If we were to consider the enormous number of belief systems, religions, and cults prevalent in the world today, it would be extremely difficult to give an exhaustive definition of the term “religion”. Nevertheless, we still need to have at least a basic understanding. According to James Barham:
"Religion is many things, but if there is one characteristic that all religions have in common, surely it is faith. What is faith? This itself is a highly disputed matter, but perhaps we may define it as a strong emotional attachment to an all-encompassing worldview that outstrips the available empirical evidence."
Human beings associate themselves with some kind of deep-seated belief which they feel worthy of admiration. In practice, this faith may exist in the name of a dogma, an ideology, a philosophy, or a system. This faith or belief eventually becomes a representation of our “religion”: the inner conviction that determines our attitudes and grants the sense of purpose in our relationship with existence. Dr. Zakir Naik, an expert in comparative religion, wrote that ideologies and man-made systems are - in the deepest sense of the word 'religion'- only belief systems competing to assume the role of religion, but on their own terms.
The Islamic definition of religion is of particular relevance. The Arabic term 'Deen' is translated as religion, but in a broader sense, Deen means “one's way of life.” The reality around which someone's life revolves is called an ilaah or a god. Paul Tillich, the German Christian scholar, once wrote, religion is "whatever concerns a person or a people most. This can, of course, be the Living God, but equally it can be nationalism or financial success". So if the reality around which someone's life revolves is a celebrity then his god is a celebrity, if it is science then science is their god.
Thus, religion is central to human existence. Attempts to eradicate it from the lives of human beings have failed. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples. To Marx, religion was 'the opium of the people'. Nietzsche coined the famous phrase, ‘God is dead.’ Both died and religion continues to live. Ken Wilber, regarded by some as one of the most important thinkers of our century, explains:
"Sociologists have long predicted that modernity would simply sweep away all religious factions, since the latter are supposedly based on nothing but pre-modern and primitive superstition. And yet the modern world is still chock-a-block with various religious movements that simply refuse to go away."
Some people think that religion as an aberration, an abnormality, a harmful redundancy, a detrimental phenomenon that has to be eradicated, stifled, or at least pushed to the margins of human life. On the contrary, we are actually hard wired to believe in God. Beauregard and his colleague Denyse O'Leare analyzed these claims in the light of neurobiological evidence and came to the conclusion that
"the transcendental impulse to connect with God and the spiritual world represents one of the most basic and powerful forces in Homo sapiens."
James H. Leuba observed:
"With chemicals one may cure, or kill; with high-power propaganda one may enlighten and thus promote brotherhood, or deceive and thus arouse angry passions. Failure to employ the means at our disposal for the general good is the root cause of the present distressing situation."
Religion, in the end, is a human need. All religions share a common thread: a profound yearning to relate to some ultimate source of being. The question is that what faith is most coherent and can combine science and the soul, the heart and the mind together.
World religions can be categorized into:
- prophetic religions also called monotheistic or Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and
- non-prophetic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc)
Thomas Paine, the secretary to the committee of foreign affairs in the American Revolution,
"Had it been the object or intention of Jesus Christ to establish a new religion, he would undoubtedly have written the system himself, or procured it to be written in his life-time, but there is no publication extant authenticated with his name. All the books called the New Testament were written after his death."
- Barham, James (2004) Why Am I Not A Darwinist. In Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, Edited by William A. Dembski (ed.), Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
- Smith, Huston (1990) Postmodernism's Impact on the Study of Religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 4, (Winter), p. 659, Oxford University Press
- Wilber, Ken (2000) A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, Gateway, p. 133.
- Beauregard, Mario & O'leary, Denyse (2007) The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist‟s Case for the Existence of the Soul, HarperCollins, p. 289.
- Leuba, James H. (1950) The Reformation of the Churches, Boston, p. 3.
- Paine, Thomas (1984) The Age of Reason, Prometheus Books, p. 25