Meaning and Key Elements of Religion

In examining the meaning of religion, we shall look into the etymology (the origin of the linguistic form of the said word) of the word religion, the definitions given to religion by some scholars from different disciplines, and the key elements of religion (the common characteristics of religions).


There are at least three closely related accounts on the etymology of the term religion. According to the first account, the term comes from a Latin word that means “to tie or bind.” Some identify this Latin word as religare (Palmer 2004, 14) while some identify it as religio (Saucier and Skrzypiska 2006, 1259). In any case, this etymological meaning of religion, to tie or bind, indicates the two objectives of religion: first, to bind humanity and the divine together; and second, to bind humans into a community that is bound with the divine. The second account states that the term religion consists of two Latin words, namely, re, which means “again,” and lig-, which means to “join” or “connect” (Molloy 2010, 5). Religion, based on the combination of these two Latin words, therefore means “to join again” or “to reconnect.” And what is being joined again or being reconnected, in this context, is humanity and the divine, or the human world and the sacred world. This meaning of religion suggests that there was originally a unity between the human world and the sacred world which was somehow lost or strained; and religion is the way for humans to recover or reestablish that unity.

According to the third account, the word religion derives from the Latin word relegare which literally means “to tread carefully” and which indicates “respect and care for both the natural and supernatural worlds” (Palmer 2004, 14). This further suggests that a primary concern of religion is to provide guidance on how humans ought to live.

It can be observed in these three etymological accounts of the meaning of the word “religion” that religion serves as a bridge between the human world and the sacred world. Accordingly, the etymological accounts suggest that a higher purpose in human living is unity with the divine, and religion provides the necessary way or guidance to accomplish this purpose.

Definitions from Some Scholars

Scholars from different disciplines have defined religion in varying ways, though some similarities and intersections can easily be observed in these definitions. These definitions resulted from their studies of religions using the lens or perspectives of their own respective disciplines, which include sociology, anthropology, philosophy, theology, and religious studies. Examining these definitions will give us an idea of the different aspects of religion, as well as of what is essential in a religion. Here are some of these definitions (as quoted in House 2006, 15):

  1. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834): “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of absolute dependence.”
  2. James Martineau (1805-1900): “Religion is the belief in … a Divine mind and will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with mankind.”
  3. C. P. Tiele (1830-1902): “Religion is . . . that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety.”
  4. F. H. Bradley (1846-1924): “Religion is … the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being.”
  5. James Frazier (1854-1941): “[Religion is] . . . a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man.”
  6. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917): “[Religion is]… a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things . . . which unite into one single moral community.”
  7. Rudolf Otto (1869-1937): “Religion is that which grows out of, and
  8. gives expression to, experience of the holy in its various aspects.”
  9. Paul Tillich (1886-1965): “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.”
  10. J. Milton Yinger (1916-2011): “Religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problem of human life.”
  11. John Hick (1922-2012): “Religion constitutes our varied human response to transcendent reality.”
  12. Ninian Smart (1927-2001): The six characteristics or dimensions of religion are: “the ritual, the mythological, the doctrinal, the ethical, the social, and the experiential.”
  13. Peter Berger (1929- ): “[Religion is] … the establishment through human activity of an all-embracing sacred order, that is, of a sacred cosmos that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos.”
  14. James C. Livingston (1930- ): “Religion is that system of activities and beliefs directed toward that which is perceived to be sacred in value and transforming power.”
  15. Roy A. Clouser (1937-): “A religious belief is any belief in something or other as divine. ‘Divine’ means having the status of not depending on anything else.”
  16. Roland Robertson (1938- ): “[Religion pertains] to a distinction between an empirical and a super-empirical, transcendental reality: the affairs of the empirical being subordinated in significance to the nonempirical.”

The Key Elements

Though the human desire and effort to unite or reconnect with some sacred or divine reality may be an essential feature of religion, as indicated by its etymology and the definitions of some scholars, religion, as commonly understood and practiced, has other important features. In identifying the key elements of religion, two things need to be noted. First, these elements are limited to those shared by the particular religions that we shall examine in this textbook (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto). This means that there is no claim that these key elements are final and complete, for once we include other religions, other elements may have to be included or some of the elements in our list may no longer be applicable. Second, not all of these key elements are essential in the sense that not all particular religions have all of them in the same degree. Most of these elements are shared by these religions, but some of these elements are shared only by most of them. (For instance, while most religions have a definite set of ethical codes, Shinto does not.) In any case, in what follows, we shall look into the following key elements of religion: worldview, spiritual world, sacredness, community, central stories, rituals, ethical codes, and artistic expressions.


Religion contains a worldview. A worldview refers to a set of beliefs that is both coherent and comprehensive. As a coherent set of beliefs forms a belief system, another way of saying the same is that a worldview refers to a comprehensive belief system. First, religion consists of beliefs. Beliefs generally refer to assertions, claims, or thoughts about things that are held to be true. Beliefs are, strictly speaking, mental states that advance claims or knowledge about the world, and are expressible in the form of statements (or propositions). Examples of religious beliefs are the beliefs that humans have immortal souls, that there is a God or gods, and that there is universal justice in the world in which wrongdoings shall be appropriately punished and good deeds shall be appropriately rewarded, if not in this world, in the afterlife.

Second, a set of beliefs forms a system when these beliefs are coherent; and they are coherent when they are consistently interrelated. Being interrelated, the beliefs in a system influence or affect one another. For instance, the belief that humans are free and thus are accountable for their actions is related to the belief that there is universal justice; or the belief that human life is sacred, as it is a creation of God or animated by a soul, is related to the ethical principle that it is wrong to destroy a human life. And being coherent, these beliefs do not contradict one another. An example of two incoherent beliefs are the belief that there is universal justice and the belief that there is no life after death. For without an afterlife, there would be no guarantee that universal justice will be served in that all wrongdoings will be appropriately punished and all good deeds will be appropriately rewarded. Being coherently interrelated, a worldview thus has the function of giving order to our experiences and the realities in our world.

Lastly, a belief system is comprehensive when it accounts for a wide range of phenomena (or events in the world) or when it deals with a wide range of human concerns. Religious belief systems are comprehensive in this light for they address a wide range of human concerns. For instance, they address concerns about what makes life meaningful, what happens after death, how the world began and how it would end, how humans ought to deal with one another, why there are various human races and languages, how humans ought to regard their natural environment or its nonhuman members, and what is the right attitude towards wealth, authorities, spouses, money, sex, worries, knowledge, sufferings, and so many others. A set of beliefs that is not comprehensive is not a worldview.

Spiritual World

Religion believes or assumes that there is a spiritual world or a transcendent reality (see Hick’s and Robertson’s definitions of religion on page 11), in addition to the physical, natural world that we live in. By spiritual, we simply mean nonphysical or nonnatural. As such, the spiritual world refers to what is sometimes also called the transcendental world or supernatural world (by “transcendental” and “super,” we mean “outside the physical or natural”). Being nonphysical, the spiritual world is known or accessed not by means of scientific methods (generally the methods of sense observation and quantification), but by other means of knowing such as visions, revelations, and mystical (or religious) experiences. Moreover, the acceptance of its reality or truth is not a matter of having some objective evidence or method of verification; rather, it is a matter of having faith. Religion is therefore opposed to materialism (sometimes also called physicalism or naturalism), which is the belief that reality is just physical and nothing more, or that the only real world is the world that is known through the methods of the sciences. Depending on the particular religions being considered, the spiritual world of religion usually includes a God, gods, souls, angels, principles (like the law of karma), and values, among others.

We earlier noted that religion contains a worldview or a comprehensive belief system. It shall, however, be noticed that it is not only religion that contains a worldview. Science, some philosophies, and ideologies (like Marxism) also contain worldviews, for they too hold a set of beliefs that are coherent and comprehensive. One essential difference, however, between the religious worldview and these other worldviews is that the religious worldview includes a spiritual world.


Religion regards certain things as sacred (see Livingston’s, Durkheim’s, and Clouser’s definitions of religion). The sacred is contrasted with the ordinary, secular, or profane. While ordinary things can be used as mere instruments to satisfy human interests, sacred things are treated with respect or reverence. Also, the value of ah ordinary thing depends on human interests (it is “mind-dependent”), while the value of a sacred thing does not (it is “mind-independent”). A sacred thing either has its own (intrinsic or inherent) value or it derives its value from association with a sacred thing which has value on its own. In this consideration, we can distinguish between two kinds of sacredness, which we shall call inherent sacredness and derived sacredness. Something has inherent sacredness if it has value on its own (or it is valuable by itself), while something has derived sacredness if its value is derived from something that has inherent sacredness. Accordingly, we respect the inherently sacred because it is worth respecting on its own; and we also respect the derivatively sacred because we respect the inherently sacred that is associated with it.

Our division of the sacred into the inherent and the derived can be gleaned from the following remarks by Zinnbauer and Pargament (2005, 34) on the nature of the sacred in consideration of the views of Durkheim (1915) and Pargament and Mahoney (2002): “As stated by Durkheim (1915, 52), by sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called Gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house—in a word, anything can be sacred. Thus, the designation is not limited to higher powers or imminent forces, but includes other aspects of life that take on divine character and meaning through their association with or representation of the holy.” These remarks indicate that the inherently sacred are usually spiritual in nature, such as God or gods, souls, principles, and values; while the derivatively sacred are usually physical in nature, such as spaces (like the places of worship and the places where important events or turning points in the development of a religion occurred—which may be a place in nature like under a certain tree, a certain river, a certain mountain, and others), symbols, statues, relics, scrolls, and clothing. Moreover, this explains why the spiritual world is given a value higher than the physical world (see Robertson’s definition of religion). A typical way of showing respect to sacred things is by following the ethical codes associated with these things, saying prayers, offering flowers, tithing, and others. And when respect is accorded by a person to sacred things, the belief is that this person has done something good which will merit some form of reward, either in this world or in the world beyond.

Ethical Codes

Religions have ethical or moral codes (see Martineau’s, Durkheim’s, and Smart’s definitions of religion on pages 10 and 11), referring to guidelines concerning how humans ought to relate to the divine, treat one another, or behave towards one another, God, gods, and revered teachers. In some cases, these codes also include rules about what types of food to refrain from eating generally, what type of clothes to wear on specific occasions, and others. Some of these ethical codes are revealed by a God to chosen messengers; while some are realized through a heightened form of spiritual activity like meditation.


Religions have communities. A religious belief system is shared and practiced by a community of believers (see Durkheim’s and Otto’s definitions of religion). The community of believers usually involves an organization consisting of a hierarchy of authorities. Each level in the hierarchy has designated rights and duties. How people get to occupy the higher positions vary in different religions.The ways include revelations, reincarnations, blood relations, and election by revered members of the religious community.

Sacred Writings

Religions have sacred writings, which contain their main teachings or doctrines, central stories, ethical codes, and prophecies. Sacred writings are divinely inspired. Their contents are usually revealed by a God or gods through chosen messengers. In some cases, they are arrived at by revered teachers as realizations during spiritual activities like meditation. Sometimes the mere recitation of passages in the sacred writings can already produce religious effects like blessings, forgiveness, spiritual calmness, and power to overcome sin and fear or to exorcise evil spirits. Sometimes, too, the mere presence or sight of a sacred book is enough to produce these religious effects.

Central Stories

Religions have central stories. Some scholars refer to these stories as “myths,” but due to a connotation of the term “myth” as being a story that is purely imaginary or that is historically untrue, we shall use the (hopefully) neutral term “story.” The central stories of religions include accounts of how the world and the human race (or a chosen human race) began; how God was personified or manifested in the world; how a great teacher came to a realization of religious truths or received messages and instructions from God, the gods, or the heavens; how the important events in the life of a great teacher came about; and how some actions of faithful followers (like acts of martyrdom) became worthy of emulation or sources of religious inspiration.


Religions have rituals (see Smart’s, Durkheim’s, and Yinger’s definitions of religion), which include ceremonies that reenact sacred stories, and various activities, such as songs and dances that express praise or thanksgiving to God, gods, or a revered teacher or prophet.

Artistic Expressions

Religions engage in various artistic expressions for their beliefs. These artistic expressions can be in the form of music, dance, architectural design, sculpture, poetry, drama, and others. Many of the world-renowned artistic works were religiously inspired.