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Definitions of the word "religion"

Definitions by academics, etc.

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Definitions by academics and others:

bulletDr. Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, has assembled a list of definitions of religion from various authors and theologians. A few are:
bulletWilliam James: "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."
bulletAlfred North Whitehead: "what the individual does with his own solitariness."
bulletGeorge Hegel: "the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind." 1
bulletIn 1995, subscribers to the newsgroup "alt.memetics" attempted to define religion.
bulletScott Hatfield: Religion is "a behaviour, process or structure whose orientation is at least partially supernatural."
bulletOne subscriber quoted H.L. Mencken 2: Religions' "...single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him."
bulletJerry Moyer: "Religion is a system of beliefs by which a people reduce anxiety over natural phenomena through some means of explication." He also cited a quotation from the writings of Paul Tillich: "Religious is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern" 3
bulletClifford Geertz defined religion as a cultural system:

"A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." 4

bulletJoel Elliott, has published a slide set on "Defining Religion," 5 which cites:
bulletB. Malinowski: "relieves anxiety and enhances social integration."
bulletRobert Bellah: "a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence."
bulletDavid Carpenter has collected and published a list of definitions of religion, including:
bulletAnthony Wallace: "a set of rituals, rationalized by myth, which mobilizes supernatural powers for the purpose of achieving or preventing transformations of state in man or nature."
bulletHall, Pilgrim, and Cavanagh: "Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them."
bulletKarl Marx: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." 6
bulletDon Swenson defines religion in terms of the sacred:

"Religion is the individual and social experience of the sacred that is manifested in mythologies, ritual, ethos, and integrated into a collective or organization." 7

bulletPaul Connelly also defines religion in terms of the sacred and the spiritual:

"Religion originates in an attempt to represent and order beliefs, feelings, imaginings and actions that arise in response to direct experience of the sacred and the spiritual. As this attempt expands in its formulation and elaboration, it becomes a process that creates meaning for itself on a sustaining basis, in terms of both its originating experiences and its own continuing responses." 8

He defines the sacred as:

"The sacred is a mysterious manifestation of power and presence that is experienced as both primordial and transformative, inspiring awe and rapt attention. This is usually an event that represents a break or discontinuity from the ordinary, forcing a re-establishment or recalibration of perspective on the part of the experiencer, but it may also be something seemingly ordinary, repeated exposure to which gradually produces a perception of mysteriously cumulative significance out of proportion to the significance originally invested in it."

He further defines the spiritual as:

"The spiritual is a perception of the commonality of mindfulness in the world that shifts the boundaries between self and other, producing a sense of the union of purposes of self and other in confronting the existential questions of life, and providing a mediation of the challenge-response interaction between self and other, one and many, that underlies existential questions."

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bulletMichael York of Bath Spa University College, Bath, UK defines religion as:

"A shared positing of the identity of and relationship between the world, humanity and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment, value allocation and validation enactment. A religion need not accept or believe in the supernatural, but it takes a position on. Likewise, some religions deny the reality or at least value of the world, but they still take a position."

We feel that York's definition is one of the most inclusive found to date.

bulletDavid Edwards, author of Free to be Human defines religion as:

"The sum total of answers we give to the problem of our relationship with the universe, we call religion."

However, this definition contains an element of controversy, because it implies that religions, and thus perhaps deity/deities, are created by humanity and not the reverse. A less contentious meaning might be:

"The sum total of answers to the problem of our relationship with the universe, we call religion."

bullet Bruce D. Aikin 9 commented:

" 'There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion'. (The Naval Treaty) "

"The word 'religion' comes from the same root as the word 'ligament.' Ligaments connect muscles to bones. So the root word means, 'to connect, to bind, to tie together.' 10 "Religion' literally means, 'continuously tying it all together.' Is it not therefore, an obvious deduction that that which is supposed to help us tie it all together should not be used to tear us apart?"

"In The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, 11 Almustafa, a wise and gentle teacher is about to leave the city where he has lived for twelve years and return home. The people of the city gather and ask his final advice on many topics: Love, Marriage, Giving, Joy and Sorrow, and a number of others. Near the end, a priest asks him to speak of Religion; he says, 'Have I spoken this day of aught else? Is not religion all deeds and all reflection…?' Or to phrase it less poetically, '"all actions and all thought',"

"If we use this idea, we can further define 'religion' as: 'the psychological process which continuously reconnects what we know and what we believe to our thoughts and actions.' This definition is neutral; it does not differentiate between good and bad. It is up to us to make our religion good."


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Irving Hexham, "By Religion I  Mean...," at: http://people.ucalgary.ca/
  2. H.L. Mencken, "Treatise on the Gods," Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, (1930, revised 1946)
  3. A summary of postings on alt.memetics is at: http://virus.lucifer.com/
  4. Clifford Geertz, "The Interpretation of Cultures," Basic Books, (1973), Page 90.
  5. Joel Elliott, slide set on "Defining Religion," at: http://www.unc.edu/
  6. David Carpenter of Saint Joseph's University has a list of definitions at: http://www.sju.edu/
  7. Don Swenson, "Society, Spirituality, and the Sacred: A Social Scientific Introduction," Broadview Press, (1999-JAN).
  8. Joel Elliott, slide set on "Defining Religion," at: http://www.unc.edu/
  9. Bruce D. Aikin from a paper delivered during 2002 in Toronto ON to The Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada
  10. Lay Voices in an open church, by Celia A. Hahn. 1985 The Alban Institute, Inc. Page 56 (Out of print). Ms. Hahn originally gave the definition as "tying-it-all-together.' Bruce Aikin wrote and asked her if it would be a good idea to add "continuously' to the definition and she agreed.
  11. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf. 1923. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-JUL-09
Compiler: B.A. Robinson

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