What Is Religion?


Religion is an idea, a set of beliefs and practices, and a way of life. Some people are religious in different ways and to varying degrees, but there are certain characteristics that all religions share that distinguish them from philosophy or purely cultural phenomena. Among these are a belief in supernatural beings and events, the centrality of prayer and worship to daily life, and an overarching system of values that guides behavior. Many people also believe that the universe and all that is in it are sacred, or at least worthy of reverence.

The definition of religion is controversial, and there are various approaches to understanding it. Anthropologists, for example, focus on the socially constructed nature of religious concepts and behaviors, whereas historians, theologians, and philosophers use the concept to study intellectual traditions. Others argue that the word is an invented category whose modern semantic expansion went hand in hand with European colonialism, and thus people should stop treating it as a thing.

Psychologists and neuroscientists, on the other hand, suggest that religion satisfies psychological needs of humans, including the fear of death and a desire for meaning in one’s life. These theories often rely on the ideas of Charles Darwin and William James, who believed that religion was an evolutionary response to mankind’s need for hope—the idea that there are things in this world that cannot be explained by science or logic, but which will ultimately be understood by humankind someday.

A few sociologists, including William Lincoln and Ninian Smart, have developed a three-sided model of how a religion functions: it must offer a view of the true, the beautiful, and the good, it must provide moral guidance, and it must create communities. This framework, while useful for some purposes, does not include the fact that most religions have a physical culture, which includes body habits, clothing, food and drink, and social structures. For this reason, some scholars have proposed a fourth C for community to the model.

The term religion has a long history, and its meaning has been debated for decades. The Supreme Court of the United States established a clear distinction between church and state, which has allowed for the academic study of religion to flourish in public colleges and universities. The study should encourage awareness of diverse religions and research into religious ideas without promoting or denigrating any particular religion. This is a good starting point for any discussion of the definition of religion.