What is religion?
Within religious science, that is, the scientific discipline that studies religion scientifically, there are a variety of religious definitions. That means there are many ways to describe what religion is and how it affects people and society.
Many different definitions
Religious scientists at universities and representatives of different religions and philosophies give us different answers to what religion means.
What definition of religion one derives from simply depends on the point of view of a religion from outside.
The very word religion comes from Latin and means reverence for the holy or god worship.
In many societies, religion has been used as part of life. It has been as obvious as eating and sleeping, therefore the word has not been found in all cultures and in all languages.
But what is religion in practice? Is there always a belief in God or gods? It’s actually not obvious. A religion that places this at its peak is Buddhism . Folk Buddhism, like Hinduism, is both an experience and thought system with many gods and a belief in spirit and demons.
Beside this popular Buddhism there is a philosophical Buddhism that does not have a goddess. Nevertheless, this part is also included in the major world religions.
Can there really be religion without a religion? In that case, some definitions of the concept of religion may not fit here. But a definition or description is always a conceptual design that can be interpreted differently by different persons and intellectuals in different ways. Therefore, the question of what religion is under constant discussion.
There is no comprehensive definition of what religion is. Religion descriptions are instead divided into two main categories: substantive and functional.
Substantial religious definitions
Substantial definitions describe what religion is .
This way of describing religion is often close to what many first think about when they hear the word religion. It is also often close to religious beliefs’ using our own thoughts about what religion is.
It is about what you believe in – gods, gods, spirits and so forth – or what rituals are performed and what they mean and the experience of contact with supernatural reality.
This way of describing religion does not fit into all religions. Theravada Buddhism also counts as a religion, but it does not contain faith in God or God. Therefore, this description does not fit into all religion. Substantial religious definitions become too narrow in this way.
Functional religious definitions
A functional religion definition describes religion based on what religion does , what function fulfills an individual, a group or a society.
One function that religion has is that it has to make sense for people.
A functional definition of religion is thus broader, and then there is also the use of Theravada Buddhism within this. But even other things that people adhere to to give life meaning could also count.
A functional religious description, instead, risks becoming too wide or broad in its definition. Among other things, people who feel meaningful to sport and music could fit into a functional religious definition. The risk of such a broad religious definition is that too many pursuits in our society could be seen as religion.
Different images of religion
We understand religion differently depending on the point of view we study religion from outside of it. Is it the religious religion of any religious community represented by priests, Brahman, Imams or other leaders? Is it the religion of the different members and ordinary people? Is it organized or a form of private religion ? Is it religion as described in holy books or as religion looks for those who live and practice it? Is it religion as we see it in cultures?
Depending on our chosen view point, we will get different images of what a particular religion stands for.
The systematic study of religion
During the historical period called the enlightenment, they began to systematically map different religions. Just as Carl von Linné classified plants and animals then divided them into related groups, they began to chart religions and their relationship with each other.
This happened for example with what we today call Hinduism when the English colonized India . In India there were many religious systems with similar content and structure, there were many gods and different temples with different kinds of cults. They were all different, but there were similarities. With the help of Indian intellectuals and western researchers, they began to map these systems in upper and lower categories. These different beliefs later came to be called Hinduism. Hinduism was therefore not a religion before, but as a variety of local religions with great similarities. A relevant question that can be discussed is why it is a religion when it was an amalgamation of many sub belief systems.
Judaism , Christianity and Islam , unlike Hinduism, are more coherent religions and stem from common writings – the Old Testament of Jews, the Old and New Testament for Christians and the Quran for Muslims.
Despite holy writings, there are usually many different branches and interpretations within a religious system.
Everyone – within what we call a specific religion – does not agree on what is typical of religion. Perhaps not even how to perceive God or how people should relate to God.
When theologians and intellectuals begin to systematize the thoughts and create definitions, this influences our way of thinking and interpreting. When religious researchers and theologians define a religion, it is not certain that everyone is fully aware or in tune with this.
A religion could also be seen as an umbrella designation for different or similar thought systems.
Religion as a theological system
The concept of theology comes from Greek. It means the doctrine of God, or the word of God.
Adhering to theological thinking requires education and ability to think and reason abstractly.
Theological ideas and discussions have been taught by scholars for many thousands of years and the boundary between theology, philosophy and political systems is not always clear. Those who have had the knowledge almost exclusively been men. It is only in modern times that women also trained in theology and religious studies.
Theology contains ideas that explain the world and have evolved as the religion in question has evolved. Questions asked include: What is the correct interpretation of a religious text? What do we believe in?
These discussions have both built up a consensus within religions but also created debates and battles that made religions divided into different groups.
The difference between theology and religious studies
An idea of theology is that it is a way of describing faith from a belief system, meaning that the religious doctrine is interpreted by the people who embrace the religion. In the subject of religious studies at upper secondary level and courses in religious studies at universities and colleges, different religions are studied from a non-religious perspective.
Within religious studies one can study one or more religions without being a believer. You study and use different scientific methods for carrying out those studies. Examples of such methods are historical, critical, behavioral, religious psychological and religious philosophical methods. It is also possible to study religious books based on literary perspectives.
Those who train priests and pastors usually also supplement their education programs in their own community.
Religion as a practical exercise
Religion and theology need not be the same either. Many religious practitioners are not theologically savvy and sometimes there is a gap between the theologians’ ideas and how religious people practice their religion. Understanding a religion is not enough to understand its theological systems. We must also understand how it is practiced.
Religion as a myth
In common terms, one usually uses the word myth about something that is not true. In religion, the word is used in a different way. The myth within religions is often life stories that try to help those who believe in understanding the big life issues. The word myth is Greek and means “saga” or “speech”. In religion, therefore, the emphasis on “speech” becomes more important than the story, when the story is most often relates with a shared experience.
Myths have things to say about the meaning of life, how it arose, why we’re alive, about the struggle between good and evil, and how evil came into the world. But myths can also provide moral guidance.
In what way people believe in the religious myths vary. Sometimes they have been interpreted literally and sometimes symbolically.