If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, [ and ] to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
There are some today who claim to spurn 'religion', and indeed there are some of these who have failed to practice true and right religion, but I believe that most of those who treat the term spuriously have forgotten the true meaning of the term, and/or have swallowed 'hook, line, and sinker' the teaching of certain men who claim that 'religion' is a man-made thing, or even put it on the same level as a cult!
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, in its secondary definition very simply defines religion as 'a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices'. This definition, while very simple, will not satisfy most people, especially those who in some form or another, and for whatever reason, have distanced themselves, if not from the practice of the true religion, at least from use of the term itself. Also online, dictionary.com defines the term primarily as 'a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.' Though varying somewhat ( and these are only two of those available ), there is a basic and fundamental agreement in these two, if not elsewhere, that one's religion is his (or her ) core set of beliefs, those they live by. Everybody believes something, and if they truly live as they believe ( 'practice what you preach' ), then they can be truly called 'religious'!
Now, don't get me wrong, there are bad religions as well as good religions, wrong beliefs as well as right beliefs. There are people who do right and people who do wrong, and those who do wrong have given 'religion' a bad name, especially for those who practice the true religion. There are those too, that may claim to believe certain things, whether right or wrong, but do not live the way they claim to believe. These people only deceive themselves! Either their actions are right and good, while what they claim to believe is wrong, or their religion is false and useless; while claiming to believe what is right and good, they end up acting wrongly!
Again; looking at Merriam-Webster's secondary definition of what constitutes a cult ( 'a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents' ), we see that it can resemble a religion. Indeed, a cult IS a religion, but a false, or wrong one. On the contrary though, a religion is NOT ( necessarily ) a cult. Wrongly applied, even a right set of beliefs can actually become cultish, in fact that is very likely why many have abandoned the notion altogether. A cult is never a good thing thing, but a religion is not always a good thing either! Cultish beliefs though, when not applied, can end in right actions, just as right beliefs, when not applied, can end in wrong actions.
Religion, true religion, the religion described by James above, unlike a cult, is NOT a man-made idea!
According to the dictionary definitions above, that I have provided, religion is simply what a man believes, but is this biblically or scripturally sound? James, the brother of our Lord, seems to tell us that rather than being a set of beliefs, true religion is a 'set' of actions. We must, however grudgingly, admit that according to our modern dictionary definitions, religion is man-made. If what one man ( or woman ) or a group of people ( body politic ) believes is what constitutes a religion, then religion is, by definition, in the mind of man!
Religion is not a bad thing in and of itself; as we have seen with many other 'things', it can be rightly or wrongly applied. Wrongly applied, it can be a very wrong and harmful notion, but rightly applied, as our Lord's brother speaks of, religion can be a very good thing! Though one will not always do the right thing just because he believes rightly, and one will not always do wrongly because he believes wrongly; true, or 'pure and undefiled religion' is to love as He loved. Right beliefs lead, at some point, to right actions!
The sad thing is, many Christians seem to have forgotten how to love, how to practice their true, pure and undefiled religion, and many, who do not claim the name of Christ, and whose motives may not be pure and undefiled, have been practicing the true religion, sharing the love of God, though they do not admit to His love themselves. May we, as the Body of Christ, right this wrong and begin once more to live in the Love of God, and practice His true religion!
Charles Haddon Shank