What is ‘religion’?

Jul 3, 2022 | Curriculum, Definitions, Religion, Syllabus Designers, Teachers

The Commission on RE (2018) recommended changing the name of the school subject ‘Religious Education’ in England to ‘Religion and Worldviews’. The word ‘Religion’ is in the singular to indicate the need to examine the concept of religion, and to delineate the field of study. 

As with many words, we use ‘religion’ in everyday life, thinking the meaning is obvious, but once you start to think about it, it’s not so obvious. It means different things to different people, and people have positive and negative emotional reactions to it as well. 

Sociologists such as Linda Woodhead tell us that for many people in the UK today the word ‘religion’ is ‘toxic’. It has negative associations – unscientific truth claims, oppressive organisations discredited by scandals, illiberal and old-fashioned social attitudes on topics such as sexuality, demanding obedience to strict laws, and often as causing conflict and war.

Increasingly, people say that they are ‘non-religious’ (now over half in the UK, and a larger percentage of young people), though exactly what they mean by that varies. Even many people who belong to religions don’t want to be seen as ‘religious’ and may prefer to talk about their ‘way of life’.

If you look up ‘religion’/’religious’ in an ordinary traditional English dictionary it tends to include the ideas of a system of belief and worship, God or gods, the supernatural, and following a religion (or anything else) very strictly, as well as the older meaning of life under monastic conditions. 

Historically, the term ‘religious’ was used to distinguish Christian monks, nuns, and priests living in monasteries from priests living and working out among the people (called ‘secular’ priests). People nowadays often only call others ‘religious’ if they are very strict about their religion. It is also commonly used metaphorically to express complete dedication: ‘She attends her exercise class religiously’. 

Scholars of religion argue however that the concept of religion as a fairly fixed system of beliefs about God or gods and resultant behaviour only dates back to the last few centuries in Europe, when philosophers separated out ‘religion’ from the rest of life, and it doesn’t fit well with either the European past or the rest of the world’s way of thinking, past or present. 

The idea of religions as fixed systems of beliefs (‘isms’) suggests that they are completely separate from each other and from the everyday ‘secular’ world, and that they are monolithic and unchanging, and that people have to accept the whole package.

This may even suggest that different religions are in competition (‘us’ and ‘them’); that members of religions cannot engage with non-religious activities or people; that religions have not influenced each other; that there is only one correct interpretation of each religion; that they have not/cannot/should not change and adapt to different situations and cultures; that individuals have to follow the whole official package and cannot follow the religion in part; and that individuals cannot be influenced by more than one religion. We tend to call those who have such fixed views ‘fundamentalists’.

Many scholars, however, point out that study of the history of religious traditions demonstrates that they change and adapt through time, have influenced each other, and have evolved many different variations and interpretations, though some basics arguably stay the same. (For example, even though there are many different kinds of Christian, you probably wouldn’t call someone a Christian if they had no time for Jesus.) People have different understandings and interpretations of their tradition, and some may just follow part of it or be influenced by more than one tradition. 

Definitions of religion often assume Christianity as the model, thinking that religion means believing in God, listing beliefs in a creed, having a church, and having one holy book, and then expect to find similar things in other traditions. However, this doesn’t work very well – especially with religions beyond the ‘Abrahamic’ traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  

Definitions of religion that focus on God don’t work for Buddhists or Jains, focusing on beliefs or a holy book doesn’t work very well for Hindus or many indigenous traditions or contemporary Paganism. So, you either have to say that none of these are religions, or expand your understanding of religion.

Buddhism is usually counted as a religion, but some disagree either because it is not based on belief in God, or because they dislike the term ‘religion’. The Buddha was a human person and taught how human life should be lived. On the other hand, there is the idea of something beyond this life such as rebirth and eventual spiritual liberation, and there are things like temples, rituals, stories, ethical guidelines, and organisations that do tend to be associated with the ideas of religion.

Jainism is usually counted as a religion, but like Buddhism it is not based on God. Mahavira was a human person who taught how to live, in order to set the eternal soul free from the material world. This goal of liberation beyond this world together with elements such as temples, ritual, ethical guidelines and organisations are reasons why Jainism is classed as a religion.

Paganism is very diverse, but most contemporary Pagans do not believe in one supreme God beyond this world. They may however believe in some underlying power within the natural world, or in many gods, goddesses or other such beings. They also have rituals, stories and ethical teachings, and usually do want to be counted as a religion.

Many contemporary Pagan groups have campaigned to see themselves included in the category ‘religion’. Michael York has written books such as Pagan Theology (2003), Pagan Ethics (2016) and Pagan Mysticism (2018), all subtitled ‘Paganism as a world religion’. One Druid group (the Druid Network) managed to be classified as a religion for charity status in 2010. The Pagan Federation was accepted by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales in 2011 and both these groups were finally accepted into the Interfaith Network as recently as 2015 (though some local interfaith groups such as Bath had Pagan members long before).

Confucianism is rarely studied in English RE, though it can feature in the RE curriculum in other countries. It does not feature in lists of religions in either mainland China or Taiwan, and may be considered more of a philosophy or set of underlying cultural values. Western scholars differ about whether Confucianism should be counted as a religion or not. There are rituals, stories and ethical teachings, and reference to harmony with Ti’en or ‘heaven’, but the focus is on this human life and there is no belief in God.

As a result of the difficulty of defining ‘religion’ adequately and inclusively, some scholars argue that we should stop using the word religion and replace it with something else. W.C. Smith suggested using ‘tradition’ for the institutional organisations that have lasted for centuries, and ‘faith’ for the individual’s personal experience. T. Fitzgerald suggested dropping the idea of a separate ‘religious’ part of human life altogether, and count ‘religious’ ideas and customs in with ‘culture’. You may have noticed that some people prefer to talk about their own or other people’s ‘tradition’, ‘faith’ or ‘culture’ than ‘religion’.

Other scholars consider that we might as well keep the word religion as everyone uses it and we sort of know what we mean. However, we should realise that it is not a fixed thing ‘out there’ with a fixed definition, but just a useful tool to organise our thinking about an aspect of human life (J.Z. Smith), and we can to some extent decide for ourselves what we mean by it in different contexts, as long as we explain to other people what we mean (R. McCutcheon).  

Some definitions stress the passing down of traditions from one’s ancestors, such as D. Hervieu-Léger’s ‘chain of memory’ – which may be in danger of being broken in some situations today.

Some definitions stress the community aspects, such as J. Cox’s ‘identifiable communities’ that have ‘postulated alternative realities’ (communities that have a different perspective on life from other communities).

Some definitions stress the individual and their response to their own existence and experience, such as P. Goodchild’s suggestion that religion is our ‘response to the most significant limits of experience’.

In the opinion of the author, ‘the area of human experience that the term seeks to delineate is about emotions, values, customs and practices both ritual and ethical, and identity as well as beliefs, and, usually, about what people consider of most importance in their lives’. Different people may see their religion as more about identity, or customs and celebrations, or how to treat people and the planet or beliefs and ‘truth-claims’ about ultimate reality.

Although we are free to some extent to come up with our own definitions for ‘religion’, legal proceedings have to define religion precisely because different definitions have different consequences. Equality legislation in the UK counts ‘religion or belief’ as a ‘protected characteristic’. There is much debate about whether you can excuse an act against another law by saying ‘but it’s my religion’ (whether it’s smoking cannabis or refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding), or whether it’s still OK to make jokes about religions as long as you weren’t trying to spread hatred of the people who follow it (some would argue that it’s best to stick to making jokes about your ‘own’ religion). 

R. McCutcheon says that calling something ‘religious’ can be ‘a political act’, which seeks to manage how people think, vote and behave. Whether something is counted as ‘religious’ can have serious consequences, especially in countries where there are laws against ‘blasphemy’ or against belonging to certain ‘religious’ groups. Many scholars such as F. Staal or R. King have argued that labelling something as a ‘religion’ in the European dictionary sense could be, and was, used by colonial powers in order to control colonised populations – in India the British rulers for example helped to establish the idea that ‘Hinduism’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Sikhism’ were separate ‘religions’ and thus perhaps contributed to making inter-community conflict worse.

Further reading

Hughes, A. & McCutcheon, R.T., eds. (2017) Religion in 5 Minutes.  Sheffield: EquinoxCush, D. & Robinson, C. (2021) ‘“Buddhism isn’t a religion but Paganism is”: the applicability of the concept of “religion” to Dharmic and Nature-based traditions, and the implications for religious education’. In P. Hannam and G. Biesta, (eds.) Religion and Education: The Forgotten Dimensions of Religious Education? Leiden: Brill|Sense.

Photo: Dave Francis, 2019.