A Descriptive View of Religion
Religion has been defined by philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and others in different ways. In certain traditions, the Judeo-Christian notion of religion does not even hold. Some Hindu and Buddhist scholars contend that the Western model of religion was inappropriately imposed by colonial writers on their systems of shared beliefs and behaviors where some the Abrahamic religious concepts, such as only prophet, non-representational divinity, and infallible holy book don’t exist. But we are stuck with the view of Hinduism and Buddhism as religions also.
It will be of some interest to explore the notion of religion. Religion, like science, is also collective. Individuals may formulate their own views about life and death and the hereafter, but for a belief-system to become religion, it must be shared, in theory and in practice, by a fairly large group of people. In other words, a religion invariably belongs to a community, not just to an individual and to a family.
Religions are based on tenets which are accepted, not proved or confirmed. Even when practitioners feel that the basic doctrines of a religion have been proved or confirmed, this isn’t done as scientific propositions are demonstrated or established.
The religions of the human family are manifestations of a fundamental yearning. Yearning is more than simply wanting. It is a deeply felt longing. The heart more than the mind is involved here. Many people experience a profound need which is at the root of all religious expressions. One reason for the great popularity of religions is that they answer to a profound human need. Even when a traditionally taught religion is rejected at a later stage in life, it is often replaced by another system of beliefs and another worldview which then becomes a substitute for the older religion.
The totality that experiences, reflects, and creates may be called the human spirit. It becomes relevant in discussions beyond the biological, physiological, and material dimensions of life. From a materialist-scientific perspective, the human spirit is essentially an emergent property of particular combinations of atoms and molecules. From a religious perspective, however, no matter what the origin, the human spirit is separate from the body, and is central to our existence as creatures in this world.
There is in each of us an essentially personal element. This is experience of an inner self that is unique to every individual, an individuality that separates us from every other being and thing. We go through life carrying this personal lamp, as it were. But we are connected to others, to our family, to friends, to community, and more. Indeed, we need to be connected, for there is a darkness in total isolation that is hurtful to our psychological integrity and to our sense of security. Beyond this, there is also in many human beings a subtle urge to become part of the whole, a longing to become one with the universe at large. Whether explicit or implicit, ingrained or taught, this bridge to the Beyond may be called communion. Communion is a profound, meaningful, and intangible bond between two entities. Most religions offer ways for communion: through rites, rituals, silent meditation, pious prayer, etc..
Religions, like science, see order and structure in the universe. From the perspective of science the world stumbled upon itself as a result of a break in symmetry, the product of a blind big bang that was unleashed for no apparent reason. According to religious visions, the world did not come to be by sheer chance, like a volcanic outburst, but rather from the decision of a willing, intelligent, Creative Principle. That is why this is a world of order and organization, and has meaning and purpose too. Such a world is what religions would call the cosmos.
Religious experience is deeply personal and does not require the intellect in the sense of analyzing, proving, categorizing, etc. However, the doctrinal formulations of religions invariably involve the activity of the mind. Prior to the rise of modern science, this dimension of traditional religions also constituted the science of the culture. Many conflicts that have arisen between science and religion may be found only in cultures where science moved away from the local religious texts and tenets.
Like science, religions are also concerned with fundamental questions. These questions relate to a variety of subjects. One pertains to the origin of the world. How did the world come to be and why? Most religions have specific answers for such questions. Often these differ significantly not only among themselves, but also from the one that is provided and periodically revised by the scientific establishment.
In traditions where modern scientific answers have not touched religious leaders, there is no conflict between science and religion on this score. However, when the religious establishment and the general public become better informed about the scientific worldview on such matters, some conflicts are arise. When this occurs, efforts are quickly initiated to establish that by appropriate re-interpretation of ancient texts, there is really not as much contradiction as appears to be.
Whereas science is a collective quest, historical religions are particular answers which have been given by different personages in different cultures. This is the reason why there are many religions in the world, but only one body of modern science at any given time. This is also why religion-oriented discussions look into past sayings, writings, and visions, for the answers of the founders are more important than the views of later individuals or groups; while science-oriented discussions look for new ideas, fresh insights, and future solutions.
Finally, a ll religions require a sharing of beliefs and celebrations in the context of the answers that have been propounded and accepted by the group. This becomes an essential condition for belonging to some religious systems.
From these considerations we may give the following descriptive definition: Religion is a shared group-expression of the yearning of the human spirit to seek a link with the cosmos; it arises from the answer by the human spirit to questions pertaining to origin, meaning, value, and purpose of human consciousness.