An Introduction to Religion & Religious Studies by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
What Is "Religion"? - The answer may not be as obvious or intuitive as you may think:
Is "religion" mainly a set of (theological) beliefs? or a group of (spiritual) practices? or a manner of (ethical) living?
Is it an organized group of people (with common beliefs and practices)? or each person's individual beliefs and practices?
Does it necessarily involve belief in God (or a god or gods)? Does it necessarily include a spiritual or supernatural realm?
Think of everything normally called a "religion" in our world: what do they all (or mostly) have in common?
How is "religion" defined in dictionaries and encyclopedias? How would YOU define "religion"?
Quality of Definitions:What makes for a "good" definition of any word, in general?
Usefulness - applicable to the things the word is meant to encompass
Precision - neither too broad, nor too narrow in its scope
Lack of Bias - neutrally objective, without judging good/bad (as much as possible)
Types of Definitions:
Essential Definitions (usually more deductive, theoretical, intellectual):
What is the "essence" or "substance" of religion?
Phenomenological Definitions (usually more inductive, descriptive, experiential):
What characteristics do all (or most) religions have in common?
Some basic definitions:
"A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." (first of several entries at Dictionary.com)
"A system of beliefs and practices that are relative to superhuman beings" (HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, p. 893)
Note: There are related adjectives ("religious") and adverbs ("religiously"), but why is there no corresponding verb ("to religion")?
To express the corresponding action, we have to use related expressions ("to practice a religion"; "to perform religious rites"; "to be religious") or other verbs ("to believe"; "to worship"; "to be devout"; etc.), each of which has a slightly different meaning.
The Best Definition?
There is no single "correct" or "best" definition:
Yet some definitions can be better or worse - in various contexts and for different purposes.
Some proposed definitions are too narrow (not covering certain recognized "religions"; e.g. not all religions believe in a single "God").
Others are too broad" (as defined, "religion" would include communism, or the stock market, or diet programs, or a fraternity or sorority, etc.).
A good definition should probably somehow include at least three major aspects of religion: beliefs/faith, practices/rituals, and ethics/norms.
What are "Religious Studies"? - There are many different ways of "studying" the human phenomenon we call "religion":
From an Insider (or "emic") Perspective:
adherents (members, believers) can study their own religious beliefs and practices
this is often done within their own schools, synagogues, churches, mosques, etc.
internal goals: to deepen their faith or better understand their own religion (a.k.a. theology or catechesis)
external goals: to be able to defend their faith or explain their religion to others (a.k.a. polemics or apologetics)
From an Outsider (or "etic") Perspective:
anyone else (scholars, adherents of other religions) can study other people's belief and practices
this is usually done in schools, colleges, universities, or other academic settings
academic goals: to objectively describe or explain particular religions, or the phenomenon of religion in general
inter-religious goals: to better understand people of other religious traditions in our multi-cultural world
But how is any of this possible?
Can "outsiders" fully understand what other people do and believe, and why, without sharing those beliefs?
Can "insiders" be objective enough in analyzing and explaining their own beliefs, or are they inevitably biased?
Skills and Qualities necessary for the academic study of religion:
Openness & Honesty in Dialogue
Critical Intelligence & Tolerance
Careful Reading & Listening Skills
Asking Questions / Seeking Understanding - How are Religion and Religious Studies related to Theology, Philosophy, etc.?
The root meanings of religion, theology, and philosophy:
The Hebrew Bible does not contain a collective abstract word for "religion," but does have many words translated more precisely as "obey"; "sacrifice"; "worship"; etc. Obviously, the HB contains many passages that speak of beliefs and actions we would consider religious. One core text is the Shema, which Jews recite regularly:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. / You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. / Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. / Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. / Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, / and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deut 6:4-9)
In the New Testament, the core of religion is believing in God and acting accordingly (just as in the Hebrew Bible, which Jesus directly quotes):
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27; par. Mark 12:30; Matt 22:37).
When the Letter of James discusses "religion" (threskeia, in Greek), it emphasizes the necessity of putting belief into practice:
"If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. / Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:26-27)
The Qur'an contains several different Arabic words that could be translated "religion" (between 70 and 90 occurences, depending on the English translation; for example, see Surahs 3:83-85; 21:92-93; 48:28; 60:8-9).
The core of the Muslim religion is expressed in a short profession of faith called the Shahada: "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet". This two-part phrase is not a direct quotation from the Qur'an, but rather a combination of two of its key ideas:
Several variations of the first phrase ("There is no god but Allah") appear dozens of times in the Qur'an (2:163; 7:158; 38:65; 59:22-23; etc.);
Muhammad is addressed and functions as God's messenger or prophet throughout the Qur'an, although he is explicitly named only six times (e.g., "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of God and the Seal of the Prophets."- 33:40).
The text most commonly prayed by Muslims is the first Surah of the Qur'an, called Al-Fatihah (here in Shakir's translation):
"In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. /
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. /
The Beneficent, the Merciful. /
Master of the Day of Judgment. /
Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help. /
Keep us on the right path. /
The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. /
Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray." (Qur'an 1:1-7)
Questions for Group Discussion and/or Personal Reflection:
What is religion? How would you personally define “religion”? Is yours an "essential" or a "phenomenological" definition?
Can things like sports or entertainment be a "religion" for some people?
What are the most important aspects of the study of religion? How is the study of religion done differently by insiders or by outsiders?
In what ways is religion important/influential in our world today? ...in your country? ...in your community? ...in your own family?
What are some of the positive effects or benefits of religion? In what ways has religion helped people and/or improved our world?
What are some of the negative effects or downsides of religion? In what ways has religion harmed people and/or impaired life?
In which religion were you raised, if any? How well do you understand it? How actively do you still practice it?
Have you chosen a different religion? What aspects of your former religion did not satisfy you? What aspects of the new religion most attracted you?