On the Negative Connotations of the Word ‘Religion

In our contemporary context, ‘religion’ has become a dirty word. People are suspicious of ‘religion’ both because they have seen the damage that religious extremism can cause and because they have become disillusioned from belief systems they found overbearing, restricting, senseless, and unfulfilling. They have also heard the sometimes reasonable, sometimes harsh and mocking words of New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.

Because ‘religion’ has acquired some nasty connotations, perhaps we should try to find a different term that is is less loaded with preconceptions in our contemporary world. Philosopher of religion Huston Smith popularized a term for the mystic or inner core of religions, distinct from their power structures, sectarianism, and institutions. He called them ‘wisdom traditions.’ I like this term very much. The ‘wisdom’ part suggests the wealth of insights that the religions have to offer the world. The ‘tradition’ part suggests the roots and depth of inheritance that the religions offer as well.

However, the world’s religious traditions are not dead and unchanging structures. They are always being reinvented, modified, reshaped, and re-embodied by those who live by them. Therefore, I would propose that we can also refer to the world’s religions by means of the term ‘living traditions.’ This word ‘living’ embodies the dynamism of the traditions as they are practiced in the world today.


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