What is religion? (Understanding Religion series)

What is religion? I'm sure we all wish that was an easier question to answer than it is in practice. Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing an Understanding Religion series on the blog to introduce different ways of talking about and thinking about religion. I hope you find it helpful.

I plan to cover these approaches:

  • Personal experience, testimony
  • Narrative, story, myth
  • Psychological
  • Historical
  • Sociological, anthropological
  • Philosophical, moral

This isn't an exhaustive list, and I may think of more approaches as I write. Definitely drop me a suggestion in the comments if you think there’s one missing that I should be sure to cover!

I decided to tackle this subject because sometimes in the circles I hang out in (mostly, biblical studies events), we get a little too attached to our historical-critical method. In real life we need a lot of different approaches in order to gain a more holistic, fair understanding of what religion is.

Besides, some approaches work better than others to address specific questions. People sometimes give testimony a bad rap, for instance, and yet it's such a great medium for calling out simplistic models of religion! Likewise, historical approaches aren't just for skeptics. Faithful believers can enrich their lives by learning the history—the real history, even if it's messy—behind their traditions.

Non-intuitive as this may sound, you might try answering the question what is religion? by starting with yourself. Who are you, and why does this definition even matter to you? How are you going to use it? Here are some reasons I personally want to have a clear definition of religion for myself…

  • Understand why people bring up religion to explain acts of violence, both intimate (abortion, euthanasia) and communal (war, terrorism).
  • Create an “umbrella term” for communities who share common answers to the ultimate questions in life: Who/what am I? Why does anything exist at all? How ought I to live?
  • Set boundaries on what I’m even talking about when I talk about religion and religious literacy.

Your reasons probably aren’t the same as mine, so before jumping into the rest of this blog post, you might want to pause and consider: What are you going to do with this information? Is something weighing on your mind about religion? Are you out to prove something? Are you confused about why a religious group doesn't value something you care deeply about? Or are you just curious, looking for new perspective?

Perspective makes a huge difference in how we think about religion and what kinds of questions we ask about it. Are you thinking about religion as an insider in a particular community, or are you more of an insider-outsider, that is, somebody who maybe steps outside the frame of the community to consider the big picture?

“Theology” is a Western term that wouldn’t necessarily make sense in a non-theistic tradition like Buddhism, but I’m using the word here in the sense of an insider. If you’re doing theology, it means you’ve committed to a particular community. You hold certain claims to be sacred or true. Usually this also means you accept the authority over your life of a particular text (like the Bible) or person (like the Pope or Thich Nhat Hahn) or physical practice (like a pilgrimage or meditative practice).A theologian asks…

  • What does this or that religious claim really mean?
  • How does this or that practice shape and guide my community?
  • What are the consequences of committing to these beliefs for me, my community, and the world?
  • How does this affect the way I and my family or community live?


  • If Jesus redeemed people from their sins, what does “redeem” mean? How does it work?
  • If enlightenment is life’s ultimate aim, how do I attain it in the midst of ordinary life responsibilities, like raising children or caring for my aging parents?

Some of the questions asked by theologians would make no sense to outsiders. For example, if I don’t believe a first-century peasant named Jesus “redeemed” me from anything, I won’t get much value out of that question or its responses. But for people who belong to the community that does believe this, it is extremely important to them because it influences how they handle everything from community discipline to forgiveness.

There is really no such thing as a complete outsider. It’s hard to even talk about a community without somehow engaging with it. After six weeks living as an anthropologist with a Mormon community in northwest England, I found that some of my friendships and experiences took me back and forth across the defining lines of “committed insider” and “total stranger.” Likewise, when a biblical studies scholar thoroughly reads an ancient text, on some level he or she takes some ownership over its meaning, especially since the original authors are long gone.

Because of this, it's best not think of religious studies as the “neutral” perspective. Rather, think of it as the work of moving back and forth, trying to see from more than one frame of reference. It’s like standing in the church, then outside on the sidewalk, then far away on the hill. In each case, you’ll be able to see things you can’t see from the other perspectives. In the same way, religious studies sometimes works at the really granular level of texts, artifacts, symbols, and psychology of belief, but it might also pull back and map religion across the geography of the world or a particular city.

In general, a student of religion…

  • is interested in religion as a human phenomenon
  • does not assert whether religious claims are true or false, although s/he might test the claims with observable data
  • asks how a particular religion or belief influences how people behave, not “what the gods themselves” do


  • Why do Buddhists meditate?
  • How do American Christians’ beliefs about God influence the way they vote?
  • How effective are spiritual healing practices versus Western medical practices?

Max Müller in an 1870 lecture thought it was possible to find some universal common traits to definitively identify something as a "religion." He said we should seek “those elements, patterns, & principles that could be found uniformly in the religions of all times and places.”

Skepticism now reigns when it comes to the idea that religion can be easily defined and compared across vastly different cultures. One of the biggest problems with the idea is that religion may be a Western concept that doesn't make much sense of non-Western traditions. Now, this may be an unnecessary fight over terminology. Many people in the modern world use the word “religion” to define how they differ from other worldviews, Western and otherwise. That's especially true with the rise of events like the Parliament of World Religions. If it’s practical and works well in interfaith and comparative religion settings, there’s no reason to avoid use of the word.

What we don’t want to do when we study religion is disrespect people’s lived experience of it. This is where the idea of studying religion as a “science” is a little dangerous. People have spiritual experiences. Even highly respected scholars and scientists have occasionally described experiences that they couldn’t write off as a figment of their imaginations. In the study of religion, it’s not our job to validate or invalidate people’s personal experiences of the sacred. Stick to observable phenomena, and give people the benefit of the doubt.

None of this obligates you to accept another person’s religious experiences as factual or true, of course. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, too!

What is religion? Norman Rockwell's 1943 image was criticized for softening the differences too much.

I used to share Norman Rockwell’s Save Freedom of Worship poster (pictured above) with my religious studies student as a way to help them understand that religion is more than what meets the eye. After putting this up on the screen, I would ask my students two questions:

  • What is this trying to say about America?
  • What does it mean to you?

Students usually notice the ecumenical (if distinctly Christian) aura about it. The people portrayed on the poster could be Catholic, any sort of Protestant, even Quaker or Theist/Deist, without stretching the scene’s meaning too far. There is one African American woman tucked far into the back. A white woman holds a rosary, her face bathed in light. The Jewish man in the foreground holds a small prayerbook. Some people stand with hands folded in prayer, while one man touches his mouth as though lost in thought. The tagline reads: “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Nevertheless, the poster seems to assume everyone worships in some way, like if you're going to have freedom of religion, you might as well make use of it! Students also notice, often uncomfortably, the economic and war realities of the poster.

Now we can all take another step back from the image and consider who else might be looking at it: What if the viewer is a pacifist? What if the viewer is a Japanese-American? What if the viewer is an atheist or agnostic? Each of these potential audiences may experience the scene in a way that the original propaganda doesn’t particularly support. Likewise, learning about the reception of The Post cover when it came out in the 1940s might affect how we interpret it today. For example, some people worried the cover was too sentimental, while others felt it was too didactic. Racially-motivated concerns pushed darker faces to the outer edges of the page. (The Post had never featured non-white people at the time Rockwell painted this cover.)Issues galore pack this very small canvas. In fact, a piece of art is a good metaphor for the difficulty in answering the question what is religion? because what you see on the surface isn’t the whole story, and yet what you see on the surface certainly hints at something going on underneath!

Diving into the subject of religion in a meaningful way means that, at some point, you have to push past beliefs and practices to the values that underlie them. You need to become a good listener and observer, and you need to begin to pose questions to people when the motivation behind an action isn’t clear to you.

Beliefs usually come in the form of statements…

  • Jesus died for our sins.
  • Life is suffering.
  • There is no god but God.

Practices are observable actions that people take, often with highly structured steps…

  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Communion
  • Pilgrimage

Values are not usually openly stated, but are implied by beliefs and practices and usually rank in order of importance with some values holding more weight others…

  • Compassion
  • Hospitality
  • Submission
  • Honesty
  • Fairness

Multiple values might be at stake in a single belief. Even people who belong to the same tradition may disagree about which values should have the most weight. For example, Christians who want to follow Jesus’ famous parable to “turn the other cheek” might see that single statement as advocating for any combination of these values: nonviolence, forgiveness, protest, fairness, pacifism, and hospitality. You might be able to add others depending on how you interpret the meaning of that parable.

Taking the time to explore the values behind religious beliefs and practices can really open up interfaith conversations. A lot of the interfaith events I attended either shared about fairly basic topics, like how they celebrate their holidays, or avoided religious discussions altogether by doing community service projects. It’s okay to push an interfaith conversation to a new level by reading a story from each tradition and trying to name the values in it.

You may be surprised to discover that certain values pop up again and again within a religious tradition. Hospitality is extremely important to the Christian tradition (anyone who knocks on your door could be Jesus!). Compassion has long been acknowledged as uniquely important to Buddhists. Of course, no religion has the monopoly on a single value, and that a really good thing! Overlapping values are opportunities to unite on common ground.

A takeaway from this conversation is that most religions develop “constellations” of values, with some values ranking higher than others. Learning these constellations can make you more sensitive to people who belong to other traditions. It can make you appreciate them more, too, especially if they pay close attention to a value that maybe your tradition tends to ignore!

What is religion? Western traditions such as Islam fit more easily into standard definitions than non-Western ones do.

Meaningful conversations about religion—that don't end with truisms!—require us to accept that there may be fundamental differences between ourselves and other people. If you didn’t have to be polite, what fears or feelings would you bring up about religion? What if you could do it in a way that invites people to respond instead of shutting down the conversation?

I’ll share an anecdote of a deep discussion that worked for me. I taught a Western religions course that happened to include four or five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans among the thirty students. On the last day of the semester, their final exam was a class-led discussion about Islam in which they had to demonstrate to me their ability to handle complex questions related to religion in a respectful way while still really addressing the issues at hand. They had already handled two class-led discussions on Judaism and Christianity with relative success.

Down to the last 10 minutes of Islam discussion, one veteran finally lost his temper with the politely tolerant discussion of his classmates thus far. He said, “Listen, this is nice and all, but in real life the Muslims I knew wanted me dead. For months I lived around people who hated me for not being Muslim. I can’t help but hate them, too, and I do not and cannot see them as a peace-loving religion.”

His emotions were obvious on his face, and his voice was shaking. But when he took that risk to give a personal testimony of his experience with Muslims, when he expressed his real feelings, something really important happened. The other veterans in the class opened up, too. They acknowledged his experience as valid and then they shared their more positive experiences of, for example, training local police forces in Iraq. The guys they trained were also Muslims, but they were curious about the mostly Christian beliefs of the American soldiers and worked together successfully.

Veterans weren’t the only ones to step in. Other members of the class recalled our previous discussions of groups like the Christian Identity Movement, which inspired the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh—not someone who is typically identified as a religious terrorist because the religious dimension of his act was downplayed in the media. This thoughtful comparing and contrasting of Muslims with Muslims and Muslim religious violence with Christian religious violence allowed us to see that religion is complex and not easily reduced to platitudes. We acknowledged that religion, as a human phenomenon, as a commitment by an individual or community to a particular constellation of values, deserves to be studied.

This is the first post in the Understanding Religion series. Thanks again for reading, and drop me a note in the comments if you have suggestions for what we should cover over the next few weeks!

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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