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Defining Religion

The term ‘religion’ is something that frequently invokes an instant emotional response in the majority of people. Some will think of devotion, belief, dedication or commitment. Others will conjure up images of conflict, hatred, mistrust and misunderstanding. When discussing religion, it should help to define it so that we can understand what we are talking about from both our own standpoint (and that of others) but this is not easy to achieve.

Definitions of religion tend to either be too narrow (and so exclude many belief systems), or they tend to be quite ambiguous (thus suggesting that any belief in anything is a religion). For example, a common, and what I would deem ‘narrow’ definition of religion, would be “a belief in God” but this in its essence virtually excludes polytheistic religions, thus failing to recognise anything other than those that are monotheistic. It is noted here that the study and definition of religion is convoluted, difficult to understand and open to different interpretations, so this article purposefully falls short of discussing this in depth and instead aims to identify a definition which takes into account these areas of contention.

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Many definitions of religion have been offered over the years, some which are complex and some which are overly simplistic, and this can make it difficult to reach an unbiased understanding. In the book Archaeology of Religion, a number of historical definitions are discussed, highlighting the challenges and complexities in defining something that is understood, perceived and practiced differently in vastly different ways. However, it does attempt to overcome these idiosyncrasies by offering a definition from which to work:

“Religion is a system of beliefs that posits supernatural beings and resolves mysterious or unexplainable phenomena; it is a set of practices and associated trappings that allows believers not only to engage the supernatural world but also to demonstrate their devotion and faith in it. It is intricately intertwined with every aspect of culture that shapes social structure, while it also in turn is shaped by it.” 

This definition, whilst seeming “suspiciously broad and non-specific” is useful as it can be used to refer to all manner of religions, the ways in which beliefs are lived out and also recognises that religion and culture are intertwined and so cannot be separated. It identifies that “religion, in the past and today, permeates every aspect of how humans construct their social institutions – from art, to marriage, to politics”, and this brings us to today.

There is a vast lack of understanding about different religious beliefs and practices in our world. Living in multicultural societies, having a wealth of information at hand (thanks to books and the internet), and seeing various interpretations of religious belief through many different medias does of course mean that we now know more than we have ever known before. However, this wealth of information sometimes presents an inaccurate or skewed explanation of beliefs, and is open to different interpretations by different people. As a result, many people still lack true insight into what their neighbours, colleagues, friends and fellow citizens actually believe.

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In the book Religious Studies and Comparative Methodology, Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying that:

“If you read the Quran, you must read it with the eye of the Muslim; if you read the Bible, you must read it with the eye of the Christian; if you read the Gita, you must read it with the eye of the Hindu. Where is the use of scanning details and then holding up a religion to ridicule?”

In the spirit of this intuitiveness, Cultural Kinetics will soon be launching a Fortnight of Faith Facts. Over the course of 14 days, we will be discussing different religious beliefs in the hope that we can encourage others to question their own preconceptions, learn something new and challenge some of the stereotypes they hold about others. We hope that you join us on our journey…

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