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April 13, 2013

Question:  How do you define religion?

The answer to this question depends on the perspective of the respondent. Is it the atheist’s definition of religion? The believer’s? The academic’s? No one definition will satisfy all.

This situation in itself alludes to the multi-faceted aspects of religion. It envelops all of life: spirit, law, community, ritual, meaning, love, vision, virtue, belief, action.

The Arabic-speaking Muslims, for example, have no word for “religion.” The closest correlative is din, which is usually translated as religion, but it really refers to a “way of life.”

Our Latin-derived word “religion” — through French — comes from religare, to bind or to tie. The idea is to make firm or to unite. The root of the word may refer to a set of fixed beliefs or to the act of bringing those of shared beliefs together in community.

In the scientific study of religion, as distinct from theological colleges, not even the existence of God is assumed these days. These definitions of religion would be secular.

There, religion is viewed as a purely man-made cultural artifact.

This secular view would not necessarily restrict itself to one religion, or to the world’s religions, but in some university courses, it would survey religion throughout history. Such a survey would include, for example, polytheistic religions, animism, witchcraft (wicca), and voodoo. The atheist Emile Durkheim, the famous French sociologist, defined religion simply as “serious life” (la vie sérieuse).

Since cultural anthropological studies of preliterate societies began in the 19th century, academics have put forth various sociological, anthropological, philosophical, existential, theological and psychological definitions, each relative to viewpoint.

In the Bahá’í Faith, a multitude of statements exist describing religion and its functions in history and the growth of civilization. The following statement of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), the third central figure of the Bahá’í Faith, captures several of its essential elements: “Religion is the outer expression of the divine reality. Therefore it must be living,

vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be without motion and non-progressive it is without the divine life; it is dead. The divine institutes are continuously active and evolutionary; therefore the revelation of them must be progressive and continuous. All things are subject to re-formation.”  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen April 13, 2013
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