What Is Religion?


Religion is a collection of beliefs and practices that offer people an orderly and stable frame for living, often with a sense of sacred or spiritual meaning. It includes beliefs about the supernatural, such as the existence of God or gods, angels and demons, and afterlife. It also includes moral codes of conduct and devotional or contemplative practices such as prayer, meditation, chanting, and religious dress. People of all ages and cultures practice religions in many different forms, some based on texts and others centered on personal experiences or direct experience. Religious systems can be organized as private, tribal, or state religions and are led by full-time or part-time clergy. Religions are a basic factor in the history of all human societies and continue to shape world culture, art, and technology.

The word religion is Latin for “respect for what is sacred” or “binding in a relationship.” In its early use, religion was considered something essential to human life and development; today it is generally recognized that all humans have some sort of religious belief or practice. The term is also used to refer to specific religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism.

A variety of definitions of religion have been offered, and the controversy over how to define it continues to shape the field. Some scholars prefer to define it substantively, focusing on the presence of belief in a distinctive kind of reality, while others take a functional approach to the concept and treat it as a universal phenomenon that manifests itself in different forms in every culture.

Others have argued that to focus on beliefs, or even any subjective mental states, is to fall prey to Protestant biases and that scholars of religion should shift attention away from hidden internal motivations and towards visible institutional structures (Schilbrack 2002). Some philosophers who would not normally be considered as scholars of religion have taken religious matters seriously, such as Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Luce Irigaray (1930-2004).

Still others use the term to mean a set of social practices that are identifiable in some way as being religious, regardless of their substantive character. This view of the subject was inspired by the growth of various disciplines in the 19th century, notably psychology and sociology, and has influenced anthropology, political science, and other social sciences. It has also been informed by the work of thinkers such as Emile Durkheim, who defined religion in terms of the way a system of practices can unite people into one moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in unusual realities). In any case, it is clear that there is no consensus on what the term religion means or how to define it.