What Is Religion?

Religion is a cultural system of beliefs and practices that shape human lives and the world around them. It encompasses many different types of differences seen throughout the world such as dress codes (skirts, headscarves), food restrictions (halal, Kosher), and places of worship (mosques, temples, synagogues). Studying religion helps us understand these differences, how they evolve over time, and what role they play in shaping humanity.

Generally, it is considered that there are about six major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. However, these are not the only religions in existence. In fact, it is estimated that there are over 4,200 religions in the world today. This makes it hard to define what religion is. However, some scholars argue that the term “religion” originally referred to a genus of social formations, rather than the set of beliefs and practices that are associated with a particular name. It was derived from the Latin religio, which meant scrupulously observed vows or promises made to gods and/or to fellow members of a social group.

For most people, there are few sources of faith and meaning in life, other than themselves and their families. Thus religion is a phenomena that arises to serve this need; it protects and transmits ways to attain the goals that are most valued by individual and community. Some of these are proximate: they pertain to living a more generous, fruitful, and successful life in this world; some are ultimate: they concern death and the afterlife, the final conditions of one’s own being and of the cosmos itself.

Religious people are willing to sacrifice their own lives, at times even their own bodies, for these goals. To help them in their endeavors, religions supply a cosmology or worldview, a story of how the universe came to be and why it is as it is. They also provide maps of time and space, which orient humans to their place in the project of life.

By providing this information, religions make life as a project less difficult. In addition, they provide a framework for morality and offer answers to many questions of profound importance. They also give people a way to cope with the countless limitations that stand across the project of their lives—physical, psychological, emotional, and ethical; they are also a source of comfort and hope. The fact that religions provide these tools to human beings and are a primary source of morality and value, coupled with the fact that they have played an enormously important role in history, make them an essential topic for academic inquiry.