Some Thoughts: What is Religion?

The title of one of the essays I was doing for college this week was ‘Is Buddhism a Religion?’, a title which raised the secondary question ‘What is Religion?’. This second question is actually very interesting, and, as our society continues to diversify in the faith department, it’s a very important one to try to answer too.

Is religion a belief in and worship of a god or gods? I think it’s fair to say that that’s what a lot of us think religion is. But, while this isn’t strictly wrong, it’s also not the full picture.

I suggest that a better way to think of religion is that it is an organised and systematic approach to the search for meaning and values.

The search for meaning and values is an intrinsic part of being human (and it’s not necessarily religious in nature). We all make meaning out of our lives and our world. I think that practically everyone believes in values such as honesty and love; and you don’t have to be a religious person to believe that social justice is meaningful and important. A big part of our lives is meaning-making: developing our values and deciding what’s really important in life.

Religion provides a structure for meaning-making. A book I read for this essay suggested seven dimensions which make up that structure:

A practical and ritual dimension, an experiential and emotional dimension; a narrative or mythic dimension; an ethical and legal dimension; a doctrinal and philosophical dimension; a social and institutional dimension; and a material dimension.

I don’t want to make this post into an essay too so I won’t bore you explaining what each of these means! If you look at any religion – Catholicism, for example – it should be fairly easy to identify examples of each of these structures in action.

All of these dimensions link in with each other and together they constitute religion. Belief in God could be an important part – coming in with the doctrinal and philosophical dimension in particular – but it’s not necessary. Buddhism doesn’t have a doctrine about God but it’s still a religion.

I think it’s important to realize that religion isn’t some alien thing; it’s a structure for a search that’s common to us all. Accepting that some people chafe at this structure, just as some people rely on this structure, is really important for trying to understand the value of both religion and non-religion – an increasingly controversial issue in society today!

To finish, I want to address one question which cropped up during a discussion over the weekend: ‘Is atheism a religion?’. The answer, clearly, is no; it doesn’t have the seven elements mentioned above. Though I think it is fair to say that some elements of religion do – ironically! – creep into extreme anti-religious atheism. (Richard Dawkins, I’m looking at you!)

Please leave a comment below if you want to discuss this topic further. And please let me know (here, by email, over facebook, or in person) if you enjoyed this type of blog – I enjoyed writing it and would love to do more like it in future 🙂

Thanks, Kevin 🙂

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts: What is Religion?

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts: A Search for Truth | From the Mind of Kevin

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