Friday, October 16, 2015

What is religion?

What is religion?

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.   (James 1:26-27 ESV)

Here we find a leader of the early Christian faith telling us that the difference between true religion and hypocritical religion is that authentic religion has self control of speech, is not verbally abusive, shows personal compassion to those who are suffering, and exerts energy in avoiding false ideas and immoral behavior.   While this description is not complete it is useful. 

It shows that religion; (the word used here is thrēskos which means the outward expression of the fear or respect of God ); if it is sincere and real will change our behavior and our thinking.  Someone claiming to have a fear and respect of God that lacks self control, is verbally abusive, does not involve themselves in compassionate acts, fails to seek truth, and, lives immorally; lacks real religion.  Such religious sentiments are from the viewpoint of James an inner deception and are worthless.   This indicates that religion can be true or false, based on sincerity or self deception, and can be useful or useless.  Not all religious feelings are good.  We must judge between healthy and unhealthy religion. 

Now when we think of religion we normally think of it one of the great world religions.  The following is a list of religions and the number of people who associate themselves with each. 

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
  4. Hinduism: 900 million
  5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
  6. Buddhism: 376 million
  7. primal-indigenous: 300 million
  8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Juche: 19 million
  11. Spiritism: 15 million
  12. Judaism: 14 million
  13. Baha'i: 7 million
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million
  15. Shinto: 4 million
  16. Cao Dai: 4 million
  17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  19. Neo-Paganism: 1 million
  20. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
  21. Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
  22. Scientology: 500 thousand

  1. [1]

Religion here refers to a worldview or philosophy of life and which includes our beliefs concerning God, gods, spirits, life after death, and metaphysics.    This definition would include secular people as also having religious beliefs but that these would be a confession of faith that says that either God/gods do not exist or that knowledge of God/gods is unknowable.  It would also teach that knowledge of God/gods is not important to living life well or is even destructive to good living.    

Religions are “world views” and those who strive to consistently live their lives by a particular and well defined world view are “religious” while those who have only fuzzy world views or who make to attempt to live by a particular world view are not religious.  There would of course be degrees to which a person was “religious” by this definition.

Each of these world views attempts to define or describe the nature of God, humanity, spirits, and all of reality.   In this sense then we could think of religion as the “big story of life” or the “mega-story” by which we seek to make sense of reality.  Out of this “big story” we will make our decisions and live our lives if we sincerely hold to “the faith”.  

However, we can just have a cultural loyalty to a religion in which case it does not radically impact our daily lives.   While we formally will say we hold to this religion our true religion is something else that we have developed that governs our normal decision making process.  Cultural religion can be very superficial and hypocritical. 

At the same time once a religion has become part of culture and become institutionalized this becomes another aspect which can add power and persuasion to a religion.  Once a religion is no longer just a private affair found in a human heart but an expression of the policy of a corporate cultural institution then the nature of that religion is impacted.   It now influences and is influenced by the culture in which it exists. 

Basic definition of the word

The root of the English word "religion" is usually traced to the Latin religare (re: back, andligare: 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 of Israel was "covenanted" or "bonded" to the deity. But what does being bound or bonded mean?  Ultimately, it meant that Israel was the wife of God and they were bonded together in marriage.  

So religion is a term which relates to humanity being in union and communion with what they conceive to be their “God”.   Religion is a relationship that is dynamic, deep, transforming, and all embracing. 

So a person’s religion is how they believe they will be in good terms with “God” or "ultimate reality".   

Now it is known that each person can have a different “God”.   

What is a person’s “God”?   Theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich’s definition of a person’s “God” being their “ultimate concern” is useful here.   So religion is the means by which people believe they can reach, attain, and be in union with, that which is their “ultimate concern” in life.   So a secular person who has an “ultimate concern” can be religious. 

A person who did not have any “ultimate concern” in life would be a person without religion.   Those who formally said they had an “ultimate concern” but did not organize their lives around this concern would be hypocritical and lack devotion to what they professed to be their “ultimate concern” in life.   Some people would be “true believers” who heart and soul seek to find union and communion with the “ultimate concern” of their lives.   

Some people have a “cultural religion” because their nation, group, or tribe formally affirms that something is supposed to be the “ultimate concern” of their lives.   Anyone who would not profess such an “ultimate concern” would feel “shame” and “condemnation” from the group and therefore only if they were willing to endure rejection and abandonment from their culture would they not profess this as their “ultimate concern”.    So these people will go through public rituals of faith that allows them to have the acceptance and approval of the group by outwardly affirming what the group believes should be the “ultimate concern” of life. 

A religious person is one "bound" by choice or by commitment to the tenets of a particular faith system or world view.   This is any core commitment to a particular way of life.   One's religion then is expressed in  "a rule of life consistent with what I believe to be the ultimate concern of life" or "how one lives in the light of a particular deep core commitment" or, in popular language, one's choice of  "life style" based on their religious ground motive. 

Now people can make many different things their ultimate concern of life.  

For example one can make the nation state the ultimate concern of life and hold to “nationalism” as their religion. 

"When a person says; "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. "

(Niebuhr, H. Richard, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1943, 152, 1955, 1960 (A Harper Torch-book. p. 17)

Now within the faith of “nationalism” we can have a “national God” who is there to ask to help the nation prosper, guide its armies to victories, and protect it from harm.  But the real ultimate concern of a nationalist is the nation and God is just a means to the end of a glorified and great nation.   God serves the nation the nation does not serve God in such a system of thought.    This would be an example of a largely secular faith. 

Homo religiosus (humans as religious beings)

When we think about the great impulse that most human beings have to make sense of their world by telling a “grand tale” which makes sense and gives meaning to life it has been suggested that one of the best ways to understand humanity is as a creature that is religious in nature.   Some have suggested that we even have a “God Gene” that encourages creation of metaphysical systems which provide meaning.  If this is the case then we must be careful in how we speak and deal with the issue of religion since it is such a fundamental part of our humanness. 

Now there are a few who say that there is no true grand tale to be told and life is without meaning.  But such a perspective has never been popular or easily held.  It goes against the grain of most people at a deep and perhaps even a biological level.  Also we must remember to be skeptical even about skepticism.

We cannot simply be for all religion.  Religions differ in content.  They tell different tales.  They cannot all be true.  We may see some as totally untrue, others as partially true, a few as mainly true, and perhaps one as totally true.  We can also decide if a religion is healthy or unhealthy for human beings to believe.   It does not make sense to be for all religions nor to be against an idea simply because it has been labeled “religious”. 

The true quest of human thought and philosophy should be to try to discern the true religion and live by it.  To find the true “Grand Story” of the cosmos and live a life consistent with that ultimate reality and value is to want to obtain a pure and true religion.  Our desire should be to figure out what reality is and adapt to it.  That should be what we hunger and thirst after with all our souls.

As the Messiah Jesus said:

Seek first the kingdom of God and HIS righteousness ….

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