What is “Religion”?

A look at Webster’s reveals up to seven meanings of the word “religion”. It includes such notions as anything someone might get enthusiastic about, such as “golf is his religion” or if not exactly enthusiastic, at least reliably predictable—like “she makes a religion over getting her spring-cleaning done.”

But even when taken in the proper or serious sense, religion can mean a number of things. For many people, it means church-going at special times set aside for formal worship. Yet there are religious people for whom the whole world is sacred, and their devotion is simply part of their whole daily life. Perhaps this is why the word “spirituality” has become a popular substitute for “religion” today. A lot of people don’t want their religion to be organized.

For others, religion means primarily doing good to others. In fact, in the New Testament, we are even told that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is taking care of widows and orphans in their needs” (James 1:27). It’s obvious that James had little regard for those who considered themselves religious just because they claimed to believe or have faith.

Nevertheless, for most people, religion has something to do with belief in God, especially one who rewards or punishes—otherwise many of them wouldn’t do the things listed above. Yet this is not always so. Most everyone, for example, considers Buddhism to be one of the world’s major religions, yet most Buddhists claim not to believe in God—at least not in a personal one. For them, religion is living completely in tune with ultimate reality, but the ultimate reality itself defies definition of any sort. In a sense, Buddhism preaches a kind of “reverent agnosticism” and holds that reward or punishment comes simply from whether or not one lives in harmony with the way things really are.

Obviously, then, “religion” can mean a lot of different things to different people. In view of all this variety of ways of being religious, probably one of the best definitions of religion is that given by the late Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor. “Religion,” Frankl wrote, “is the search for ultimate meaning”. So too, according to Frankl, “Faith is trust in ultimate meaning”—which is to say that such a meaning exists. Frankl learned this the hard way. Many people he knew died without the Nazis having to gas them. They simply gave up on life because it no longer held any meaning for them. For them, God was indeed dead.

Approached this way, we might be able to say that whether we love it or hate it, religion is one of those things that we can’t escape taking seriously. Without it—or at least the search for ultimate meaning—our lives will be at best superficial. With it, everything, even the worst that life can throw our way, may ultimately make sense.

R W Kropf     March 15, 2000                                   Religion.doc  00-03-15.htm