This is different than “What is religion?”
Do you see where I’m going with this? I plan on writing about this topic later, too, exploring what true religion involves, and what the bible has to say about being religious. But first let’s start by exploring what a religion is.
There are several, or dozens, or hundreds of religions in the world. I’m not sure how many, because measuring where a religion stops and where the next one starts is like measuring where Alaskan Inuit becomes a different language than Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit. Because of this, there is really no way to know how many languages there are in the world, either. If these people can understand these people, and they can understand them, but they can’t understand them…
As Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church has said, a religion can be viewed like the borders between countries, states, counties, and cities. There are certain issues that must be nonnegotiable, and others that can be debated day and night within a church without changing whether you’re saved. How large or small these issues are can determine your “Big-R” religion, your sect, your denomination, and your personal beliefs within that denomination. If you begin crossing small issues, it’s analogous to traveling to a different state. Larger issues, you may be at a national border and require a passport.
For example, the Christian religion can be said to consist of three sects: Protestant, Catholic, and Easter Orthodox. Protestants focus primarily on salvation through Christ Jesus, while Catholics tend to highlight the Virgin Mary and Eastern Orthodox tend to highlight the Apostles. Within the Protestant branch you might find denominations like Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, and Evangelical Free. Non-denominational churches are highly popular across the US because they don’t hold attendees to any tenants of these specific ordinances: as long as you are Protestant, you will fit in. That is to say, as long as you believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and living Savior, and the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, you align with their doctrine.
At the denomination level, most of what makes the difference from one church to the next is the way offices and services operate. This may be important for operations, sure, but may have little to do with theology. Which translation of the bible do stock our pews with? Is the choir allowed to wear jeans? Are visitors allowed to vote? Is the offering money counted by the deacons and deposited into the bank by the elders?
At the personal level, analogous to crossing from one city into another, you may find opinions that are not spoken of in the Bible. Some of these are preferences, others are pertinent to someone’s walk with God. Someone may prefer that the band doesn’t use drums, because it makes the music too rock-ish. Okay, but that’s not sinful. This goes straight into the personal preferences category. Somebody may choose not to drink alcohol because he doesn’t want to offend somebody else. Again, the Bible doesn’t instruct to abstain from alcohol (although it does have a lot to say about drunkenness).
I wanted to take a moment to examine what religions do exist around the world throughout schools of both belief and practice, because it often becomes a topic of hot debate when I refer to agnosticism as a religion or ask somebody what their religion is and they “don’t have one.” My purpose here is not to offend or convince anybody. My primary objective is to construct a lingua franca, so that when I refer to something as a religion, we can all agree on the context in which I intended that, and all understand which definition of that word I used.
There are three types of definitions. Liberal, conservative, and other. Other is usually “in between,” but I’m sure someone in the world can find a case where Other is outside of the box. If you look up Sports on Wikipedia, it gives you a list of anything that could ever possibly be conceived as a sport, be played like a game, or be perceived or used in a sporty fashion. This is a liberal definition. Conversely, if I refer to water as H2O, this is a specific billet to fill. H2O2 and C2H5OH don’t make the grade.
Dictionary.com refers to religion as:
/rɪˈlɪdʒ ən/ Show Spelled [ri-lij-uh n] Show IPA
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
I personally define a religion as a school or system of belief about God, including who He is or isn’t. This, then, inherently requires the party concerned to begin defining what he believes about the universe and identifying what happens after death. Without addressing these issues, the person is mostly unable to indicate what they believe about God. Here are a few:
Christianity- Jesus is the only son of God. He was born of the virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life. He was crucified, dead, buried, and rose again. He ascended into heaven to judge the living and the dead. <-This is the nonnegotiable doctrine of Christianity. Branches within this ideology differ greatly.
Islam- Allah is the only god, and Mohammad is his prophet. Muslims believe the Bible was changed or corrupted from its original state, but believe that Jesus was a “good prophet,” just like Abraham and Moses. They believe that Jesus was not the son of God, and if he were, this would be polytheism. The Qur’an actually tells its readers to read the New Testament (Enjeel), but many Muslims aren’t aware of this because the Qur’an cannot be translated out of Arabic and many of its followers either don’t read Arabic fluently or that passage somehow gets overlooked (usually by peer pressure). The two major sects of Islam are Sunni and Shia, the greatest differences being whether prophecy is continuing or dead, and whether contradictory passages within the Qur’an (out of order chronologically) will abrogate each other.
Judaism- The God of the Tanakh (Old Testament) is the same God that Christians worship in the Bible. They are still waiting for the Messiah to come, and believe that Jesus was not the Christ (Masih). I know this is pretty straightforward, but the Jews can teach us a lot about who Jesus really was (for starters, a Rabbi with Smikha).
Buddhism- Originally Gautama Siddhartha (raised Hindu) had planned for his school of thought to be a philosophy. It wasn’t made into a religion until after he was dead. His principle was that all pain comes from interacting with the world. If you pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist, you can eliminate pain. I know I paraphrased that severely. Gautama was the skinny Buddha, not the fat one. They are still waiting for the coming of the enlightened Buddha, who will be the fat one that you see statues of. The Americanized sect is referred to as Zen, which differs drastically from the traditional or ascetic sects practiced in remote parts of Tibet.
Shintoism- Practiced in Japan, where many people incorrectly think Buddhism predominates because of Hollywood. Shinto teaches that the Japanese islands were formed from the tears of the gods. There are hundreds of Kapa, who look like animals and chimeras and mythological beings. If you die in a distant land, your spirit will wonder the earth lost for centuries trying to find its way home. Because of this, the religion has remained in Japan pretty well and doesn’t spread easily. Annually, they honor their ancestors at festivals and ceremonies, and often use prayer papers or prayer waters to lift their thoughts up to their ancestors. Lions or dragons may be on either side of an entryway, one with its mouth open to scare away bad spirits, and the other with its mouth shut to welcome good spirits.
Hinduism- There are many gods. I will not even get into them. The many holy books of Hinduism have only been translated a fraction into English. They believe that their ancestors may be cows and rats, for which reason many don’t eat beef and rats run rampant in places. The area of reincarnation is a turn-off to the modernized “yolo” culture of today, but hits a theological problem for me when you begin asking where the spirits came from and how their number is continually increasing.
Atheism- God does not exist. Hardcore atheists do lots of research and work trying to disprove God, although I have yet to meet one who can provide me adequate evidence. Schools of thought may vary significantly about how the universe came into being, from the popular Big Bang all the way to “It has always been here.”
Agnosticism- No one knows whether God exists. This may range anywhere from “It is impossible to ever know whether God exists” all the way to “I don’t know who God is right now.” It is the ultimate hanging a lampshade, red herring scapegoat. If you completely avoid the issue, you don’t have to argue it.
Secularism- Religion sucks. This is traditionally not regarded as a religion, and is commonly used to refer to a philosophy, school of practice, or operational tactic within the social or political systems. Let me reiterate that: I am the one who decided to include Secularism as a religion, whereas in the popular worldview it is standardly not so. That said, the reason I included it as a religion distinct from Agnosticism and Atheism is because in my interactions with Americans and witnessing to my friends and colleagues in the USA, I’ve found that the school of belief regarding the banishment of organized religions and anything faith-based or God-based is distinct from the other two groups. Agnostics will willingly argue why it is not possible to know about God, and Atheists will willingly argue why God does not exist. Some of them even get passionate about it. Secularists, on the other hand, adamantly demand that these topics not be talked about. Their reasons for describing why religion is so terrible may vary, sometimes stemming from past hurt or seeing hypocrisy within the Church or national constitution. And yes, at times it is possible to find overlap between the “atheological” religions. Nonetheless, this school of belief is growing at a blistering rate, and the number of people who want “God” and “religion” taken out of their political arguments is stretching across the nation, as well as in countries like China. Religion is quickly being replaced by two groups: those who want to use their iPads to listen to music, and those who demand to know why children in Namibia are starving to death.
(Economically speaking, those who use iPads are consuming all of the food and water that those without electricity need to survive.)
Mormonism- The Bible was corrupted by sinful man, and God sent his angel Moroni to correct it to its original form. He visited Native Americans, who wrote down their accounts in the New York and Vermont area prior to the coming of white man. These documents were preserved in golden tablets and translated by Joseph Smith. Common issues that separate Mormons from Christians are the oneness of Christ with God the Father, the death and resurrection, the corruption of the Bible, and the veracity of Joseph Smith as a prophet.
Jehovah’s Witnesses- prophesied that Jesus would return (as spoken in Revelation) in 1874. When this didn’t happen, they changed it to 1914. When this didn’t’ happen, they determined it must have already happened, but in spirit and not physically, and therefore we just didn’t notice. The other prophets were supposed to return from heaven in 1925, also, but that didn’t happen either. Because of these failed predictions, most of the movement has died away.
Sikh- They believe in a good god, one who upholds noble and honorable principles like treating your neighbor with love. This is the religion that wears turbans, and from which we get the word Guru. Laden with lavish practices that keep them holy, they worship a god that is monotheistic, omniscient, and omnipotent. There is one problem. This god is not able to become flesh. He is spirit only, and becoming flesh would make him not god anymore. How omnipotent is he?
What is the major difference between saying that you belong to a religious group, and acutally following that group? The reason I created this list is so that we can see there are many people who will claim to be Catholic, but only because they were raised going to Mass; claim to be Christian, but only because they live in America; claim to be Muslim, but only because they were given a Qur’an; when in truth, they may just be agnostic or lukewarm on the inside, and just not say it. The difference isn’t what people’s mouths say, it is what they believe in their hearts.
I know there is no way that I can ever cover all the religions in the world. But I wanted to identify a few systems of belief that exist in the world today, which I’ve encountered when sharing the Cross with people, so that in future posts we can discuss things like “What is True Religion?” and claims that others make against the Bible. Please, if you have something to add, let me know.