The Misunderstanding of Religion and Faith

I have maintained a reluctant position of not engaging in debates about religion as I find it is almost always ridiculed and criticized as inherently the source of intractable ethnic and global conflict without understanding the difference between religion and faith.  At an elementary level, most people who discredit religion are unaware that the current system of international relations among states and the principle of sovereignty have their foundations in religion – The Treaty of  Westphalia – and represented a new diplomatic arrangement  for states that ended a 30 year war (1618-1648) in the holy roman empire, an 80 years war between the Spanish and the Dutch (1568-1648) and allowed rulers of imperial states to independently decide their own religious worship and each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state.


To adequately address and generate the hypothesis of this discussion, a starting point is to enquire how religion and faith is defined in the current international system.  This definition remains largely misunderstood by many.  Religion has three distinctive features; (i) belief, (ii) identity and (iii) values. Religion as belief pertains to the convictions that people hold regarding such matters as God, truth, or doctrines of faith.  Belief religion may emphasize, for example, adherence to doctrines.

While religion as belief emphasizes doctrines, religion as identity emphasizes affiliation with a group. In this sense, identity religion is experienced as something akin to family, ethnicity, race, or nationality. Identity religion is something into which people believe they are born rather than something to which they convert after a process of study, prayer, or reflection.  Identity religion is less likely to emphasize shared theological beliefs and more likely to emphasize shared histories, cultures, ethnicity, and traditions.

People may consider themselves Muslims or Hindus on the basis of ethnicity, even though they have not been inside a mosque or temple for twenty years and even though they know little about the Qur’an or Bagwan Kieta. Ziad Abu-Amr, author of Critical Issues in Arab Islamic Fundamentalism, in Religion, Ethnicity, and Self-Identity: Nations in Turmoil says “Arabs, regardless of whether they observe the outward manifestations of religion or not, insist that they were born and remain Muslims.” This affiliation extends even to those who may be self-consciously non-religious.

A fourth facet of religion, which is distinct from the previous two but is likely to be tied to one of them in the mind of the religious person, is religion as a way of life. In this facet, religion is associated with actions, rituals, customs, and traditions that may distinguish the believer from adherents of other religions. For example, religion as a way of life may motivate people to live in monasteries or religious communities, or to observe many rituals, including praying five times a day, eschewing the eating of pork, or circumcising males.   But for other people, religion is the salient aspect of their lives. It may demand prayers five times a day, constant efforts to propagate the religion, refusal to eat meat, the wearing of certain types of clothes, the requirement that beards be grown or that heads be shaved. In this facet, “religion is perhaps the most comprehensive of all human activities.”

But Monica Toft in her paper “Getting Religion? The puzzling case of religion in civil war” probably has the most useful definition of religion.  She defines religion as a system of practices and beliefs that includes most of the following elements: belief in a supernatural being, prayers, transcendent realities such as heaven and hell, a distinction between the sacred and the profane, a view of the world and humanity’s relation to it, a code of conduct, and “a temporal community bound by its adherence to these elements.” Each faith has its own beliefs and prescribed practices; they tend to be uncompromising and each holy book serves as a guide of conduct approved or mandated by a supreme being.  Religion tends to be uncompromising and limit the conduct of followers in important ways. For example, the Ten Commandments found in the bible’s book of Exodus Chapter 20 give ten uncompromising commands to the people of Israel.  Thus a secular actor (or state) can be coerced or deterred by threats; where as a zealot (or theocracy) may be impossible to coerce or deter in the same way and may instead choose to sacrifice tangible benefits for intangible benefits.

Faith and not religion is the substance.

(Pistis, fides). But the basis of any religion is faith. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew means essentially steadfastness, cf Exodus 17:12, where it is used to describe the strengthening of Moses’ hands; hence it comes to mean faithfulness, whether of God towards man (Deuteronomy 32:4) or of man towards God (Psalm 118:30). As signifying man’s attitude towards God means trustfulness or fiducia. It would, however, be illogical to conclude that the word cannot, and does not, mean belief or faith for it is clear that we cannot put trust in a person’s promises without previously assenting to or believing in that person’s claim to such confidence.

To conceptualize the notions of faith and religion, we must understand that individuals of faith worship a being that is not only greater than themselves but also greater than their governments.  The question then is, how can governments dependably believe in their citizens when their citizens believe in something higher than their governments?


One thought on “The Misunderstanding of Religion and Faith

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: