What is religion?

The definition of religion is not as easy to come to as we might think.

A.K. Rule says, “The large number, and often contradictory character, of the definitions to be found in modern discussions of religion suggest that scholars find it impossible to formulate a generally acceptable definition” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 1006). The primary cause for this, as Rule goes on to explain, is that the differing disciplines view religion from their particular point of view through the lens of their academic discipline (i.e. sociology, anthropology, etc.). Academically, this may be the case. But for our purposes here, let’s use a generic and reasonable definition to define religion. Let’s refer back to the article produced by Glazier and Ember. In the paper the two researchers effectively gather references that provide an adequate perspective about religion and write (italics added),

Religious beliefs and practices vary widely from society to society and change over time. Different societies not only have varying types of gods, spirits, and supernatural forces, they have different types and numbers of religious practitioners, different types of ritual, and different ways of interacting with supernatural forces. Religion may be defined as “any set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power, whether that power be forces, gods, spirits, ghosts, or demons" (Glazier and Ember, taken from

As for a generic definition and concise summation of religion, that seems about as good as can be provided. The definition is broad enough to incorporate all religions, beliefs systems, myths, gods, goddesses, pagan rituals, and the worship of practically anything.

Religion is the natural outcrop
As already mentioned, all human civilizations have religion in some shape or form. If this is due to a natural propensity that is within human beings, religion should also be regarded as the natural outward expression of what is within. In other words, religious practices and systematic beliefs are the practical and visible efforts on the part of human beings regarding religion.

A good way to envisage this is by the word outcrop. The Oxford English dictionary defines an outcrop as “a rock formation that is visible on the surface.” The metaphor represents both what is above ground and what is below ground. Below the surface is the inward human need and drive, even pressure to understand, seek, and come to terms with who God is and what he wants. The rock above ground, the outcrop, is the visible religious activity produced by people in all its beliefs and practices and understanding. Just as there is a natural drive within for God, there is a natural drive to produce outward religious practices—simple enough.

For some people, the more interesting discussion has to do with the number of religions rather than religion itself. How do we account for the large number of religions in the world?

Let’s go on to discuss the cause for so many religions.

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