What Is Religion? – Part 1

Our pal Nik proposed a fascinating undertaking: how do religious people respond to the general queries and scepticism around religion? It has taken us a fair amount of time to gather responses from a variety of sources, all from varied faiths and backgrounds, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism and spirituality in general. We hope you are able to take something from it, whether that is a greater understanding of religion as a whole, or a strengthening of your own beliefs. Thank yous are due to everybody who took the time to respond: Rajesh Katkoria, Hetakshi Kurani, Sanjiv Gandhi, Jagruti Gandhi, Apphia Armon and many othersNik identifies an atheist, stating that his ‘last three years at university has not only softened [his] sometimes-militant stance on religion but also educated [him] a great deal on a subject that [he] freely admit[s] [he] knew far less about than first thought.’ However, he is also aware that he sometimes lacks empathy when discussing the subject, and therefore hopes that the following questions and answers will go some way to increasing our collective understanding of the reasons and rhymes for religious beliefs. You can find part two here and Nik’s reflection here.

This will be a two-part series and please feel free, as always, to leave comments, thoughts, response pieces and the like.

Given that religion is so staunch in its demography (i.e. Christianity in the west, Islam in the Middle East), how can one be sure that their religion is the one ‘true’ religion?

Religion is a very much an open concept as this forms as a measure of faith/belief. There are a number of “versions” of Bhagavad Gita/Bible/Quran; how would you ever know which one holds truest form of the words spoken by God or His representatives?? So, the truth remains elusive. This question, in my opinion, is mixing two different concepts. We are pre-disposed to thinking that one is greater than the other, or distinguishing between right and wrong. This is comparative concept which rules the world today. But, the basic point of any religion, at its true core, must be the same. The question would be, rather, how well have these principles been understood, followed and propagated. To compare one religion to another, one would need detailed study of them first. – Hindu

Religion is faith and faith is blind. Muslims do not believe that Christianity and Judaism are different religions. From an Islamic point of view, the message is the same and the books revealed – Quran, Injil, Tawart and Dawud have the same message, except that the Quran is the final book. There is no way of knowing. It is what a person believes in – Muslim

Religions were created by human beings, not by God. Had the Almighty done so, He would have created only one religion… alternatively, he would have stamped every child born with a mark of religion! So, in short, there is no true religion. To put it another way, think about religion as way of governance. Thousands of years ago, when current political parties (way of Governance – Labour, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Republicans, Conservatives, Military…etc..) did not exist, nor paper and pen, the ideal way of living was devised by local community elders. Organisation helped stop/resolve disputes peacefully, progress was swift. So more neighbouring communities joined in. This became way of life or religion. People who devised or were in control became greedy, intolerant and devious. This gave rise to thinkers who devised alternative way (yet another religion) and so on. For example, the Hindu caste system created for simplicity, but got out of hand, with the introduction of untouchables. This gave rise to Buddhism and Jainism. Jainism as religion is quite good. Central Tenet is non-violence and love towards all living beings (plants & animals). Next is non-absolutism meaning maintaining open-mindedness i.e. recognition of all perspectives and a humble respect for differences in beliefs. The third concept is non-possessiveness, in other words, non-attachment to worldly possessions; take no more of something than is necessary. Ownership is okay but attachment is not. Minimise your tendency to hoard unnecessary material possessions and limit attachment to possessions. Wealth and possessions should be shared and donated whenever possible. Unchecked, this result in direct harm to oneself and others. Unfortunately, the Jain practice has gone  out of hand today. The very essence is lost. – Jain

If religion is required at a young age the same way that language is, do you feel this limits your objectivity when discussing religion as a topic? Why?

In the modern western liberal democracy, that is incredibly rare. Even in religious countries, the internet makes it extremely easy to access information on other faiths. The problem with the question is that it is impossible to be objective if you follow a faith. In the same way you can only be subjective in discussing whether it is better to be British or French. As a Brit, I can try my hardest and have good intentions in approaching the question but there will always be a small amount of bias. I do think it important that everyone be taught of all possibilities when discussing faith (including atheism) but I don’t agree that children should be put off being taught religion until they are deemed old enough to decide for themselves. But that’s more of a libertarian point of view. – Muslim

I can see where you are coming from, but I would hope not it would not limit someone’s objectivity. I think that if the person is narrow-minded and uneducated about other religions then perhaps that would happen, but if you are interested in what other people believe then you should be open to seeing religion from other people’s points of view. I was brought up in a Christian family but my parents never forced their beliefs upon me, they let me figure it out on my own. I think that if you are firm in your understanding of who God is then you shouldn’t be scared to try and understand other beliefs as well. I don’t ever doubt God but I learn to develop my faith through challenging and being challenged by other beliefs. – Christian

No – eventually we all grow, and the human mind is always questioning. While most people stick with their parents’ religion, many children grow up to follow a different path (even when exposed to same religion in early childhood) – Muslim

Do modern advances in fields of medicine and science ever ‘challenge’ your personal religious beliefs?

Science is about the world and the universe, whereas religion is believing in the unseen and hereafter. Medicine is about the physical body, whereas most religions talk about soul and spirituality (except Buddhisim, almost all religions believe in soul, deeds, heaven and hell). Science is about the present, religion is about the afterlife. – Muslim

To take the example of the Qur’an, the book itself is unchanged from the sixth century onwards. Every Muslim who reads the Qur’an is reading the exact same words, in the exact same order, and that has been the case for well over a thousand years. (This is not the case for the bible which is why I’m leaving Christianity out of this question for ease of answering) Yet despite that, there are a ridiculous number of sects and ways of practicing the religion, many of which differ so much from the ‘mainstream’ idea of Muslim you could hardly recognise them as following Islam. The reason for the variety in belief is primarily due to interpretation. Certain things are clear; no pork for example. But science has no rebuttal as there is very little written about it in a 1600-year-old book. As long as God is recognized as the overall power in science, all is good. See Ghulam Ahmed Parwez. There are a tiny number of those in Islam who have a problem with science. The broader problem in my opinion is that because so many don’t see an issue, there is hardly any debate which leaves the fanatics free to espouse their views. – Muslim

Do you feel that changing social attitudes de-legitimise certain parts of religious texts and as such the text as a whole? (i.e, LGBT rights)

Add this question to that was just raised above!! Genetically derived sexual orientation is not under our control. Being LGBT is, to quite an extent, just genes and biological phenomenon; although there could be other factors too. And the concept of man/woman/them as couples is more to do with nature, than with religion, I think. Religion as far as I understand would be more to do with one’s journey with Supreme Power, irrespective of same gender/opposite gender orientation.  – Hindu

You need to take certain beliefs of the Bible in context, including laws such as chopping someone’s hand off because they have stolen something, or stoning a woman because she has been unfaithful have changed with time. A whole load of social understandings or laws change depending on social constructs in that time or place. Even different churches will believe different things or put emphasis on different parts of the Bible. But they all agree on the core understanding that God sent his son Jesus to live on Earth, where he died for our sins so that we can live in relationship with him. Just because some things in the Bible may be cultural or perhaps “outdated” doesn’t mean that the whole bible is de-legitimised! – Christian

People have their own interpretation about religious scriptures. While most religious scholars disapprove of LGBT, individuals have their own personal interpretation. My personal view is that in a democratic country, every taxpayer’s rights should be protected, so civil marriage should be allowed, but religious institutes should not be forced to oblige. Civil law has the final verdict and marriage should be recognized as legal marriage by the state. Religious institutes should have the freedom to perform their rituals. I do wonder though, if we are headed towards zoophilia and bestiality and where do we draw a moral line. – Muslim

Given the now widespread belief in certain scientific theories such as evolution and their direct contradiction, do you feel that certain religious texts are thus somewhat invalidated?

If one believes in soul and after-life, science becomes confined to physical and present life. Faith is believing in the unseen. – Muslim

As the number of individuals that identify as religious declines globally, what do you see as the future of organised religion?

All religions are organised religions, not just Abrahamic religions. Part of my belief system is that the world will come to an end when religion declines. – Muslim