What Is "Religion"? - Well, It’s Hard to "Say Exactly"
By Gerald A. Larue
Emeritus Professor of Biblical History and Archaeology
University of Southern California
Educators who teach about religion immediately face the problem of
defining the subject. Is a "religion" to be regarded as another form of human
thought or opinion covered by guarantees of freedom, as is speech,
assembly, press and so on? Or, does religion always imply
There are further questions. Should the definition simply refer to those who
feel that they are in a particular relationship to God (however defined) with
an obligation to fulfill divinely revealed law? For example, Judaism is always
listed as a "religion," but what about Humanistic Judaism, which focuses
on persons and humanity without reference to a deity? In addition, many
Secular Humanists  tend to eschew the term "religion" because, in its
popular interpretation, it carries with it overtones of a supernaturalism that
What does the word "religion" mean, and what is religion and what is
A Starting Place
The root of the word "religion" is usually traced to the Latin religare (re:
back, and ligare: to bind), so that the term is associated with "being bound."
The idea may reflect a concept prominent in biblical literature. Israel was
said to be in a "covenant" (berith) relationship with its God (Yahweh). In a
sense, the nation was "covenanted" or "bonded" to the deity. But what does
being bound or bonded mean? Is a slave who is bound or bonded to his or
her master in a "religious" relationship? Is a business agreement which
binds partners in a legal covenant a form of "religious" binding? At one time
in human history, such "bindings" may have had religious sanction, but
today, in America, slavery is outlawed and business contracts are made in
legal settings. This particular notion of religion as "binding" doesn't really fit
and therefore this interpretation of the root meaning of the term proves not to
be particularly helpful.
On the other hand, one might argue that the religious person is one "bound"
by choice or by commitment to the tenets of a particular faith system. Once
again, the parameters of this definition can be broadened to include any
commitment to a particular way of life. Such an expansion would embrace
concepts like "philosophy" or "psychology" or even any chosen way of living.
One's religion then becomes "how one lives one's life" or "how one lives in
the light of a particular commitment" or, in popular vernacular, one's "life
style." Obviously, while the term "commitment" may provide some insight
into the concept of "being bound," it is far too inclusive to be acceptable.
The Notion of Faith
Religion may embrace a conception of "faith," and it is not uncommon to find
mention of the "faiths of humankind." The reference is generally to that to
which individuals or groups are loyal, to that in which trust is placed.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out that, when a patriotic
nationalist might claim
"I was born to die for my country" he is exhibiting the double relationship
that we now call faith. The national life is for him the reality whence his own
life derives its worth. He relies on the nation as source of his own value. He
trusts it; first, perhaps, in the sense of looking constantly to it as the
enduring reality out of which he has issued, into whose ongoing cultural life
his own actions and being will merge. His life has meaning because it is
part of that context, like a word in a sentence. It has value because it fits
into a valuable whole. His trust may also be directed toward the nation as a
power which will supply his needs, care for his children, and protect his life.
But faith in the nation is primarily reliance upon it as an enduring
value-center. Insofar as the nation is the last value-center to which the
nationalist refers, he does not raise the question about its goodness to him
or about its rightness or wrongness. Insofar as it is value-center rightness
and wrongness depend on it. This does not mean in any Hobbesian sense
that for such faith the national government determines what is right and
what is wrong but rather that the rightness of all actions depends on their
consonance with the inner constitution of the nation and on their tendency
to enhance or diminish national life, power, and glory. (p. 17)
"Value-center," "trust," "loyalty," "meaning" are intertwined to provide the
definition of "faith" or "a faith." It is not difficult to understand that, whereas a
theist may express such a faith in a god, an atheist or a humanist may also
claim to have such a value-center that gives meaning and direction to life.
This value-center would be a faith in the possibilities and potentials of
"humanity." Inasmuch as many religions have humanistic concerns and
dimensions, there will be overlaps in outreach to those in need and in the
interpretation of meaningful response. Whereas the religious person may
respond to human need because his or her faith system calls for such
response, the humanist will respond out of the well-springs of compassion.
The responses may be the same or paralleled, but the motivations will
emerge from different value-centers.
Those who accept and those who do not accept supernaturalistic beliefs will
enjoy the same or similar feelings of awe and wonder as they view a sunset,
a magnificent forest, or the broad rolling prairies; or as they listen to the
quieting murmur of a brook, the lapping of waves of a lake or ocean, or the
soughing of wind in the tree tops; or as they witness the fury of an electric
storm, a hurricane, or a tidal wave. The difference will be in the
interpretations. The supernaturalist will interpret these experience with
reference to a deity, the nonsupernaturalists will see them as manifestations
of nature. The experiences will be the same or paralleled; the interpretations
will differ. Perhaps both can be interpreted as "spiritual" experiences — in
one case with supernaturalistic overtones; in the other resonating with
wonder and awe, but without the supernatural.
Struggling for Definition
It is not surprising to discover that most present day scholars tend to avoid
definitions when they discuss religions. The reasons for evasion become
obvious as we look at some of the many earlier efforts to define the term.
For example, in his Gifford Lectures (1902), the psychologist William James
 defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men
in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to
whatever they may consider the divine" (p. 42). Obviously, this definition is
too limited; religion is more than affect and more than what people do in
their solitariness. As William Newsman  pointed out: "regardless of what
else may be said of religion, it is also a social phenomenon — it is
something that people do in groups." (p. 3) Mircea Eliade , the Roman
Catholic historian of religions, rejected the study of religions solely from
psychological or sociological perspectives and sought to examine the
patterns or forms of religious expression. He would separate the sacred
from the profane, even though he recognized that religion has the capacity to
transform the profane into the sacred. (p. 30) The Protestant theologian,
Paul Tillich , wrote of religion in terms of "ultimate concern" within which
he would include secularism: "For secularism is never without ultimate
concern." (p. 124) The sociologist, Emile Durkheim  , linked religion to the
concept of "church:" "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices
relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden —
beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a
Church, all those who adhere to them." (p. 47) Obviously, this definition runs
counter to the recognition of the ascetics who express their beliefs outside
of a community.
Into this struggle for definition, others have introduced a number of special
terms. … For example, Rudolph Otto  in The Idea of the Holy produced a
battery of Latin terms that suggest aesthetic dimensions in religion. He
wrote of human confrontation with the "numinous," which is "wholly other" or
outside normal experience and which is indescribable, terrifying, fascinating,
characterized by dread and awe. The experience is of a mysterium
tremendum et fascinosum, an "awe-filled and fascinating mystery." He
wrote of the numen tremendum, which refers to the sense of the uncanny or
that which renders a person "awestruck." All of these feeling responses he
associated with religion. However, these terms refer to reactions not unlike
those expressed by astronomers as they are awestruck, fascinated and
moved by the immensity of space; or by our cosmonauts when, with deep
emotion and fascination, they viewed the earth from space; or by poets and
artists as they struggle to articulate the wonder they experience in everything
from nature to human technological creativity; and by paleontologists and
other scientists as they confront the mysterious beginnings of life on planet
earth. As we noted above, some of us experience similar feelings as we
view the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of a sunset, the power of the
ocean, the deepest chasm in the crust of the earth, or the shaking of the
earth during an earthquake or violent storm. These are human aesthetic
responses to the wonders of our cosmos. They are not limited to "true
believers" nor are they necessarily to be defined as "religious," although
some would accept the term "spiritual," indicating the deep emotional
stirrings evoked, but without any supernaturalistic implications.
Nor is it possible to link religion in a singular way to values, as Ames has
done in his definition of religion as "the consciousness of the highest social
values" [10, p. 11]. Values rise out of society and can exist quite apart from
religion. Religion is not alone in seeking meaning for existence. Joseph
Gaer  described religion as a person’s thoughtful response to the
question "why?" This implies that religion alone seeks meaning for
existence. But philosophy, psychology and the sciences also pose this
question. Nor can religion be linked simply to "impulse directed to the
conservation and preservation of life," as Jane Harrison  phrased it. And
the list goes on and on.
The question arises: How does one handle this problem? Perhaps the
answer lies in "no definition."
John A. Hutchinson , in his book Paths of Faith, acknowledged the
difficulty in defining religion. He wrote:
Formal definitions of religion are as numerous, as various, and often as
mutually conflicting as there are students of religion. Often such definitions
illustrate the oriental parable of the blind men describing the elephant,
each taking hold of part of the beast and defining the whole in terms of this
part. Like the elephant, religion is a large and complex phenomenon. In
this connection, some historians of religion question or reject the word
religion as a distortion of the form of experience it seeks to communicate.
Several of the world's major languages lack any word that can be
adequately translated as "religion." The common noun religion imputes a
unity or homogeneity of experience that many observers believe does not
exist. (pp. 3-4)
Hutchinson goes on to point out that substituted words do not work.
However, he then attempts his own definition of the "ultimate valuation"
experience—something at once particularly universal and yet so multifarious
and multifaceted that its definition is elusive. The available terminology is
inadequate, though, and satisfactory definition eludes even Hutchinson.
Given that we generally recognize and acknowledge that the development of
religion is a particularly human endeavor, then we can follow a pattern set by
those who simply discuss "religions" without becoming entangled in debates
over precise definitions.
Religions include aspects of all of the themes mentioned above.
1. Wine, Sherwin, Judaism Beyond God. Farmington Hills, Michigan:
Society for Humanistic Judaism, 1985.
2. Kurtz, Paul, The New Skepticism. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books,
3. Niebuhr, H. Richard, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. New
York: Harper and Row, 1943, 152, 1955, 1960 (A Harper Torch-book).
4. James, William, The Variety of Religious Experience. New York: Collier
5. Newsman, William M, editor, The Social Meanings of Religion. Chicago:
Rand McNally College Publishing Company, 1974.
6. Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion. Trans. By Rosemary
Sheed. New York: The World Publishing Company (Meridian), 1963.
7. Tillich, Paul, The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row
8. Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (Trans.
by Joseph Ward Swain). London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1915. (6th
9. Otto, Rudolph, The Idea of the Holy. London: Oxford University Press,
10. Braden, The World's Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1939.
11. Gaer, Joseph, How the Great Religions Began. New York: Signet, 1958.
12. Harrison, Jane, Themis. London: Cambridge University Press, 1912.
13. Hutchinson, John A. Paths of Faith. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Note. This paper is excerpted from the What is "Religion"? segment of Chapter 2, "On
Teaching about Religion," contained in Professor Larue’s comparative religion textbook
(Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward A New Age of Enlightenment. Amherst, NY:
Humanist Press, 1996). Our minor editing to produce an independent paper appropriate for
listing in this portion of this web resource has been done with Dr. Larue’s cooperation and
March 19, 2003
Instruction Systems grants the right to freely duplicate this essay for educational
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
Like the elephant in the oriental parable, religion is a large
and complex phenomenon. Definers tend to take hold of a
part of the beast and define the whole in terms of the part.