What is Religion?

Coggin Galbreath

Coggin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying English Literature.

I must have been about twelve when my extremely Christian art teacher said, “I’m not religious. Jesus came to get rid of religion.” It stuck with me. What was Christianity, after all, if not a religion? But I’ve had some time to reflect since then, and I think I know what she meant. It’s funny how seldom the word “religion” comes up in church. In my experience, it is usually used to draw distinctions in secular contexts: religion as distinct from politics, religious art as distinct from normal art, religious people as distinct from nonreligious people. In this regard, I think Jesus was all about doing away with religion. His message was about breaking down boundaries between groups of people; he preached radical inclusivity of the poor, the outcast, the foreign, even the enemy. When we think about how at odds Jesus was with the religious authorities of his day, it is beyond ironic that Christianity has come to be stereotyped as exclusionary, moralistic, and uppity. Christianity the established religion should not forget its origins as a precarious movement. When it does, it runs the risk of assuming the very religious attitudes which Jesus worked to subvert.



I don’t know where to begin.
We live in an age where I don’t like to call myself religious
And then I wonder whether I’m in denial
Or am I just hiding from judgement
Or I just don’t want to open up that conversation.

We live in an age where religion is meant to be personal
And you’re not meant to display it in some places
And it’s impolite to talk about it at work–
But isn’t that simply irrational?
Does God stop existing when you put on your suit?
Do you swap God for your briefcase when you leave the house in your fancy boots?

“He’s there in my heart”
So does that mean he doesn’t care about your arms
If you swing them arrogantly striding down the street
Shoving your way through people, ignoring the beggar’s plea–
How about your tongue, how you greet people that you meet?
How about the money you stole off that old man
“It’s not against the law” may be the case
But both you and God know you’re a cheat.

There’s so much contradiction
So many unthought-through theses
That have come to dominate our society
And have twisted our relationship with the divine
So that we try to squeeze God into our lives
When we should be moulding our lives to fit around God.
But that would mean being honest, being fair and criticising ourselves
And living a life the way God would want and not simply pleasing ourselves.

Okay sure, some of you don’t believe in him. Fair enough I suppose.
But can you just imagine for a second if he exists.
Sincerely. Silently. You know what that would mean?
You know what that would change?
Absolutely everything.

But then we have ‘religious’ people
Which is why I don’t like being called religious I suppose
Who walk around with God on their sleeve
And nothing in their heart
Except a lust for more
And thoughts only for themselves
And an ego that puts mountains to shame.

So I don’t really blame you if they put you off God-
Rational arguments aside-
Let’s not sugarcoat it,
We’re people off emotion too,
I wouldn’t want to be part of a group
That think they’re better than everyone else
Nor do I think God would be their biggest fan.

But then I suppose if it were easy to be enlightened
And compassionate and selfless and kind
We would have a world filled with more wonderful people of that kind.
Alas, I don’t need to tell you that that isn’t the case.

And maybe that’s why
If God exists
He gave us religion
To act as a mould
To act as a guide
To give us a model to overcome our worst selves
And to live the best kind of life


Lizzie Winfrey

Lizzie Winfrey is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying English and History.

Many different emotions well up in me when I think about the word ‘religion’. On the one hand, it is something I associate with rules, oppression (especially of women) and power-grabbing, particularly in the Christian church. It can frequently leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth when one thinks about the atrocities that have been ‘justified’ in its name.

On the other hand, it is also a word I associate with freedom: religions around the world help their followers in times of distress; they help you to see that you are part of something so much bigger than yourself and the current state of the world. They draw people together and try to get us to live more just, kind, and loving lives.

Jack Baker

Jack is a student at the University of St Andrews completing his Masters in Conservation Studies.

While I may not prescribe to a religion, that does not mean that I do not see the value in it. Religion brings love, joy, and a sense of being and meaning into the lives of communities across the globe. It has helped individuals pull through the darkest times in their lives and has given people standing on the edge of the abyss comfort, or the strength to go on. Even I, on occasion, look to some unbounded cosmic being to guide me, despite my lack of rigid belief.

Conversely, being removed from religion allows me to see that all religions are flawed. I do not believe that one is correct, and I do not think any will ever be proved accurate. These beliefs are man-made constructs which have been used to lift some above others, manipulate groups and reinforce outdated power dynamics. While these flaws are often exacerbated by extremely radical or calculating individuals, this does not mean that religion is free of negative chains when these people are removed. The everyday believer often uses religion to justify their outdated or dangerous beliefs.

Finally, as religion is supposed to inspire good things, I would like to conclude on a positive. It is important to mention that, perhaps above all other things, ‘religion’ inspires creativity. From paintings of the Last Supper, to statues and carvings of the gods of Ancient Egypt and Greece, religion has inspired some of the greatest works in human history. Thus, while religion may, on occasion, be twisted and dangerous, it cannot be denied that it is also an incredible, beautiful conception. 

David Clegg

David is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations.

Religion is less than 300 years old. It is a 19th century invention. A tool devised to enhance the development of British colonialism. A means of distinguishing between Christianity and the “primordial religions” of non-western cultures. It is an artificial and poisonous term. It serves only a pedogeological purpose, a way of organising social groups rather than trying to uncover deeper levels of truth.

Religion has reduced centuries of wisdom, spirituality, mythology, teaching and mystery into a single variable. A “sphere” of life amongst many others. Something that can be kept separate from how we love, how we vote, how we think, how we relate to each other – how we leave a legacy. Religion is something we accept or refuse. Religion is the nemesis in the 18th century Enlightenment story. The loser in the battle against its victorious adversary – science.

Religion is the means by which we attempt to compartmentalise the reality of everything. The means by which we escape from the divine, avoid questions of meaning and purpose, ignore the pain of existential longing, reject the rawness of life and the whisperings of our creator. Religion is the ultimate disguise.

Bethany Nonhebel

Bethany is a student at the University of St Andrews completing her Masters in International Development.

Is it okay to not want to identify myself as religious? Is that something I’m allowed to do as a Christian? It’s not that I don’t believe in Christ. It’s the opposite.

“Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or Gods.” I was surprised at the definition, it’s not even close to what comes to mind when I think of religion.

I think of the discomfort I’ve felt when I have turned down plans for ‘a church thing’. I fear the assumptions they will make of me as I’ve now let myself be deemed religious. A loaded adjective. The guilt from not wanting to bring up the most important thing in my life. The guilt that comes from the fear of people seeing religion as a disease I’m trying to spread. And frustration. Frustration with a word that has made a belief in God synonymous with naive submission to a potentially oppressive authority that may not exist.

Christ provoked questions. Religion suppresses them. Christ laid aside power. Religion has historically grasped it. Christ seeks to free. Religion seeks to control.  Christ says I am the way, the truth, the life – and provided meaning for the words by living them. Religion says it is the way, the truth, the life – but prevents us asking why. Submit or turn away, there is no in between. I wonder how a term created to be associated with God can bring up feelings that are so contrary to the notion of anything good. Why should I align myself with a term so inconsistent with what I believe?

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