Times when religion played a major role in the lives of the majority of people living in Europe and the United States have gone long ago. Nowadays, religion is just one of the social institutions (perhaps, even facultative institutions) performing certain functions, namely providing moral guidance and consolation to those who seek them. The same cannot be said about faith in its relation to the transcendent; faith in God, or in a higher power, or whatever else, is probably a much more influential aspect of modern life than it is widely believed. Even atheists have faith in something. At the same time, it turns out that many people tend to confuse these two terms, substituting them with each other. Therefore, it is important to distinguish the line between them.
Let us start with religion. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word “religion” has three definitions: 1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods; 2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; 3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group (Merriam-Webster.com). Dictionary.com defines religion as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs” (Dictionary.com). If we carefully analyze these definitions and combine them by a main criteria, the definition of religion would look like as follows: “Religion is a set of authoritative rules, dogmas, and rituals explaining the Universe in terms of supernatural powers, and organized in a harmonious system recognized by a group of people.”
As we can see, this definition considers the main aspects of any religion: authority, organization, and a reference to transcendence. This is what allows us to speak of religion as mostly a social institution. Now, let us pay attention to faith.
Once again, according to Merriam-Webster, faith is, “1) belief and trust in and loyalty to God; 2) belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; 3) firm belief in something for which there is no proof; 4) complete trust, something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs” (Merriam-Webster). Oxford Dictionaries define faith as “strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof” (Oxford Dictionaries). Finally, Dictionary.com generally defines faith as belief that is not based on proof.
Summing up these definitions up, we can define faith as a belief or a system of various beliefs (including religious ones) which a person accepts and exercises without any additional proof of their truthfulness.
As we can see from the definitions provided above, religion requires faith, otherwise those who confess a religion would sooner or later start analyzing and questioning the fundamental dogmas underlying it. In its turn, faith—although being a natural component of any religion—does not necessarily relate to transcendence, divinity, or mystics; in fact, a person can believe in anything they want to believe. Whereas religion (given it is a conventional religion—Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism—or its commonly-recognized branches) necessarily provides moral guidance, serving as a beacon to those who seek comfort and direction, faith can relate to almost anything, and thus does not guarantee a person’s morality.
For example, a person can believe that God, even if it exists, is indifferent, and thus will watch over a person and/or punish him or her for violating commandments; therefore, for this person, everything is morally acceptable since they believe there will be no punishment following his or her actions. Or, a person can believe Jesus was a woman, or their deceased relatives guide and guard him/her as spirits (as in the Japanese Shintoism), and so on.
Generally speaking, religion is more about mass character and embedding oneself into a system of commonly-recognized theses and rituals, and faith is more of an individual, personal act, and does not necessarily correspond with existing norms (although mostly it does). An individual’s faith in something may change over time, or change its object; religions change extremely seldom, and the three major world religions are proof of this thesis. It does not mean, however, that any of these two are better or worse than the other one; both faith and religion can make people heroes and saints (like Jesus or Buddha), or force them to do horrible things (the Inquisition). A religion often provides its followers with proofs of dogmas: bleeding or crying icons, walking on burning coals, and so on; faith does not require any proof, and is something a person may believe in against all rational, logic, and common sense arguments.
In evaluating the differences between faith and religion, it is important to emphasize mass character and the organizational aspect of any religion. A religion is mainly a social institution, a form of organizing people’s way of thinking, and manipulating them (in all the meanings of this word) and constantly empowering its influence by providing proof for its dogmas. Faith is more individual, irrational (meaning that a person may believe in something without ever looking for a proof for their beliefs), and does not necessarily correspond with the conventional moral and ethical values. Therefore, considering all the aforementioned, although the terms “faith” and “religion” sometimes intersect closely, they are not interchangeable, and should be used with attention.
- “Religion.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
- “Religion.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
- “Faith.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
- “Faith.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
- “Faith.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
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Writing a Definition Essay
Starting Sentence Option 1: Many people who [are religious/believe in a deity/attend church] have specific beliefs that [lead them/control them]. Take, for example, [name a religion], which is known for [characteristic]. What conclusion can one draw but [second claim]?
Starting Sentence Option 2: Religions have existed as long as people have and [name a religion] is a good example of [positive or negative characteristic]. As we’ve seen throughout history, such as at [specific event], [religion name] has [caused/resulted in] [consequences]. This leads to the conclusion that [second claim].
- Religion provides motivation for people to do more good in the world.
- The belief in a higher power has led many people to beat their addictions.
- Throughout history, religion has marked moral advances in the world.
- Religion or the church, provide a solid base for drawing people together and binding them as a family.
- Religious people tend to be helpful and feel the urge to aid those in need.
- Religious people are more likely to be judgemental and immoral.
- People hide behind the church and use God as an excuse to do unspeakable things.
- Religion uses scare tactics to force people to act a certain way.
- Many who claim to be doing God’s will are really using religion to line their own pockets and steal from the naive.
- Many of the wars throughout history were started in the name of religion.
PEW Research Center
History of Religions
Religion at Psychology Today