The Meaning of Religion

The Meaning of Religion

By Dr. Haidar Bagir


Epistemologically, the word “religion” comes from a Latin word religare atau relegare. Relegare means careful, observance to rules or norms, while religare means binding.

Whereas the Arabic word din is the mashdar (gerund) of the verb dana-yadinu which, among others, means : 1. Way or radition, 2. Rules, 3. Law, 4, observance, 5. To be one (with od), 6. Advice.

The Indonesian word “agama” originates from a Sanskrit word which means “orderly” (tidak kacau).

William P. Alston in The Eccyclopedia of Philosophy provides several definitions of religion :

  • James Martineau: Religion is the belief in an ever living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind.
  • Herbert Spencer: Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which trancendens our knowledge
  • J. G. Frazer: By religion, the, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life.
  • F. H. Bradley: Religion is rather the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspects of our being.
  • Matthew Arnold: Religion is ethic heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling.
  • C. P. Tiele: Religion is, in truth, that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety.


Beyond the above very broad definition of religion, there are a variety of uses and meanings for the word “religion.” Some of the approaches are as follows (Wikipedia Encyclopedia):


One definition, sometimes called the “function-based approach,” defines religion as any set of beliefs and practices that have the function of addressing the fundamental questions of human identity, ethics, death and the existence of the Divine (if any). This broad definition encompasses all systems of belief, including those that deny the existence of any god, those that affirm the existence of one God, those that affirm the existence of many gods, and those that pass on the question for lack of proof.


A second definition, sometimes called the “form-based approach,” defines religion as any set of beliefs which makes claims that lie beyond the realm of scientific observation, according to some authority or personal experience with the Divine. This narrower definition places “religion” in contradistinction with rationalism, secular humanism, atheism, and agnosticism, which do not appeal to authority or personal experience in coming to their beliefs, but instead appeal to their interpretation of science.


A third definition, sometimes called the “physical evidence approach,” defines religion as the beliefs about cause and effect that Occam’s Razor would remove as recognizing causes that are more than what is both true and sufficient to explain the physical evidence. By this definition then, non-religion is any set of beliefs that admits no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearance.


A fourth definition, sometimes called the “organizational approach,” defines religion as the formal institutions, creeds, organizations, practices, and rules of conduct, of all major, institutionalized religions. This definition places “religion” in contradistinction to “spirituality,” and therefore does not include the claims “spirituality” makes to actual contact, service, or worship of the Divine. In this definition, however, religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive: a religious person may be spiritual or unspiritual, and a spiritual person may be religious or non-religious. By analogy, “religion” is the coal, wood, or gasoline, while “spirituality” is the fire.


Some concepts and approaches above give us that the definition of religion is very debatable. However, to understand the meaning of religion we can see from the characteristics of religion:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (god).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred object and during the practice of ritual, which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the worldview.
  • A social group bound together by the above.


History of Religions

For much of the first epoch of history, religion had taken the form of civic religion following earlier cults of nature worship. The Mesopotamian city-states worshiped their local gods in the shape of a clay statue housed in the temple. The Greeks and Roman continued to observe rituals in honor of the gods. Pallas Athena, patroness of Athens, was worshiped in the Parthenon.

The second civilization was not based upon this kind of religion but upon another kind ultimately derived from philosophy. A wave of new thinking swept through civilizations of the Old World during the first millennium B.C. associated with such philosophers and spiritual leaders as Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, and Pythagoras. From their teachings came new philosophies and religions. Some philosophers, such as Confucius, Zoroaster, and Plato, brought a moral critique to government. Their approach was to try to reform government as advisors to the king. Others challenged government as outsiders. Jeremiah, for instance, predicted that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians; he was jailed for expressing that belief. Socrates was convicted of impiety with respect to the civic religion of Athens and put to death. Jesus was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, Roman proconsul in Judaea. Choosing between royal power and truth, Buddha renounced the throne of a Nepalese principality to pursue truth.

History records that, after their deaths, the followers of Jesus and Buddha formed ideological communities devoted to perpetuating and fulfilling the ideas of their departed leader. Buddhism inclined more toward monastic communities; Christianity, toward the ecclesiastical structure of the church. The core of these communities were persons who, like philosophers, had given up worldly occupations and married life to pursue a particular set of ideas. Buddha taught the path to Enlightenment. Jesus preached the coming Kingdom of God. Both concepts are roughly related to what we would call “Heaven”, a spiritual realm for good persons after death. Followers of those religions were renouncing the evil world of physical pleasures and power politics. Yet they also had to operate in that world. Their institutional fortunes were made when powerful monarchs sponsored their religion. The Indian emperor Asoka sponsored Buddhism. The Roman emperor Constantine sponsored Christianity. The religious ideologies then became state religions, armed with resources of the state.

A third world religion, Islam, came about in the early 7th century A.D. when the archangel Gabriel dictated God’s words to the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed was a merchant who had been exposed to other Judaic religions when he led caravans to Syria. The message he brought was of a single God, Allah, who was the same God as that of the Christians and Jews. He was considered the latest in a series of prophets which also included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, delivering God’s most complete message. Mohammed spent years trying to convert citizens of Mecca to his religion. His fortune was made when he was invited to govern the city of Medina. He performed this task admirably and soon was at the head of an army which conquered Mecca and the rest of the Arabian peninsula. After Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D., his successors continued on the path of conquest. They took advantage of the fact that the East Roman empire and Sasanian Persian empire had exhausted each other in centuries-long warfare. The armies of Islam had conquered much of south-central Asia and north Africa by the end of the 7th century.

World religion provided a moral structure for society during the second epoch of world history. Although we place its beginning in the mid first millennium B.C. (when the great philosophers and prophets lived), its period of dominance began in the mid first millennium A.D. when the religions acquired worldly power.


c. 2000? – The life of Abraham, founder of Judaism.

c. 13th century – The life of Moses, Hebrew lawgiver

c. 1100 – c. 500 — The Veda , sacred texts of the Hindus, are compiled.

604 — Traditional birth date of Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism.

588 — Traditional birth date of Zoroaster’s revelation.

c. 563 – c. 483 – The life of Buddha, founder of Buddhism.

551 – 479 – The life of Confucius, founder of Confucianism.

c. 540 – c. 468 – The life of Mahavira, founder of the Jains.

c. 200 — The Bhagavad Gita, important Hindu text, is written.

6 or 4 – c. A.D. 30 – Thelife of Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity.



33? — The Crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.

c. 70 – c. 100 — First four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are written.

5th century — Two Buddhist sects – Zen and Pure Land (or Amidism) – are established.

c. 570 – 632 – The life of Muhammad the prophet – whose teachings, recorded in the Qur’an and Sunnah (Prophetic Tradition), form the basis of Islam.

622 — Muhammad flees persecution in Mecca and settles in Yathrib (later Medina); the first day of the lunar year in which this event, known as the Hegira, takes place marks the start of the Muslim era.

1483 – 1546 – The life of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and author of “95 Theses” (1517).




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