How to Define Religion

Religion is a cultural phenomenon that encompasses belief and practice. Religious beliefs range from the existence of a supreme being (monotheism) to the non-existence of such a being (agnosticism). Practices include prayer, meditating, and worshipping. Religion is also a value system, an orientation system for life, and a mechanism for resolving personal conflict, avoiding frustration, and satisfying curiosity. It plays a role in socialization and enhancing emotional well-being, and its influence is reflected in the form and content of culture, including art, music, language, and architecture.

Philosophers have struggled with the question of how to define religion. Some have taken the view that a real or lexical definition is necessary, while others have suggested that the term can only be described with stipulative definitions. This is because the term religion covers such a wide range of phenomena that it would be difficult to identify one single, definitive essence. Some have criticized the use of stipulative definitions for being insufficiently accurate, while others have argued that they can be judged by their usefulness in serving a purposeā€”in particular, the utility of a stipulative definition of religion for studying religions across cultures.

Some have suggested that the earliest forms of religion developed in response to uncontrollable aspects of the environment, such as weather, pregnancy and birth, and success at hunting. Those who support this theory believe that early religion took the form of magical attempts to manipulate these uncontrollable elements and religious attempts to supplicate to gods or goddesses for help in controlling them. These rituals and belief systems often evolved into complex beliefs that included myths, stories about the origin of the world and its natural laws, and tales of divine beings.

Other scholars have suggested that religion developed in response to a biological or cultural need. These scholars think that humankind created spirituality in response to the realization that it would eventually die and sought a way of preventing this fate or, failing that, of going on to heaven or hell. They further argue that religion evolved as a way of making sense of the universe and establishing a community in which to live, with rules for how to behave in relation to it.

Still others have argued that the concept of religion was invented by Western colonialism and has no objective validity. This position has gained momentum in recent years. Some philosophers have reacted to this criticism by claiming that there is no such thing as religion. However, this view ignores the fact that people have been using the word religion to describe a class of practices that is common to many cultures for thousands of years. It also overlooks the fact that there are numerous examples of religion in non-Western cultures.