Religion is one of the most fundamental ideas which shape each of our lives. Many people of the modern world do not spend much time or effort pondering their own religious beliefs, but I posit that even these apathetic individuals have a personal religion which centers their own model of life.
What is Religion?First let me explain my view of what religion is in general, so that the ideas I express may be perceived with the proper connotations. Religion is the largest context within which a person has identity. This definition probably warrants a bit of explanation. Let's start by looking at some other contexts within which a person has identity. As a citizen of a country, you play a role (have identity). You actively participate with other citizens and you make up a part of the entity which is your country. You may also contribute toward the overall character of your country by influencing how it is perceived by other countries. For example, you might export goods or services. You might hold an office or otherwise work for the gorvernment. You might simply vote.
Of course, there are also much smaller contexts which are worth recognizing. If you are a student, then your school is a community (a context). If you have a steady job, then the people or company you work with form a community. You serve a specific purpose within that community. It is a purpose given to you implicitly by your interactions within the community and the nature of the community itself.
What kind of things am I not talking about when I say "context within which you have identity" ? Well, countries which have nothing to do with you form one example. Suppose you've never interacted with, say, the country Chile before in your life. Then as a person relative to the country Chile, your existence has no meaning. This same sort of idea can be applied to many other groups in which you have no place -- clubs or provinces which only existed in the distant past or future, the set of people who are experts at something you know nothing about, or fans of a sport you pay no attention to.
The point toward which I've been coyly spiraling is that each of these groups (the ones in which you do have identity) gives you a sense of meaning or purpose. I'm purporting that religion is the abstract community (a context) in which your existence means anything at all. In a sense, it is a way of coming to understand the question: How/why am I here?
Probably the first reaction to this definition is: "You're being too abstract. Why not just say, 'religion is the belief system we adopt'?" I feel that this quasi-definition is both imprecise and inaccurate.
First of all, what is a belief system? We immediately think of traditional religions, such as Islam or Judaism. But it is very important to me to avoid this trap (I call it a trap since my personal beliefs do not conform to any existing traditional religion (yet)). So many people have such different perspectives -- both about traditional systems and their own independent ideas -- that it would be grossly unfair and overly simplistic to restrain the concept of religion to a finite set of currently fashionable institutions.
If you think about it, a religion isn't just about what you think about a god, but at its heart it's about what these beliefs mean to you. It's about the morality they inspire; it's about the origins of your person and the perspective you take on human mortality. Yes, ``what you believe'' is part of religion, but more important is who you are because of your perceptions, and how you and your world are changed by them.
What is the role of spirituality?I think a lot of people have an intuitive idea of what spirituality is, but would be tongue-tied if they actually tried to explain it, carefully and precisely, in words.
Interestingly enough, the first definition I find in several dictionaries (eg this one) of spirituality is "church property." That is not the concept I want to discuss (at least not directly), so let's move on to other common ideas surrounding the word.
A lot of people (such as this person) feel that spirituality is inexorably tied to the idea of a soul relating to the idea of a god. I will not try to tell those who agree with this that they are wrong; instead I want to offer my own, slightly different, idea -- an idea which does not depend on the traditional mystical elements.
I offer the idea of spirituality as an awareness of life. But not just life in the traditional, intuitive sense - I mean life as a particularly interesting and serendipitous form of existence. I don't mean life as opposed to death, but life as opposed to the laws of physics, life as opposed to nothingness, or life as opposed to endlessness. This spirituality is an appreciation and comprehension of the life around us, in us, and composed of us which is more than just biology (at least in the traditional sense). These ideas become more palpable in light of my definition of life.