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The Big Question: What does it mean to be religious?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

Religion - we might know what they are, and even what we think their followers do. But do we really know what it means?

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The Faith Zone at the Millennium Dome Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Religions: Always in the news headlines - take the controversy caused by the ban on religious symbols in French schools, the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide, or the whole gay clergy debate. The world just can't escape the influence of religion. Last week on The Big Question we asked - what is religion? This week, the debate continues as we ask: What does it mean to be religious?



In some parts of the world, attendance figures at formal religious services are in decline (for example, church-going is relatively uncommon in the UK) - people are turning away from traditional faiths, or turning towards new religious movements. For many though, religion - both organised and private - continues to play a central role in their everyday lives; religious beliefs inform the way they think and the way they behave. What do they gain from their religion?

To discuss what it means to be religious, The Big Question is joined by Eileen Barker, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics, Babu Gogineni, Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Haleh Afshar, Professor of Politics at the University of York in the UK.

So what does it mean to be religious? Does religion make us better people? Why do people pray?

The Muslim academic Haleh Afshar believes that faith in God is empowering. For her, prayer as part of Muslim worship is an expression of involvement and an acknowledgement of the relative insignificance of humans.

Eileen Barker points out that religion can give people a sense of identity as well as a sense of belonging. She says prayer can be an expression of thanks or a way to find answers.

But as a humanist Babu Gogineni does not believe in God, so cannot conceive of turning to religion to find the answer to the big questions in life. For him, the impulse to do good is part of human nature, and it has nothing to do with religion. He believes humans have a common moral decency and do not need religion to be good. "Not all religions have morals. Not all morals are religious."

The Big Question travels to the Sacred Valley in the Peruvian Andes, where worshippers focus their ceremonies on praise for the sun. They believe that as they get closer to nature and its spiritual energy they become better people.

And we hear from Nigeria, one of the most religious countries in the world, according to the recent survey, commissioned by the BBC, What The World Thinks of God. The What The World Thinks Of God results found the highest levels of belief in some of the world's poorest countries, but also in the world's richest, America.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 18th September 2004

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