What Is Religion?


Religion is the set of beliefs and practices that people ascribe special significance to. It encompasses a range of beliefs, rituals, symbols, and traditions that provide meaning to life, help people understand their lives and the universe, guide their actions, reinforce social stability and unity, serve as a source of moral authority and guidance, promote psychological and physical well-being, and encourage social change. Some form of religion exists in almost every culture.

Scholars have tried to describe and analyze this phenomenon in many ways. One approach, developed by Emile Durkheim, focuses on the functions of religion. Durkheim’s definition of religion emphasizes the way it creates solidarity among people and helps them to cope with their fears. His work continues to influence sociological thinking about religion today.

Other approaches to defining religion focus on the cognitive and the affective aspects of it. A number of philosophers have emphasized the idea that religion is a feeling. For example, James wrote that “religion is a state of piousness in which the individual feels that there is a reality greater than himself” (Boettner 1926: 2). Others have taken this view a step further and defined religion as an affective, noncognitive experience. Examples would include crying, laughing, shouting, trancelike states, a sense of unity with those around oneself and with the larger world community, etc. This view of religion is sometimes referred to as the naturalistic religion model.

In contrast, some critics have argued that religion is a social construct, an invented category that emerged hand in hand with European colonialism. In the early twenty-first century, scholars have responded to these claims by pulling the camera back to show that what we call religion is actually a collection of human activities and ideas that have been adapted to various social contexts.

Still others have reclaimed the word, rejecting its traditional connotations and taking it back to its Latin roots: religio (respect for what is sacred), and ligare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation). These critics see the term as a way to describe the practices of human beings that they ascribe special significance to and that they use to give their lives structure and meaning.

The last few decades have seen the emergence of open polythetic approaches to analyzing religious phenomena. These are variations on the classical theory of concepts that holds that each instance of a concept must share some defining property to accurately be described by that concept.

These approaches, however, often lack the sophistication of more theoretically grounded approaches to the concept of religion. To be fully descriptive and analytically valuable, these open polythetic theories must also incorporate a fourth C, for community, into their models of how religion operates in societies. This is a challenge because it calls for more research into how people relate to each other and their environment. A variety of disciplines can contribute to this work, including anthropology, history, sociology, and philosophy. Some of the most important philosophical work on this topic has been done by continental philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.