What Is Religion?


Religion is a set of ideas and practices about what is sacred, holy, absolute, spiritual, or divine, as well as what is worthy of especial reverence. It usually involves a belief in gods or spirits, a code of conduct for personal morality, and rituals and ceremonies.

The concept of religion evolved over the centuries as people searched for explanations of life and death, for meaning in life, and for guidance in making moral choices. Today, religion is seen as a complex mix of ideas, beliefs, and traditions that vary greatly from culture to culture. Religions include the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism; polytheistic religions such as Greek mythology and Norse paganism; and ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other folk religions.

A key characteristic of any religion is its division of the world into sacred and profane, or the good and the evil, with the sacred belonging to a higher, transcendent realm. This dichotomy underlies many religious beliefs, which often express the apprehension that human beings are living in a dangerous and hostile environment. Whether or not these beliefs are true, they create the sense that there is a battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, and between heaven and hell.

Religion also often involves a code of ethics that guides the behavior of individuals, groups, and nations. Whether the code is based on the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the teachings of Jesus, or a host of other faiths, it has an important role in the lives of most people worldwide. It is therefore crucial for government, businesses, and educational institutions to understand the place of religion in American society.

The word religion comes from the Latin verb religio, meaning “to bind.” As such, it refers to a way of life that ties individuals into a group. The most common definition of religion is that it includes a system of beliefs that teaches believers to value good, reject bad, and strive for moral perfection. It also includes practices such as prayer, observance of holidays, and participation in social and community activities.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a contemporary philosopher whose areas of scholarship and interest are in moral and political philosophy and philosophy of culture, cautions that a general definition of religion is not possible, because it overlooks some key aspects of the phenomenon.

Appiah argues that a definition of religion that focuses on beliefs or even mental states reflects an idealized Protestant bias and that scholars should shift attention to the visible institutional structures that produce such beliefs and behaviors. This approach is called structural analysis, and it has its own problems.

Many scholars, including sociologists and anthropologists, are concerned that religion is being marginalized in American society. The President should appoint, and the Senate should confirm, judges who are sensitive to the role of religion in public life. In addition, businesses and communities should recognize the importance of religion and treat it with respect and appreciation.