What Is Religion?

Religion is a category that encompasses a wide range of practices, beliefs, and institutions. In general, it deals with what might be called the supernatural or spiritual—about forces and powers that are beyond human control. It is also about morality and a sense of community. In many countries, it is a powerful institution that influences government, culture, and social life. It is a source of unity and a source of conflict, both within religious communities and between different religions. It can even be a form of identity and a way of living.

Scholars have offered a variety of definitions of religion, some of which focus on a belief in supernatural beings and some that focus on a role it plays in people’s lives. These are called “substantive” definitions. Other scholars have suggested that a better way to think about religion is as a set of practices. This is a “functional” definition. Emile Durkheim, for example, defines religion as a system of practices that unites people into a moral community.

A few have argued that to define religion in terms of beliefs or any subjective states reveals a Protestant bias and that scholars should instead shift their attention from the invisible mental states involved to the visible institutional structures that produce them. This approach is sometimes referred to as structuralism or objectivism.

Most of the time, though, when people talk about religion, they mean something very different than what these scholars are talking about. For example, the word “religion” is often used in everyday language to refer to a specific belief or practice, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Shinto. It is also frequently used to describe a broader cultural tradition, such as the “Christian worldview” or the “American dream.”

Some people use the term “religion” in a more abstract sense, as a general concept of what it means to be human. They see religion as a series of protective systems that have evolved over the millennia to tap into the potentialities of the brain and body and to help humans deal with the risks of the world around them. This type of exploration is usually called somatic exploration (from the Greek soma, meaning “body”).

Whatever it is that religion is, it is a powerful force in societies, both for good and evil. It can bring people together, but it can also drive them apart, especially when there is disagreement about what the “right” beliefs are. It can inspire hope and compassion, but it can also lead to intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, social oppression, and self-opinionated nastiness. It can provide maps of the universe and a sense of purpose, but it can also leave people vulnerable to the temptations of power and money. Despite these dangers, the existence of religion is a matter of profound importance to most human beings. They need it to survive, and they continue to seek it out. This is the great irony of religion.