Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Religion


From: Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice, perhaps from religare to restrain, tie back
Date: 13th century
1 b (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
4 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending in the last resort on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. Religion clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social, and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are those that presume the existence of the Sacred (Peter Berger, Emile Durkheim), the Supernatural/Divine (James Frazer, Immanuel Kant, Rodney Stark), or Order/Purpose (William James).

Some definitions of the term focus more on the presence of different states of being and humankind’s grappling to come to terms with those differences, without making judgments regarding the nature of other states. George Hegel called religion “the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind,” while Friedrich Schleiermacher called it “a feeling for the infinite,” and Alfred North Whitehead described it as “what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

Some etymologists connect “religion” to the Latin ligare, which is the same root of the word ligament, meaning “to bind.” Re-ligare, therefore, would mean to bind again, perhaps in a ritualistic manner, or in meaningful practices.

Atheist Definition: Religion is the collection of practices by which groups of people come together repeatedly to find meaning in the relationship of themselves and of humankind to all existence, known and unknown.

2 thoughts on “Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Religion

  1. How would an atheist differentiate between a religion and a fraternal organization? The Moose, the Masons, the Star Trek clubs, the Greek Letter fraternities, all meet regularly, search for meaning, (indeed, some of the deepest philosophical and spiritual discussions I have ever had occurred at 2:00 am at Star Trek conventions), many perform weddings and funerals, and many go even farther than normal churches in fellowship, such as providing insurance, retirement homes, etc.
    So what, if any, difference is there to an atheist between the Moose and the Mormon?


  2. Joel, you of course raise the major sticking point regarding any religiously-oriented definition. What makes anything (church, prayer, sacrament, etc.) explicitly “religious?”

    I would argue that what makes anything explicitly religious is that it concerns that which Tillich would say is of ultimate concern. And, you are absolutely right – this can occur in non-church settings, such as a Star Trek convention, if the exchange indeed involves delving for meaning in that which is of ultimate concern. In fact, I consider Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling to be two of the most important lay ministers of the twentieth century.

    Now, I would question whether any typical fraternal organization ever engages in this exploration, but that is up to the participants. Likewise, one could argue that some groups typically identified as such are really not terribly religious. For instance, I would suggest that any form of fundamentalist group risks moving beyond concern for the ultimate to the desire to maintain and enforce rigid practices and dogma on adherents and others. I believe that it is important for us to distinguish between purpose and institution when defining something as “religion.”


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