Is there even such a thing as religion?

It’s not about belief, it’s about relationships.

David A. Palmer
Re-Assembling Reality


Re-Assembling Reality #4, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

Stained glass in spiral form
Photo: Marybeth Sanders via

The modern concept of “religion” is derived from a very specific conception of Western Christianity. That’s why there’s never a very good fit when such a concept is applied to other traditions, whether they be Daoism, Buddhism or Confucianism; or Hinduism, Shintoism or indigenous religions; or Judaism, Islam or the Baha’i faith; or even the way Christianity itself has been understood and practiced at different times and places.

Some scholars have argued, then, that this proves that there is no such thing as “religion”. Following this argument, religion is seen as a Modern European invention: while the Moderns were busy constructing a new paradigm of knowledge characterized by Column 1 (objective, material, replicable, testable…), everything that couldn’t fit into Column 1 was pushed into the opposite Column 2 (subjective, immaterial, miraculous, untestable…), which was defined as the domain of Religion.

But these traditions didn’t all see themselves as “religions” before being slotted into the two-list framework — and most of them don’t feel it fits them well even today. So what did they, or do they, consider themselves to be?

In this essay, let’s look at the terms used in different times and places to designate the things that are often translated into the English word “religion”. What do those terms mean, and what kinds of things would fit into them? Maybe these terms can give us insights into what a potentially less ethnocentric conception of “religion” would look like.

Dao, Dharma, Dinn, and other terms

We’ve already talked about how, in China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism consider themselves to be “teachings” or “jiao”. Jiao 教 means “to teach”. The left half of the character, xiao 孝, means “to learn” and “obedience to parents”. The right half, pu 攴 is a radical derived from the hand, meaning “to tap lightly,” and used in characters indicating agentive actions. The word implies disciplined training and transmission from an authority (parent or teacher) to an obedient child or student. Note that, in its early sense, jiao was a verb referring to the action and process of teaching. Only later did it also acquire the sense of a noun, as a fixed set of teachings or doctrines.

Another important Chinese term of relevance here is the character “Dao” 道 — a “path”, “road” or “way”. The character depicts a head treading on a road, referring to walking on a path. The word Dao was not only a noun but also a verb, meaning “to walk along a path”. It also means “to speak” or “to utter”. The term in early times referred to specific paths of learning — such as the “way of kings” 王道 and the “way of men” 人道. Later, the term also came to refer to the ultimate path or way of the universe itself, the underlying path of all cosmic change — this is the Dao in the name of “Daoism” or, literally, “teachings of the Dao” 道教.

But in ancient China, the term jiao or teachings was used less commonly than jia 家, literally meaning a “family” or “home” but extended to mean “the people of” — as in “the people of Dao” daojia, “the people of laws” fajia (legalists), and so on. This implies a community, which shares a sense of intimacy and common affiliation, like a family.

Confucius himself discoursed extensively about “Li” 禮, an important concept at his time. Though often translated today as “rites” or “etiquette”, the term referred specifically to sacrificial rituals, in which offerings were made to the gods. The character is composed of the word li on the right 豊, meaning a vase used for sacrifices, conjoined with the radical shi on the left 示, meaning signs emanating from the heavenly spirits. The meaning of the term extended to encompass the ceremonies involved in the exchange of gifts, and the rules of etiquette and manners that must be followed by people of different ranks when engaging in ceremonies. Confucius also emphasized the inner disposition and sincerity that need to be cultivated when engaging in outward ritual acts. The Confucian conception of li thus encompasses sacrifices and ceremonies, the offerings and gifts that are offered to gods and exchanged between humans, and the inner attitudes of reverence and respect that should characterize such relationships.

Sacrificial ritual is the source of a key Indian term, karma कर्म. In the Vedic Sanskrit, the word refers to the action of engaging in the sacrifice. The ritual was considered to have positive or negative consequences, depending on whether or not it was correctly carried out. Karma later began to refer to these effects or consequences, more than the ritual actions themselves. In Buddhism and some other traditions, the meaning of the term came to focus primarily on moral causality, in which the intent and motivations of one’s deeds has consequences for us, so that our current condition is the fruit of our previous deeds and intentions.

Two Ramayana dancers
Ramayana ritual dance in Bangkok. Photo: Sansin Tipchai via Pixabay

Another key term in the Indian tradition that has often been translated as “religion” is dharma धर्म. Dharma refers to the principles that sustain the world, which are also principles by which to lead our own lives. Buddhism thus refers to itself as the dharma.

Dharma is translated in Chinese as fa 法, which in its ancient form 灋 includes the meaning of crossing a river with the zhi 廌, a mythical animal that can tell the difference between right and wrong and save you from drowning. Fa also means “method” or “law” and there is the “great fa” (dafa 大法), the law of the universe or the Buddha Law (fofa 佛法 ), and minor methods (xiaofa 小法) which are specific techniques.

Another term for “techniques” in Chinese is shu 术. This term is often used in conjunction with dao or fa and refers to instrumental techniques and rituals that aim to acquire or employ magical or spiritual powers for specific ends.

A Sanskrit term often used in Southeast Asia to refer to “religion” is agama आगम. The term originally means “tradition” or “that which has come down,” and later came to designate collections of religious scriptures. In the Malay-speaking world (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) the term refers to the major scripture-based religions. It is used in contrast to tribal customs, which are called adat — which includes what anthropologists would call “indigenous religions.” Adat عادات is an Arabic word originally referring to habits and customs; in addition to ritual practices, it includes the customary norms, rules, and interdictions that govern a person’s life, as well as dispute resolution mechanisms. In a nutshell, it refers to the entire traditional way of life of a community.

Jizo statues in Kyoto. Jordy Meow via Pixabay.

In Judaism, a key concept is that of “covenant” (brit בְּרִית). Covenants formalised and established particular relationships. The establishment of a covenant was accompanied by memorial actions (such as shared meals) and memorial objects (such as erecting stones); sacrifices; gift exchanges; and solemn binding oaths, establishing blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it. The terms of the covenant were sometimes additionally laid out in written documents.

The Hebrew word which is now rendered as “religion”, however, is dat דָּת. When the word appears in the Hebrew scriptures, it is typically rendered into English as “law”, “decree”, or “commandment”. In connection with God, it came to connote a system of religion (such as in Daniel 6:5: “the law of his God,” בְּדָת אֱלָהֵהּ). Over time, the term has come to be used to refer to religion (and religions) in general.

In Islam, an Arabic term with similar connotations, Dinn الْدِّين‎, is usually translated as “religion.” It means “law” and “judgment”, and is also derived from a term that connotes debt, obligation, custom, and direction. In the Islamic context, it refers to the way of life to follow in submission to God. This meaning overlaps with another common Arabic for “religion”, shariah شَرِيعَة, which originally meant “a path to the water hole” and came to mean, in the Islamic context, God’s plan for mankind and the norms of behaviour, rules and principles that humans should follow to conform to God’s plan.

In mediaeval Europe, the term “religion” in middle English, referred to “life under monastic vows”. The word came from the old French word meaning “piety, devotion”, itself derived from the Latin religare — to bind, referring to the bond between humans and God, as well as conscientiousness, the sense of rights, and moral obligation.

What can we learn from these terms?

What can we gain from considering all of these terms? Compare them with the definition of religion in the Cambridge dictionary:

The belief in, and worship of a God or gods, or any such system of belief and worship.

None of the terms we’ve just looked at mentions anything about belief. Something like worship appears in some of the terms, when sacrifice is mentioned. But the emphasis in the notion of sacrifice is not so much an abstract belief in gods, as a relationship with gods that is very concretely expressed through giving offerings. The terms referring to sacrifice — li and karma — contain implications that range from the relationships between the people who gather together in a sacrificial ritual, to the inner dispositions expected of the participants, to the long-term consequences of the acts that express our dispositions. Gods aren’t always explicitly mentioned in the terms, although they’re implied in many of the actions described, such as sacrificial rites or tribal customs. In the terms in which God figures centrally (Jewish brit and dat, Christian religion, and Islamic dinn and shahria), the focus is not so much on belief and worship per se, as the qualities of the relationship to God, expressed through a covenant, following laws and a way of life, piety, conscientiousness, or monastic discipline.

While each of them is different and they all have their specific points of emphasis, we can identify the following elements of meaning:

  1. Many of the terms are or were initially verbs, designating actions and processes, rather than a thing.
  2. Relationships figure centrally in many of the terms, or in the practices the terms refer to: relationships between teacher and student, between family members, between judge and community, between humans, between humans and non-humans, between humans and deities, between humans and the cosmos, between humans and God.
  3. Many of the terms refer to collective actions, and to the conduct of the relationships between people.
  4. There is the notion of inner disposition, motivations, and attitudes — so that actions and conventions are understood not only in a purely external form, but also in terms of the inner state in which they are conducted.
  5. We find the notion of a path, a way, a method, a law or a teaching, which could be specific to one domain or general, encompassing all aspects of one’s life.
  6. There is the notion that the path of life is connected to an underlying cosmic order.

Not all the terms cover all of these six dimensions; each of the terms has its unique points of emphasis and implications.

Baha’i youth study group in Biharsharif, India

Over the course of history, the different traditions in which we find these different words, have evolved in different directions often emphasizing very different aspects of these various elements. The different terms reflect, and also strengthen, these different points of emphasis.

Significantly, these elements do not map onto the two-list frame.

They combine relationships with deities, with humans, and with the world — often all carried out in the same activity. They deal with the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural — all of which are encompassed in a single cosmic order.

They are simultaneously descriptive and normative, and they involve both external, public behaviour and internal, private dispositions and attitudes.

Following a path, a way, a method, a law or a teaching implies knowledge as much as faith: you need to know about the path and how to walk it, as much as you need to have faith that it’s a path worth walking.

The questions and relationships of religion

By taking you on this brief excursion through different terms and concepts from different civilizations, traditions, and periods of history, we find a great variety of notions and perspectives. At this point, you might begin to despair. So there’s no simple and universal definition of religion then? Maybe there’s nothing there at all? Ah, how you may long for the elegant simplicity of science, whose truths are identical for all!

Well, don’t get your hopes too high for science — in the next essay, we’ll start to show that science is hardly as simple as it is often thought to be!

But for us, complexity is not a cause for alarm or something to run away from — on the contrary! Complexity poses problems and puzzles, which lead us to ask questions, which are essential to both science and religion, however they may be defined.

So rather than stating that religion “is” a particular type of “thing,” let’s consider “religion” as a domain within which many kinds of questions can be raised, each of which opens a line of inquiry which are all interrelated, and which have implications for what we do in life. Drawing on insights from all of the terms we have reviewed above, here are some pertinent questions:

What relationships constitute the world, and how do we fit into them?

What are the main entities that constitute these relationships, and how should we relate to them?

What relationships should we cultivate, and how should we cultivate them?

What types of actions establish and maintain these relationships, and what attitudes and dispositions should we have when engaging in these actions?

What relationships should we avoid?

What kinds of community are created through nurturing these specific sets of relationships?

What are the consequences of cultivating these relationships well or of failing to cultivate them?

With these sets of questions, we can look to the key relationships that are emphasized in the different religious traditions. In different traditions, we may find that different sets of entities and relationships are emphasized. Or, that some of the same relationships are emphasized, but given different weight, or different meanings. Within a tradition, the entities, the emphases, or the meanings may also evolve over time. But regardless of the tradition, they all— and always — engage with humans in their fullness.

Relationships are always dynamic. As we mentioned above, religion is a domain of questioning and inquiry. People constantly engage in reflection and communication with each other to understand their relationships, to adjust them, and to decide on what courses of action to take within their relationships. Out of this questioning and communication emerges a body of knowledge and experience about the different entities and the modes of relating to them. And in different traditions, out of this accumulated experience, emerge different methods for systematizing, evaluating, and enhancing religious knowledge.


This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.



David A. Palmer
Re-Assembling Reality

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.