The word religion is one of those words that we tend to use all the time without pausing to consider its actual meaning. Most of us use the term to mean a particular set of beliefs. If you are Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, then that is your religion. But a religion is more than a set of beliefs. I may believe that Elvis is still alive, or that alien creatures built the pyramids. But that’s not religion.
So does religion refer to our beliefs about God? Not necessarily. I could be an atheist who believes God does not exist. That is a belief about God, but not a religion. I could believe God is a flying spaghetti monster. That doesn’t make me a religious person. I could believe in a “clock-maker” God who set the laws of the universe in motion and has had a hands-off approach ever since. This is a belief about God, but it is not a religion because it makes no personal demands upon me. It does not require me to live my life any certain way. And therein lies the difference.
The word religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind.” It is related to the Latin word regula, which referred to a measuring stick, and is the root of our English word rule. A religion, therefore, is not merely a set of beliefs, but a set of beliefs that bind the believer. Religion imposes a kind of rule or regulation upon the believer’s life.
In other words, religion is a belief that requires a response. In light of what we believe to be true, religious observers understand that we must behave a certain way; that there will be certain limits on our lifestyle.
Spiritual v. Religious
This has implications. For one, it means that the term “organized religion” is redundant. We often hear people say they are critical of organized religion (as if disorganized religion would be any better). But if a religion is not ordered (organized) then it’s not really a religion at all, as it does not expect its practitioners to live according to any rule. Indeed, they can hardly be considered “practitioners” if there is nothing for them to practice. They are merely “believers” at that point; those whom we might call spiritual, but not religious.
I’ve often heard that phrase criticized as being code for, “I like to think of myself as a spiritual person, but don’t actually do anything about it.” Which may be true, as far as it goes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate description. Someone who is spiritual is aware of certain spiritual realities. They believe that there is more to this world than the material. But being spiritual alone doesn’t make any demands on us. It is when our spiritual beliefs motivate us to live in a certain way that spirituality becomes religious.