I am taking a course on World Religion. Our first assignment was to write a one page paper on “What is Religion?” It was good exercise to put in clear word my thoughts on the topic. I thought I’d share that paper with you.
What Is Religion
If I was going to attempt to define it in one sentence it would be this. Religion is a combination of myths and belief in something beyond our world by a group of people to explain the unknown and to bind a group together by a common set of morals. This definition does not cover the personal relationship people have with god. Nor does it cover the institutional aspect to religion.
A religious organization, especially a large one, can create intolerance and hatred toward another religion. Will feed in dehumanizing those who believe differently as they are heathens, not chosen or are hell bound. This belief that others are inferior as us leads to conflict including war.
Religion can also be very humane giving purpose, meaning, and answers to people. Many religions feed and clothe the homeless, peacefully resist injustice, and fight for the more ideal world. To create the enlightened place that many religions see as the reward of a good life here on earth.
I do not include in the definition of religion an individual’s personal beliefs. It’s the sharing of the beliefs between individuals and the struggle in forming a consensus that defines the building of a belief structure into a religious tradition. It is from the struggle over generations to continue to build upon the last that builds a religious institution.
Religion at its best gives comfort and purpose to its members and helps others while furthering the spread of its own beliefs. At worst religion leads to a corrupt organization and gives a reason to hide behind while doing bad things like abuse, neglect, murder, war, and terrorism. Every time someone does something evil and says “I do this in [religion’s] name.” His religion, his religious organization has become part of that evil unless drastic measures to disassociate the person and the act. While the beliefs and teachings of a religion may be peaceful, the religious institution may not be. It is with finding fault in itself, like knowing our individual weaknesses and admitting our faults, that religious institutions can more closely live its own teachings.
My first draft was much longer than I needed so I left out the following paragraphs that I felt were a little off topic for a first interaction with the teacher.
Big religious organizations have in the past gained from cost of information. When books were all hand written and literacy was for the rich the holy books were shared and interpreted by the clergy with the masses having no other way to embrace their religion. With the printing press this improved slightly. With literacy it increased greatly. Now with the Internet information on sacred text is freely availible. The old structure developed around educated clergy controlling religious doctrine is giving way ever so slowly to new discussions and individual interpretations of religious texts, practices and god itself.
Organized religion services its spread for its own survival. The institution must continue grow or risk falling apart. The peaceful coexistence of multiple religions in an area will always be challenged by the need to spread ones beliefs while individual’s believes do not inherently need to spread.
I also see the changes science has made on religion from Galileo to string theory. Much of the myths and stories religions have told have been to answer questions we have upon the world. How do you explain droughts, floods, eclipses, or the existence of the earth without creating myths? Now we know the answers. The stories of creation from Geniuses to Mount Olympus to one American Indian story of the world being on the shell of a sea turtle to the Big Bang are all putting together conclusions from observations and assumptions. Science has removed much of what was unknown to known and removed much of the need for many religious myths. If you know why and when an eclipse is going to happen there is no religious need to interpret this once in a lifetime event.