc., constituting man's relationship with the powers 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 him.

    • 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 of thought."

    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:

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Kile Jones was a PhD student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. See: 
  2. "Religion," at:
  3. Qumran Bet is "A Community Striving to Come to the Pure Essence of the Worship of YHWH." See:
  4. "Religion," at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2016-JAN-31
Compiler: B.A. Robinson

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