What is Religion?
According to the American College Dictionary, religion is a noun defined as the quest for the values of the ideal life. This definition is vast and general, allowing for a variety of interpretations by people from all cultures. There is no single path to follow in order to lead an ideal life, only personal beliefs and experiences. Religion is non-finite so there is no way of determining a boundary (Smart, 5). In my quest for a true understanding of what religion is I explored my own traditions and religious beliefs as well as life experiences. Slowly, with the added insight from the text and videos, my own definition of religion has begun to take shape.
Perhaps the most powerful statement made about religion was made by Dr. John Simmons of Western Illinois University. He makes the valid point that religion is not a noun, but a verb. Religion is based on beliefs and how people act based on those beliefs. Tradition, prayer, and meditation are all acts of religion and are considered intangible behaviors. Although many rituals of religion are things, the ethical and social portions are lifestyles. In addition to this point, Dr. Simmons mentions the possibility of religion being founded as a way to understand and answer important questions about life and death. People must find out who they are, why they are here on Earth, and what purpose their life holds. Questions known as boundary questions are posed when humans are faced with new situations in their lives (Beliefs and Believers, Class 1). They must believe that there is reasoning to support their actions. Rites of passage are the most frequent experiences involving boundary questions. For example, as a child of Christian parents, I was told that people die because it is their turn to be with Jesus. Heaven made sense to me and comforted me, knowing that my loved ones would be in such a wonderful place. Also in the Christian religion, questions may arise about the beginning of life and how we got to Earth. The myth of Adam and Eve and the story of the Creation answers that for Christian believers. As for my purpose on Earth, my question was answered by the Christian doctrine. I am here to spread the word of God in actions and words so that all humans may know His love. However, these answers do not make sense to all humans because each religion has a different story. It is imperative to keep an open mind when defining and understanding religion. Every religion holds truth to the believers, and gives them a sense of identity. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of which religion to follow, only interpretations and behaviors according to what makes sense to the individual. People will behave as they believe (Beliefs and Believers, Class 1).
Another equally important remark I came across in my studies was one by the Methodist pastor Rev. Cecil Williams. Williams’ main topic of discussion was that of toxic religion and inspiring social action. Williams begin the interview by saying, “Be careful of religion because religion is toxic” (Williams Interview, Class 2). He means that believers are not focusing on the actions, but the outcomes instead. You cannot genuinely identify with a religion or call yourself a religious person unless you relate to other human beings or form relationships that work to ease human suffering (Simmons Study Guide, 15). Again, I was reminded of my own beliefs and the history of my religion when I explored the meaning of this statement. Contrary to popular belief, this nation was not founded on the basis of religion. America was founded by men in search of power and money who used their religious beliefs, predominantly Protestant Christian, as an excuse for their brutality. Not all believers act on their beliefs, creating a fine line between which are factious and which are not. The first attempts at colonization proved to be unsuccessful in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. They came professing religious freedom and tolerance, yet brutally murdered Indians who would not comply with the European interpretation of Christianity. Even the Puritans, who were extremely devoted to their religion, failed to honor some of the most important ethical views of Christianity when they arrived in New England in 1630. The Puritans were very vocal about their quest for an ideal life. They believed in pre-destination yet still worked very hard to save the heathens from eternal darkness. They believed in the Ten Commandments, yet still judged those who were not Christian. Perhaps the most widely known example is that of the Salem Witch Trials. An epidemic of accusation was started because of contradicting beliefs ( Tindall, 36).Instead of focusing on how to nurture their current world, the Puritans caused mass mayhem and interrupted a peaceful environment. You cant have a new heaven until you have a new earth (Williams Interview, Class 2).
Furthermore, the topic of religion cannot be discussed without mentioning its pervasiveness. Religion is an aspect of human existence compromising elements such as experience, ethics, beliefs, ritual, and institutions. Like political behavior, religion is not everything in life, but is an aspect of life. Religion is structured into our government. Not only does our Pledge of Allegiance and motto use God as a foundation, but also the separation of church and state show how each American is aware and ultimately affected by religion. It encompasses various disciplines, and although we are all not equally so, everyone is religious to an extent (Smart, 4). It is important to cherish the integrity of our own religion, likewise is it to appreciate the beliefs of other religions as well as non-believers. Appreciating and adopting are words with very different meanings (Marty Interview, Class 1).
Lastly, I was very intrigued by the idea set forth by Dr. Simmons and the Sermon on the Mount that many religious movements begin with redefining human identity and relationships. As he points out, I grew up relating the Beatitudes to an already established Christian faith. This roll-in was especially powerful to me because it introduced me to an entirely new idea about the foundation of Christianity, shaking a firm belief I have always had. The fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish Rabbi who disagreed with the teachings of the Torah and, in turn, invented the religion of Christianity. In His first sermon, Jesus spoke against the traditional Jewish teachings and replaced them, with gentler teachings of love and kindness. Although He never intended to create Christianity, He began a religious movement that turned into Christianity (Simmons Study Guide, 16). Again, I reflect to the Puritans who spoke out against the Catholic Church of England and founded the Protestant form of Christianity. Perhaps many more religions will continue to be created as other charismatic leaders, such as Christ, deepen the exploration of their own identity and relationships.
In conclusion, there is no simple definition for religion. It is a complex set of beliefs and behaviors that set apart individuals on their quest for enlightenment. Religion gives people a sense of identity and answers profound life questions otherwise unobtainable. In only a short period of time, my perception of religion has changed vastly. I have been introduced to many other perspectives that have impacted my own beliefs. I hope that as I continue to study new religious ideas, my understanding and knowledge will grow as well.
Beliefs and Believers. Teleclass.
University Park, Illinois: Governors State University, 1999
Marty, Martin. Interview with Dr. John K. Simmons. Beliefs and Believers:
University Park, Illinois: Governors State University, 1999
Simmons, Dr. John K. Beliefs and Believers Teleclass Study Guide.
Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1999
Smart, Ninian. Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (Third Ed).
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000
Tindall, George. America: Brief 5th Edition.
NY, NY: Norton, 2000
Williams, Rev. Cecil. Interview with Dr. John K. Simmons. Beliefs and Believers:
University Park, Illinois: Governors State University, 1999Words
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