Religion vs. Religious

If Something Is Religious, Is It a Religion?

Buddha figurine and candles on ledge
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The terms religion and religious obviously come from the same root, which would normally lead us to conclude that they also refer to the same thing: one as a noun and the other as an adjective. But perhaps that isn’t always true — perhaps the adjective religious has a broader usage than the noun religion.

Primary Definition

A primary definition of religious which we see in standard dictionaries reads something like “of, concerned with, or teaching religion,” and this is what people normally mean when they say things like “Christianity is a religious belief system” or “St.

Peter’s is a religious school.” Certainly, then, a primary sense of “religious” does have the same object as the noun “religion.”

That is not, however, the only sense in which the adjective “religious” is used. There is also a much broader, even metaphorical sense which occurs quite regularly and is reflected in dictionaries by wording like “extremely scrupulous or conscientious; zealous.” This is what we mean when we refer to someone’s “religious devotion to their baseball team” or “a religious zeal in the pursuit of duty.”

Clearly, when the term religious is used in those phrases, we don’t mean that a person’s religion is comprised of their baseball team or their sense of duty. No, in cases such as this, we are using the word religious in a metaphorical sense where it would be completely inappropriate to introduce the traditional and primary concept behind the noun “religion.”

This may appear to be a relatively simple observation — hardly worth spending any time on, in fact — but the different ways in which the adjective can be used and the fact that it can be used where the noun should not still cause confusion for some people.

As a consequence, they are led to think that any belief or ideology to which a person shows an intense, personal commitment might qualify as a “religion” simply because that commitment can be described as “religious.”


Indeed, it is precisely when it comes to belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies where this confusion becomes most prominent.

For example, if a person is a vegetarian, is firmly committed to the principle that eating meat is wrong, works to educate others about the dangers and ethics involved with eating meat, and hopes for a future in which meat is no longer eaten, then it might not be unreasonable to describe this person as having a religious commitment to the principles and ethics of vegetarianism.

It would, however, probably be unreasonable to describe this person as having a religion of vegetarianism. The vegetarianism described here does not categorize anything as sacred or transcendent, does not include ritual acts, does not incorporate characteristically religious feelings like awe or mystery, and does not involve a social group bound together by such things.

Someone’s vegetarianism could incorporate all of the above and hence perhaps qualify as a religion. But that theoretical possibility is not the point. The point is that the mere fact that a person has a “religious” commitment to the principles and ethics of vegetarianism does not allow us to conclude that they also have the above beliefs and feelings.

Metaphorically Speaking

In other words, we must be clear in the distinction between the metaphorical usage of adjective “religious” and the more concrete usage of the noun “religion.” If we don’t, our thinking will be sloppy — and sloppy thinking leads to sloppy conclusions, like the idea that vegetarianism must be a religion.

The same sloppy conclusion can be and has been made on account of people’s intense “religious” commitments to political parties and ideologies, to their favorite sports teams, and to secular philosophies like humanism.

None of these are religions in the proper, concrete sense of the term. All of them can involve what can justifiably be called a religious commitment, devotion, or zeal on the part of many of those who adhere to them; none of them, however, incorporate rituals, mysteries, religious feelings, piety, worship, or any of the other things which constitute important characteristics of religions.

The next time someone tries to argue that the description of a person’s commitment to an idea as “religious” means that they also, therefore, have a “religion,” you can explain to them the difference between the two.

If they already understand the difference between the metaphorical sense of “religious” and the concrete sense of “religion,” then you should be aware that they are trying to trap you into a kind of “bait and switch” through a fallacy of equivocation.