What Is and Is Not Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of behaviors, practices and ethics. It is often defined in terms of a belief in a transcendent God and an expectation of reward or punishment for one’s actions, but there are many other possible ways to define religion. It is a category-concept that includes the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as other traditions such as ancient Chinese beliefs and Native American spirituality. In addition, religion is a broad concept that encompasses the beliefs and practices of many groups of people who do not subscribe to any of the major world religions.

A basic definition of religion involves the notion that human life is essentially spiritual, and that this is inextricably connected to the possibility of true and lasting goodness. The basic problem that religions address, therefore, is how to make sense of the fundamental questions about what it means to be human, the existence and nature of the universe, and the purpose of our lives.

As such, religions are ultimately systems for monitoring, coding, protecting and transmitting information which has proved of value, over millennia, in helping to secure and maintain the potentialities of human life and its authentic flourishing. This explains why they are so important and also why the basic question about what is and is not a religion can be so problematical.

The religious experience is a unique and profound feature of humanity. It is a phenomenon that can be found in all cultures of the world, at any time in history and in many different forms. Nonetheless, it is also clear that this experience is not something that can be adequately understood or explained in terms of the scientific method. This article will attempt to provide some introductory observations about the nature of this phenomenon, and also to suggest that there are certain ways that we might approach the study of religion which do not require belief in a God or the specific doctrines of any particular faith.

All religions imply that there is some kind of spiritual reality, and that this is inextricably linked to the ultimate good or evil of human behavior. This is not just a question of personal opinion, but a universal phenomenon which has implications for how societies and individuals live together and relate to one another. It is also a crucial aspect of what it means to be human, and how we can best serve one another in our efforts to promote the well-being of all people. This is a task and a contribution which is more valuable than anything else which can be contributed to humanity by human beings. However, insofar as faith gets separated from the generative force of love and the movement towards a deeper truth, religion becomes an impoverished and empty experience which is unable to serve its own purpose. This is the danger that we face today.