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The Big Question: What is religion?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

People on their knees, or a moral code? Is there something more to religion?

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Monks in a Vietnamese temple Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Some of us devote a few minutes each day to it. Others dedicate a lifetime to its practice. Some even sacrifice themselves in its name. And then, there are those who don't have time for it at all. 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. But when you think about it, what exactly does it mean? What is religion?

To explore this week's Big Question, we brought together 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.

According to Dr Eileen Barker - who founded INFORM, the religious database, religion can be defined in a hundred different ways, as it means different things to different people. Eileen's definition is a broad one: "Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that are related to some kind of an answer or address questions of ultimate concern... questions like: is there a God, or what happens after I die?"

The legitimacy of these questions remain and are important for the humanists too. But Babu Gogineni believes there is no point in trying to find the answers in religion. He thinks the answers lie in science. All answers are open to revision, and this is the only way to discover the truth.

During the programme, we hear a view from Nigeria that "from a logical point of view it is easier to believe in God than not... The creation is too intricate and too magnificent to put it down to chance." According to a recent survey commissioned by the BBC - What The World Thinks of God - Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in Africa.

The What The World... survey results found the highest levels of belief in some of the world's poorer countries, but also in the world's richest, America. Overall, the results of the poll show that levels of belief and religious activity in the UK are consistently lower than in most of the other countries polled. The highest levels of belief are found in the poorer nations of Nigeria, India and Indonesia.

"Some people just need the strength of knowing that there is something supernatural out there, something that is better than us... Religion is a need" - says Dr Haleh Afshar, a practising Muslim. According to her, most of us feel unprotected in this world, and also feel that this world is rather insufficient for our expectations and needs. Having faith in a religion enables us to deal with the difficulties of this life.

In some parts of the world attendance figures at formal religious services are in decline - the clergy ages, scandals and harsh doctrine turn people away from traditional faiths. Some turn towards the new age of spiritualism - the New Religious Movements. Other people are going to the other extreme and becoming more fundamentalist, as a backlash against modernism, and for various political reasons - although it is a vexed question if religion can be blamed for war. For many people, religion continues to play a crucial role in in their everyday lives - religious beliefs inform the way they think and the way they behave.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 11th September 2004

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