Religion vs. Faith: The Same but Different

Ancient adversaries, or two sides of the same coin?


The terms religion and faith are sometimes used interchangeably, to mean a practice or system of belief. For instance, the description faith group is used to mean a community that practices the same religion. However, when unpacked and carefully considered, each term carries its own separate, singular meaning. Religion is a system of faith and worship. It is the structure that organises one’s devotion to something. Faith, conversely, describes one’s inward belief in a doxology or teaching, based on their personal conviction, trust and confidence in something or someone.

In essence, religion is knowing the Our Father prayer off head, while faith is knowing that God hears and will answer your prayers. A cynic or sceptic could argue that it essentially boils down to this: faith is controlled by the whims of an individual, while religion is ordered by a collective, controlling, dictator-like organisation or, in some cases, single person. That is, the private vs. public practice of belief.

Bear Grylls recently discussed his journey to disentangle his faith from religion, now viewing faith as the more personal, people-focused aspect of belief. Furthermore, the crimes of large-scale organised religion, the invocation of God for political gains, and the tragic histories which have come as a result have led many people to prefer to identify as a person of faith, or just spiritual, rather than as a religious person. On the other hand, some desire to hold on to religion through the preservation of old buildings and practice of traditions such as baptisms and baby naming ceremonies, only without the faith and devotion to God that these practices are tied to. They seek to retain the perceived benefits of religion without attaching to their behaviour the private, personal connotations of faith.  Both sides of this spectrum are extreme and, ultimately, empty. 

Religion and faith are not mutually exclusive. At least, they do not have to be. The existence of one in someone’s life does not mean that they can not also have the other, wherever they are in their faith journey. The amount of public debate, online think pieces and potential for private contemplation over one’s personal decision about their faith and/or religion can be overwhelming and leave most not wanting to associate with either faith or religion. To help drown out the noise, let's look at the example of one, specific prominent religious, and spiritual, figure: Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus was without sin, i.e. He did not break any rules for living a holy life by God’s standard. However Jesus was hated by the religious authorities of His day, who considered Him a blasphemous rebel, that is, bad at religion. However, we can not forget that Jesus knew and understood scripture thoroughly.

Indeed, the Bible teaches that we need both. Being spiritual, or having faith, without a religious doctrine is like using a compass that does not have a hand or magnetic field, so ultimately leads you nowhere. On the other hand, religion without faith in God is just as dangerous, because it is vacant, unfruitful, and against God’s desire for our lives. God wants to commune with us in a relationship with Him, through Jesus Christ. This relationship shapes our character and desires in a way that points back to Him.

Words by

Tumi Belo


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