WebDef: Religion

Re·li·gion /rəˈlijən/ – Noun: Set of beliefs about the nature of the world and one's relation to it; the way a person relates self to the greater picture.

At its best, religion offers insights into the deeper meaning of life itself, shedding light on the reason we are here, helping to provide a sense of purpose and sacred belonging. At its worst, it can be dogmatic, and a barrier kinship with each other and with God. Any belief system can be seen as a religion, which is why we examine many belief systems and outlooks – including stoicism, agnosticism, atheism, scientism, and the like, in this post.

The word itself has been traced back to Latin, religionem, meaning "to bind" (as in, to bind to God), or re-eligere (to choose again), implying the restoration of a right relationship. Either way, the deeper meaning transcends dogma about what one must believe or how one must behave.


In the Bible, St. James defines religion beautifully, as follows: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." Here is the passage, set in context:

Now, my beloved brethren, let every one be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.For if anyone be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, they be like unto one who has beheld one's natural face in a glass: looking and going their way, straightway forgetting what manner of person they are. But whosoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this person shall be blessed indeed.If any one among you seem to be religious, and bridles not the tongue, but deceives their own heart, this one's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. – James 1:19-27

This is a controversial passage. Martin Luther, in particular, took issue with it, because on the surface it appears to undermine the doctrine of sola fide or salvidic justification, the concept that one can be saved by faith alone. The doctrine has been a source of discord for millennia. But for anyone who is earnestly wrestling with God, the call to love must take priority over the need to argue. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, reminds us, "though we be not of one mind, can we not be of one heart?"

Below, our "religions in a nutshell" introduction paragraphs were originally posted at UQ-Media.com, a resource created for peace and understanding that has now been absorbed under this website's umbrella:


See our WebDefs entry for our overarching definition of Christian, including with scriptural references. We've taken a lot of time with it, since this is a website with resources primarily aimed towards Christian ministrants.

Since the days of the apostles, Christians have joined together in groups. There are, today, many kinds of Christian churches. Among the 20,000 or more distinct, formal groups who self-identify as Christian, we find Baptists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Methodists, Protestants, Pentecostals, and many others. Here are just a few. When reading these descriptions, note that they are painted with broad strokes. Even within denomination, beliefs can vary. They can also blossom over time, as a person grows spiritually:

Baptists in a Nutshell – Baptists are a distinct branch of Christianity that emphasizes freedom of worship and personal relationship wtih Christ, and that practices the baptism of believers by immersion. Baptists are ardently non-credal, meaning that they prefer personal conscience led by God and are wary of man-made doctrinal statements. American Baptists have a long tradition of female clergy as well as a proud tradition of involvement in the abolitionist movement and the later civil rights and women's rights movements.

Catholicism in a Nutshell – Roman Catholicism is a form of Christianity that self-describes as the "Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church." the word itself is based on the Greek term ?a??????? (katholikos) which means universal. Catholicism has a hierarchical management structure, overseen by the Pope (currently Pope Francis, the 266th Pope) in Vatican City, in Rome Italy. Old Catholic – A variant of Catholicism that split from Catholicism in 1870. The current Pope is refreshing the church with a renewed emphasis on social justice and love for the poor and unequal.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity in a Nutshell – This form of Christianity split from Catholicism in 1054 and now has perhaps 300 million members. The added term 'Eastern' helps Westerners understand to whom they are referring, but they themselves omit it, adding other distinctive terms, such as Russian Orthodox, to distinguish variations representing their origin, language and 'typica.' One helpful Eastern Orthodox practice is to pray the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, internalizing the prayer.1

LDS in a Nutshell: – LDS stands for the Church of the Latter day Saints, or Mormon Church, founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830. Mormons believe in Christ's birth, death and resurrection, and look to Him as Savior and Redeemer. In addition to The Bible, they also look to The Book of Mormon. Mormonism, a sort of "restorationist Christianity," arose in the United States amid religious persecution by the very Christians who had fled religious persecution, themselves.

Methodism in a Nutshell – A branch of Christianity that was inspired by the life and teachings of John Wesley, who felt his heart "strangely warmed" and who advised loving service. Methodists hold that God's love and grace is inclusive by nature.

Protestantism in a Nutshell – A branch of Christianity that arose out of, and named after, a protest against excesses which had grown up inside the established church. This secession occurred in 1529 and was spearheaded by Martin Luther, a Professor of Moral Theology in Wittenberg, Germany after he famously penned Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences (no, they were never tacked on a church door). Most Anglicans reject the term Protestant, although it was used by the "Protestant Episcopal Church" in the United States, which broke off from the Church of England in 1789. Episcopalians today are split on the use of the term. The denominations within Protestantism are too many to name, including Lutherans, United Church of Christ, and many others.

Pentecostalism in a Nutshell – A movement within Christianity that traces back to a Holiness movement within the United States, a movement that itself branched off from the Methodists. Many follow strict codes of dress and behavior, stressing sanctification after baptism, striving to live sin-free and blameless, in the belief that Christ can sanctify people both within and without, allowing them to attain a measure of holiness. Church services emphasize the importance of baptism by the Holy Spirit, as evidenced through the talking in (or interpreting of) tongues.


Islam in a Nutshell – An Abrahamic, monotheistic religion. From the word Aslama, or to surrender / submit (to God), Islam is an Abrahamic religion built on the Qu'ran, written down by Muhammad in the 7th century. Like Christianity, Jesus (Isa) is considered Messiah, was born of the virgin Mary by God's divine word, and will return at the end of days to defeat the anti-Christ. However, unlike Christianity, Islam takes a low view of Jesus. In Islam, Jesus was simply a mortal, whom God raised instead of allowing him to die on the cross. God had no children, there is no trinity, and there was no atonement at the cross, therefore no blessed assurance of God's generous grace. At the day of judgment, or Last Day, all souls will be separated, some going to paradise and some going to hell, based on works. It has five pillars or duties, and also a set of legal rulings known as Sharia. Believers hold that Gabriel revealed God's message to Muhammad, a prophet, and that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were also prophets, bringing a message of submitting to God's will. The two major denominations are Sunni and Shi'a. Among the beliefs are: God, revelations, angels and messengers, judgment day, and either divine justice (for the Shia) or divine decree (for the Sunni). The Shi'a also observe political and spiritual leadership by Imams. The Sufis are practitioners of the inner, mystical dimension of Islam.

Judaism in a Nutshell – An Abrahamic, monotheistic religion and one of the first, if not the first, of the truly monotheistic religions. The word, from the Hebrew ????? Yehuda, relates to the following of the beliefs and practices in the instructions of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which is broken into the Torah (five books of Moses, or Pentateuch) and Midrash or commentary. Jewish views on G*d include that the name not be spoken or written, and that G*d is transcendent, benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and active. There are different forms and traditions, including orthodox, conservative, reform, liberal, and reconstructionist or renewal movements as well as a secular humanist tradition which is nontheistic. Orthodox Jewish writing will discuss a static law, dictated to Moses, the humanist group emphasizes Jewish identity, and there are varying beliefs in between. The only Jewish state is Israel, which was restored after the Holocaust in World War II. The Bible is clear: those who bless Israel will be blessed: "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 2:2-3)


Buddhism in a Nutshell – Buddhists follow the teachings of Guatama Buddha, that suffering is universal and that all beings would wish to avoid it, preferring to be happy, and that there indeed exists a path to the cessasion of suffering and a peaceful and pleasant life. A 'middle way' avoids the extremes of hedonism and asceticism and cultivate the means for happiness within oneself rather than being swept away by the external. The noble eightfold path includes right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. His Holiness The Dalai Lama has often said that the best path to personal happiness is to seek the well being of others.

Hinduism in a Nutshell – This Indian religion is practiced by the majority of the population of India and Nepal, and has spread throughout the world. One teaching of interest to Westerners is reincarnation, which is a teaching of most of the Hindu traditions, but is not a central teaching of any: reincarnation is expected, and is influenced by the quality of life one leads, and whether one has fulfilled one's life purpose. The goal of our existence is to attain moksha, salvation from the karmic cycle, and within a dharmic worldview there is a place for productivity, pleasure, personal growth, good works, devotion, and the pursuit of knowledge. Some Hindus are polytheistic, although most see the various gods and goddesses as aspects of brahman or ultimate reality. The Vedas, the most ancient sacred texts, portray various gods who are worshiped without images or temples. Later traditions came to focus on one God, usually either Shiva or Vishnu (who "incarnates" (avatara) as Ram and Krishna) but there is a great deal of eclecticism and also a focus on God as female (Devi). Most Hindu families have a clan deity, but there is space also for a personal choice, called an ishtadevata. Hindu traditions affirm four stages of life, and often suggest a greater spiritual focus at the "empty nest" stage in one's later years.

Jainism in a Nutshell – This Indian sect may go back as far as 800BC. The Jains believe the soul is its own architect, cultivating non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-materialism. I saw the Jains practice active nonviolence toward all living beings, even sweeping the sidewalk before stepping, unwilling even to crush a bug and wearing a mask so as not to breathe bugs in.

Sikhism in a Nutshell – Sikhism, a monotheistic religion hailing from the 15th century, in the Punjab rejoin of India. Sikhs forbid superstition and seek to identify with God by dispelling the five defects of addiction, anger, greed, attachment and pride.

Taoic Beliefs in a Nutshell – East Asian religions including Chinese folk religion, Taoism, Shinto and others fall under the Taoistic religions. The basic beliefs include: death and afterlife; care for the physical body; importance of the breath; morality; superhuman immortals; and the wisdom of the Tao, some of which will sound familiar, like Biblical wisdom (e.g., "The nameless was at the beginning of heaven and earth").


Extremism – Holding that one's own view is absolutely right. In this view, outsiders are not only wrong, they must be dealt with by extreme measures: corrected, punished or even destroyed. Intractable fanaticism with a closed mindset. Where a religion is on the rise, it can attract those who seek after power, rather than truth and light, and extremist measures may result. This was true of Christianity (e.g., during the crusades) and is now true of Islam in the Middle East, where there are a growing number of extremist states where conversion to Islam is compulsory and conversion away is an offense punishable by death. Where religion and state power combine, such has been the case throughout history; as such, the blame should be placed with those in power – the state, not with a religion per se. Any hammer can be used to build up or to bludgeon, and every religion is comprised of flawed individuals of various levels of attainment. Some will hold extremist views they wish to impose on those around them, while others wish only to be allowed to worship in peace. Our leaders will do well to follow the example of the Founding Fathers, who outlined a system that balanced tolerance of worship with intolerance against coercion, and who set up protections against the comingling of church and state.


The 21th century is characterized by a tension between materialism – An outlook that holds that the physical world is the ultimate reality, and there is no transcendent reality beyond that which we can perceive – versus outlooks that allow for, or ascribe to, a transcendent element. Here are some of the belief systems that are neutral, skeptical or hostile towards the transcendent, and common in the 21st century:

Scientism – An outlook that considers valid only that which is can be demonstrated with empirical methods, and considers the scientific method universally applicable and useful. The scientific method is considered the most valuable, and the only reliable source of knowledge. Other viewpoints, especially those that would hold that some things go beyond rational mind, are ridiculed. This has been termed "science in excess," and is what Einstein meant, when he stated that "religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind."

Atheism – Outright denial of any devine force or will in the universe. This is distinct from skepticism or agnosticism.

Skepticism – Doubting, or holding hostility towards, a belief or set of beliefs.

Agnosticism – The belief that it is impossible to know whether there may be a divine force or will in the universe, and of reserving judgment and maintaining an open mind about such matters.

Materialism – An outlook that holds that the physical world is the ultimate reality, and there is no transcendent reality beyond that which we can perceive.

Hedonism – A self-centered outlook devoted to the pursuit of one's own personal pleasure.

Stoicism – An outlook that holds that we cannot avoid death or influence our fate, and are best when we demonstrate indifference to pleasure or pain.

There is nothing inherently superior in a belief system that rejects the transcendent over a belief system that embraces God. They are ways of seeing and relating to our world.


The following external link is to a fun quiz on BeliefNet, meant to help a person identify the religion with which they have the most in common:

1More on this practice can be found at the external website entitled Orthodox Wiki, http://orthodoxwiki.org/Jesus_Prayer.

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