What is religion? What do you think?

What is religion? We all think we know. But if you got ten people together, there are probably ten different answers. And ten people willing to argue why they are right. The problem is, if we don’t agree what religion is, we can’t discuss anything related to religion. Well, not really discuss, as opposed to arguing, talking over each other, and ultimately yelling.

Why do I use religion and not Christianity?

What is religion?

You’re on one of two sites if you’re reading this from its original locations. One is Finding God in religion. The other is Finding God without religion. As you can see, knowing what I mean by religion is critically important. If we can’t come to a common understanding of what I mean by religion, everything else on the page, even the whole site, loses significant value.

The truth is, you don’t even have to agree with me on what I say religion is when I use the word. You just need to understand what I mean. Then, you’re free to agree or disagree with what I write about the possibilities of finding God with or without religion.

The image at the right tells a lot about how I’m going to use the word religion. And yes, I know full well that many, probably more than half, don’t define it that way.

However, I need to have some word to define the topic. Christianity is also an option. But then, I don’t include everyone who claims to be Christian as being a true follower of Jesus. Plus, Christianity maybe has even more intense baggage than does the word religion! Especially at times like this where we’re really coming to grips with all the things people have done through the years in the name of “Christianity”, even though the things done were polar opposites of what Jesus taught.

And so, I ask you to just bear with me here, try to follow with the meaning under which I’m using religion, and see what follows.

What is religion? The dictionary definition.

Of course, we’ll start with the dictionary definition. Actually, two of them. First, from a secular point of view, here’s what dictionary.com has for the word religion:

  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.
  6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience:
    • to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

As you can see, it’s very general. In fact, so general as to be pretty much useless.

That’s why we’re going to a second definition, this time from a Bible dictionary:

RELIGION. The word ‘religion’ came into Eng. from the Vulg., where religio is in a 13th-century paraphrase of Jas. 1:26f. In Acts 26:5 it denotes Judaism (cf. Gal. 1:13f.). Here and in the Apocrypha, thrēskeia refers to the outward expression of belief, not the content, as when we contrast the Christian religion with Buddhism. rsv uses the word, however, in something approaching this sense in 1 Tim. 3:16, to translate Gk. eusebeia (av ‘godliness’), and in 2 Tim. 3:5, where again our instinct would be to use the word ‘Christianity’. Because of the association of thrēskeia with Judaism, James’ use is probably ironical. The things which he calls the elements of ’thrēskeia that is pure and undefiled’ would not in the view of his opponents, who restricted it to ritual, have counted as thrēskeia at all.

Hesitance today in using the word ‘religion’ either of the content of the Christian faith or of its expression in worship and service, is due to the conviction that Christianity is not simply one among many religions, but differs from all others in that its content is divinely revealed and its outward expression by believers is not an attempt to secure salvation but a thank-offering for it.

J. B. Job.  1Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

OK – that’s very specific. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit hard to grasp unless you have a certain level of knowledge about Christianity already. So, let’s go through this a bit at a time.

What makes Christianity different?

Let’s start at the end. The conclusion from the definition above:

Hesitance today in using the word ‘religion’ either of the content of the Christian faith or of its expression in worship and service, is due to the conviction that Christianity is not simply one among many religions, but differs from all others in that its content is divinely revealed and its outward expression by believers is not an attempt to secure salvation but a thank-offering for it.

Now you can see why I chose the image at the top. The “Thank You” message, with the cross in the middle. Other “religions”, in the general sense of the secular definition, either say nothing about salvation, or leave it up to each of us to earn our salvation.

Even salvation is a word fraught with ambiguity. In Christianity, it’s about the second life. An eternity spent with Jesus, after what’s known as the first death in this physical world. Some other belief systems, “religions” if you prefer, have a concept of eternal life, while some don’t. Obviously, Christianity is the only one where eternity is spent with Jesus.

Yes, Islam does make reference to Jesus, but in a very different way. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus is not the Son of God, but only a human prophet. Unfortunately, that also means, in Islam, that it’s up to each person to earn their own salvation. The good is weighed against the bad, and a destination for the second life is determined by the outcome of that comparison of good and bad things done in this life.

That’s a necessary piece of Islam, since the death of a human, any human, cannot pay the price for all the evil done in the course of a lifetime. Only God can pay that price. And a human Jesus just can’t do it. Only as the Son of God can Jesus cover all the sins of the world.

Of course, in Judaism, Jesus isn’t the Son of God either. They don’t recognize Him as Messiah, the savior of the people.

And so, in these three cases, even though there is much overlap between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, only Christianity doesn’t make each of us responsible for covering our own sins by an even greater number of good things done in this life.

In other words, as the author above states, Christianity is the only one where we do not have to earn our salvation on our own. What we should want to do however, is to love God because He first loved us, and our of love, obey Jesus’ commands to us. For a deeper look at the difference between merely “believing” in Jesus versus following Him, I invite you to check out Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God?

Maybe not so obvious to some is that Christianity is also the only one where we do not have to earn that eternity with God. In fact, we cannot earn it. The price for our salvation, that eternal life with Jesus, was “paid” for by Jesus’ death on the cross. That’s why the cross in the image above is red, to indicate Jesus’ blood that was shed to, as we call it, ransom our souls.

What is religion, specifically Christianity, about?

Let’s go now to the first sentence from the Bible Dictionary definition of religion:

The word ‘religion’ came into Eng. from the Vulg., where religio is in a 13th-century paraphrase of Jas. 1:26f.

The reference above is specifically to the last portion of James 1:26.  But as you may know, I really don’t like pulling out just one verse from a passage, let alone a portion of a verse.  So let’s take a look at the entire passage from James.  This will be especially useful, in light of the link above to whether or not we’re supposed to believe God, believe in God, or actually follow God.  In other words, do we just believe with our head, or do we act based on what we believe?  With that in mind, here’s the passage which the author says was the source for the word religion.

Listening and Doing

Jas 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Jas 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

Jas 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

So, the one portion this author is looking at is at the end of:

Jas 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

My preference is to look at the entire passage, rather than just this one portion. The reality is that the entire book of James is an excellent example of things that should be important to, and done by, Christians. But hey – that’d be way too long. So let’s stick with this passage for today.

Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

When we ask what is religion, and specifically talk about Christianity, the first paragraph in this passage is one that’s often brought up:

Jas 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Yes, it’s pretty obvious that anger isn’t going to lead to the righteous life that God desires. At least, it’s obvious when we’re not angry or all fired up about something. Once we reach a certain point, all bets are off and the anger, even self-righteous anger, takes over and there goes that righteous life that God desires.

Notice – I wrote self-righteous. Not what God says is righteous, but what we think is righteous. Unfortunately, even with Christians, the two don’t always match up. And that’s why so many people are turned off by Christianity and by “religion” in general. Too many wrong things have been done in God’s name, even though nothing in God’s Word says to do them. If anything, God’s Word often goes against what we do.

What happened to love?

Let’s look at an example. Getting back to what is religion, and especially what is Christianity, love is right up there at the top. At least, in God’s view, it’s at the top. But that’s not always the case for us. However, it should be. We Christians should all know this passage:

Love for Enemies – Matthew

Mt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

For those of us here in the U.S. and our Canadian neighbors to the north, there’s been a lot of stuff in the news lately about how Christians treated, or I should say severely mistreated, the indigenous people in North America. Cultural genocide. Children were taken away from their parents to be reeducated as Christians in the mold, not of God, but of the European view of God. Way too many people were killed, in the name of God. Disgraceful. Un-Christian.

And that’s just one example out of so many events that should never have taken place. The perpetrators of those events were not and are not following the teachings of Jesus Christ. So please, do not reject Jesus because of things other people did, claiming to have done them in Jesus’ name, and yet in the process doing the polar opposite of what He commanded.

And there’s so much more of this kind of thing. In Revelation, Jesus warns an entire church that He’s about to take away their status as a Church because they no longer have God’s kind of love.

To the Church in Ephesus

Rev 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Rev 2:4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

The lampstand in this passage represents this particular church’s status as a Church of Jesus. They are about to lose that lampstand. Their status as a church. Why are they in danger of no longer being a Church? Because, as Jesus tells them, You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. Their first love, which they’ve lost, is Jesus. Everything they did was because of and with the Love of Jesus. Now, they’re just going through the motions.

To see a more detailed explanation of the letter to the church in Ephesus, including the loss of their love for Jesus, please check out Revelation – The letter to the loveless church in Ephesus – (1) Intro. You can also read the series on all seven of the letters in Revelation, beginning at Seven Letters to Seven Churches. 

Since it’s so important to understand the differences between what Jesus teaches and what Christians often end up doing, let me give one more example. This one was to the people in Jesus’ own time. To the Jewish people, and especially to their leaders.

The Calling of Matthew – Matthew

9:9-13 pp — Mk 2:14-17; Lk 5:27-32

Mt 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

Mt 9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

Mt 9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In Old Testament times, God’s people were supposed to make a sacrifice after they sinned. However, the message behind that command to make the sacrifice was that it’s best to not sin in the first place. That message was pretty much lost. It was too often a case of sin, sacrifice, sin, sacrifice, repeat indefinitely.

For a deeper look at "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" - please check out Blessed are the merciful.

As you can see, with love, God’s kind of Love, it’s just not possible to truly act in a Christian manner. So, when we look to people who claim to be Christian for our view of what Jesus taught, we don’t see what it should be. Even the best of Christians is still fallen. Still incapable of following Jesus’ teachings 100% of the time.

However, that doesn’t mean we should just give up on Christianity. Why not? Because if we really try to follow Jesus in this life, then in the next life we will live the way He taught. There won’t be any more temptation. No more tears. No more sin. No more anger. So the question becomes, do we really want to give up the promise of the next life, just because we cannot completely fulfill it in this life? Or do we want to try to live correctly in this life, with the promise that we will succeed in the next? I choose the latter.

Don’t just listen. Do!

Jas 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

The middle part sounds funny, doesn’t it? Only listening but not doing is like looking in a mirror and then forgetting what you look like.

But it’s not funny. It’s sad, if it’s because of an illness like dementia.

But it’s such a waste if someone wants to be a follower of Jesus, and thinks listening is all that’s needed. Jesus never said that! We only hear that kind of thing outside of the Bible. Unfortunately, something very close to it is taught in some Christian churches as well. Like, just say the sinner’s prayer and you’re saved. However, the so-called sinner’s prayer isn’t in the Bible. And Jesus tells us we need to carry our cross every day! That’s not merely listening. That’s doing. And what Jesus described below certainly is a whole lot more than just listening!

The Cost of Being a Disciple

Lk 14:25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

One thing that’s not obvious, at least in English, is that Jesus isn’t telling us to literally hate our family. Rather, it’s that the love we have for Him should be much greater than what we feel for our family. Then, in comparison, love of family will be closer to the hate end of the spectrum than it is to our love for Jesus.

It’s an odd kind of doing, especially for non-Christians. However, it’s one of the difficult things that we must come to grips with. And it’s not that it’s an awful thing. Love of family really doesn’t go away. It just gets put in a proper perspective.

Lk 14:28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

No, we’re not literally building a tower. But Jesus is telling us something here. There’s a line in a Tim LaHaye book that puts it nicely:

“After some silence, Joshua asked, “How can it cost me nothing but ask me for everything?”

Becoming a Christian, a follower of Christ, must be a life-transforming process. If not, we aren’t truly following Him. Nor are we truly Christian. And so, Jesus is letting us know that. Also that we should look ahead, understand what we’re getting into, and try to see if we’re really willing to make those life changes.

Lk 14:31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

Jesus gives another example. This one is even more extreme than the one about building a tower. But it’s a good example. After all, we are about to take our place in the war between good and evil. Between God and Satan. And on our own, we will lose. But then, if we don’t even enter the fray, then we’ve already lost.

In this example, Jesus tells us, again, that we must make those life-transforming changes. And they could be everything we really like. However, what we should also realize is that what we get in return is so much better than anything we already have, or could attain on our own. Plus, His gifts are eternal.

Lk 14:34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

There’s something about salt we need to know before we can understand what Jesus said here. Today, salt is used mostly for two things. First, with food, to make it flavorful, the chemical reaction when baking, Etc. Some of you also know about the second one – killing snails in the garden. Although, I must say, that second one seems a bit extreme now that I’m not a kid anymore.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This could actually be the hardest thought in the entire passage. This statement is Jesus telling us that we can only truly understand the deeper meaning of His words with the aid of the Holy Spirit. The catch-22 here is that we don’t have the Holy Spirit in our lives until after we’re baptized. That means we can’t really count the cost until after baptism. After starting to build the tower, After enlisting in the battle between good and evil.

What then are we to do? How can we really count the cost? The truth is, we can’t. Not entirely. However, the reality is also that, while the cost will be higher than what we anticipate, so are the rewards.

I can say from my own experience, the cost was immensely higher. And for a long time, too long really, I fought against it. However, The promise of one reward was enough that I never totally gave up, not even when I was trying to run away from God. Here it is:

Ask, Seek, Knock – Matthew

7:7-11 pp — Lk 11:9-13

Mt 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Mt 7:9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

To me, having a Father that cared about me was a promise that I couldn’t walk away from. Not without finding a better alternative. Here’s the thing though. I did turn away. Ran away even. Trying to find a “better” alternative. One that didn’t come with so much cost, as Jesus calls it above.

But there wasn’t one. There was no one else to match the promise of a Father who cared, let alone loved me. And there was also no one like Jesus. Eventually, I decided the cost was worth it. And yes, life does come with what seems like more than the average amount of trouble, just as Jesus promised it would. Especially to someone who’s as type-A and stubborn as me. But I’m still here. And I’m not going anywhere. Have to finish my part of the tower and my part of what I signed up for.

Maybe that works for you. Maybe it doesn’t. But there’s something for everyone. You just have to explore enough to find it. The sad reality is that too many people don’t. Jesus told us about that as well. What He told the Jewish people in His time on earth applies just as well to us today:

Seven Woes

23:1-7 pp — Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 20:45, 46
23:37-39 pp — Lk 13:34, 35

Mt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”

Yes, the problem is us. Some don’t believe the promise. Some don’t want to give up control. Some can’t accept anyone higher than them. All sorts of things keep us from God. And because of those things, ultimately, we lose.

Conclusion – What is religion?

After all that, I hope it’s obvious. When I write about “religion” here, I’m talking about Christianity. To lots of people, religion is a much broader concept. But in the end, in this particular article, I still use religion as the only way to reach the God of the Bible.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That means I don’t mean Allah from the Qur’an, since the lineage there is traced back through Ishmael, not Isaac.

Further, since Christianity, by definition, claims Jesus as the Son of God, that also rules out Judaism – and once again, Islam. Jews are still waiting for Messiah. Muslims claim Jesus was only a prophet.

Why choose to write about religion, rather than Christianity, even though I mean Christianity? I hope that has at least become a little bit clear. I feel like far too many people, ever since the early days of the church, have not represented Jesus well at all. Yes, I know that we all have problems, in that we aren’t perfect. But too many who claim to be Christians, but don’t act Christian at all, give a really bad impression of what Jesus must have taught them. The truth is though, they don’t live by what Jesus taught.

There’s this saying, at least there used to be, about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, you wash a baby and the water’s dirty. But you don’t throw out the baby just because there’s still some of the dirty water on them. Or because they’re just going to get dirty again. You care about the baby, not the dirty water.

When looking at Christianity. we shouldn’t throw out Jesus and what He taught, just because we can’t perfectly replicate His life. We have to remember, the dirty water, so to speak, is still there. We won’t be clean until the next life.

So ultimately, my goal is to get people to read this. And to consider the truth about religion, and Christianity in particular. Hopefully, not losing too many people before they even get started.

Depending on how you feel now, maybe you’d like to pursue Finding God without religion, which shows that it’s hard, but not impossible. It depends on what we look for, how hard we look, and whether we keep n open mind.

Or, maybe you want to pursue Finding God in religion. That’s not always easy either. Too many false things are taught. Too many wrong impressions are held. And it still depends on what we look for, how hard we look, and whether we keep n open mind

Better yet, maybe you like to check out both of them. See both sides.

No matter what, have a most blessed day!


Image by Artsiom Horsky from Pixabay


  • 1
    Job, J. B. (1996). Religion. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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