What is religion? The question reminds me of St. Augustine’s quote about time: “If you do not ask me what time is, I know. If you ask me, I do not know.” It seems the same with religion. Everybody knows what religion is before you ask them. But if you ask them what religion is, they will find it very hard to define!
A dictionary might tell you religion is a “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power…” But this would exclude some forms of Jainism and Buddhism, and that doesn’t seem right. Those traditions share so much with mainstream religions, it would be silly to exclude them.
A better definition was suggested by James Livingston:
Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be of sacred value and transforming power.
But religion is such a complex and varied human phenomenon that some sociologists prefer to avoid definitions and think of religion in terms of an ideal type. They will say that most religions have most of the characteristics of the ideal type, but they need not have all of them.
An ideal type of religion includes:
- interaction with the supernatural
- a diagnosis of something essentially wrong with the human condition, and a prescription for salvation or liberation from it
- regular, repeated behavior (ritual)
- community practice
So some forms of Jainism and Buddhism don’t fit with (1), but they fit with all the rest and so they qualify as religion. Some forms of Taoism don’t have any particular rituals, but they do have the other elements, and so they qualify as religion. But religions like Hinduism and Christianity are closer to the ideal type of religion than, for example, Theravada Buddhism (which lacks the supernatural) and Scientology (which lacks ritual).
Many believers are quick to say their faith is unique and not like “those other religions.” For example, evangelical Christians in America are fond of saying that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Well, so be it, but Christianity is most definitely a religion, too. Yes, Christianity is unique because all religions are unique. Our goal here will be to appreciate and investigate their similarities and their differences.
Given the above ideal type, then, we might describe the following traditions as “religious”:
- The Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, Mandaeism, the Druze, Mormonism, and Rastafarianism.
- The Indian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
- Folk religion: Chinese folk religion, African traditional religion, Native American religion, and others.
- Persian religions
- any new religious movements, including Scientology
We can also see that the following probably do not qualify as “religious”:
- Atheism / secular humanism (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)
- Environmentalism / deep ecology (no supernatural, no ritual, often no community practice)
- Transhumanism (no supernatural, no ritual, no community practice)
- UFOlogy (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)
- Science (no supernatural, no diagnosis or prescription, not much ritual)
- Patriotism (no necessary supernatural, no universal diagnosis or prescription)
- The paranormal (no diagnosis or prescription, no ritual, often no community practice)