What Is Religion?


Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and beliefs that functions as a guide to life for a significant proportion of humanity. Its significance lies in the way that it provides answers to questions of meaning, purpose and morality; it serves as an agent for social control; it is a source of psychological and physical well-being; and it may motivate people to work for human rights and other social change.

The word religion comes from Latin religio, a blend of Greek and Roman philosophy and Christianity. In its early days, the concept was difficult to pin down. Ancient worldviews entwined spirituality, identity and culture, such that independent definitions were not practical. For example, the Bible addresses religion, but does not describe it as a distinct entity. It does, however, give expression to a spiritual dimension of life, and the biblical Jesus was seen as a prophet with divine authority.

Today, the term religion is used to identify a genus of social formations that exhibit a number of similarities. The so-called world religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are paradigmatic examples, but the concept also encompasses more indigenous forms such as shamanism, animism, preanimism and manism. It even includes agnosticism and atheism, as well as various perspectives on the existence of a supreme being or gods (agnosticism; atheism; agnosticism, monotheism; polytheism; pantheism).

It is important to bear in mind that when defining religion, it is best not to attempt to evaluate different traditions normatively. The study of religion is a task that belongs to anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, religious studies and, more recently, cognitive science.

The debate about the nature of religion has generated many theories, and a variety of definitions have been proposed. Some of the most notable are those that emphasize functionalist and phenomenological approaches. For example, the social psychologist Emile Durkheim argued that religion is a social phenomenon, a set of values that unite individuals in solidarity, irrespective of whether those values include belief in disembodied spirits and cosmological orders.

Another phenomenological approach to the concept of religion was developed by Paul Tillich, who defined it as whatever dominant concern organizes a person’s values. A more utilitarian approach is taken by those who advocate what is sometimes referred to as a “family resemblance” view of the category, with the claim that the different things that are called religions share a great deal in common and only differ in degree.

For some, the word religion can be a euphemism for an organized cult. This is unfortunate, since the most powerful and creative religions are not cults, but rather a means to end that transcends their organizational structure–the end of all of creation. It is this end, a destination of all human beings which is known only to the divinity, that enables religions to serve their essential function. It is this goal that enables us to make sense of our lives, our actions, and our place in the universe.