What Is Religion?


Religion is a set of beliefs and practices that people follow in order to achieve spiritual or moral fulfillment. It is a widespread human phenomenon, with most of the world’s population belonging to one or more of the 5.1 billion religiously identified groups that exist. While it is difficult to define, most scholars agree that religion involves a belief in a transcendent deity and that it encompasses a range of behaviors including prayer, sacrifice, adherence to moral teachings and devotion to saints or other figures. It may also involve rituals, social or communal gatherings and group worship.

Scholars who study religion often use a variety of approaches to understanding it. Many of these are rooted in different theories of the nature of human beings and the universe.

One approach is to focus on the beliefs and practices that constitute a religious system, usually through what is known as a “substantive” definition. This type of definition has been popularized by Clifford Geertz, who defines religion as a set of beliefs and behaviors that generate social cohesion and orient life in general. Other scholars, particularly those who take a sociological view of religion, have adopted functional definitions. Emile Durkheim, for example, defined it as a set of beliefs and practices that unite people into a single moral community, whether or not these practices involve belief in any unusual realities.

Other scholars, most notably the philosopher Rodney Needham, have taken a more analytical approach to studying religion. They have argued that it is possible to create a science of religion by using the methods of scientific inquiry to evaluate religious phenomena. Such an approach could reveal patterns that would support or contradict traditional views of what religion is and to distinguish the various phenomena that are sometimes called religions from each other. The process of analyzing religion in this way can be compared to the work done by biologists who sort bacteria by their properties.

Some researchers argue that substantive and functional definitions of religion overlook a central feature of the phenomenon, which is its value orientation. They assert that religion answers fundamental questions that are not readily or easily answered by science, such as the meaning of human life and death. It provides a sense of purpose and direction and encourages people to behave ethically. It also allows people to cope with the fear of uncontrollable forces in their environment, including disease and death.

This value orientation explains why many of the world’s religions have claims to universality and a common origin. However, it is also true that most of these religions differ from each other to a significant degree. Some, such as Christianity, have developed a variety of denominations and others, such as Judaism and Islam, have numerous sects. They all exhibit, however, a degree of family resemblance. These variations are not necessarily a result of value orientation but could also be due to differences in historical circumstances, cultural contexts or the particular beliefs and beliefs that are held by those who practice them.