What Is Religion?

The term religion is used today for a broad taxon of practices that are grouped together as a kind of cultural formation — a category-concept whose paradigmatic examples include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. These are the so-called “world” religions, but there is also a wide range of forms of life that do not fit comfortably into any of these categories and for which no name has been coined. These forms of life are commonly referred to as “primitive” or “folk” religions.

Religions have protected and transmitted information ranging from the basics of survival to the most profoundly sublime ideas, and this alone gives them an indispensable value. They are systems for monitoring, coding, and protecting information that has been tested and winnowed through time. This information has been passed from person to person and (even more important) from generation to generation, whether in the form of teachings or stories like the Bible or the Dreamtime stories of Australian Aboriginal people.

For this reason, they provide a sense of security and confidence in uncertain or dangerous circumstances. They help us to know who we are and why we are here, where we are going, and what our destiny is. They also set codes of recognition and expected behaviour, sometimes extending far beyond the immediate family group and tribe, so that in hostile or unknown environments people can recognize friends from foes.

Religious information also helps to organize social life, stabilizing hierarchies and softening penalties imposed by barbarian laws. In 19th century Europe, with the growth of industrialization and secularization, three social theorists studied the role of religion in society: Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Their theories, although different, are all rooted in the idea that religion is a way to create solidarity among people. They all use substantial definitions of religion, meaning that membership in a particular religion is defined by belief in certain types of realities.

More recently, scholars have begun to adopt functional definitions of religion based on the role it plays in society. One such approach is that of Paul Tillich, who defines religion as whatever dominant concerns serve to organize a person’s values, whether or not these involve belief in any unusual realities. In addition, many scholars are recognizing that the substantive concept of religion must be supplemented by a fourth dimension: the community which is formed by a group’s beliefs and practices. This is perhaps a more appropriate approach given the complexity of the issues involved in trying to understand religion as it affects human communities in modern societies. This extension of the notion of religion will be examined in the next section.