The Nature of Religion

Religion, for billions of people, is a vital way of making sense of their life, and of giving purpose and meaning to existence. Through ethical and metaphysical theology, and through ceremony and liturgy, religion imbues people with a powerful sense of meaning. Many attempts have been made to define religion, most of which fail before its vast diversity, but one factor that links almost all religions is their belief in a reality beyond the material world, that there is something greater than just the here and now.

There is a strong argument about the etymology of the word ‘religion’ itself, which reflects two rather different views of the purpose of religion. It may be derived from the Latin religare, ‘to bind’, suggesting that the first concern of religion is to bind humanity and the divine together, and to bind us together in community; to those opposed to religion, this binding can seem like an imprisonment. On the other hand, it may be derived from relegare, ‘to tread carefully’, reflecting a respect and care for both the natural and supernatural worlds, which for many is the primary concern of religion – to provide us with guidance as to how to live.

Indeed, religion provides us with a purpose greater and more profound than simple survival, forging a bridge between the world of human experience and the supposed greater realm of the divine. For some religious people, this means forsaking the temporal pleasures of this world in search of a transcendent meta-reality, through fasting, celibacy and so forth. For others, it leads to a desire to improve this world, to bring the material closer to the divine and to honour the presence of God in everything.

A personal or public approach?

There has always been something of a tension in religion between the community and the individual. Structured communities, from the Catholic Church to the Hindu caste system, have always been a part of religion, as have communities bound by less formal ties, and many people find that the experience of worshipping as a community – and the support that a community can provide – powerful and profound. Others find religious communities stifling, sometimes even oppressive, and approach the divine in a more individual way. Generally speaking, the shift in the West over the last century has been towards the second approach; religion is increasingly seen as a matter of personal conscience, not public commitment.

Attitudes Towards Religion

Religion has often been attacked as essentially an oppressive, even tyrannical force. It has been linked to racism, war, dictatorship, sexism and slavery, and every religion has its fair share of guilt here, from the cruelty of the Inquisition to the slave-keeping Buddhist monks of China. Karl Marx (1818–83) famously wrote that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ and many have seen religion as essentially soporific, designed to keep the oppressed and downtrodden quiet before their masters.

However, Marx also wrote that religion was the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’. As much as religion has been used to justify human horrors, it is also often a profoundly redemptive and powerful force, providing hope and liberation for billions of people. In the end, the success of religion lies, perhaps, in its providing powerful explanations, or legitimizing the asking of questions about, the issues of existence, the cosmos, and good and evil. It may not settle all questions, but it gives many people a way of coping with the problems of their lives, and a means to explore even deeper questions about the universe.


Broadly speaking, almost all religions claim to worship or venerate one ultimate power – God, Buddha, Tao – the names change. For some faiths, especially Islam and Judaism, the being of God is so unknowable that it is forbidden even to try to depict ‘God’. In other faiths, such as Hinduism and Taoism, this power is depicted in many different ways and is accompanied by a wide range of gods and goddesses. In faiths such as Christianity and Islam, there is a strong emphasis on the relationship between God and humanity, with humanity’s proper role being seen generally as submission and acceptance before God’s might. God is generally seen as omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent; reconciling these three attributes with the reality of suffering is often a problematic concern.

Other religions, however, such as Shinto and Hinduism, have a more practical focus. They often have a profound side, but there is also the simple question of ‘What can this god do for us?’ In Chinese folk religion, for instance, the gods are essentially seen as being useful patrons to whom one makes offerings in return for favor. Something of this same pragmatism can also be seen in ancient Greek and Roman religion.