For many years, I have defined myself as a non-religious person. Not an atheist, not even quite an agnostic, but I did not associate with any particular faith. At the beginning of my journey towards Islam, I got caught in a debate about faith as distinct from religion. At the time, I defined “religion” as the community and belief system of a community whereas my “opponent” claimed that there was no difference between the faith and religion. If one was a Muslim they were automatically part of the religion that is Islam.
Throughout my studies of Islam, I certainly found enlightening the perception of individuals and religion within its context: Muslims are not to pray to prophets or saints, angels or passed loved ones, but to God Himself, and no other. Imams and clerics have no power to forgive or expiate you from sins. So the power of the “religion” rests solely on the individual and God.
So how does one define religion outside of the social construct? That’s one concept I am still trying to fully develop. From my understanding, every religion (or belief system) is a set of moral and ethical rules and values to hold and protect what is “right”. The definition of what is “right” or “wrong” might differ and the reward or punishment for doing right or wrong can be different, but the basic understanding that one must do “right” stands true for all religions (and belief systems).
Now where can there possibly be the problem “with religion” if every individual is simply thriving to do “right”? There’s none! Unfortunately, humans are social by nature. Socialisation forces humans to connect on similarities, and that includes moral and ethical rules. Eventually, we come to a consensus on what is considered “right” and “wrong” within the greater community. From this concesus and the human desire to “fit in” we begin to compare our own moral compass to that of the masses to determine, not what is “right” but what is good. Good becomes the greater of the “right”, achieving a higher social order by abiding by what is right not solely for the individual but also for the community.
It is within this comparative that problems often begins. We begin to behaved based on this comparative: one community is better than the other, one country is better than the other, one gender is better than the other, and, unfortunely, we begin to define one belief system as better than the other.
Unfortunately, these comparatives create conflict. To become Good, the reasonable thing to do would be to improve oneself, to learn and adapt and discover the reason behind the “right” of others; however, that is not what people do. Instead of becoming the better person, we attempt to make others worse. We concentrate efforts on diminishing others or on bullying them into agreeing with our versions of “right”. And of course, some people will use their religious belief to do so.
In reality, most if not all religions and spiritual beliefs stand against dimishing others for our own selfish gain. However, human nature doesn’t. Personally, I try very hard to better myself for my own and for God’s sake. I cannot help anyone else, I cannot define anyone else’s belief. I can encourage and answer questions, explain my own belief and explain what I believe is ultimately “right”, but I refuse to force or bully anyone into agreement. I refuse to believe I am ultimately right in everything. In my personal belief, I believe that I could be very wrong in my definition of right, and it keeps me open to learning, to becoming better.
So how do I define religion? I define it as my vision of “right” as per what I have been inspired by God to believe. It’s that “simple”!