What comes to mind when one hears the word, “religion”? It depends on one’s own spiritual and cultural background, doesn’t it? For many in the United States, Christianity is the religion. If someone “finds religion” or is said to be religious, they might be assumed to be Christian. Even those speaking from an atheistic or agnostic point of view often seem to make assumptions about religion based on their own experiences with the Christian religion in their culture. It’s difficult to get away from. Still, there are over 4,000 religions in the world. A quick search on the internet shows that only 5 of these are widely considered major religions. They include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (Some search results show up to 12 listed.) These are the religions with the highest percentages of practioners in the world. They hold the most political and cultural influences in our modern societies. Other religions, such as those that fall under the neo-Pagan umbrella or practiced by Indigenous peoples, often go ignored in mainstream discussions unless reduced to a fluff piece or for shock value.
• the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”ideas about the relationship between science and religion”
• a particular system of faith and worship.plural noun: religions“the world’s great religions”
• a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”consumerism is the new religion”Oxford Languages
The dictionary definition of religion allows plenty of room for the plethora of spiritual beliefs and practices that are recognized by people across the world. Yet, when the subject of religion comes up, assumptions that leave out certain types of religion are oft made by those in the majority. Articles written from an atheistic/ agnostic/ secular viewpoint may speak of a singular god or issues with “the church” without specifying any one religion. Yet, it is clear that the religion being referenced is Christianity, with Judaism and Islam typically being treated as an after thought. When major religions are viewed as negligible in conversation, what hope is there for smaller religious communities to be taken seriously? In a society where discussions about religion center around a specific monotheistic religion versus atheism, a lack of wider understanding on the topic as a whole arises. The idea of religion becomes restricted to a certain set of beliefs and practices as influenced by political powers who have historically used religion in one form as a weapon.
It is folly to make judgments on religion as a whole based on a single religion and it’s history. Not only does it sow division, it also further reinforces the false idea that there is only one valid religion or a singular way of practicing said religion. It not only encourages stigma against those who practice minority religions, it also creates misunderstandings about why people hold certain practices and beliefs. Rather than potential enrichment of life being at the heart of the topic, the misconception spreads that ignorance or abuse of power alone breeds religion. What with the overall histories of major religions and even a small few well-known cults that have made news, it can be difficult to look past the horrors that it can be used for. That said, those particular issues sometimes tend to push other conversations to the wayside.
As mentioned previously, religion encompasses a diverse set of beliefs and practices. Some who follow certain traditions may be hesitant to use the term “religious” as a self descriptor due to the connotations that the label can take on. Some find offense at the idea of their spiritual traditions being considered religions at all for this same reason. Nobody should be forced to use a label they are uncomfortable with, however it is a problem that certain labels are so often incorrectly implied to belong to a single type of modern religion. Just as there are those who prefer the “spiritual, not religious” identifier, there are those who embrace religious labels in their own non-monotheistic traditions. Some polytheist Pagans are reclaiming language that the mainstream cultures typically view as belonging to Christians. While it can’t truly be said that Unitarian Universalism is or is not monotheistic (that depends on the individual in UUism), many of the congregations within the religion still use religious language whether their membership leans more Christian, more humanistic atheist, or more of another faith. Whether one believes in many individual gods, one god, many aspects of a singular god, or no god at all; it is possible to be religious and to engage in worship.
For many, the idea of religion requires some sort of spiritual element rooted in the supernatural. While this is commonly the case, the idea of spirituality has also evolved to take on a more psychological approach. Someone who leans more toward atheism or agnosticism may find spirituality and religion in what science has discovered of the universe surrounding us. They may also find a spiritual connection in humanism, meditation, secular ritual, or any number of other things. These ideas, of course, aren’t limited to a skeptical mind. Likewise, anyone from monotheists to polytheists and animists may find spiritual enrichment from these things in addition to the unverifiable beliefs they may hold. Religion and spirituality is how we find connection within ourselves and with the universe around us. Simplified to the barest core, that’s it.
Yet, it is not enough to simplify the idea of religion to find common grounds. Acknowledging the many different types of belief systems is also crucial if one is to discuss religion in more general terms. After all, there are a great many misconceptions about varying belief systems. It can be othering to members of minority religions when their beliefs are either spoken of incorrectly or entirely ignored. The context of one’s religion matters. To assume, for instance, the idea that Neo-Pagans worship the Earth is both a falsehood and sometimes true. To assume that Christians don’t practice witchcraft or another magical folk tradition is, again, a partial truth blended with ignorance. In both of these examples, it depends on the specific religious denomination/ tradition and the individual practitioner. It doesn’t exactly help to simplify the matter in either case that both Paganism and Christianity each have many different traditions, some of which are syncretic between the two. Paganism takes it a step further, as well, in that it is an umbrella term for many different religions which vary greatly in source material, beliefs, and practices.
To further understand the complexity of religion, one must also recognize that religion is cultural. Religion influences the holidays one celebrates, the media one consumes, the way one expresses themselves, the laws of one’s country, and many other aspects of culture. This is, in part, how syncretic religions form to begin with. The cultural aspect of religion is how someone can be a Jewish atheist, Christian Buddhist, or any other number of examples. When one is part of a specific culture and converts to another religion, it is not always desirable to leave all parts of their cultural origin behind. Whether it’s about connection to one’s heritage, fun/ nostalgic traditions that have become secular, or practices that still hold a deep spiritual meaning; the blending of one religious culture with another is an important part of many traditions. In order to fully understand the context of any religion, one must understand it’s culture. In the case of closed and semi-closed religious traditions, this cannot be done without being part of their cultures.
For people of differing backgrounds, religion can mean different things. It can conjure up images that are positive or negative. It can bring up trauma or comfort. It can take place in churches, forests, hidden altars, or soup kitchens. Religion isn’t an either/ or thing. It is a kaleidoscope, a spectrum of the many different ways of looking at our existence. Religion in it’s entirety can not be reduced to only one idea without watering down all that it has been, now is, and can be.