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“Everybody knows what religion is, and so, we do not need to define it.”

The study of religion may be as old as humankind itself according to one author. Defining religion is difficult as there are many definitions as there are many authors. The word religion is the most difficult to define because of the lack of a universally accepted definition. Specifically the root meaning of the word religion can be traced to Latin. Relegare or religion means to bind oneself, emanating from the Latin religio, which is translated to re-read emphasising tradition passing from generation to generation.

Douglas Davies says “some have simply described religion as a belief in spiritual beings.” (10).

In the book The World Religion there is a suggestion of approaches for tackling the question of religion such as viewing it anthropologically, sociologically, through history, in a scholarly way, theologically and by reductionism. In this paper I will try and assess the definition of religion from aforementioned views and identify the problems of defining religion.

James Cox states that in their introductory textbook on religion the American scholars Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh identify four characteristic problems with traditional definitions of religion; these are: vagueness, narrowness, compartmentasation and prejudice (9).

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The authors argue that vagueness means there are so many definitions that they do not distinguish the matter of religion from other fields of study. Tilich’s defines religion as ultimate concern or a simple idea of religion meaning living a good life (9).

Living a good life is subjective to an individual since the concerns and values we have are influenced by culture and the community that we live in.

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The definition of religion may also be viewed as narrow by means of compensating for the vagueness. In most cases the study of religion is fixated on a certain field or line of thought. Hall, Pilgrim and Cavanagh use Thomas Aquinas’ claim that religion denotes a relationship with a God, thereby excluding non-atheistic or polytheistic forms of religion (Cox 9). Most definitions are narrowed down to religious beliefs such as Christianity among other world religions. In narrowing down the definition of religion it excludes
other religions such as African Traditional Religions.

Due to the fact that African religions lack most characteristics needed of World religions they are excluded from being religion. Atheism is a growing phenomena in the world that does not believe in a God, which I feel have its own belief system. Many definitions focus too narrowly on only a few aspects of religion; they tend to exclude those religions that do not fit well. It is apparent that religion can be seen as a theological, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of human kind.

To limit religion to only one of these categories is to miss its multifaceted nature and lose out on the complete definition. The same authors by way of compartmentalisation explain religion in terms of just one single, special aspect of human life. This compartmentalisation reduces religion to one part of human life and ignores its relevance to the totality of human existence. They also argue against Schleiermachers’ definition of religion as a feeling of absolute dependence which might reduce religion to a mere psychological condition, (Cox 9).

By compartmentalisation you are taking the part of the whole to be the whole, thereby reducing religion to one aspect of human existence ignoring the totality of existence. Religion is not just a feeling but encompasses the totality of existence in a human being his beliefs, culture and language. Religious or religion is not static but dynamic from one generation to another and they are ever developing in accordance with time and nature. Religion is not only a compartment in life of a human being but a totality, a large elephant it is huge and complex.

Most definitions of religion may be viewed as prejudice because they are evaluative in process which cannot present an objective picture of what religion actually is. The same scholars argue giving the example of Karl Max that religion is the opium of the people which is clearly biased (Cox 9). A scholar by the name of Barnhart criticizes traditional definitions of religion identifying in them five issues in prejudice: belief in supernatural, evaluative definitions, diluted definitions, expanded definitions and true religion. In his argument, Barnhart denies that religions must not hold a belief in God or supernatural beings to qualify as religions. He believes that such definitions restrict the subject matter of religion and thus are too exclusive, (Cox 9).

In the same argument he concurs with Hall and company call on narrowness of definition of religion. In the same view disagrees with E.B Tylor ‘religion consists of beliefs in spiritual’ beings as too narrow. In asserting that religion definitions are evaluative in nature, Barnhart concurs with Hall that these definitions are prejudiced. He argues against Marx and Freud saying the ultimate concern is itself an evaluative concept imposed on religion from the perspective of Western philosophy.

Citing Clarke’s statement that ‘religion is the life of God in the soul of man’ tells us nothing about either God or the soul thereby diluting the definition and affirming other scholars view that religion’s definition is vagueness. Compartmentalisation of the definition of religion can also be likened to what Barnhart calls expanded definitions. He argues against Russell who tries to expand the definition of religion so far as to make it seem an effort to seek comfort in a terrifying world. The argument follows that by trying to define religion as a way of expanding a list of what comprises religion to accommodate one compartment of human existence it has an opposite effect of diluting the definition rather than searching for consolation, (Cox 10).

Lastly Barnhart finds a problem in defining all religions in terms of one religion which by definition claims itself to be true. He gives the example of ‘Religion is belief in Jesus’ or ‘there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’. This clearly categorises the definition of religion are subjective (Cox 10). The example also clearly shows how exclusive some definitions of religion are and proves the earlier mentioned problem of prejudice against one belief system or being traditionally fixated on belief systems of faith. The problem of plurality according to Roger Schmidt religion is difficult to define because it is a collective term applied to a wide range of phenomena. The phenomena include beliefs and practices that all religions have in common.

Closely related to plurality is the problem of culture as religion and culture are closely linked. Religion is a child of culture, which is a result of religion being found in a certain contextual culture, therefore, difficult to define religion in all cultures. Religion itself is dynamic the Buddhism of a hundred years ago is not the same today. This shows that religion is not static but dynamic.

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“Everybody knows what religion is, and so, we do not need to define it.”. (2018, Sep 12). Retrieved from

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